>A reason for tenure

>I think I found a way to describe concretely to myself and to my students one of the reasons tenure matters.

Here’s the background. This week in my graduate research class, we read an article from about 1989 by Stephen Nissenbaum, “The Month Before ‘The Night Before Christmas'” from a conference proceeding volume called Humanists at Work. We were reading it — or rather, I asked them to read it — to get a concrete sense about the life cycle of a research project, and about the experiential side of the “methods” of research, including the communal aspects of it (advice and leads gleaned from colleagues, conversations, and conferences) and the moments of seeming luck and serendipity (which I pointed to students really only seem lucky — they often come as the result of experience, knowledge, and preparation). It’s an article I highly recommend: it’s vivid in its portrayal of how a humanities researcher works and it makes concrete the research life of an academic, and also describes a fascinating research project on a poem everyone knows, “The Night Before Christmas.” Nissenbaum is a historian, I should point out, and ultimately the small project on the poem became a larger cultural history project on the history of Christmas in the US, called The Battle for Christmas (available in Vintage paperback, 1997), but the article could easily be describing a new historicist literary project.

One of the things my students took from this article is how much work and time good research takes, as well as how much of that time is, as one student put it, “sitting and thinking.” Nissenbaum talks about how, in 1989, he’d already been thinking about this poem off and on for 15 years. And I pointed out that the book it became didn’t come out (in its original edition) until 1996. By the time he was working on this project, he had tenure, so he had that luxury of time to sit and think, to let the project reveal itself to him.

We can do that to some extent as advanced graduate students and assistant professors — after all, my dissertation-to-book process did take about 10 year — but there’s also a pressure to get stuff out there, to complete it and have something to show for all that sitting and thinking. That’s not to say that such pressure is totally gone with tenure (after all, I do want to make full professor), but it’s certainly relieved to some extent. And one of the things I vowed to myself when I got tenure was to let my next project evolve more slowly, to let it reveal itself to me. I like very much the ability to say, “I’m not sure what this research will become, but here’s where I am right now” and just following the pure pleasure of the leads and even the digressions in that research.

I think that gift of time, that ability to take projects slowly, to give them what they need to develop fully — including the permission to fail or to lead to dead-ends — is part of what tenure is about. (This is one of the many reasons I hate the term “deadwood” for senior faculty who aren’t frenetically producing, but that’s a post for another day.) Take away tenure and we’re all back under the pressure to produce rapidly and we lose that ability to let ideas and analysis ferment fully. That would be a loss not only to those who produce the knowledge, but to the world at large.

Now, if only we could transfer that freedom and time to the untenured as well.


I realize, by the way, that I may be contradicting or complicating my own notions of why the professionalization of graduate students is not a bad thing. Well, to that I say: I am large, I contain multitudes.


>Oh, so *this* is what tenure is about

>I may be part of a committee meeting next week with the highest official in the state university system. And, more locally, I’m on the department’s Personnel Committee next year, which means, among other things, I’ll be voting on my friend Victoria’s tenure application.

Associate Professor powers, activate!


Apropos of nothing, btw, I’ve now done over 500 posts and had over 100,000 visitors to the blog.

>NOW it’s official

>I finally got my letter from the president saying that the Board of Trustees has approved my tenure and promotion to associate professor.

Woo-hoo! Let the feasting begin!*

Now I’m going to go change my e-mail signature line.

*Bullock and I are talking about a celebration party inspired by medieval feasting — with medieval recipes, but not sit-down. We haven’t decided about forks yet.

>OMG! A total rock star likes me!

>OK, not a rock star, but close enough in the academic world. I’ll explain best I can without revealing identities

So the final outside letter for my tenure finally came in — too late for the department personnel committee, but in time for the chair to mention it in her letter, and for all the subsequent levels up the hierarchy. Anyway, it’s from someone in my immediate specialty and it’s someone I was a little afraid of because I thought she wouldn’t like my work because she’s all fancy-pants theoretical and I’m knock-off pants theoretical at best. So I actually didn’t put her on my list of potential reviewers. But my senior colleague did, and she ended up being one of the people solicited, and since her letter was late in arriving I was especially worried about it.

