Adventures in Ethics and Science

ScienceWoman has a great post on balancing responsibilities in a new tenure track job, with an eye to publishing papers and setting up a robust and productive research program. It’s a must-read, especially for those who are lucky enough to be starting tenure track gigs in the fall. Since I’m getting toward the end of my probationary period before the tenure decision (ask me on May 23, I’ll know by then), I thought I’d offer my words of advice for hitting the ground running in a tenure track job:

  1. Find out the basis on which your tenure case will be evaluated from the very beginning. Get the official policies in writing, and ask your department chair and your colleagues who have gone through the process recently (or are going through it) what’s involved. What kind of expectations are there for how many papers you need to publish between start and tenure (and for how “important” those papers need to be and who’s going to judge them)? To what extent is teaching excellence something you must demonstrate to make your case? (This is different from “bad teaching can sink your case regardless of how awesome your research”. Excellent teaching and bad teaching have quite a lot of terrain between them.) How much service will you need to log, and what kinds (department level, college level, university level, etc.)?

    No matter how much you know about the tenuring expectations — as officially articulated or as actually applied — at your graduate institution, take positive steps to find out what the expectations are where you want to get tenure. Different colleges and universities have different emphases and different cultures, and to the extent that these will influence how you’re judged for tenure, you want to get clear about them right away.

  2. When possible, avoid new preps. Even in the case that you’re at an institution where teaching is not especially important for tenure, chances are that you’ll still have to do it, and you may be the kind of person who wants to do it well if it has to be done. This is a good reason to try to teach multiple sections of a particular course, rather than to teach N distinct courses in a given term for which you have an N-course teaching load. Constructing a single syllabus, set of assignments and tests, and pedagogical strategy is plenty of work. Being able to test-drive it in the morning, tweak it in the afternoon, and deliver it fully polished in the evening gets you to the “well worked out course” stage more rapidly than teaching one section of the same course three terms in a row.

    But having polished up that course, make every effort to teach it again the next term rather than taking on a brand new prep.

    As it happens, I’m the kind of person who loves putting together new courses (or new takes on old courses), but I’m fully aware that doing too much of this is a tremendous time sink. Depending on how you count things, in six years here I’ve developed about seven courses. Two of these I’ve taught at least every year. Of course, I make adjustments each time I teach a course again (drawing on what worked and what didn’t the last time I taught the course), but these refinements take much less time and effort than the original development.

  3. If at all possible, angle for teaching assignments that overlap with your research interests. Not only is this more likely to land you a class that’s relatively easy to prepare (because you’re very familiar with the material), but it will also help you direct some of your energies from teaching toward the intellectual terrain of the research you’d like to accomplish when you’re not in the teaching trenches. I am extremely lucky to be in a department that offers multiple sections of “Philosophy of Science” (one of the foci of my research) every semester, and where we have built a regular audience for “Ethics in Science” (the other focus of my research). When I teach a graduate seminar, I try to choose topics and readings that correspond closely to some problem I’m trying to figure out and to a chunk of the literature I want to read closely.

    The easier you can make it to shift mental gears from teaching to research, the more likely the research won’t end up buried in student papers.

  4. Block out actual time for research, and honor that time as if it were a scheduled class meeting. Since teaching will expand to fill any available amount of time, you can’t leave the research and writing time to chance. I suspect this is harder for the humanities folks than for those who actually do research in a lab or in the field, but it must be done.
  5. Don’t wait for a mentor to find you. Cultivate the mentors you need. Figure out how to ask them for feedback and advice. Move out of your comfort zone, if need be, but make sure that you have colleagues who know that you’re serious about figuring out how to fit into your academic culture while at the same time accomplishing what you want to as a researcher and scholar in your academic field. (By the way, this means you should also be on the lookout for mentoring from people in your area of specialization who aren’t necessarily at your institution.)

    In a perfect world, mentors would present themselves upon your arrival. Given that it’s not a perfect world, you’ll probably need to put in a little work to find your mentors. However, it’s enormously helpful to have smart people who understand the system and who put themselves in your corner. Check in with them regularly.

  6. Try to find committee work that meshes with your interests, and don’t blow it off. All the cool kids complain about committee work, but it’s possible to get assigned to a committee that deals with matters you actually see as important, and where you can actually do some good. For the newbie professor, committees that deal with curricular issues are usually a good bet (since you’re probably teaching classes, and in any case you’ve taken classes). Placement committees are also good possibilities (since you probably know a little something about being on the job market).

    Committees can give you a better feel for the culture of your institution, and the different ways this culture manifests itself to faculty, staff, and students. Also, in many cases they give you an opportunity to work with faculty from other departments — people who can become potential collaborators on other projects, allies, and friends.

    Friends are good. They make your professional life better.

  7. Don’t wait for official feedback on your performance. Ask your mentors, your colleagues, your department chair, and your students how you’re doing early in the game. Learn how to accept feedback without feeling it as criticism. Figure out how to strategize things you could change — plausibly, not just hypothetically — in the case that something you’re doing just isn’t working.

That’s my advice. If others have useful tips they’d like to add, please do.

Comments

  1. #1 PhysioProf
    April 19, 2008

    Wonderfuk post!

    Being able to test-drive it in the morning, tweak it in the afternoon, and deliver it fully polished in the evening gets you to the “well worked out course” stage more rapidly than teaching one section of the same course three terms in a row.

    For those of us who don’t teach undergraduate courses, could you explain what you are talking about? I don’t undestand this morning, afternoon, evening metaphor.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 19, 2008

    That was no metaphor. It’s not unusual, if you’re teaching three sections of the same course, to have one meet at 10:30 Am, the next at 1:30 PM, and the third at 5:00 PM. Same material, three screenings.

  3. #3 Academic
    April 19, 2008

    This post is full of concrete suggestions. The advice on multiple sections of the same course is spot on. Thanks!

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    April 19, 2008

    ZOMFG! Something tells me it’s a good thing for everyone that I am in a medical school, and not in a faculty of arts and sciences. I think I would just end up a gibbering tucheslacker by the third screening.

  5. #5 Susan B.
    April 19, 2008

    This is definitely a post I’ll be saving for five years down the line when I start looking for positions. As much as I want to be a professor, it’s a little alarming how much of that job is NOT strictly teaching and research.

  6. #6 Propter Doc
    April 20, 2008

    Many of these points can be adapted to surviving in UK academia as well. We don’t have tenure as such but we do have contract renewals. Great post.

  7. #7 S Walker
    April 20, 2008

    I’d also add that when interviewing for positions you should want to have some idea about the tenure process and if at all possible hope that your department or university does have a written policy about what you need to do.

    As for too many preps, that’s great advice! During my first few years I taught, on average, one or two new courses per year. It was exhausting and rewarding to do lots of different things from non-majors to graduate course but, your scholarship definitely takes a hit just because of the time commitment.

    Best of luck on the tenure decision!

  8. #8 Heather
    April 20, 2008

    Thanks for the advice – I’m starting a tenure-track position in the fall so this is good information that I’m going to save and read over and over again! Teaching can certainly suck up all available time that you’re willing to give it, so actually scheduling research time sounds like a great idea.

  9. #9 juniorprof
    April 20, 2008

    This is really fantastic advice. Thanks for taking the time to put it together!

  10. #10 ScienceWoman
    April 21, 2008

    Great post Janet and thanks for the kudos on mine. One point you made about reducing your new preps is a particularly germane one for me. New preps are killing me!

  11. #11 ethan romero
    April 21, 2008

    I’m about a year out from finishing my thesis and the view of the tenure track from here looks fraught with peril. Thanks for the hints.

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