Posts Tagged ‘Tenure’

When students ask what they can do to improve their grades at the end of the semester, I often think, “Invent a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, and start [coming to class, proofreading your work, studying for exams, etc.].” Now, in my second year of a new job, a year away from pre-tenure review, it feels like this is the semester that I would choose to return to if things do not go the way I want in the tenure process. With a paper under review, several papers I need to lightly revise and send out, and new projects in the early stages, this is a pivotal moment for my success in the coming years, even as the semester quickly melts away and, as usual, I haven’t completed nearly as much on these endeavors as I had hoped.

I have, however, made one change that I hope will pay off in the future. I installed LeechBlock on my web browser to ward off my Major Procrastination Disorder and keep time from getting away from me. In a few years, I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Thanks to Dan Hirschman, who provided me with a copy of the paper by Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter comparing tenure-track to non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern, I was able to find an answer to my question from the other day about whether the non-tenure-track faculty included graduate students. The answer is no. As the authors note on page 7:

“We exclude graduate students and visiting professors who hold faculty appointments at other institutions from our analysis. Our results are fundamentally unchanged if we include these two groups, regardless of whether we assign them to the tenure track/tenured category or to the non-tenure line category of instructor.”

Not only are graduate students not included, then, but their inclusion does not affect the analysis in any meaningful way! I don’t know how the number of graduate student instructors at Northwestern compares to the number of other non-tenure-track faculty, but the fact that they can be placed in either category without changing the results seems to indicate that this number is either relatively small or that graduate students fall between the two categories that Figlio et al. focus on, which seems interesting in itself.

Also interesting, and incredibly important for the interpretation of their results, is the fact that most of the non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern are not “adjuncts” in the typical sense. Rather, they are classified as Continued Lecturer Faculty, as Jeremy Freese describes in a comment at Orghtheory:

I haven’t read the study yet, but it’s worth noting that (to my understanding) most non-tenure track teaching at Northwestern is not done by “adjuncts” but by what we call Continuing Lecturer Faculty, who are on multi-year renewable contracts for which the pay is less than tenure-line but substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at Northwestern, which is in turn substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at other places in the area that have used our students as adjuncts. Also, at least in sociology and neighboring disciplines, CLF are expected to teach 6 courses a year, but we are on quarters, which means that the actual number of hours a CLF spends standing in front of a classroom is roughly the same the standard load for a tenure-line faculty member teaching 4 courses at, say, Wisconsin.

In short, if you are not at a similarly well-heeled place, there’s good reason to suppose our non-tenure track faculty are better teachers than your non-tenure track faculty, whereas I’m not sure the same is true for tenure-track and if it is I wouldn’t expect the difference to be as large.

Dan Hirschman discusses the implications of this for the generalizability of the study (which it seems that outlets like Inside Higher Ed would consider important):

Rather than asking (just) about comparability of students, or even the capacity to attract elite non-tenure track faculty, we have to ask, where do non-tenure track positions look like the ones at Northwestern? For example, here at Michigan, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) has successfully fought to unionize non-tenure track faculty, securing multi-year contracts for more senior instructors, along with benefits, and etc. So we can imagine these findings mapping reasonably well onto Michigan.* But could we say the same for Eastern Michigan? For Washtenaw Community College? For the (seemingly) typical adjunct making less than $3,000 per course with no benefits?

He concludes:

Figlio et al.’s study looks to my not especially expert eyes like an excellent evaluation of the efficacy of NU’s non-tenure track lecturers, with obvious relevance to the potential for such full-time faculty at other reasonably selective universities. But it’s just not a study about part-time adjuncts and says nothing about such instructors. So, let’s stop framing it that way.

While the “Adjuncts are better!” framing certainly helped the study gain attention among academics, it is not in line with the authors’ own claims. Nevertheless, I fear that this framing will stick as those in positions of power use these reports to justify the increasing adjunctification of higher education.

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Given the emphasis that academics place on tenure, I assume that most colleges and universities have some sort of review for junior faculty before the one that determines whether they will be asked to pack their things and leave.  Some schools review junior faculty in their third year while others, such as my own, review junior faculty in their second and fourth years before the tenure review in their sixth year (assuming that they were not given credit for years at another institution and that they do not stop the tenure clock along the way). Of course, the materials for these reviews are often due during the academic year, so they are more like 1.5, 2.5, or 3.5-year reviews.  Regardless of the time frame, they are intended to give junior faculty members feedback on things they could/should/must improve and, in some cases, provide them with time to start seeking employment elsewhere.

