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Archive for the ‘The Ivory Tower’ Category

The goal of being on the tenure track is to receive tenure and there is lots of available advice about how to do that. There is less information available about what happens when tenure is denied. Even when our colleagues are denied tenure, it can be hard to find out the details while respecting the fact that they likely do not want to talk about the situation. For these reasons, recent guest posts at Historiann and a blog started in May by Jennifer Diascro are intriguing (and often frustrating and devastating).

“Hannah” at Historiann recounts her experience with a Dean who seemed to be against her case from the start, despite the support of colleagues, and her successful appeal the next year. Diascro, who had been previously tenured at the University of Kentucky, details her experiences with tenure denial at American University where the messages she received from her colleagues leading up to the tenure decision directly contradicted their recommendation. Hannah’s account is interesting, but Diascro’s is even more illuminating due to her willingness to post many of the documents from her tenure case at AU.

Both stories have (eventual) happy endings, which probably makes their authors more willing to share their experiences but makes them no less illuminating.


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Since my days in graduate school I have sought opportunities to learn some new information. Whether this is attending a presentation, joining a reading group, or signing up for a workshop, I’ve done a lot of things not because they were particularly important to my success but because they sounded interesting or fun. (The fact that I have a high tolerance for boredom also works in my favor, since the snippets of useful information are often surrounded by useless information.) This semester, though, I think I have found the limits of demands on my time. Between preparing for class, meeting with students, grading, writing, and trying to get a new research project started, I have finally reached the point where I literally do not have time for a lunchtime discussion of teaching or a book discussion about gender.

Luckily, student meetings are winding down just as midterms are ramping up. I would look forward to spring break if I didn’t have so much work to do during it! In the future I may have to reduce some of my teaching efforts in order to increase my sanity (and, you know, the chance of getting tenure).


 

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At my previous institution, a few peer-reviewed publications and evidence of continued “scholarly activity” (such as conference presentations) were enough for tenure. These publications could be on any topic in any publication as long as it was peer-reviewed. At my current institution, the picture is considerably less clear.

The major change is in what counts and how much. As at many institutions, all peer-reviewed publications are not created equally. Nobody is expected to publish in ASR or AJS but things like impact factor are considered. The type of research also matters. As one colleague stated, publishing in outlets like Teaching Sociology is like a cherry on top of a sundae, but it isn’t the sundae. They also like to see progress in these areas, so one high-profile publication followed by three lower-ranking publications is not as desirable as the reverse would be.

All of this makes the publication gauntlet that much more daunting. There is also uncertainty, though, about when one wants things to be accepted and published while moving along the tenure track. The third-year review, for example, is less of a formality and essentially the same in practice as the tenure review (requiring the exact same documents). This means that publications are essential for passing the third-year review but there are cases in which individuals with a few publications at this point neglected to tell the tenure and promotion committee about a paper that had been recently accepted so that it would be seen as “new” at the tenure review.

The final issue that I’ve encountered is a lack of information about what actually counts as “published.” Accepted papers do not seem to have the same weight as those that have actually been published (indicated in the fact that they are not requested as part of the review). “Published,” though, encompasses a wide variety of things today. Some journals have long lead times before publication in print, others have long lead times but “online first” availability in the meantime, and others have short lead times (or even all-online publishing) but questionable impact factors.

Together, these factors make a process that I breezed through at my previous institution much more stressful (I haven’t even had time to work on my time machine!).


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A recent discussion on campus alerted me to the fact that mentoring has changed. Models with a single assigned mentor (or anti-mentor) are no longer preferred. Instead, everybody should have lots of mentoring relationships in which all partners mutually benefit. The result is “mutual mentoring.” According to the NEA’s summary, mutual mentoring involves:

  • mentoring partnerships that include a wide variety of individuals—peers, near peers, tenured faculty, chairs, administrators, librarians, students, and others;
  • mentoring approaches that accommodate the partners’ personal, cultural, and professional preferences for contact (e.g., one-on-one, small group, team, and/or online);
  • partnerships that focus on specific areas of experience and expertise, rather than generalized, “one-size-fits-all” knowledge;
  • a reciprocity of benefits between the person traditionally known as the “protégé” and the person traditionally known as the “mentor;” and
  • perhaps most importantly, new and under-represented faculty members who are not seen or treated solely as the recipients of mentoring, but as the primary agents of their own career development.

