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Things I Wish I Had Known

Things I Wish I Had Known

September 22, 2010

Why didn’t I know about these things before? Why didn’t someone tell me this when I was first brought in to higher education that this was the way it would be? Did everyone else know these things except me?

Questions such as these and many more tend to loom over the very existence of a tenure-track faculty member. The process associated with obtaining tenure and promotion has become increasingly complex in the university environment today. Consequently, it is essential for new faculty members in higher education, particularly junior faculty, to cultivate every scholarship, teaching and service opportunity available to them at the university, college and department level. I read once that an idea without a plan is nothing more than a bad idea. While the idea of using the available resources may not be a novice practice by any measure, the actual steps to take to cultivate those resources can still be considered an enlightening process. In other words, junior faculty and tenured faculty alike may know the necessary steps to take to improve the likelihood of achieving tenure; however, the missing link may very well be the absence of a strategic plan with which to do so.

The tenure process will be different for each person depending on the size and type of institution, as well as where within the institution your department is situated. Generally speaking, it is common to spend five to seven years as an assistant professor, with the decision on tenure taking place sometime during one’s sixth year. It’s almost like being placed on a moving track and asked to begin running as fast as you can immediately if you are to reach the finish line, which in this case is the all-too-coveted tenured position.

Along my way, I have learned a few things, and I continue to learn as I move through the tenure track. The most important thing I have learned, however, is that we must be able to recognize what is important as a tenure-track professor and what things may not be as imperative. In other words, we need to focus on what will help us gain the title of tenure and improve the likelihood and probability of obtaining tenure once we become ready to do so.

Cultivate Mentors

Mentors can take the form of many different type of people both within and outside of your department and college. Department chairs, advisers, committee members, colleagues, deans, university staff, and even your own students. Your career will allow you the opportunity to collaborate with many different people in a variety of roles. Each one can be a valuable resource person for you, and can help ensure that you are on the right track as you make your way through your first few years. Getting along well with your mentors and establishing authentic relationships with them can sometimes be the determining factor between your success and failure.

Most higher education institutions routinely send newly hired faculty to orientation sessions. This is a good time to inquire about a faculty mentoring program, which can be a valuable resource to you. Mentors can help you navigate through the political arena of the institution and provide much-needed guidance and direction. They may also provide you with valuable historical insight regarding your department or even your institution. Requesting a mentor outside your department can allow you the avenue to speak more freely about concerns in your area if necessary.

Request a meeting with department chairs at least once per semester. Most, if not all, department chairs are very willing to speak to you on just about any topic. Part of the reason they are chairs may be their collaborative nature and willingness to work well with others. Prepare a list of things you would like to discuss, such as your effectiveness, suggestions for improvement, and other areas of concern. As long as you are clear about your intentions and you go in with a clear set of objectives, the meetings can be effective and enjoyable. Be sure to take note of your discussion so that you may refer back to them for clarification and guidance. You may even consider creating a file for safekeeping. Finally, remember to overuse the phrase “Thank you,” and to mean it.

Read, Read, Read

University and college handbooks were created for a reason. Refer to the handbooks before posing your questions, as they will likely answer many of them beforehand. Designating a particular day of the week or even biweekly to read the handbooks, and deciding beforehand which area of the handbook you would like to familiarize yourself with more, is a good and relatively painless way of navigating through the piece in a timely manner. Once you have set out specific goals for reading, follow the same advice you give your students and try to employ enough discipline to actually follow through with your reading agenda.

Many of us have hobbies and things we prefer to do that may not be related to work. Integrating the two can be a great ally to a new faculty member and to a seasoned faculty member as well. Copying a segment that can be read during a morning walk on the treadmill or over a cup of coffee at a coffee shop can serve to support both pleasure and business at the same time.

Publication Groups and Cohort Collaboration

First, join a publication group or cohort. This can be considered one of the most important tips of all. Some campuses have pre-established publication cohorts that take many different interdepartmental and intradepartmental forms, such as department cohorts, college cohorts and university cohorts. Part of earning tenure is the publication piece, also known as “scholarly activity or practice.”

