Tenure application: perspectives from the almost-grizzled reviewer

Yesterday, my college had its first “T&P brown bag” discussion for tenure-earning faculty (tenure-earning being the local equivalent of tenure-track outside Florida). My teaching schedule conflicts with the discussion time, but I had been asked to be a participant as a former member of the college’s tenure and promotion committee. While or perhaps because tenured and tenure-track faculty are the minority in the United States, it is important to share how the tenure process looks at various institutions.1 Below are the comments I sent to the discussion moderators to share with assistant professors, with some slight editing.

General perspectives

If you have not done so yet, you should read your university’s guidelines on tenure. Most of the document is likely to be procedural: what material is required, who reviews the material in which order, and possibly the timelines. At USF, we have peer review committees at the department and college levels as well as chairs’ and deans’ reviews. At some campuses (we are a multi-campus system), there is also a peer review committee at the campus level in addition to the chief academic officer’s final recommendation to the university president. Your homework at the first pass through an institutional T&P document is to identify any passage that speaks directly to substantive criteria. At the University of South Florida, there are only a few sentences that assistant professors need to understand in connection with teaching and research. (The service passage is brief and can be summed up as “academic citizenship.”)

At USF today, the section on teaching essentially says the university wants tenured faculty who are experts in their field, are effective in the mechanics of instruction, and have teaching and mentoring relationships with students that are motivating. The section on research says the university wants tenured faculty who conduct original research that is meaningful and that can be extrapolated to predict a productive career.2 In addition to any institution-level expectations, often you will find departments or other units have added their own expectations based on mission or identity. Many bench-science departments expect tenure-track faculty to earn grants or otherwise help bring resources to the enterprise. In my college of education, our tenure and promotion document is essentially a very long rubric for judging different dimensions of our work, and in addition to fleshing out the various categories listed above, we have one additional item in teaching: reflective practice.

For those applying for tenure, the most important task is to match your accomplishments to the explicit criteria in an obvious way, and to do so in a way that synthesizes who you are as a faculty member. When I submitted my application for promotion to full professor in 2007, I gave the narrative to a few close friends and colleagues and asked one question: is this who I am as an academic? That question was not the whole of preparing a promotion binder, but it was important to check in itself.

If you are applying for tenure, you have to explain an academic identity and your priorities in a way that those outside the person’s field or perspective will understand your contributions as a teacher and scholar. I have a deep disagreement with a friend and colleague about this burden—my friend thinks it is the obligation of senior faculty to read the work of junior colleagues with an eye to understanding different modes of thinking and researching. I think we have that obligation, the expectation that we will not be deliberately obtuse or parochial, but the fundamental obligation of someone applying for tenure and promotion is to explain why the University of South Florida (or wherever you work) should give you a great deal of job protection. In that context, the individual applying for tenure inevitably has the burden to connect the dots, and it does no good to an untenured colleague to pretend otherwise.

What I hope to see in a tenure application and documentation

Apart from the specific criteria I listed above, there are a few overarching “aha!” moments I hope to have when reading a tenure application and set of documents:3

Evidence of teaching impact. We have to gather data on student perceptions through end-of-semester surveys, and I hate every tendency to pretend that there is enormous accuracy in the survey ratings and to perseverate on the ratings. I look more broadly at evidence of impact in some way, especially in evidence of student work and the dialogue faculty have with students about their work. Sometimes this is evident directly—such as in examples of student work at any level with comments that are deep and thoughtful and critical in the best sense of the academy. Sometimes the evidence is indirect, such as in published articles cowritten with doctoral students. Student comments about “a wonderful teacher” is evidence of a great relationship with students but not necessarily a great impact. Student comments about how they now think differently about a subject has more influence on me.

Evidence of a coherent agenda with direction. The mental image I have of a successful applicant for tenure is a hurdler in the middle of a race – there are accomplishments in the past, your work is in motion, and I can see where your research is headed in the next few years. This is an oversimplification in many ways; of course you cannot run two races simultaneously in the way one can reasonably have two research strands even as a new scholar. But the reaction I wish to have while reading a tenure application is that “in-motion” sense of scholarship.

Evidence of academic citizenship. If you are tenured, I want to be comfortable sitting with you in a committee at some point in the future with a sensitive task involving attention to detail and application of core academic values. When I make a recommendation on tenure, it is with the knowledge that colleagues perform a great deal of the hidden work of a university and a discipline. I want to see some evidence that you are a citizen in your department and college and in your field. There is no set way to define that citizenship except the willingness to do the behind-the-scenes work in multiple contexts, with occasional leadership in the years before applying for tenure.

What to avoid in the tenure portfolio

I will limit the cautions to three: do not present a spaghetti mess of material or narrative, do not construct a reviewer list where you are not sure the letter-writers are competent at reviewing, and do not take a defensive tone about your teaching, your productivity, or your assignments.

