The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-- William Butler Yeats
The final line in the second stanza of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” brings to mind that ever-present concern that hovers over the junior faculty member’s head: tenure. Tenure -- the rebirth! The movement “towards Bethlehem to be born” is still, in the 21st century, an academic immediacy at most American colleges and universities.
In effect, the academic time clock set for tenure review at most higher education institutions dictates when “its (junior faculty) hour [has] come round at last” and they must act or move on to the next opportunity if professorship remains their goal. Quite a bit of literature and information is available that provides formal guidelines as well as informal advice on what must be done to be “born” -- a.k.a., achieve tenure. What is not lifted up as clearly are those guidelines on what must not be done nor done to excess.
What follows are a few things that I wish someone -- senior faculty members, senior administrators or newly minted tenured faculty members -- would have whispered in my ears as I prepared for tenure. They are just a few indicators on how to avoid self-sabotage -- or as Yeats would say, a “vexed to nightmare” movement on the way toward tenure.
Committee work. You cannot serve on every committee that you are offered to serve on or that is open for service. Otherwise, a couple of not-so-positive things can occur. You may gain a reputation of sitting on committees just for name recognition without providing any real service and/or, as a junior faculty member, you can become the “rough beast” of burden for committee tasks that senior faculty members and more seasoned junior ones do not wish to shoulder. Choose wisely. Engage with committees in which you have a genuine interest and on which you feel you can make a significant contribution, particularly in the years leading to your tenure review. In short, less is academically more when it comes to committee work. Let quality versus quantity determine your engagement.
Academic focus. Become the go-to person in one or at most two areas of academic endeavor. Spreading yourself thin will find you in a nondescript space. You will evolve strangely, sandwiched into several small areas, and will seldom emerge as an expert in the field. What should you do? Hone in on the existent scholarship in your area of expertise; read both older and newer works carefully. What exists? What are the scholarly voids? Possible new pockets of inquiry? Home in carefully and avoid repetitious scholarship by knowing the discipline and emerging from the crowd as an innovative scholar with evolving perspectives on traditional views or a pioneer of fresh, foundational, creative and critical work.
Publication opportunities. Be discerning and avoid agreeing to write encyclopedia entries and book chapters in areas where you have limited expertise. This is, of course, one of the ways in which more seasoned scholars gather contributors for their larger works, and while it may benefit them, it does little for you to place on your CV a contribution to a medieval literary theory casebook, an African-American cultural studies casebook, a postmodernist theory casebook and so on when your expertise lies in social work. Any thoughtful tenure committee will see this as “publication padding,” which at best is a demonstration of unfocused and uneven scholarship. Instead, carefully cultivate the publication venues for your articles, essays and full-length manuscripts. Talk with editors and academics who have previously published with the entity. Avoid aimlessly submitting work with the hope that some editor or publishing company will be fishing and hook you into their next publishing round. Planning is the key to being purposefully and successfully published.
Teaching overloads. Just say no. It may first appear that the extra dollars accrued from so much extra work -- additional hours of preparation, burgeoning office hours and mountainous paper grading -- will be worth the extra class or two. And it may seem as if you are being uncooperative if you refuse when the department chair asks for your extended teaching support. But please decline politely. Slow down and assess. Is it worth it? Now or even later? If, indeed, tenure is a long-term goal in your academic life, invest purposefully in pursuing it -- not short-term goals. You will have plenty of time in the future (after tenure) should you wish to teach overloads.
Conference attendance. Just because your institution provides funding for conference attendance does not mean you should carelessly cherry-pick the conferences you will attend each academic year. Avoid the lure of attending one because it is in a lovely clime or because all your best friends will attend. While it is essential to attend select conferences in your discipline to maintain and establish professional relationships, it is also important to attend these select conferences to participate in the academic discourse as an astute presenter or audience member. Emphasis here is on “astute” behavior, as you should exercise what I will label conference protocol when engaging with colleagues in discussion forums. Understand clearly your goal for conference attendance and avoid commenting haphazardly on presentations and engaging in fruitless and ungrounded public academic battles. Sure, conference attendees will remember you, but primarily as the person to flee from at the next conference.
If you are presenting a paper, make sure that you adhere to the rules for presentation in terms of the 15- or 20-minute presentation window; to do more is to not only disrespect fellow presenters but also to create ire for the audience. People interested in hearing more about your research will seek you out after the presentation. And, finally, remove yourself from your academic safety bubble at conferences where you spend 95 percent of your time hobnobbing with friends and colleagues that you know. Meet new people and create linkages for the next time around.
Tenure is attainable. But you can and should avoid certain areas of potential complication if you want to be successful when as Yeats contends, your “hour [has] come round at last.”