As I wait for the endometrial biopsy Friday and the follow-up visit with the RE, I thought I’d give a (sorta) brief follow-up update on my tenure saga.
After all my angst, my 5th-year pre-tenure review happened promptly and smoothly. At my university it involves an official letter summarizing the department’s evaluation and a one-on-one conversation with my department chair. Both were glowingly positive. The conversation with the chair may have made me blush a little bit. It was basically my chair talking for maybe ten minutes about how great I am at my job. Then, when he asked if I had questions, I was like, “Um, thank you, this is all wonderful. But if I had to concentrate on one thing this year to make my tenure case stronger, what would it be?” and he said, “Really, there’s nothing. Just don’t let your teaching evaluations slide, because the university-level committee gets hung up on trajectories, and yours started out so high that it’s hard to show an upward trajectory.”
So, yay! But also, ack! My department has never yet officially told me anything I can do to improve, and it constantly freaks me out — because everyone can improve in some way, of course, and having no direction is disconcerting. And also because I watched a close friend go through a horrific tenure debacle last year in a closely related physical science department, during which she worked really hard on fixing the things they told her to fix (mostly related to teaching) and then after a whole long saga her department ultimately denied her tenure on the basis of something they hadn’t told her to fix (purely research). There were many major WTF moments during her case, and it really soured me on my institution (particularly the offending department), and has made me far less trusting of the tenure process and some of the people at my institution. I’m pretty sure that my department is a heck of a lot more functional than my friend’s former department, and that my case is a heck of a lot less borderline than hers was, but still, I worry (she and her husband are now happily employed at a small college back in the Midwest, closer to their families, so her story thankfully has a happy ending).
And, what about all my angst about thinking that my chair was going to recommend that I use my extra year before going up for tenure? It didn’t amount to anything, or at least nothing that I could decode. We talked about the timeline a little, and he said that the main thing was to make sure that everyone is on the same page about my timeline, but that he wanted to make sure I understood that I only get one chance to go up for tenure, which I assured him was very clear to me (for the non-academics: the tenure decision is up-or-out, in the sense that if you are awarded tenure then you are more or less guaranteed a job for life at your university, but if you are denied tenure then you are fired and you have one year to find a job before you are unemployed). My impression was that he was basically covering his / the department’s butt, to make sure that I couldn’t come back later if my tenure case was denied and say that I didn’t understand that going up early meant I couldn’t also go up on time. Which I get. Everything else about the review pointed to the conclusion that my department thinks I’m doing great and doesn’t foresee an issue with letting me go up “early,” but they can’t officially say that because it would look like a promise that I will get tenure next year, which they can’t officially make.
One bizarre thing about this whole interaction is that we have a new chair this year, who also happens to be the second-youngest member of the department (after me) and also the person with whom I am most friendly. So it’s been awfully weird interacting in this very official way with a friend, and we have both had to carefully monitor our verbal filters in a way that we do not normally do. He’s usually the first person I go to for advice on sticky situations or to kvetch about some problem in the department, and I am usually really appreciative of his honest and thoughtful advice and perspective. But as chair, there are things that he’s not allowed to say, and also things that he is obligated to say that he wouldn’t normally say. And there are things that I would normally want to ask him that I am no longer allowed to ask him (for example, I am no longer allowed to discuss with him which scientists at other universities to solicit for external reviews of the research portion of my tenure case, which stinks because he is the person who works closest to my field and also the person in my department who has been through the tenure process most recently and I would really love his advice). It even came up towards the end of the review when he gave me some official-sounding line about how we don’t have an official junior faculty mentoring arrangement in the department but that I should feel free to go to any of the faculty for advice (I think this is an awful way to “mentor” junior faculty, by the way, but that’s a subject for another post), and I said that I always appreciated his advice and then there was this moment where we both acknowledged that it stinks that he is now chair and can’t give me unfiltered advice when I really need it. Ah, well… this is one of the down-sides to being in a tiny department. The flip side, of course, is that my department chair is a friend who I am confident has my best interests at heart and genuinely wants to keep me as a long-term colleague. He’s inexperienced, but capable and ethical. It could definitely be worse.
And that’s the update! I now have written evidence that my department thinks I am doing a great job, and verbal assurance that there are no obvious weak spots in my tenure portfolio that I should try to fix in the next year. I definitely have an agenda of things I would like to get done before I submit my portfolio, which I briefly outlined with my chair. I think it’s achievable and will represent a body of work that I feel proud of. I’m feeling good about going up on my desired timeline. And, honestly, I’m feeling much more positive about my job than I have for a while. It’s amazing what a little bit of acknowledgement and appreciation can do for your motivation. I’ve felt more creative and committed to my department. During our meeting, my chair included a little pep talk about how the department loves the work I’ve been doing and how it seems like my interests and skills are really well aligned with the department mission so I should just keep doing what I want to do and try not to worry too much about external pressures (like tenure criteria, I guess). And I do feel like I’ve grown into the position — I’ve gotten my sea legs with teaching, and I’ve reached some sort of equilibrium with finding a research advising style that is effective without being too draining. I can almost feel the breath of fresh air that I felt when I got my first faculty job offer — suddenly, I felt freedom to define my own research program rather than worrying about working on projects that would get me letters from specific superstars in my field. Tenure is also supposed to grant that sort of freedom, and I can almost feel the burst of creativity and self-direction that is supposed to come with tenure. I have ideas for ways to experiment with teaching that I’ve been afraid to try because they’d introduce unpredictability into my student evaluations. I have ideas for research directions that are a little wackier than I was comfortable with when I needed to show that I could get proposals funded consistently. Now, if I can just keep my teaching evaluations from sliding this year, maybe I’ll be able to take advantage of that freedom and space for trying new things!