Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What is Tenure, Really?

It just dawned on me that, if asked to define tenure, I wouldn't really be able to do so. I know it means job security....like once you've got tenure, you can't really be fired. But really, you can, right? I mean, what the hell is that actual working definition and understanding of tenure within the academic community? And, shouldn't this be something graduate programs discuss fairly early with graduate students, or at the least, when they go on the market? Also, what's required to gain tenure? I know there's a wide range of requirements, which usually depend on the field, the particular institution, and the specific guidelines for an individual department. But, what's the range look like? What set of requirements corresponds to a medium-sized English Department in a medium-sized Masters Degree-granting institution? And at what point do graduate students learn the categorization system, which would seem to be important in determining the jobs for which one applies?

Just asking, because I haven't seen any of this information in any brochure thus far in my career.


p-duck said...

If you find out the answers, do share!
- g

Jennie said...

The concept of tenure is rooted in an understanding that academic freedom is important to the health and vitality of scholarly research. A professor with tenure can be fired, but it is much, much, much more difficult and can usually only be the result of something incredibly egregious on the tenured professor's part--not the politics of the department, university, academic community, or the general community. The idea is that tenured scholars will not be discouraged from investigating hugely controversial topics, or silenced from publishing findings that are unpopular or unfavorable to any or all of the above groups out of a fear of losing their jobs. The requirements for tenure vary by field, institution, and department--as you said--and English is not my field so I can't help you there. I do know that this is something people generally get a sense about from their colleagues, and even during the interview process, and I am pretty sure no institution has a checklist for guaranteed tenure (ie, if you publish a book and have 6 refereed journal articles and 12 conference papers and serves on a decent number of committees have above average teaching evaluations you are guaranteed tenure--doesn't work that way, although in my field (at a R1 university with a doctoral program) you'd be in pretty good shape if this was the scope of your tenure packet).

Anonymous said...

OK, I just turned in my file in December and just received my tenure letters of recommendation from my department and department chair, so I can chime in a bit here. I teach at a research intensive state university, in an English dept. with a Ph.D. program. We required "a preponderance of "good" and "excellent" descriptors on our annual peer and chair evaluations over a 5 year period. Descriptors are given annually by both the Faculty review committee and the chair in the three areas of research, teaching and service, and we do an annual file/narrative to support the process. We only need a "preponderance of goods and satisfactories" in service, which counts for very little (but is required of all). Research is, of coure, the mac daddy category, and here that is defined as a book published and reviewed or at least four substantial and important critical essays in print, at a minimum. This can be hard to do in less than 6 years (most people turn in the file in Dec. of their sixth year, so 11 semesters of work before the book closes on the tenure file. The essays must contribute substantially to the discipline and be well-placed in good journals. They should also be considered the equivalent of a book-length treatment, so things that are in some manner related. A book would ideally be in print and reviewed before the tenure review process begins (which is tough... not always something you can control). I was lucky. I had three major essays in print, three major essays forthcoming (definitely and with edits completed) and four small pieces (reviews, etc). This was fine here. If I had needed four in print, though, I might have been screwed.

We're very good about tenure here, and everyone hired is expected to get it (unlike in the Ivies or first tiers, where many, many people are denied tenure for not having "good enough" pubs). It is definitely publish or perish, but it helps when you are expected to get it... where the rules are clear and the expectations are reasonable. Some places higher up the ladder ask for two books... one out and reviewed, the other in press with a contract. People manage to do that, but do they manage to keep their sanity?! I don't know. I was pregnant when I defended and had a child during my second year on this job, so two books AND two kids was not a path that would have worked for me. I'll trade the security of the third tier for the vanity of a Yale or NYU any day of the week.

A good thing to remember as a Ph.D. candidate is to publish with caution. You want stuff circulating, you want a few major things in print (essays rather than reviews and encylopedia entries), but if your entire dissertation exists in article form before you defend and go on the job market you will have a tougher time getting tenure. You would basically have to start new work from scratch, a new book project or book-like project, while simultaneously fitting into a much more substantial teaching schedule (most likely). Nothing you do before getting the job "counts" other than to get you the job. The clock starts ticking and the slate is clean when you enter the job, so you want enough in print to get the job but not so much that you are left high and dry once you get it. You can sometimes negotiate for things that are forthcoming to "count" (usually provided you can use your new affiliation in the essay).

Jennie already answered the "what is tenure" question, but I thought I might be able to offer some perspective as someone who is currently going through the process in an English dept. It isn't only job security here, either -- there's a substantial pay increase that comes with tenure, as well as promotion to associate prof. It's all good.

A teaching-intensive school is still, in all likelihood, going to look for some pubs, but the requirements for tenure may be drastically different. A lot of people come up for tenure at small, more obscure liberal arts schools or community colleges with the sort of profile that most people entering a research institution have before even getting the job. A single well-placed essay was about all that was required of faculty at my alma mater (a tiny, obscure liberal arts school). It is very important to read over the official documtntation a school offers about tenure and promotion before agreeing to the job. It can make or break a lot of lifestyle choices. I was not willing to miss out on the joy of having another child just to get tenure, nor was I willing to wait until tenure to start trying. I'll be 40 next fall when my promotion goes through... a bit long in the tooth for most of us, fertility wise. It was a gamble having my daughter once I had the job (and I was "punished" for it with a bad teaching review the following year), but all is well now, and I certainly wouldn't trade my girl for tenure, not in a million years. Thankfully it looks like I won't have to.

AcadeMama said...

p-duck: as you can see, solid, specific, and helpful answers!

jennie: thank you so much for explaining the conceptual foundation for tenure! it makes perfect sense, and one would think that graduate students would be given this history and information very early on in their programs (especially doctoral programs).

lisawv: i heart you for sharing your experience, especially since you are able to speak to both tenure process within an English department specifically and the issue of pregnancy/parenting! this is exactly what i was hoping people would share, and i hope others continue to add their own details and experiences since it's clear there's such a range of expectations for tenure and promotion. so, a book in 6 years, huh?? i could see how this is possible while teaching a 2/2 or a 3/2 load, but anything more than that, and i'm just not sure how one would pace the project...i guess that's for another post though :)

M said...

So much for the idea that the single author monograph is "overrated" though.

conservredneck said...

My biggest problem with tenure is because of those that cannot teach anymore are still teachers. I understand the concept of attracting good quality Profs and job security. What about my kids, your kids and those kids that have been penalized because of not being able to have those Profs replaced or retired? This is a hard question I understand. But, I think its a very good question that needs to be addressed. Thanks