Making Your Case

Courtney C. W. Guerra provides advice on how to successfully compile a compelling renewal or tenure dossier.

August 28, 2019
 
 
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As with so many things in life, the best time to start preparing for your institution’s renewal or tenure process is way, way in advance. But, as with so many things in life, important deadlines have a way of sneaking up on you. The advice below is best applied with a healthy lead time, before you start gathering materials for one of the most important submissions of your career, but it can still be helpful even if you’re scrambling a bit. (Aren’t we all?) If you’re getting a later start than you’d planned on, don’t panic. Just take a deep breath and get to work.

Know your goals. So what exactly is your renewal/tenure dossier supposed to be? It’s best if you have a solid answer to this question. If you don’t, your first priority is setting up a meeting with your chair and/or whoever’s mentoring you through the process.

Get guidance on the big-picture stuff. What do the decision makers want to see in a research statement? How many publications are you expected to have? Are reflections on teaching an important part of the process?

Also ask about the more granular, procedural aspects. Hard copy or digital? What file formats? Is anyone supposed to review it before it’s officially submitted? Those nitty-gritty details may seem laughably unimportant when compared to the task of summarizing your entire academic career, but if you make a careless tactical error, that will distract from the substance of your case. And you want people thinking about that substance, not googling “how to open a LaTeX file” and mentally categorizing you as the Professor Who Can’t Make a PDF instead of reflecting on your prodigious accomplishments.

Get second opinions. If you’re in a flawlessly functional department where junior faculty members are gently shepherded through all the stages of their professional evolution, this step might not even be necessary. But what if you’re surrounded by colleagues who are all wrapped up in their own work while simultaneously tending flourishing gardens of grievances against administrative policies and other individual faculty members? (Totally unlikely, right? I’m just trying to cover all my bases here.) You might want to cross-reference any advice you’ve received by consulting with other senior scholars you trust.

Sometimes, things that weren’t a big deal 15 years ago are very much a big deal to the current administration. Sometimes, people manage to get away with flouting certain rules and best practices because of who they are or what the institution wants from them. It’s good to get a well-rounded perspective on how to approach your case, but you want to make sure you’re listening to the most responsible and practical-minded folks and not just the ones who tend to be disdainful of official policy. And if you get wildly conflicting advice, seek out someone who’s actually in charge -- a chair or maybe even a dean, if not both -- for clarification.

Color within the (guide)lines. Maybe it’s self-explanatory, but I think it’s worth reiterating: if there’s a rule, don’t assume you’re the exception. If you don’t have a certain requested document, or if a particular page limit is really hampering you, by all means ask the powers that be for permission to go off-script. But unless you’re explicitly authorized to break from official guidelines, follow them faithfully.

Think about it: in most institutions, your case will eventually go to a provost’s office, with a staff that hails from a wide array of fields (more on that below). And it’s being considered alongside others across the disciplines. Even the most seemingly minor deviation can cause confusion at worst and outright frustration at best -- and those aren’t sentiments you want to be cultivating in the people responsible for determining your professional future. Again, you don’t want to be known as the professor whose case is all disorganized files in obscure formats.

Read the room. Even within your own department, your materials are going to be read by colleagues who don’t share your exact expertise. By all means, deploy the terms d’art that are necessary to describe your research, but also think about how the resulting prose is going to land with audiences that are increasingly ill acquainted with your specialty. Peppering in layperson-friendly explanations and taking care to situate your work within the context of more familiar fields will help ensure your arguments land with scholars from entirely different backgrounds.

For bonus points, find someone from a different discipline to enlist as a reader and consider their feedback carefully. They don’t need to be able to grasp every nuance and the way your work is imbricated within the long history of your field, but they should be able to appreciate the general gist of what you’re saying. Most of all, they should be able to understand what distinguishes your specific accomplishments and grasp that you’ve met all the benchmarks for renewal/tenure, because, well, that’s the whole point of these materials.