Well…It. Totally. Rocks!!!!! (Yes, I got to see it. As you may recall, we’re a public university in an open-records state. When my chair said it was “absolutely glowing” I just had to read it!) OMG, she likes me, she really likes me! And get this: lo these many years ago, I was an admitted, prospective graduate student visiting Rock Star’s campus and department, back when she was still an assistant professor, I think, and in the letter she makes it clear she *remembered* me. And she mentioned that she knew my work from my articles even before the book! It’s like she’s been following my career or something. How awesome is that?!

I think I may faint, and this time it’s not from whatever’s in my head causing my dizzy spells! This is definitely something for the “love file”! Woo-hoo!

>Happy happy joy joy — good news

>My department voted unanimously to promote me and give me tenure! And rumor has it that unanimous votes in my department are a rarity. Wow — cool!

But now I must knock wood — KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK — because there are all the other levels my dossier must still go through.

Meanwhile, my fingers are crossed, I’m not counting any unhatched chickens, I’m knocking on wood, and, just for the heck of it, I’m throwing salt over my shoulder, too.

>RBoLDW: Random Bullet Points of Labor Day Weekend


  • The tenure file is done and turned in! Woo-hoo!
  • To celebrate, Bullock and I did our first shopping trip to Costco last night and got some yummy wild salmon which Bullock grilled. We picked up a number of other things, but we’re being pretty judicious about what we’ll actually consume before it goes bad, and what we have space to store. There are only two of us, after all. But I quickly realized that if all we ever buy at Costco are Clif Bars and giant bottles of generic loratadine (the drug in Claritin), we’ll save a decent amount of money over the course of a year and more than make up for the $50 membership fee.
  • Because this Costco is the only one in Rust Belt, and therefore also the only one in this part of the state (because Rust Belt is the only city), the large crowd there produced a pretty good cross-section of the region. However, according to our local newspaper, some of the higher end shoppers of the area, the ones living in close proximity to this Costco (the reason why it chose that location) have not yet realized that Costco carries goods they’d be interested in. (Apparently they don’t read all the stories in national newspapers about the Costco yuppie phenomenon.) Some of them are even vowing to boycott it because it’s not high end enough for its location. Oh good god. It makes me want to hit them over the head with a lovely bottle of 2004 Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon (about $2 cheaper at Costco than on Wine.com)!
  • OK, enough about Costco. Btw, Turnbull Cabs are to die for. Not cheap — usually about $45, depending on the vintage — but wonderful if you like big, rich red wines. And they’re good wines for collecting and aging.
  • Tonight Victoria, her sister, our friend who needs a pseudonym still, and I are having a girls’ night out. We’re going to see Becoming Jane. I’m really excited, but not nearly as excited as the two mothers of young children in the group, who are really, REALLY excited.
  • I’m managing to keep up in spinning class now and do all the standing exercises! Yay! Now I need to work on form so I’m not putting my weight on my wrists and arms, but holding myself up with my legs and core.
  • Speaking of core work, Victoria has also convinced me to do PiYo — an upbeat version of Pilates with some yoga — on Fridays, so now we have Spinning MW at noon and PiYo on Friday at noon, plus I’ll still be doing a long run on Saturdays and an easy one on Sundays. I’m going to be SO fit this semester. Here’s hoping I can keep up with it all.
  • Bullock and I are talking about having Thanksgiving here this year. His mom and sister are coming, which also means his sister’s kids, two dogs, and, possibly, a hedgehog will be here. Virgo Sis said she may be able to make it, too. Word is Fast Fizzy and the Fizzy family are staying put this year (Fizzy, tell me if that’s not true!) since they traveled last year, and my dad doesn’t travel on Thanksgiving (or much at all these days), and though I’ll invite Eldest Niece and Nephew, they probably can’t afford it, so it won’t be the *whole* family. Still, even with just the members slated to come, that means we’ll be making dinner for two vegans and a celiac! It’s going to be a complicated meal. Any suggestions for vegan or gluten-free (or both) recipes are welcome! (I’m looking at you, Pastry Pirate!)
  • Speaking of grown-ups and families, about 2/3s of the new graduate students are roughly about my age, give or take a couple of years, and a number of them have kids, some of whom are in college already. One of the students, who is only 41, is a grandmother already. Some of the younger ones have children, as well, with or without spouses. It’s a demographically interesting group. I find this all very fascinating, and dealing with grown-ups is such a pleasure, but I also worry for them, since they’re entering a profession that still assumes everyone is young and single and child-free, or, if married, a man with a stay-at-home wife. These students can’t simply pack up and move for a Ph.D. program or a job, or if they do, it will be that much more difficult for them. Any advice for assisting them — resources to point them to, for example — would be greatly appreciated.

