The Myth of Quicksand (or How I Escaped Some of the Anxiety of Tenure Track)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines quicksand as “sand readily yielding to pressure; especially : a deep mass of loose sand mixed with water into which heavy objects readily sink.” In the movies, some horrid interloper or intrepid explorer ends up in quicksand and starts to sink fast in the murky mess. Panic sets in. Arms flail! Curses are said! Death is imminent. A welcome savior comes to rescue you. Or you die in the muck. The end.

March 17, 2013

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines quicksand as “sand readily yielding to pressure; especially : a deep mass of loose sand mixed with water into which heavy objects readily sink.” In the movies, some horrid interloper or intrepid explorer ends up in quicksand and starts to sink fast in the murky mess. Panic sets in. Arms flail! Curses are said! Death is imminent. A welcome savior comes to rescue you. Or you die in the muck. The end.

In real life, no one comes to save you from the quicksand. It’s a cliched Hollywood gimmick of the 1960s, when 3% of U.S.-made films had someone performing the sisyphean task of getting out of the mud, sand, or clay quicksand bog. The author of a long-read Slate article on quicksand theorizes about why quicksand is so prevalent in the American literary and dramatic imagination:  

quicksand had a way of showing up when we pushed our borders into the unknown. The more conspicuous the entanglement, the more likely we were to visualize it as a real-world danger: In the 19th century, sinkholes dotted the literature of manifest destiny and the untamed West; in the 20th century, quicksand took over at the movies while the nation fought a colonial war in a vine-filled jungle overseas.

I find it quite  fitting to use quicksand as a metaphor for the tenure process.

Tenure is the great unknown. For most of us who struggled with the expectations and hopes of the tenure-track life, we were entrapped and frustrated at the low moments. Even at the high points--the revise-and-resubmit decision on the journal article, the book publication, getting named to a high-profile service appointment with your professional organization, we still are dealing with the mental entanglements of worth, time, and effort.

I have tenure. Or, I should have it by the time you read this. A minor hiccup in the well-oiled machinery of my university administration pushed back the announcement date. However, I have sailed through the tenure process easily thus far. My chair tells me, “no news is good news,” and I cling to that statement the way a superstitious person clutches a rabbit’s foot, or a four-leaf clover.

During the process, I felt like I was overwhelmed by the quicksand of the perceptions of the tenure labyrinth. Tenure track can be full of anxieties and contradictions. Sometimes people are trying to help when they pour out the tales of woe about the last unfortunate candidate (who is always an anonymous soul in another department, never ours) who failed, or tales of supreme mastery of the page numbering process required by the college. Rather than helping with their words of encouragement and stories about their experiences, this advice can wrap around your chest and throat like a vice, sucking the air out of you. The desperation and flailing of colleagues who are grasping at tenure can serve to make you panic, and rush back to your desk to count your citations or running to the nearest bar/creperie/treadmill for relief.

An aphorism popped up as I started writing this article:  "never struggle if you're caught in quicksand." Struggle on the tenure track is what most people expect and want from those on it. Some people want you to believe that the quicksand is deadly, mercenary, and cannot be avoided. The bog can overtake you, but you can also escape the bog.

Escaping the Bog

If you happen to encounter quicksand as you walk across campus, cheer up. You will actually float in it. Getting out of quicksand is easy, says one researcher:

The way to do it is to wriggle your legs around. This creates a space between the legs and the quicksand through which water can flow down to dilate [loosen] the sand," he explained. "You can get out using this technique, if you do it slowly and progressively."