Save your emails, save yourself. While the full scope of a renewal/tenure case might seem like a daunting project, it’s actually composed of a bunch of small components that are individually much easier to manage. You’d be surprised at how much relevant material you create and receive just in the course of doing your regular job: emails to friends and colleagues about future projects, enthusiastic messages from students, accolades from senior scholars -- these are all the building blocks of a strong case and can help jump-start the writing process for any statements of purpose you’re asked to produce. But they can’t help you if they’re buried deep in your in-box (or deleted entirely, if you’re employed by an institution that “helpfully” jettisons your emails with relentless regularity).

Develop a system -- forwarding to yourself, tagging, storing in a dedicated folder, whatever -- that collects all these little tidbits so that you can easily find and deploy them when you start developing your dossier. You can also leave additional bread crumbs for yourself by documenting random thoughts that might be useful to you. If you have a sudden epiphany about your unique pedagogical style, write it down and stash it away. Your future self will thank you.

Be realistic about the relentless passage of time. In short: it’s going to take longer than you think. And by it, I mean everything. The article will take longer to write, the journal’s turnaround time will be longer than what it says on their website, even organizing all your files into the administration-approved hierarchy will take longer than you thought it would. So please, for your own sake, do not assume that this very important set of materials is going to magically coalesce at the 11th hour.

Get drafts out as quickly as you can. (Then at least you can say “under consideration” and soothe yourself by remembering that you’ll inevitably have to make edits before anything gets published.) For science-y types, get your experiments running as soon as possible, and don’t put off grant applications until the next cycle. You might be reading this thinking, “Sure, but my renewal/tenure case isn’t due for over a year,” but I implore you to start laying the groundwork now. Think about what you want it to look like at submission and get cracking on everything that has to happen in the meantime. Work backward from your best-case scenario and eschew magical thinking as you proceed.

If all else fails, be honest. OK, but what if you did put it off until the last minute? What if you’re out here frantically finalizing drafts and sending them out a week before you have to turn in your updated CV, and you don’t even know how to write a teaching statement? Or maybe you had a baby, a health issue, a family tragedy or some other legitimately life-disrupting event that toppled your carefully constructed plan for meeting all your goals.

Unsurprisingly, you are not the first person to find yourself in such a situation. Don’t make it worse by avoiding the inevitable reckoning and hoping that you’ll be the beneficiary of a miracle. As soon as you think there might be a problem -- whether it’s as straightforward as a productivity miscalculation or as broad as a systemic stressor that’s undermining your ability to get anything done properly -- talk to a trusted senior colleague about how best to proceed. Any kind of adjustment, extension, exemption or other institutional mercy that you might be able to benefit from is going to take time to implement. If you wait until the decision makers are metaphorically (or literally) sitting around the table and ready to discuss your case, it’s going to be much harder for anyone to cut you a break.

Remember: we’re all rooting for you. The most important thing to keep in mind throughout this inevitably stressful process is that your college or university wants you to succeed. Nobody at a healthy institution hires an assistant professor onto the tenure track while cackling diabolically about how fun it’ll be to deny their renewal in a few years. No reasonable committee renews someone’s appointment with the secret agenda of eventually snatching away their tenure.

Ideally, the most arduous part of the renewal or tenure ordeal is actually wrangling all your materials into the officially sanctioned format. You shouldn’t be confused or surprised by anything asked of you. It should just be a matter of doing your work and then creating some administrative scaffolding around the fruits of your labors. Execute that process skillfully, and you’ll give yourself the best possible chance of getting renewed and eventually tenured -- at which point you can get back to focusing on what you were hired to do in the first place.

Bio

Courtney C. W. Guerra gives general career advice under the pseudonym Dear Businesslady and is the author of Is This Working? The Businesslady’s Guide to Getting What You Want From Your Career (Simon & Schuster, 2017). She’s spent most of her professional life with the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she is the senior writer and research development director.

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