>Making my tenure dossier narratives matter

>On some level, the narratives I have to write for my tenure narrative are merely hoops I have to jump through. But as I’m telling my graduate students in my research and methods course, there’s a way to make every hoop of this profession into something that matters — if not something that MATTERS on some grand scale, at least something that’s useful for preparing for a next step or stage that matters more, or at least for thinking about what does matter.

So I’m kind of happy that I’m practicing what I’m preaching and I’m pretty pleased with what I’m doing with my narratives. They have a recurring theme (how literary of me!), which is the value of the liberal arts, the humanities, the study of literature, and the study of the past (specifically the Middle Ages in my case, obviously). I’m sure I’m not saying anything particularly original, though I am trying to avoid cant and also trying to come up with concrete examples. But I think this is important for those people on the college and university level of the tenure process who might need to be reminded — or even taught — that there’s a value to what we do in the English department, and that there’s an audience for it as well, not just in our students and other scholars, but in the general public, too. Given that our president at one point wanted to make RBU into a science and technology focused university (though he seems to have backed off of that plan lately — maybe) and generally talks about education in instrumentalist, vocational terms (i.e., as training for a particular occupation or profession), I think the message I’m trying to send is still needed. I’m perfectly willing to make myself the poster-child for these causes.

>T & P at RBU (that’s tenure and promotion at Rust Belt U)

>I’m so sick of writing the narratives for my tenure dossier that I thought I’d write *about* my tenure dossier instead. Sure, I could do research work or get a head start on next week’s classes, or work on service-related things, but that would mean not obsessing about tenure, and I can’t have that, now can I? 🙂

Here at RBU, a public university with a unionized faculty (through the AAUP), we have processes for renewal, tenure and promotion, professional assessment, and merit evaluation that involve a lot of paper work, some of it every year, but which also provide a solid and undeniable paper trail when it comes to tenure and promotion. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

Here’s how it works: every year prior to going up for tenure and promotion, assistant professors must turn in a big fat renewal dossier that includes narratives in which the candidate for renewal discusses his or her “teaching practice and philosophy,” “service to the institution and profession,” and, of course, “professional activity” (i.e., publications and presentations, grants, or creative work etc.) — or, as I like to call these narratives, “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books” (apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche). The dossier also includes supporting documents proving the validity of these narratives, as well as a CV summarizing them all. And every year before tenure, this dossier goes up through the following Great Chain of Approval: the department personnel committee, the chair of the department, the college personnel committee, the dean of the college, the university personnel committee, and the provost (plus our new president likes to sign off on it, too). That’s essentially the same chain as the Great Chain of Tenure, except that the trustees also get a piece of that action. And as the renewal dossier goes up, the candidate gets a letter saying whether they’ve voted for or against renewal. Votes against can be appealed at every stage before it goes to the next level, and there’s a set calendar of the deadlines for every step of the way (the process takes all year). And if any of these bodies approve but have worries about a candidate’s performance in any area, they’ll say so in the letter they send the candidate. When it’s all said and done, the renewed candidate will have renewal letters from every step of the process, all of which will eventually be added to the tenure dossier (more on its differences in a moment).

There’s also a short document used for merit evaluations (and the sad little salary increases that come with that), which goes only to the department personnel committee, the chair, and the dean. But copies of past merit evaluations also go in the dossiers for both renewal and tenure/promotion.

And prior to all of that, when an assistant prof is hired, s/he is given not only a letter of offer that sketches the expectations of the job, but also a separate letter of expectations, which is crafted by the chair in consultation with the new hire. The evulations of the renewal dossier each year are based on comparison with the candidate’s letter of expectations (also included in the dossier).

