Stepping Onto the Tenure Track

Alex Golub reflects on his shift from adjunct to a permanent position.

September 19, 2006

The letter said: "The College of Social Sciences has embarked upon a mission to foster a vibrant academic climate for our faculty and provide an excellent education for our students. The coming years should be stimulating and creative ones as we continue to translate the mission into academic plans and programs. The Department of Anthropology wishes to invite you to join us in our quest for excellence in the college."

It was an offer letter.

An offer letter. For a tenure-track position. At a large state research university with an international reputation for research in my area of expertise. Where my wife also has a tenure-track job. I have been unbelievably lucky this month to have made the transition from adjuncthood to a tenure-track position just four months after earning my Ph.D.

Of course, it wasn't only luck. I did manage to marry a brilliant scholar whom my university wants to keep around, and I spent the last two years feverishly writing articles and presenting papers at conferences. My wife and I were lucky to have good personal "fit" with our two departments' interests and personalities, and both of our chairs were supportive and encouraging and had clout. And so on and so forth.... There's no doubt that any hire relies on the good will of many people and a concatenation of fortuitous events. But these days in the academy it seems conditions both necessary and sufficient must be accompanied by the correct alignment of stars and a bit of pixie dust if things are ever going to come to fruition.

Taking one's first steps on the tenure track can be a little strange. The result for me has been a strange sense of dislocation and culture shock. It is not that I am unfamiliar with universities, of course. On the contrary, my choice of profession seems far more preordained than my actually being hired. My father is a professor, my mother is a professor, my wife is a professor -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where I was headed. But it is in fact exactly the fact that I've spent my whole life at universities that makes coming to work for one seem so strange.

My appointment at a large state university is, if anything, a strange sort of recapitulation. After going to a picturesque liberal arts college and a graduate school complete with Gothic quads, I find myself being confronted with a campus redolent with the smells and textures of my childhood. I have no idea how much time I actually spent on my father's campus when I was a child, but memories of it still loom large in my mind, however fragmentary they may be. Now, surrounded by the realia of my job, I keep on finding them wafting slowly up into my consciousness. The unimaginative concrete modernism of the buildings, cool tiles floors, the industrial heaviness of the doors, the brute utilitarianism of the massive metal filing cabinets and cinder block walls -- all of these things remind me of the dark, silent halls I would explore when my father went into his own department during the weekend and bought me along.

There are other, less nostalgic dislocations as well. For instance, the other day a student worker moved some bookshelves around in my new office. The strange thing about the experience, of course, was that I wasn't the student worker.

Oh yes the office -- did I mention that when you become a professor they actually give you an office? This is the first time in my entire life I have actually had an office. The experience is, frankly, breathtaking -- and not just because I finally have a place to hang up all the videogame posters my wife has vetoed off the walls of our apartment. An office means you actually have a door, and have to make the critical choice that you spend hours pondering while waiting outside your advisor's office for office hours -- am I going to be one of those people who tapes up New Yorker cartoons outside their office and prominently displays postcards from remote locations sent by colleagues and students? Such are the things that a career in academia is made out of.

Actually to be honest I did not like my office at first. Being a grad student sucks in an extremely large number of ways, and about the only solace you can take in the experience is the assurance that you are living in some sort of incredible authentic hard-core life of the mind that few others have the integrity to endure. As a result my initial reaction to having an office was a Holden Caulfiedesque sense that I was somehow turning into a phony because my living space and working space were now separate -- as if not having to search amongst the waffle iron and muffin tins for my copy of The Nuer somehow meant that I had sold out. This sense pretty quickly evaporated, however, when I realized the incredible convenience of having an office where your library at your fingertips instead of in your bedroom.

The flip side of this is something that I never anticipated about professordom -- your inability to nap. As a graduate student I understood that once I became a professor I would no longer be able to do my job unshaved and in my bathrobe the way I could when "my job" was rolling out of bed and working on my dissertation. But last week when I was totally exhausted from teaching, I experienced the rude shock of realizing that I could not just get up, leave my office, walk into the next room, lay down in my bed and take a nap. Partially this was because the next room is no longer my bedroom, but a colleague's office. But mostly this is because I can't just get up in the middle of the afternoon and go home whenever I feel like it. I am expected to be in my office during working hours, desire to nap or no. Perhaps this changes after one gets tenure? It certainly explains the high cost of coffee on campus.

But overall this month has been an incredible one for me -- an opportunity for which I'll forever be grateful to my university and my department. Even the vertigo of being hired cannot replace the incredible sense of opportunity that comes from becoming, at last, a professor.


Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds. His last column was about how students and professors have different experiences of summer.


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