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Over the past four weeks, I’ve argued that you are most likely to make a positive transition from tenure-track to tenured faculty member by going back to basics. Remembering who you are and what you love must be the foundation for choosing your posttenure pathway, because you will have the greatest impact, influence and joy if your path emerges from deep self-understanding. While I designed this series for newly tenured faculty, I’m delighted to hear that readers who are long past promotion to associate professor are finding the process helpful in planning their next chapter.

Now that you have done the work to clarify who you are and what you love, it’s time to envision what possibilities exist for your posttenure future. It’s important to do this work with an open mind, a radical imagination and a spirit of creativity, because the energy you bring to this exercise will significantly impact the volume and range of possibilities you generate. This week, I want you to brainstorm all the different ways that you (knowing who you are) can imagine actualizing what you love in the world.

Please notice that I did not say, “Brainstorm what’s possible given a variety of constraints,” “Consider how you can meet everyone else’s needs before your own” or “Generate a list of what’s expected of you by others right now.” That means you’ll need to locate the off switch for your typical academic approach, because overanalysis, judgment and sarcasm have a way of castrating dreams. Instead, let’s play with unfettered brainstorming by letting loose and generating a wild range of possibilities -- without judging or evaluating them.

Map the Possibilities

The question for this week is, “What does it look like to use your gifts and talents pointed in the direction of what you love?” In our Posttenure Pathfinders program, we approach mapping those possibilities as a brainstorming exercise. All you need to do is grab a piece of paper and write down in the center your answer to “Who am I?” Then draw at least 10 outward-facing arrows (those represent what you love). Then set a timer for 15 minutes and start imagining what it looks like to actualize who you are and what you love at multiple levels: 1) the micro level (direct service), 2) the organizational level (campuswide, community based and so on), and 3) the macro level (national and international).

Let me share an example to make possibility mapping concrete. Last week I wrote about Jane, a newly tenured faculty member at a research-intensive university who was surprised to discover that she experienced her greatest joy, highest energy and deepest sense of meaning in teaching-related activities. Her answer to “Who am I?” was “super teacher”! And what she loved was “transforming student’s lives.” But she felt conflicted about this discovery because her university doesn’t reward or value teaching, and she couldn’t imagine what possibilities existed for her posttenure pathway based on her new self-understanding.

Jane was willing to brainstorm the possibilities about what the future could look like for a super teacher who loves transforming students’ lives. When she did, she came up with the following list of what she could become in the next chapter of her career:

  • A master teacher on her current campus
  • A professor at a college where teaching is highly valued and rewarded
  • Director of a campus-based Center for Teaching Excellence
  • A workshop facilitator who travels to various campuses to train faculty members in extraordinary classroom teaching
  • A researcher in the scholarship of teaching and learning
  • An entrepreneur who offers individual coaching for faculty members struggling with teaching
  • A leader in a national organization dedicated to teaching excellence
  • A founder of a nonprofit (e.g., National Center for Excellence in College Teaching)
  • An author of a trade book on how to be an awesome college teacher
  • An organizer of a program for graduate students on her campus on how to become excellent teachers
  • A blogger or online community organizer for faculty who love teaching and want to share innovative ideas

In generating this list, Jane’s energy started to change from feeling disempowered (“what I love isn’t valued or rewarded on my campus, my university doesn’t value teaching, woe is me”) to excitement about the possible ways she could be her full self, do what she loves, make significant contributions and become a leader on (or beyond) her campus.

The possibilities you generate are likely to be different than Jane’s, because your baseline questions are distinct to you. What’s important is to start with who you are and what you love, and then imagine the various ways that can manifest on your campus, in your community and in the world. And if you get stuck -- or want to maximize the fun -- try this brainstorming exercise with a partner or in a group of supportive friends or colleagues.

Identify Role Models

While mapping possibilities can provide an energetic shift, I don’t want you to stop there. The next step is to identify at least three people who are currently doing each of the things you’ve imagined. These people are role models and, by definition, they must be alive (not historical figures), actively engaged in the activity you’ve described and capable of being contacted by phone in the next few weeks. (Sneak preview: we will be contacting them for a conversation, but more on that next week.)

You may notice that some resistance flares up when you start to identify role models. That’s OK. It’s perfectly normal to experience a bit of resistance within yourself during this activity. You’re already thinking outside your comfort zone by actively mapping potential pathways. Then when you start to identify people doing things that are exciting possibilities for your future, it may start to get real. Having done this exercise with many newly tenured faculty members, I’ve observed that resistance most commonly shows up as avoidance, procrastination, anger, fear and denial.

  • “I’m too busy to think about the future.” (Avoidance)
  • “People like me don’t (whatever possibility is most exciting).” (Self-sabotage)
  • “(Whatever is the greatest challenge to you getting what you want) pisses me off, so I’m going to go complain about it on social media.” (Anger and avoidance)
  • “This feels too big; I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.” (Staying small)
  • “I’ll start working on (an exciting possibility) when I’m (full professor, more experienced, financially independent, an empty nester and/or perfect in every way).” (Procrastination)
  • “I don’t know how to (get from where I am to an exciting possibility) so I couldn’t possibly (do the most exciting thing).” (Denial)

All I ask you to do is notice when your limiting beliefs emerge and welcome them with open arms. It’s so much better to see these disempowering mind-sets for what they are: stories that we tell ourselves that limit us from even considering playing a bigger game. When I can see the ways that my own stories are controlling my behavior and keeping me small, I can choose to develop new stories that support exploration, experimentation, growth and change.

The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

  • Spend 15 minutes wildly brainstorming possibilities about what you could become based on who you are and what you love.
  • If you struggle with brainstorming or imagining your future, gently ask yourself: Why?
  • Let it breathe for a few days and walk around in the knowledge that you have a bright future that is full of exciting possibilities and you get to choose which ones to pursue; and
  • Spend 30 minutes identifying accessible people who are doing the things you are considering as possible posttenure pathways and make sure you record their contact information.

I hope it’s clear by now that we’re working toward reversing the pattern that leads so many newly tenured faculty to flounder at midcareer: reactively responding to opportunities that are presented to them, overcommitting to things that are not aligned with who they are and what they love, and becoming part of other people’s agenda instead of choosing their own. I’m walking you through these steps so that you can consciously and intentionally chart your own posttenure path in a way that will best serve you and your campus.

Peace and possibilities,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

Founder, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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