How to Survive the Tenure Process

Something old, something new, on the topic near and dear to every academic.

The old is a post by Doug Natelson from a couple of weeks ago, giving advice on how to get tenure, as a response to the recent flurry of tenure discussions on science blogs.

The new is an article by Lesboprof at Inside Higher Ed, giving advice on how to get tenure, in the wake of passing her own tenure review. She’s pseudonymous (obviously) and cagey about her research field, but what’s striking is how consistent the advice is between the two. And it’s excellent advice, so if you’re starting out on the tenure track, and worried about the future, go take a look.

I’d add one thing: Take all the advice you’re given with a grain of salt.

A couple of years ago, I went to an AAPT conference on the teaching of calculus-based introductory physics, which accounts for the bulk of the teaching that we do here. There were a lot of itneresting techniques discussed, by people who were really enthusiastic about whatever method they were discussing.

And every one of them said the same thing on hearing I was junior faculty: “Wait until you have tenure.” They all said not to try anything new or unusual in classes, even when their own research said that new and unusual techniques work better, because whenever you try something new, you risk getting bad teaching evaluations, and that can jeopardize your tenure prospects.

I decided to ignore that advice, in part because the last teaching evaluations I had gotten were pretty bad, so I didn’t have much to lose. But also, at some level, I need to be able to do what I want to do. If trying new things to make my teaching better was going to cost me tenure, I wouldn’t want to work here.

You might say “But if you just keep your head down, and do nothing controversial until you get tenure, then your’e free to be as radical as you want…” In principle, that’s true, but in practice, there’s always a reason not to do things. Once you pass tenure review, promotion to full professor serves as the carrot. If you become a full professor, then there’s the possibility of an endowed chair. And by the time you get one of those, you’re probably close to retiring, and why would you want to mess things up?

There’s always a reason to make the cautious and conservative choice. But you know what? If I wanted to be told what to do and how to behave, I could easily double my salary working in industry. I went into academia in part because I want to be able to direct my own actions, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that I’m not the sort of person who’s going to do anything all that radical in the first place. I’m not prone to being actively insulting to people in public (though I did lose my temper once, and refer to the college’s budget practices as “completely insane” in a general faculty meeting…), or doing anything really outrageous in the classroom. But when it comes to the direction of my research projects, the teaching of my classes, and the service responsibilities I take on, I’m going to do the things that seem most interesting to me, because that’s why I went into academia in the first place.

And sometimes that pays off. The changes I made to my classes after that workshop didn’t hurt my teaching evaluations– quite the opposite. The next term I taught intro physics was one of the most successful classes I’ve ever had, and the students who were in that class have said really nice things about it to me in the years since.

So listen to the advice that you get about how to survive the tenure process, but make your own judgements about what’s right to do. There’s no point in working in academia if you’re not going to take advantage of the freedom that it offers you.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    May 25, 2007

    I decided to ignore that advice, in part because the last teaching evaluations I had gotten were pretty bad, so I didn’t have much to lose. But also, at some level, I need to be able to do what I want to do. If trying new things to make my teaching better was going to cost me tenure, I wouldn’t want to work here.

    Heh. At least you didn’t drown by having your head so firmly embedded in the clouds.

    I will firmly and unambiguously underscore the advice, at least for faculty at a research Unviersity. Do not bother mucking around with active learning techniques. Research Universities don’t care if you teach well; they only care if you look like you teach well. Some of them (including Vanderbilt) talk a good line about caring about teaching, but they don’t really. They judge you by your student evaluations.

    You can get good student evaluations by teaching a class with active learning techniques and all of the rest. However, there are easier and faster ways to get good student evaluations. For instance, in a non-majors introductory astronomy class, teach a memorization and recall class. It’s what the students are expecting from a science class. Give good (as in clear, informative, and entertaining) lectures, make very clear what the students will be tested on, and don’t overmuch challenge their assumptions about what they have to do to get through the class they’re taking just to satisfy a requirement. It takes you far less effort to teach a class like this than to teach a really good science class. The extra effort is wasted, because the University doesn’t care; all the care about is the student evaluations.

    Extra time spent teaching a creative class would be better spent publishing papers or getting grants. It’s the simple and pure fact of pre-tenure life at a research University. Ignore it at your peril.

    -Rob

  2. #2 yolio
    May 25, 2007

    All of these education researchers need to start studying how to improve teaching without sinking a lot of time into the process. If university teaching is going to improve, it will be because we found a time efficient way to do it.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    May 25, 2007

    I will firmly and unambiguously underscore the advice, at least for faculty at a research Unviersity. Do not bother mucking around with active learning techniques. Research Universities don’t care if you teach well; they only care if you look like you teach well. Some of them (including Vanderbilt) talk a good line about caring about teaching, but they don’t really. They judge you by your student evaluations.

    That may well be. My experience on the faculty side is entirely at a small liberal arts college, and a large part of the reason why I’m here rather than at a major research unviersity is that I wanted a better balance between teaching and research.

    Whatever the particular balance between teaching and research your insitution demands, though, I will stand by the basic spirit of my comments, which is this: At the end of the day, you need to be happy with what you’re doing. Colleges and universities do not pay well enough to completely sacrifice your own desires and ambitions.

    If you can’t do the things you want to do (pursue the research projects you’re interested in, teach in the manner that you think best, etc.) where you are and still get tenure, odds are, you’re in the wrong place. And even if you do manage to get tenure by making yourself miserable, you’re probably not ever going to be happy there.

    To cop a phrase, what does it profit a junior faculty member to gain tenure and lose his or her own soul?

  4. #4 Perry
    May 25, 2007

    All AAPT/PER type talks should have a box in the upper right hand corner of every slide, which lists the real student/teacher ratio, and hours of prep time per class hour. Then I’ll know if I should listen or not!

    Amazing results can be achieved in small classes with armies of TA’s to help you. Class of 300, well its another ballgame.

    If only students were all identical alkali atoms it would be SOOOO much easier :-)

    We’re a mid major, and good (not neccessarily great) teaching is a hurdle to cross, then they count papers and grants. Jumping really really high over the teaching bar does not generally (or ever??) make up for missing the research bar. Service means go to dept. meetings and don’t piss anyone off. That’s just the way it is. The babble to young faculty and prospective students is not quite in line with this reality, but people learn. We are not R1, so the level of research is 1-2 papers a year, and a Research Corp grant + something else is likely sufficient, and the course load is 3 classes over 2 semesters (till you get tenure, then its 2 and 2), to provide some context.