Getting out of the quicksand bog requires the same effort of getting out of the tenure-track mental bog. To keep myself from being fully immersed in the quicksand of it all, I decided to follow a few steps. Note: I am not ignoring the latent -isms that surround the tenure process or life in the academy (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexims, abilism). These are just micro-tips and tools that I used and that others have used to get through the macro-hoops of tenure. Use and apply at your own benefit.

a. Develop mentors. As I mentioned in a blog post for the Public Relations Society of America,

Mentoring is a tricky and fuzzy concept that gets thrown around a lot. Mentoring has a lot of connotation. Talking to people about mentoring provides you with an assortment of definitions and descriptions. What we do know is that mentoring is a relationship between two people that will change over time. Sometimes it is formalized by organizations or associations. Sometimes it is an organic relationship that emerges out of a talk over coffee or bonding at a retreat.

With this in mind, find people who are in the same area as you, and ask them for help and guidance. Ask your mentors to review your research agenda and dossier. Tap your mentors for insight that you can not readily obtain from colleagues. If you don’t know where to find a mentor, look at the professors who have careers you admire and ask them. Many people are flattered when they are asked to serve as a mentor.

Rely on your selected academic and personal community. Community can be found online or in person. Have a support network of helpful colleagues, friends, family, and acquaintances that will allow you to air grievances as well as celebrate when the dossier is submitted. Vent to your colleagues, and use them as a sounding board and mastermind group. Use your community to get out of the house, your office and your thoughts. Join friends for dinner, go camping, try a new dance class, or develop a new knitting pattern.

c. At the same time as you develop mentors and find a community,
avoid anxious people. You can’t become a hermit, but refrain from engaging in conversations about tenure with certain people. If you have to entertain them, keep the conversations to a minimum. You cannot afford to let the doubts, frustrations, and maladies of others take up space in your head as you confront this process. Ask questions to those with wise counsel and few tenure horror stories.

Read your promotion and tenure manual early and often. There is the temptation to avoid looking at the manual until the point when you must. Wrong move. To know your department, college and university’s expectations, read all the manuals early in your career and prepare accordingly. Don’t analyze to the point of paralysis. Ask your dean, director, and/or chair for clarity. Do not rely upon your own understanding.

Develop a clear plan for your career. Always have a plan. My parents taught me that early, and I had never applied this to my career until I started my first tenure-track job. At the start of your career, create a three-year plan with the goal being tenure. Take a sheet of paper and have three columns, one for service, teaching, and research. For each year, think about the big bricks of your career path:

What goals do you want to achieve?
What outcomes do you desire to have?
What are the things you need to do per your research, your P&T manual, your department’s expectations?
What research do you need to finish? what is in your research pipeline? what projects do you want to start?
What teaching innovations do you want to integrate into your classroom?
What are the things you want to do for your own career development, personal development, and teaching development?

This is your chance to shape your research agenda (which we talk about a lot in many graduate programs), but also gives you a method to shape your teaching and service goals. Reflect on this before and after you complete it. As you get things done on your lists, mark them off. As you change and grow in your career, some items may not be needed any more so delete or change. But at least create a plan (on your terms) for your own trajectory.

Write. As academics, we write syllabi, proposals, papers, book chapters, and textbooks. Even with all that writing, we forget or don’t consider that we are professional writers. This means we have to work continually to improve our craft. Improvement comes with practice so start writing. Do what you need and want to do when it comes to your writing. Read writers you admire. Read about the craft of writing. Write for fun. Join a writers group. Start a writers group with colleagues and use the agraphia group concept from Silvia’s How to Write A Lot.  Write for work and the places you frequent out of work (your friend’s business, your house of worship, your community group, your neighborhood association). But you need to write and practice often.

Protect your time. If you don’t protect your time, no one else will. Be honest and use the word “no” often.

These are the things that helped me stay out of the quicksand. Readers, what are the tips and strategies that you used to avoid major pitfalls of the tenure track?

Natalie T. J. Tindall is an assistant professor at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses in strategic communication and public relations. She is a fiction writer, knitter, community volunteer, and occasional half-marathoner between her academic writing, teaching, and service. She can be contacted via Twitter (@dr_tindall) and e-mail (drnatalietjtindall@gmail.com).




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