Dear Kerry Ann,
I feel like this is a weird question, but I don't know who else to ask. I am in my first year of a tenure-track job (at a research-intensive university) and a textbook company I’ve never heard of has asked to meet with me in person about turning my intro class (that I have been teaching for eight years) into a textbook. My first response is to think it is a scam -- because why would they ask me about doing a textbook? But even if it is serious, I do not have any sense of what writing a textbook means for a junior faculty member -- whether it is a legitimate opportunity or a time suck that could potentially derail my larger research agenda.
Do you have any advice for junior faculty who are approached with such projects?
This isn’t a weird question at all! It’s actually a common one. Figuring out how to respond to an invitation to write a textbook is important, but learning how to strategically evaluate the flood of opportunities that will come to you as a tenure-track professor is even more important. As always, there’s no one-size-fits-all advice, but you can ask yourself these three questions to help you gain clarity on how to respond to this (and other opportunities).
What Is Your Filter?
What you need while you’re on the tenure track is a clear filter for decision making. A filter is just a question (or set of questions) to ask yourself whenever you are approached with an opportunity, which will enable you to make quick and clear decisions. In this case, the filtering question is not, Why would they ask me? Instead, the filtering question for everyone on the tenure track is, Will this help me to win tenure?
If you are at a research-intensive university and your goal is to win tenure, then the answer to a request to write a textbook is pretty clear: no. Textbooks are not generally highly regarded in the publication hierarchy relative to peer-reviewed journal articles, and they pale in comparison to securing external funding for your research. I recommend that you focus your writing time on publishing your research in venues that give you the biggest bang for your buck.
What Does No Mean to You?
Saying no to opportunities doesn’t preclude you from ever engaging in those activities during your career. In this case, your no simply means “not now.” You’re not saying, “No, not ever!” If writing a textbook feels like an exciting project, that’s important to notice. Put it on your list of potential projects for the posttenure chapter of your career. Then you’ll be in a position to better understand the process, select a publisher that best fits your needs and negotiate a contract that works in your favor. In short, you’ll be able to proactively pursue the project from an informed position as opposed to reacting to an opportunity that’s been put in front of you that may (or may not) be in your best interest.
Have You Asked Mentors for Advice?
Now that you are a faculty member, you will receive far more opportunities than at earlier stages of your career and far more than you can realistically pursue. As such, how you respond to requests needs to be appropriate to your new status. In other words, it may have made perfect sense when you were a graduate student to jump on every opportunity that came your way because those experiences enabled you to learn new skills, expand your network and spread your wings.
However, the tenure track is a structurally unique chapter in your career that is unlike any other stage. You are working against a ticking tenure clock, your performance will be critically evaluated against externally imposed standards and you will be subject to a high-stakes but anonymous vote where you’ll either win tenure or lose your job. Because of this, you must be far more strategic, proactive and clear in your decision making than at any other stage of your career.
I encourage you to talk with your mentors. They can help you make important decisions while you are in the transition from graduate student to new professor in ways that aligned with the expectations and culture of your department. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy conversation, but you do need to ask specific questions to help you assess your opportunities. For example, you could ask the following questions about your textbook invitation:
- I’ve been presented with an opportunity to publish a textbook, and I’m wondering, have you ever heard of X Press?
- How would publishing a textbook be perceived relative to a peer-reviewed journal article or book with a university press in my evaluation?
- What do you think I should consider in evaluating opportunities like this?
Learning how to evaluate new opportunities is a critically important skill for pretenure faculty. The fact that you’re asking the questions is a great start, and I’m sure that readers of this column will offer their own thoughts on both textbook publishing and strategic decision making early in your career!
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
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