So what this means, ultimately, is that the various bodies who have the power to grant or deny tenure and promotion also have chances each year prior to that to warn someone that they’re not doing enough to merit tenure and promotion, or even to fire them outright. So a person who has had nothing but good evaluation letters can go into the tenure process with a certain amount of confidence (aside from the usual paranoia characteristic of the culture of tenure).

It’s an incredibly sane system, unlike the way renewal and tenure can operate in many other institutions. All such processes should be so sane.

For tenure, there are some additional requirements. The narratives one writes aren’t merely about one year’s worth of work, but about one’s whole career at an institution, and they need to give a sense of the future, too — a research agenda, the willingness and ability to take on greater service commitments after tenure and promotion, and a continued engagement with teaching.

And then there are the “outside letters.” Here, too, RBU’s practices are sane and healthy — although one of my letter writers was taken aback by one element of our practice. At many places, the letters of recommendation solicited from scholars outside the candidate’s institution are the Big Unknown and therefore a locus of a candidate’s anxiety since it’s the one thing s/he has no control over. This is because at some institutions, the candidate has no say over them at all, or at best, little say. But at my university, the list of people contacted for letters came out of names suggested by me and by a member of the personnel committee most familiar with my field. My chair then selection names from each of those lists and consulted with me to make sure they were agreeable — e.g., no one whose work I had vociferously disagreed with in my work. And in the end, I was told who the letters would be coming from; I can even, if I choose, ask to see the letters because of the open records laws of our state. (That’s what gave one writer pause; actually, the very fact that I was cc’d on the e-mail asking if she’d be willing gave her pause.) Seeing them might give me opportunity to counteract, in my narratives, any criticism in the letters, though I wouldn’t be able to suppress them, since once solicited, they must be used. My chair told me they’re all positive, so I’m not going to worry.

See, totally sane. What’s also fair about this process is that the chair must include in her letterto the recommenders that the letter-writers must NOT decide whether the candidate would get tenure at their institution. That language is required by our contract because it’s a frequent tendency of letter-writers to make just such observations, and I’m glad to see them discouraged from doing this. Since tenure is decided on the three categories of teaching, research, and service, and the letter writers are only getting my research materials and my CV, they’re not in a position to judge my whole case. And besides, different institutions have different requirements for tenure, and some of my writers are at flagship research universities, so even if I didn’t meet their requirements, I might still meet RBU’s. The point of these letters is to put my research in context and to judge its contribution to my specific field. Since I’m the only medievalist in English at RBU, their contribution to my file is really important in this respect.

The outside letter issue is an area where the tenure process can get really scary and stressful. Even in a sane process like ours, it is a little nerve-wracking to entrust the judgment of your work to people you know only through their work or meeting them at conferences! But I have one friend whose process is even saner — no outside letters at all! Their university feels that the peer reviewers for published work have already done that job. Wow. Imagine that! Still, our process is better than at some places. We need only 3-5 letters, whereas some places are asking for crazy numbers — 10, 15, even 20! Some places also require all letter-writers to be full professors at top tier research institutions. That last bit is especially snobby and anachronistic, since today important and influential scholars are spread out across all sorts of different kinds of institutions. Anyway, ours need only be tenured and promoted to the level the candidate is seeking promotion to (in other words, Associate Professor) and need only be employed by a four-year college or university. Mine are from a range of colleges and universities — SLACs, public branch campuses of state universities, R1s, and metropolitan universities.

There’s a lot I like about working at RBU (even though I call the town and the university “Rust Belt,” I always mean that affectionately, and it is accurate in terms of its economic history), and one of them is the no-surprises system of renewal, tenure, and promotion. (Not to mention the fact that even tenured profs must do a similar professional assessment every five years, in addition to annual merit evaluations, which I think is healthy for the institution and its faculty.) The relative fairness of it all is something I’m grateful for.

However, because I have a slight superstitious streak, I’ve typed this entire entry with my fingers crossed! (For luck, that is — not because it’s all a lie.)