Many would argue it is the piece that may carry the greatest weight. However, combining publication with collaboration with colleagues can offer even greater benefits. Junior professors achieve tenure when they have developed supportive mentors and colleagues. Many are denied tenure when they have developed career-destroying adversaries. Prolific junior faculty members can be denied tenure because of a lukewarm letter of support from senior colleagues. And some not-so-prolific junior faculty members have achieved tenure with a less-than-stellar publication record but an impressive collegial history. Establishing strong and authentic relationships with not only members of your own faculty, but also with senior colleagues outside your university, can sometimes be the difference between making tenure and not making tenure.

Department cohorts, which usually consist of members of the same department joining together to periodically write, submit and publish a piece of work, are among the most common publication cohorts. The members of the cohort interchange between first author, second author and third author. In this way, every member of the cohort has the opportunity to publish as the first author at least once. This type of cohort allows for the exchanging of ideas within a particular discipline and fosters a greater sense of cohesiveness among its members.

College cohorts can consist of members from different departments within a particular college. For example, a college of education may consist of several departments such as teacher education, kinesiology, public administration, curriculum and instruction, and special populations. One or more members from each department may join a college cohort to brainstorm about publication ideas. Like the department cohorts, members take on different roles in the publication process and shift the roles from year to year. A common goal may be to produce at least two publications per year. Not every member of the cohort may appear in each publication, a stipulation that may be determined by the cohort.

Both interdepartmental and intradepartmental publication groups are an integral part of a junior faculty member’s navigation through the tenured track role and into a tenured role. The positive and essential publication aspect of the groups may be evident even to the non-higher education member. However, the collaborative and collegial aspects may have a far greater impact on one’s tenure achievement than the former.

Publishing and the Publisher Lingo

Publishing is still considered perhaps the most important aspect of teaching in a higher education institution. It is the wise man (or woman) who acknowledges this to be truth and responds accordingly. Your writing does not have to be limited to writing in books or even textbooks. There are a wide range of publication venues such as journals, peer-reviewed journals, newsletters, magazines and other periodicals.

An important thing to remember when choosing the venue to which you will submit your paper is whether it is considered peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed journals have been reviewed by a panel of subject experts who scrutinize articles for significance, relevance, and sound research design. Accurate presentation and clarity must be present before they are accepted for publication. Usually the process is a blind review; that is, the author's name is not on the manuscript when it is reviewed and the author and the reviewers do not know each others’ identities. Many higher institutions regard both types of venues as scholarly work, but may give a higher degree of weight or points to those publications in peer-reviewed venues.

Each publisher has its own process for accepting and publishing the articles and manuscripts that are reflected in their journals. While it would be simpler if every publisher followed the same format, the same guidelines or even the same writing criteria, that is not the reality. Part of being successful in publishing is determining how different publishers expect papers to be submitted and then formatting your paper to meet that standard. Most of the time, you can go into the journal’s website and obtain a clear picture of the expectations.

Another good idea is to read and study articles that have previously been published in the journal. This will provide valuable insight, and help you better align your work to the journal’s requirements.

Teaching

I was recently asked to join a committee whose major task was to review the college’s handbook. We decided that we would begin by surveying the faculty and asking them what they valued the most in their current position. By far, the most pervasive response was “Teaching.” It was clear that the teaching aspect of our profession was still being held at esteem well above that of which it had been granted by our own tenure and promotion process. This reality is not unlike the process of other universities and colleges.

It appears that teaching is frequently recorded as the first part of the tenure trio. One may infer that since it is the first, it may suggest that it can be considered the most important of the three; however, my own experience has taught me otherwise. In fact, teaching is sometimes viewed as the least important of the three, often forfeiting its birthright to scholarship. This intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more about its origins.

What I learned may surprise some and validate others’ predisposed notions. It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of teaching and its place in tenure and promotion. The argument that it’s not as important as scholarship, for example, can be viewed as nothing more than an argument. In other words, there may be four out of the five tenure and promotion committee members reviewing a candidate’s T&P portfolio who happen to belong to the side of the argument that holds steadfast to the importance of teaching. Sure, they may agree that scholarship is imperative and may go as far as suggesting that it can be considered most important of all. But, the truth of the matter may be that they wholeheartedly adhere to the belief that teaching should be just as important if not the most important of all. This belief is grounded in one’s own self-purpose and in what they value most about their profession which speaks directly to the ethical and prudent person they strive to be. The fact that the T&P process itself may not lend itself to their belief system does not make teaching any less important in their eyes.

