Do the Job You Were Hired to Do

August 6, 2014

When I started on the tenure track, I was highly susceptible to bad advice because I simply didn't have enough knowledge and understanding of the complicated structures I was working in. There is a lot of bad advice out there for tenure-track faculty, much of it coming from people who think they understand a person's assigned professional duties better than the job-holders themselves. Sure, there are times when this may be true, but these instances are few. More importantly, bad advice can get people fired or denied tenure.

So, in the spirit of omnipresent list narratives... Here is the one thing that all tenure-track faculty should be doing right now! (Drum roll.)

Do the job you were hired to do.

If you are a tenure-track faculty member and this piece of advice sounds good to you, feel free to stop reading here. If you are interested in a few qualifications, explanations, and splitting of hairs, there's more.

First, I am an advocate for all higher ed employees: adjunct, tenure-track, tenured, full professors, staff, groundskeepers, etc. I have spent the last couple of years serving on my faculty senate, and a few other important committees, advocating for adjunct employees and paying close attention to prevent where they might be taken advantage of. I won't list the important successes here (and there were some), simply because I prefer the actions over the words in those instances and I will continue to advocate for fair labor practices on my campus and in my system.

Furthermore, I am also an advocate for tenure-track faculty. Though people are loath to admit it, the tenure-track position is the most scrutinized and pressure-packed of faculty positions when talking strictly about professional expectations (I repeat: professional expectations, not life expectations). This, of course, is because existing department and institutional bylaws require more reviews, paperwork, hoop navigation, and file production from this employee class than any other. Having successfully navigated the tenure process twice now in two different institutions, I could go on for months here. As a matter of fact, one of the things I did before leaving my previous institution was to help change our department bylaws in order to make life less ridiculous, burdensome, and punitive for those on the tenure track. (For example, there is no need for your second-year retention file to be 300 pages long, is there?)

But enough about me, right? Why should a person on the tenure track heed the advice above?

There is no such thing as "higher ed" that can be discussed in any uniform fashion. Being tenure-track in a public institution is not the same as being tenure-track in a private institution. Being tenure-track in Wisconsin is not the same as being tenure-track in Louisiana (different state legislatures demand different things of their public universities). Being tenure-track at an R1 is different than being tenure track at a four-year undergraduate institution, which is different from being tenure-track in a two-year system, which is different from being tenure-track in another country, etc. In many cases the jobs and labor structures are entirely different. Then there is your campus, and your department, and your local governance, which differs from the campus a mere 30 minutes away from you in significant ways. So, what should you do?

Do the job you were hired to do.

Looking back to when I was first hired on the tenure track, I really didn't know anything about how the systems I was working in were structured. Literally, it has taken me 10 years to even achieve a competent grasp. Why? If a maze built by Daedalus is complicated, imagine a maze built by an army of Daedaluses. Campus and system governance in public universities is deeply complicated and entangled, and this is largely because it's supposed to be difficult to understand (but that's a whole different post). The codes your campus and system operate under aren't so much a cohesive system as they are a historical record of previous ideas, arguments, and ass-covering maneuvers. Even understanding something as basic as funding is incredibly difficult. For example, many people don't realize that public universities largely fund adjunct positions from a funding pool that is entirely separate and unrelated to the pool that pays for tenure-track/tenured faculty and staff salaries and benefits. The best advice I can give is to set about learning the system before making assumptions about its operation (that's what you might use your service opportunities for -- use them to gain knowledge, not lines for a vitae). In other words...

Do the job you were hired to do.

Now, here's the difficult part for me to write, but I'll just say it. If you are a tenure-track faculty member, a lot of people think they know what you should be doing when you go to work. They don't. The people who know this are you, your employers, and your department. My first few years on the job were overwhelming, and some bad advice early on in my career truly required a lot of effort to overcome. I'll offer this: you can be compassionate and still do your job. You can care about labor conditions and still do your job. You can want better things for people and still feel comfortable with your position and the work you do. If you work in a state system, just know that, as a starting point, the major avenues and solutions to the problems facing higher education are legislative. You are not a legislator; you are a voter. You can responsibly focus on your professional life and still advocate and vote for the change you desire. If you are someone who wants to push for change in regard to labor conditions, it is even more imperative that you do your job (especially if it largely involves teaching), since that at least keeps you in a position to contribute to conversations, governance, and local/departmental policies. So what should you be doing again?

Do the job you were hired to do.

Finally, another difficult part for me to write, but I feel it needs to be said and maybe someone out there will be happy to hear it: as the number of tenure-track and tenure positions has rapidly decreased, animosity from those off the tenure track, and others, toward these positions and the people who inhabit them has significantly increased. This animosity has generated a lot of misinformation, specifically about the "power" that tenure-track faculty members actually have. I kid you not when I say that I have read pieces that indicated that tenure-track faculty members were the most powerful people on any campus, and the implication seemed to be that tenured faculty, full professors, and a semi-important class of people known as administrators didn't even exist.

If you need some clarity: as a tenure-track faculty member you are powerless in the area most vital for change: budgets. You cannot change your salary. You cannot assign yourself a raise. You do not set the salaries of other employees. You do not govern how money is distributed at an institutional level. If you do not believe me, try giving yourself or another employee a raise. Yes, yes, people will say: "But you hire people!" Anyone who confuses being assigned the work of hiring with the actual power to hire is a fool. You cannot, with a snap of the finger, undo the recent Supreme Court ruling on unions. In other words, the expectations of you far exceed your actual responsibilities; it is important to stay grounded in the reality of the job. In other words, refer to this one-item list.

Do the job you were hired to do.

Now, there may come a time when all of the above is rendered moot by the need for more drastic action, like striking, which may become a moral necessity because of the abominable treatment of a significant percentage of laborers on a scale that extends far beyond higher education. Then you're either all in for your demands or you're not.

In the meantime, if you are committed to helping make your college or university a better place for education, for labor, for sustainability, etc, and you believe in shared governance as a path to achieving these goals, then do the job you were hired to do and don't apologize for it. And if you find the tenure track stressful (I sure as hell did), you may want to tune out a large portion of social media (focus your Twitter feed on specific interests, unfollow/block people that make your head explode), as well as web publications that promote acrimony over accuracy, and the incessant offering of lists for how to conduct yourself (like this one, for instance). You can be a hard-working professional and still advocate for others whether or not people like you.

I have nothing at stake here beyond my desire to help people who might feel overwhelmed on the tenure track and the increasing volume of voices discussing that position. This is not meant as a comparison between different labor classes. I didn't get paid to write this (see the note indicating where I donated my pay). I don't have advertising on my blog. The number of clicks I get there (all 12 of them) does not result in any benefit for me. Whether I write or don't write this post has zero effect on my job security. What someone writes at Salon, The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed or Slate has zero impact on my employment status. None. If you disagree with every word I've written here, that's fine -- no one in power cares what I think about any about this.

Still, I care about education, this profession, and the people in it (at all levels). Bad advice is not helping anyone do their jobs better.


Chuck Rybak is associate professor of English and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. This essay is adapted from a post on his blog, Sad Iron. He is donating the honorarium for this piece to the New Faculty Majority.

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