Do not be creative in organizing your tenure materials. Organize both the narratives and supporting documentation in the most obvious way possible. You may be one of many tenure and promotion applications that a faculty committee has to review in far too little time. In my college, the review committee members know of the obligation roughly six months in advance (when faculty elect the college review committee), but often the T&P review obligation is suddenly piled on top of all other obligations. You want to make your colleagues’ job easy when they turn to your case (in much the same way you would like your students to make your own review of their work easy). A spaghetti mess may turn an admirable record you accumulated into a senior faculty’s frustrating search for meaning. This is not the place to write your postmodern novel or to force your senior colleagues to learn how to navigate your uniquely-constructed website. (Yes, electronic documentation is possible, but it should be organized in a way that’s easy to understand.)

Do not suggest reviewers you have not observed doing what the essential job of reviewing is. You need to see potential external letter writers review “in the wild.” If you are not in a field where that is easy (e.g., where book reviews are common), then you need to attend some national conference panels as much for evaluating the discussants as for the content. Or you may need to find other ways to evaluate their competence at reviewing. Note: this is not about whether an external letter writer is on the same side of a disciplinary divide. This is about whether they can accurately put your work in context.

Do not be defensive in tone. If you had a hard semester in teaching, demonstrate that you engaged in reflective practices by improving the instructional choices you made in the next semester. If you have a gap in published papers, demonstrate the work in progress in that time (such as a project-by-project table that is now common for faculty in my college). If you have had higher-than-average assignments in teaching or service compared with the norm in your field, you need to focus on what you did, not how you almost died. The point is not that inequitable positions do not exist; they certainly do, and in my previous role as a union leader I saw plenty of assistant-professor assignments that worried me greatly. But an application for tenure is the time to frame everything in terms of what will happen in the rest of your career. The tenure and promotion application is not the time to look for justice; it is the time to persuade the Provost that you are the best investment of two million dollars (or more) that your university or college can make, by giving you tenure.

The rational paranoia of tenure-track assistant professors

Understanding the decision-making involved in a teure case can sometimes fight against a perfectly logical inclination of tenure-track faculty to be skeptical of the judgment of senior colleagues. There are four reasons why the tenure-track years can be nerve-wracking, circumstances that generate what I call the rational paranoia of the assistant professor. As far as I am aware, the high-stakes nature of tenure decisions in higher education exists in no other career—you have spent years earning a doctorate and then many years more at USF or wherever you work, and what was that time for if you are denied tenure? But that is not all. At USF, as at most institutions, the tenure decision is fundamentally a judgment call. There is no algorithm you can follow to earn tenure, though there are a few sure-fire ways to be denied tenure (such as not publishing anything in your tenure-track years). The length of the tenure review process is also excruciating, at our institution lasting from September to the following June—but if you include the time necessary to propose external reviewers the previous spring (what I recommend to colleagues), the whole process extends across more than a year.

Finally, while I hope most of the advice everyone receives on earning tenure is helpful, it is common for faculty to receive highly inappropriate advice, probably once every year or two. When I was an assistant professor, one now-retired faculty member at USF told all junior faculty in an informal meeting that they should seek to join many colleagues on projects to write many short papers. For several reasons, this was monumentally bad advice to give to the historians of education in the room. If at any point you hear advice that is not appropriate for your field or department, feel free to roll your eyes in private, grumble about the out-of-touch senior faculty, and (with some trepidation) continue with the best judgment you can.

Given all of these factors, there is no way to feel entirely secure until you receive a letter granting you tenure. In my case, I immediately made multiple copies of mine, put the original in the home fire safe, and also scanned it and saved the PDF in various places. What is important is to make sure that the inherent uncertainty of pre-tenure years does not become grounds for self-destructive behavior. If you or a loved one hears a self-pitying narrative coming out of your mouth about tenure, you need to think long and hard about some aspect of your career or your attitude towards work. But the ordinary uncertainty and nervousness of the position is not a sign of any pathology; it is part of the structure of being on the tenure track. Acknowledge the emotions you are inevitably going to have in response to that uncertainty, and then go on to do what you should.

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  1. The University of South Florida is a large state institution with considerable research expectations for tenure. []
  2. New assistant professors often wonder if those standards have changed — if the goalposts have moved. At USF, the same written guidelines have been in place since 1998. However, the interpretation of these categories have shifted, and there are higher expectations in research, specifically in what counts as meaningful and productive career. I think the larger shift is the judgment of the significance of scholarship, and that is more difficult to provide guidance for. We have also had internal discussions about the meaning of engaged scholarship, and I hope the next iteration of the institution-level guidelines will address engaged scholarship. []
  3. At our institution, there are two copies of a large binder with various required sections in a set structure and then a supplemental set of documentation whose structure is determined by the applicant for tenure/promotion. []