Facing Tenure Rejection

Trish Roberts-Miller shares what she wishes she had understood at a difficult point in her career.

April 2, 2014

As several friends are going through rugged tenure procedures, and having gone through bad and good ones myself, I've been thinking about what I wish I'd known when I was being denied tenure in my first job.

It's a lot like being in a car crash. Sometimes a car accident happens because you did something really stupid. Sometimes someone else did something malicious or stupid. Sometimes it really was just an accident. Even if you're absolutely blameless, it's hard not to feel that it happened because you suck, and because you did something wrong, and it's all your fault. And even if you really did make some mistakes, it's hard not to feel victimized, since the bad choices weren't deliberate, or weren't worse than the choices other people made (who do have tenure), or were the only choices possible.

So I know that I spent a lot of time bouncing between "I suck" and "I'm a victim." And I was stuck bouncing between the two because the big question for me was, "Whose fault is this?" Or, in other words, who was to blame. And that's the wrong question.

Thinking about causality is helpful, and desiring a narrative that gave me some agency (but didn't make me feel hopelessly suck-y and a total failure) was a good response, but blame isn't really a good way to think about it. When I t-boned a person who did a completely unsafe left turn, I kept thinking of things like, "Maybe I should have left the house later" -- that was a waste of time, as there's no point in trying to control random chance. When I scraped the paint on a car in the parking garage because I hadn't fixed the problem with my right rearview mirror -- I could change that. So, somehow, that's what has to happen in being denied tenure -- trying to figure out what's random chance, and what you can do differently in the future.

And, of course, one thing a person can do is leave academe, and I think that is a great option to consider very, very seriously. Being aware that you could quit, and you could do lots of other things really well (I was personally considering either dog training or going to law school), means you are making a choice to stay in academe, and you can set limits. (If succeeding in academe meant having no life outside academe, I didn't want it.)

But, even if that's the choice a person makes, I think it's better if it's done in terms of, "This is what it would take for me to succeed, and I'm not willing to do that" rather than "I suck too much to succeed." If you got a Ph.D., you are smart enough and competent enough to get tenure; you may not want to pay the price necessary, but you *could.*

What I wish I'd gotten to faster was the ability to look at my situation and understand why things happened the way they did, and how they could have happened differently, and what a different outcome would require on my part. Then I could reflect on how to do the things required. And it wasn't as though I hadn't had years of people telling me to do things differently, but, as much as I loved (and still love) my colleagues in my first job, what they were telling me wasn't really very helpful.

That's something else I've realized. A lot of the advice that is given to assistant professors (and graduate students) is useless. It's well-intentioned, but it's just panic-inducing (and I think it's often given by people who use panic to motivate themselves, and so they sincerely believe they are helping). They say, "You need to publish more!" Or, "You need to finish your book now!" That's like telling an anxious person they need to calm down, or a depressed person they need to cheer up.


People who offer such advice mean well -- and they tell me, when I try to persuade them not to work students or junior faculty into panics, that the person who isn't publishing enough must not be worried enough about the situation. The assumption is that panic = motivation.

But, really, most people need strategic advice. I knew I wasn't publishing enough, but I was also constantly being told that I needed to spend more time on service, so I wasn't sure how to find the time to write more. And I wasn't being given good strategic advice about publishing (how to frame a scholarly argument, what I should be reading, what secondary materials I should be adding, what journals were likely venues for what I was writing, what books and articles might be good models). So people may as well have been telling me to fly. This wasn't their fault; it was unreasonable of me to think that they -- people not really in my field, people not publishing the kind of thing I wanted to publish -- could give me specific strategic advice.

When I reflected on my situation, I realized that I had managed my time badly, I had been encouraged to manage it badly, I hadn't been clear enough on boundaries, and I had no clue what I was doing when it came to publishing. Thus, I knew that I needed to be in a situation in which people would give me the time to do what they were requiring me to do, I needed to spend less time on teaching (at least for a while), I needed to improve my time management, I needed to find some mentors who could give me really specific strategic advice.

And so, I decided, I could stay in academe if I could get myself into that kind of situation. And I did. And there was a happy ending. I know that not everyone can get a happy ending (I was very, very, very lucky in all sorts of ways), but I think a happier ending is at least more likely if people can get out of the blame question, and into reflecting on causes.


After the tenure rejection described here, Trish Roberts-Miller went on to earn tenure first at the University of Missouri at Columbia and then at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is a professor of rhetoric and writing. She has published three books, Voices in the Wilderness, Deliberate Conflict and Fanatical Schemes.



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