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The Scholarly Life: Applying for Tenure

By Carson Holloway on Wednesday, Jul 28 2010

During the first week of the 2010 Summer Institute, I offered a two part presentation on some of the practical aspects of the scholarly life.  Part one, posted earlier, discussed how a young academic should prepare for the job market.  In part two we considered what a new assistant professor can do to maximize his or her chances of winning tenure.  Here are some of the considerations that were discussed with a view to that goal.

Balancing teaching and scholarship

As a probationary faculty member, teaching and scholarship will consume most of your time, and both will be important for your tenure decision.  The prestige of research is such that any college, no matter how humble (and no matter how crushing its teaching load) will have at least some expectations with regard to scholarship.  On the other hand, teaching is so big a part of what most faculty do at most universities, that almost no institution will suggest that it is OK to be a bad teacher even if you are a superstar researcher.  The key, then, is finding out what the practical expectations are.  You have to do this in part by looking at documents (like the tenure and promotion guidelines, which they should have), but also informally by talking to colleagues.  At a school with a heavy teaching load, it is likely that the tenure guidelines will require you to be an active scholar.  But it is also likely that in their application your publishing achievements will only have to be minimal.  At the other end of the spectrum, you might end up at a more research-oriented university where getting your scholarship published really is the most important thing, and any effort you put into your teaching beyond attaining competence will be wasted. (Wasted, that is, with a view to the goal of tenure.  Here I am leaving aside the important consideration of the intrinsic importance of excellent teaching.)  To get tenure, it is not enough to be excellent in some way; you have to be excellent according to the terms the institution sets.

Where and in what form to publish your scholarship:

If your institution has somewhat serious publishing expectations, it is also important for you to have a good sense of what sort of publications are given what sort of weight.  You might feel inclined to publish your work as a book.  In my discipline (political science), however, there are some people who would regard an article in a blind peer reviewed journal as a more impressive thing than a book.  I gather that in some history departments the expectations for tenure are that you have at least one book, so there books are more impressive than articles.  Or, it may be that your scholarship is of more than merely academic interest, and that it is possible for you to publish with some commercial press.  In some places, your colleagues may think that it great, because it makes you, the department, and the university more visible.  On the other hand, at some places they may look down their noses at a commercial press, thinking that you should publish with a university press.  Again, you need to have conversations with your colleagues to find out about these expectations.  Finally, you need to know how your department values various journals.  This is not to say, by the way, that you have to conform everything you do to these expectations, but you should be aware of them.  It may be possible for you deviate from them, if you can make a case to your colleagues for why you did it.  You could, for example, publish your book with a commercial press, but show your colleagues that you also had contract offers from university presses – so that you went with a commercial press because you thought it best for your project, not because you could not win a contract with a university press.  But in order to make the case in such matters you have to know about these expectations.

Seek external support for your scholarship:

Apply for research fellowships.  See the support of foundations.  Try for an NEH grant.  The intrinsic value of these things is obvious: they give you more time to get your scholarship in publishable form.  But the prestige value of these things is not to be discounted.  The tenure decision, like the hiring decision, can be a time-consuming affair for people who already feel they have too much to do.  Therefore, they welcome any shortcuts that help them make their decision.  If they see you have had a grant of any kind, they are more likely to be predisposed to think that your work has merit.

Service to your profession, university, and department:

Here, again, you have to strike a balance that is appropriate to your own department and institution.  On the one hand, it is wise for a probationary faculty member to minimize service, since your primary needs will be to get your teaching up to speed and to get your research published.  Almost everywhere, service will be counted least among the things you have to do to get tenure.  On the other hand, you don’t want to be a “bad citizen” of your department, so it is a good idea to take on some things that are relatively undemanding.  Perhaps a good way to approach this is frankly to seek the advice of your senior colleagues any time they suggest some service activity for you.  Be willing to help out, but also be willing to seek advice about how much service is appropriate for an untenured person.  Good senior colleauges will give such advice based both on the norms of the institution but also on the progress of your research agenda.

Follow the guidance you get in your professional reviews, and show that you are following it:

Or at least, take that guidance into account and show that you are taking it into account.  You may have only a three year review on the way to the tenure decision.  Some places have yearly evaluations and reappointments.  Some places also have some kind of annual review of performance in addition to the reappointment process.  In those processes, you will probably have to submit some form explaining what you have done professionally.  It is likely that the form will include an evaluation of your work by a committee of the department or the chair or both.  It will be helpful in subsequent iterations of such processes if  you can, in your written narrative, show that you listened to what was suggested and have taken some steps to adhere to it. 

Establish good relations with your colleagues:

The standards for tenure are usually indistinct enough that they provide the decision-makers a great deal of flexibility.  That is flexibility that can be used to your advantage if you are well-liked: they will give you the benefit of the doubt.  But it is flexibility that can be used against you if they don’t like you.  Prudence plays a role here, because to be well liked and fit in you will have to figure out the informal norms of your department.  In some departments full of gregarious people, the informal norms will involve a good deal of socializing with your colleagues.  In some departments full of hardcore, type A personalities who want to do a lot of work, the well liked person will be one who says “hi” in the hallway and then does not bother anybody.  Figure out the culture of the department and try to fit in.

The tenure application:

At the end of your probationary period, you will have to submit a formal application for tenure.  This will probably consist of a series of forms accompanied by a binder full of supporting material (copies of your publications, syllabi, etc.).  Here two points are worth remembering.

1. Know the formal rules: Somewhere, your institution should have written down what is required in the tenure application, and when the various elements of it are due.  You should know everything that is written down on this, as well as your procedural rights under the institution’s rules.

2. Imitate some successful example: Go to the chair of your department, and perhaps to the Dean’s office, and ask who, among the recently tenured people, submitted a tenure application that would be a good template to follow, one that was distinguished for its clear organization and completeness.  You can then ask that person if you could see the application so you can get a sense of how to put yours together. 

The quest for tenure can be nerve-wracking, but probationary faculty can waste energy worrying about their prospects.  In most normal circumstances, your colleauges will want you (and every other applicant) to succeed in getting tenure.  Your job is to make it easy for them to do so, and following the advice above should help you to do that.