All of these things sound great! Who will be arranging these relationships for me?

That, apparently, is my responsibility. Here are “some good first steps to create a Mutual Mentoring network of your own”:

  • If your department already has a formal mentoring program in place, take advantage of it, but keep in mind that the mentor chosen for you, or by you, as part of this program should not be your only source of professional support.
  • Ask some key colleagues whom they think you should approach about your specific subjects of interest. Keep in mind that there are many different ways that you can “click” with a mentoring partner. Who teaches classes similar in size to yours? Who uses a particular classroom technology that you’re interested in adopting? Who seems like the best overall personality match?
  • Identify near peers (colleagues who are close to your career level). Near peers can be particularly valuable because their experiences as newcomers are still reasonably fresh. Helpful “global” questions to ask near peers include: What do you wish you would have known when you first arrived? What is the most valuable thing you’ve done in support of your teaching?
  • Look for mentoring partners outside the faculty ranks. A talented, tech-savvy student may help you navigate a new class management system, while a librarian specializing in your discipline may be able to recommend hard-to-find resources.

I don’t think that new faculty should shirk the responsibility of forming networks and I also recognize that some of these are relationships that many people already have being recast as mentoring, but there also seems to be a disconnect between people saying “we’ve recognized that the best way to be successful here is to meet a lot of people inside and outside of the institution who can help you in different areas” and following that up with, “good luck finding them!” In an ideal world, experienced faculty would reach out to new faculty (who are busy enough juggling teaching, service, and research), not the other way around. I guess that all junior faculty are in charge of changing the culture now.


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I don’t even know what to say about this, other than to wonder about the motivations of the board of trustees and that I’m fairly certain that Newman has “caused considerable damage” to the University through the creation of this climate of fear. So much for the protections of tenure.

Here is a story about the situation from Inside Higher Ed (this is the one I’ve seen most frequently on Facebook) as well as one from the Washington Post.

Update: The fired faculty members have received offers of reinstatement and the faculty as a whole has called for Newman to resign by Monday morning.


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The other day I shared Terry McGlynn’s recent post at Small Pond Science, “The tyranny of the 9-month position,on Facebook, wondering if those outside of the sciences would feel the same way. Like most full-time faculty, I’ve been on nine or 10-month contracts since starting my first tenure-track job but, perhaps unlike my colleagues in the sciences, haven’t often given it much thought. Like me, my colleagues in the sciences are expected to get much of their research done in the summer. Unlike me, however, they are also expected to supervise student research that ties them to their current location even if their need for lab equipment does not. This sort of unpaid summer supervision is essentially a requirement for tenure. For me, working with students would look good but would likely also slow me down, so I am able to choose to do this some years and not to do it other years.

Because of the problems McGlynn details that are associated with unpaid summer work, it seems that colleges and universities would be tempted to switch to 12-month contracts. Not, mind you, that they would suddenly give everybody a 33% salary increase, but that they would admit that the nine-month contracts of the past were bullshit and align the contract period with reality. This seems like a simple fix. Change the terminology to reflect what people have been doing anyway and everybody should be happy, right?

Probably not.

At my previous institution, where I had a 10-month contract, the Provost liked to remind faculty that they were actually under contract for the first half of June and that, as a result, it was not unreasonable to require attendance at on-campus meetings after the spring semester had ended. Faculty, especially those outside of the sciences (who were going to be there anyway), did not like being told where they needed to be while completing their summer work (even if they would typically have been doing their summer work on campus) because time without students is sacred.