I came away feeling validated and somewhat confused. After much thought, I realized that the best way to approach the teaching aspect of the T&P process was to give it no less attention than I was giving the other two. The answer was right in front of me all along, but the question I was asking was somewhat off-base. It is not whether scholarship is more important than teaching that should be our focus, but rather establishing a balance of the three while giving teaching the weight and attention it rightfully deserves. So, keep those syllabuses looking sharp; brush up on the best pedagogical approaches around and continue creating authentic relationships with your students. After all, teaching is and will always be grounded in the very genesis and purpose of our profession.

Committees

If you expect people to be knocking on your door and asking you to join a committee, I have news for you: it is not going to happen. This is not due to committees not wanting you to join or the lack of collegiality. The fact is that people are busy doing things like teaching, researching, writing, and trying to have at least some type of a personal life. Therefore, the ball is in your court and you must go out and seek committee membership. Sometimes, you will get lucky and a committee opportunity will fall in your lap; if it does, take it. Other times, a department chair will be kind enough to remind you, and you will find yourself seeking out committee memberships that you had not thought of before. But, most of the time it takes a conscientious effort on your part to take the time to send out an e-mail, walk over to the dean’s office, or look up the committee chairs in your handbook or university website. Whatever the case, being on committees, at the departmental, college or university level, is an integral part of your responsibilities as a tenure-track faculty member.

Deciding which and how many committees to be on can be the hardest part of committee work. As a junior faculty, you may be eager to join as many committees as possible. You should practice caution here, as this can lead to an overload in one aspect of your tenure-track responsibilities and a level of neglect in another. Balance your time and energy wisely. Choose to be on at least two committees per semester. Some committees run consecutively from year to year on two-year terms, and by joining one you are agreeing to a long-range commitment.

Perceptions, Communication and Reflection

While it may be clear that you are eager and willing to go the extra mile, and that you put in long hours at the office and home, remember that you are treading on sacred ground. No one is indispensable, and trying to be perceived as such has the potential to backfire. Be active in your discussions and offer input only when you know that it can benefit the whole rather than the individual and when it is grounded in research. Bruising someone else’s ego, other than your own, is possible and can lead to career suicide if not taken seriously. Overuse the practice of observing and try to glean at least one thing from each conversation with tenured faculty. They did not achieve tenure by not knowing what they were talking about.

How we communicate with others is crucial to our success as tenure-track faculty. What you say is sometimes just as important as how you say it. Remember that the way you meant something may not always be the way someone else heard it come out. The old adage “perception is reality” is still a strong rule to go by, and can help you frame your thoughts in a more sensible way. Choose your words wisely and try to frame your thoughts in a way that will not offend or turn off a colleague. Authenticity goes a long way, and most people will appreciate one authentic statement a week rather than 10 less-than-genuine statements a day.

The practice of reflection can prove to be a valuable and formidable ally in life. In higher education, it is essential to be a reflective learner, researcher, student and practitioner. Keep a journal and record the things that stood out to you in any given day. Focus on those things that went especially well and on those that did not. In doing so, you may find that a pattern will begin to emerge, which may enable you to increase the former and minimize the latter. All of this can be accomplished through deliberate reflection and practice.

Stay Positive and Genuine

Having a positive attitude can go a long way in most of life’s arenas, and higher education institutions are not the exception. Avoid negative conversations and refrain from making negative comments that may come back to haunt you at a later time. Engaging in negative conversations can often be the easiest thing to do and the hardest thing to avoid. However, conscientious effort on your part can help you not only avoid the bad conversations but also provide you with ideas and insight on how to turn such conversations toward a more constructive and productive direction.

Final Thoughts

Higher education is a complex arena and one that should be studied and reflected on with great consideration. There are complicated and fundamental dos and don’ts in higher education that are sometimes hidden within the infrastructure of the system. I don’t think anyone initially meant or intended them to be such a mystery; however, the probable cause of its genesis should not be our focus.

Rather, recognize that we're in this for the long haul. The quicker we familiarize ourselves with the game, the greater the likelihood that we will be sitting at the winners’ table, which is, after all, what achieving tenure is all about, isn’t it?

Bio

Carmen Tejeda-Delgado is an assistant professor of education at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.

 

 

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