Having recently completed my own two-year review, I have several thoughts.  The first is that I am glad to have these reviews, despite the amount of work involved in preparing materials for them.  I am also glad to have two pre-tenure reviews instead of one.  Given the uncertainty surrounding tenure expectations at any given institution it is nice to get some feedback along the way.  My second thought is that it is hard to believe I have already completed two years as a faculty member.  Beyond the usual realization that time goes so fast, this puts the tenure clock itself in perspective.  I simply have not had much time in the past two years to establish myself as a scholar, though I am making progress in that area.  Even with a slightly lower teaching load it is hard to imagine my output being much higher.  The pre-tenure reviews, as a result, are crucial for letting me know whether this is acceptable for faculty members at my institution.

My final thought on the process is that it was anticlimactic.  While I have never been led to believe I was doing something wrong, I was eager to hear what the committee thought I needed to improve.  Instead of setting some goals for me, though, they basically said “keep up the good work.”  Obviously, I am happy with that message, but it seems that it will be hard to show improvement when it is time for subsequent reviews.  For example, I doubt that it is wise to start a tenure application with the following statement: “Dear Tenure Committee, Because I was so awesome when you hired me and I have not changed my approach to teaching, research, or service, I am still awesome today and, thus, would like to receive tenure so that I may remain awesome at this institution until such time as conceptions of awesomeness have changed, at which point I intend to remain at this institution at least a decade longer to remind new faculty what awesomeness looked like at the turn of the century.”  On the other hand, could tenure really be denied based solely on this type of jackassery?  If anybody wants to try it, let me know how it goes.

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As a graduate student approaching the job market I heard a few stories about people who initially got jobs at less than ideal institutions and then published their way into better opportunities.  When I was on the job market this was even one of the reasons that I was advised to turn down a job with a 4-4 teaching load.  The implication is that candidates who receive jobs that they like only have to publish enough to satisfy the tenure expectations of their institutions while those who receive jobs that they don’t like need to publish more in order to make themselves attractive to potential future employers.

Given the current uncertainty in higher education (which you can read about here and hear about on your nightly news when state budgets are proposed) I think that the first of those statements is wrong.  Rather than being able to lower their publication standards to match the expectations of their institution, I think that faculty members at all institutions are facing a situation in which a strong publication record is a life vest.  While you may hope that you never have to use it, this life vest will be crucial if you should find yourself needing to abandon ship in these uncharted academic waters.  As those who are on the job market know, there aren’t enough life boats for everybody so your publication record may mean the difference between academic life and death.

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Last week I noted that there is more to a potential job than the school’s rank, even though nobody in my family has heard of the school where I will start work in the fall.  My experiences as a graduate student (and observer of junior faculty) in a highly-ranked department led me to seek a different type of career.  To many (especially my family members), it is probably hard to believe that I would prefer the job that I received to one at a prestigious institution such as Columbia, but I am constantly reminded of this fact when reading things like this (the original post has since been taken down):

The back story here is that I applied for a small grant from Columbia and they replied saying, “A serious research proposal should go beyond your impressions of and personal history with one institution. If it does not, it will remain at the level of anecdotal, single-case evidence, and will count as autobiography rather than systematic research.” Translation: ethnography isn’t real research. To their credit, my senior colleagues rallied around me, agrily responding that the rejection was ridiculous. They wrote a letter on my behalf, asked me to send a chapter from my book in contract, and leave it be. The response just came back from the VP’s office. It was worse than ever. This time, not some under-VP, but the VP himself responded,

“At this moment, the submitted material is highly readable, but the FDC [faculty development committee] believes that it does not sufficiently display an exercise of the research abilities we expect in a major research university. It will be work that displays such abilities that will also be important in meeting the standard for tenure.”

While I have considered the difficulty of publishing and its effects on tenure, I hadn’t considered that being awarded tenure at a “prestigious” institution would be related to the type of work one does, in addition to the quality.  I want no part of this world.

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