Alice's Adventures in Tenureland

January 28, 2008

Poor Alice. She's pulled in different directions and doesn't know what will get her to Tenureland.

As described by Cathy Trower, director and research associate at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, fictional Alice's predicament mirrors that of many professors who embrace interdisciplinary research but find trouble parlaying that into career advancement.

Speaking at the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting on Friday, Trower shared concerns about aspects of the faculty reward structure in higher education and explained what academics can learn from Lewis Carroll's classic tale.

"Alice (the Carroll character) is a bit like a tenure-track faculty member who holds a joint appointment in two departments and is doing interdisciplinary scholarship at a research university," Trower explained.

Alice (the Trower character) is questing after "The Garden of Tenure" and searching for the advice of characters on how to get there. But times have changed in the academic world in which Alice lives. The path to tenure is a bit murkier, particularly for characters like her who decide to play different roles.

In Alice's adventure, two academic departments vie for her research and teaching time, with each giving her different instructions about how to reach the promised land. One department asks her to be tall, the other asks her to be small. She can't be both.

"I'm trying to be whatever size will get me tenure," Alice says. "I'm not particular to one size, but I don't like changing sizes all that much."

Alice follows one route that leads her down the road of Department No. 1, but then questions whether tenure is attainable there. Is it too late?

Alice begins to question her identity. She writes grant proposals but doesn't know where to turn for money. She writes journal articles but doesn't know where to send them. Her teaching is strong in one department but is lacking in another. Mentors say don't worry, go deeper into your subject matter.

So Alice, with her joint appointments, visits Interdisciplinary Land to do research. But there, the confusion only continues. "Whose names should appear on the research paper? In what order?" her peers ask. "How will departments judge the work? Will a review committee understand?"

Alice has trouble getting funding and has few peers who truly understand her work. No one quite understands why she's involving so many graduate students and why she doesn't have one main mentor.

A wise voice from Tenureland tells her: “Don’t you know we value theory over practice; solo articles over joint ones; competition over collaboration. Apparently you don't understand how the game is played."

The worry, Trower said, is that many pre-tenure faculty share Alice's experiences. While reports like the AAC&U-sponsored College Learning for the Global Century call on colleges to encourage interdisciplinary research, "there's a disconnect between what we tell faculty we value and what is rewarded. We say we want service learning and faculty engaged with graduates across campus, but how are we supporting that?"

Added Linda Cabe Halpern, dean of university studies at James Madison University and board vice chairwoman of the American Conference of Academic Deans, which sponsored the event featuring Trower: "I think this is one of the most pressing concerns facing higher education today."

Trower said early-career faculty have often been trained in interdisciplinary ways but find that their colleges haven't caught up. Groups like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are pouring money into research topics that call for interdisciplinary work, she added, but faculty are missing out on some opportunities because their departments are "still locked into policy, practice and cultures that don't support the work."

If institutions don't respond to the changing workforce they will continue to lose younger faculty to other sectors, she worries.

Trower called upon the deans and department chairs and professors in the room to consider, "If we could recreate this thing and start over, and not be tied to promotion and tenure policies from the 1940s, what might things look like?"

In her ideal institution, more interdisciplinary positions would be created, and the junior faculty who fill them would have mentors in different departments. Professors would be encouraged to take on their desired research topics early in their careers, instead of waiting until after they receive tenure. Trower said groups like the Campus Compact, a coalition of college presidents asked to think about service learning issues, could prove influential in setting the agenda about how to reward interdisciplinary work.

And while Trower's presentation was met with nodding heads and smiles, some in the audience wondered aloud how to affect change on their campuses. "What's a dean to do?" one person asked. There's an organizational hierarchy, and you are seen as a "meddler in the middle" if you try to mess with it. How do you foster connections with other deans and faculty without stepping on toes? And even if you recreate tenure and promotion policies, is it possible to reprogram external reviewers?

Fletcher Linder, director the new Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program at James Madison University, said if you're a dean the pressure often comes from above (administrators) and below (professors) to maintain the status quo as far as the faculty reward structure, and tenure and promotion policies. "It's about habit," he said.

Added Trower: "It might be a little painful to throw out some of the stuff that has built us up."

Halpern added that a department's goal of keeping the status quo is often a laudable effort to maintain the quality of research and teaching. She said sometimes it takes one department to act first. At James Madison, the justice studies department is that case study. It brings professors in from various places on campus but manages promotion and tenure internally -- thus, Halpern hopes, opening the door to interdisciplinary work.

Trower said much of the experimentation is coming from smaller colleges. Sarah Worley, an instructor of communication at Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, said her campus requires students to choose two advisers -- one in their home department and one outside. They are also required to take a team-taught, interdisciplinary colloquium.

Worley said her faculty chair has an appointment in two departments and encourages work across disciplines. "We're a place that wouldn't function without the support of faculty and deans to do interdisciplinary work."

It's also true, Worley said, that she and many of her colleagues are without much hope of receiving tenure there because of the few number of new positions that open up at the small college and the low rate of professors leaving their tenured positions.

And in case you're wondering, Trower's Alice was denied tenure.

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