Imagine this alternate sequence of events:

  • Faculty in the sciences who are expected to do unpaid work in the summer call for more pay or at least a 12-month contract that recognizes their summer work as part of their typical duties. A school certainly isn’t going to offer 33% of one’s regular salary for the summer months and isn’t going to give the scientists different contracts than everybody else (making their pay look artificially lower) so, instead, changes everybody to 12-month contracts. Things continue as normal for a few years, with scientists staying on campus for their summer work and everybody else working from home, working from other locations, or just not working.
  • Eventually, the millionaires on the Board of Trustees start to wonder why faculty are receiving 12 months of pay for nine months of work and the administration decides to formalize summer workloads, requiring proof of “scholarly progress” to remain in good standing. The administration also realizes, though, that more summer courses would increase revenue and offers these to faculty in lieu of scholarly progress. With all faculty on 12-month contracts and many faculty teaching in the summer, the administration begins requiring committees to meet in the summer as well to deal with the issues raised by the now 12-month academic year.
  • The faculty complain. The millionaires on the Board of Trustees tell the faculty that these moves are necessary to remain competitive in a challenging economy and that since faculty are under contract they should be on campus working like those in other industries. The millionaires on the Board of Trustees spend their summers in Europe, “working” remotely, as faculty used to, but do not recognize the irony of their situation.
  • Life has not changed for the scientists, but it has become appreciably worse for the rest of the faculty. The rest of the faculty blame the scientists for ruining their lives. The air conditioning does not work correctly in any campus building except the administration building.

I am sure that this will eventually happen, probably everywhere and maybe with less blame for scientists. In the meantime, however, the desire to maintain the current academic calendar and refusal to be required to attend committee meetings in the summer among non-scientists likely prevents the change to a 12-month contract from even being thought of at most institutions. I guess I had better enjoy my nine-month contracts while they last!


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There are some jobs that are typically recognized as difficult. Most people, for example, probably don’t think that they could walk into an operating room and be a successful surgeon. Others, however, are often assumed to be easy. Teaching, for example, is something that many people assume they could be successful at. I’ve also seen musicians criticize those who make electronic music because they are “just pushing buttons.” As with teachers and electronic music artists, assuming that somebody has an easy job devalues the work that they do.  Once in a while, though, people have the opportunity to try something that others make look easy, discovering that it is, in fact, rather difficult.

Enter Super Mario Maker.

Super Mario Maker is a videogame for Nintendo’s Wii U game console. In the game, players are able to create their own Super Mario Bros. levels, share those levels, and play levels created by others. In reviewing the game, Sean Buckley of Engadget summed up his experience nicely, stating:

It didn’t make any sense. I’d dreamed about making Nintendo games since I was 6 years old, but when the company gave me the chance to prove a game design genius lived under my skin, I flopped. It was then that a shocking and heartbreaking realization washed over me: I hate making video games.

My ego didn’t take this realization well. As both a hobbyist gamer and a journalist that covers games, I’ve always humored the little voice in the back of my head that said, “I could do this if I wanted. I could make games.” No, Super Mario Maker has shown me, I can’t — not really. Yes, technically I can construct a stage from set pieces I’ve seen in other Mario games, but I’m not really creating anything. My by-the-numbers Mario levels (a few power-ups to start, some pipes to leap over, maybe a Hammer brother or two and a flagpole at the end) feel more like light plagiarism than original content. Why do I suck at this so much?

Michael Thomsen at the Washington Post focused on how bad others are at creating Super Mario levels, arguing:

“Super Mario Maker” is a bad comedy. Released in coordination with the 30-year anniversary of “Super Mario Bros.,” it indulges players in the fantasy that they’d be good at making video game levels. This sort of self-deception has become common in the age of digital consumption, and while there’s something utopian in “Super Mario Maker’s” appeals to community participation and sharing, the game quickly collapses into a scratch sheet of horrible ideas and levels you’ll regret having played. It’s a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.

So it turns out that the people who have been making the Super Mario Bros. games all these years actually had talents and skills that most of us don’t have. I think this is great! I wish that we could have other opportunities to try what people do in a simplified manner. Imagine Super Teacher Maker where surgeons are given seven hours in a room with 25 eight year olds and asked to teach them math, or Super EDM Maker where a guitar player (or, better yet, a singer!) is given a computer and asked to create music. Maybe then we would start to recognize that everybody has hard jobs, even if our jobs are hard in different ways.

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