A postcard from academe: my tenure dossier.


You may have noticed a lull in my postings here. I've been laboring to put the finishing touches on my dossier for my sixth year review. This dossier is the document on which a succession of committees will be basing their decisions as to whether San José State University will be tenuring me and promoting me to associate professor, or whether they will be thanking me for my service and sending me on my way.

It's an awful lot of responsibility to put in the clutches of a three-ring binder, don't you think?

I should explain a little bit about the "retention, tenure, and promotion" (or RTP) process at my university, since different universities do these things quite differently.

Way back in the new faculty orientations my first year, we were encouraged to think of our "professional profile" as having three main parts, teaching, scholarship, and service. Here, teaching and scholarship are (officially, at least) regarded as equally important, with service not quite at the same level of importance (but important enough that official notice would be taken of shirkers). From the beginning, the folks orienting us to our new academic assignments were helping us see how our various professional activities fit into the RTP policies that would be used to evaluate us. This was a really useful start.

The dossier itself more or less captures the teaching/scholarship/service categories impressed on us as faculty newbies. The faculty member preparing a dossier is handed a set of eight uniform dividers for a three-ring binder. Four of these impose the main structure on the materials the faculty member assembles, marking out sections dealing with teaching effectiveness, service to students and the university, scholarly or creative activity, and what amounts to service within or related to your field of scholarship. (In other words, "service" is subdivided into teaching- and scholarship-related categories.) The other four tabs are for forms, recommendations of chairs and committees, and so on -- essentially, these are sections of the dossier that are filled in once the dossier leaves the hands of the faculty members.

Within the four large sections the faculty member fills in, there are some standardized subsections that are required (such as a list of all the courses you've taught and copies of all the official student evaluations of your classes), but there is also room to add subsections to document relevant but non-standard activities or contributions. The dividers enshrine the RTP policies as they are applied to faculty in all the departments, schools, and colleges in the university -- not just philosophers, but scientists, engineers, faculty in music and visual arts, etc. As you might imagine, this means the uniform policies need to be applied to professional trajectories that can look very different in their particulars.

A faculty member puts together the first incarnation of the RTP dossier in year 2 of his or her appointment. This means that, after barely a year of employment, you're being asked to put together a binder making the case for your value to the organization. ("Didn't you guys just hire me? Don't you have faith in your own search process?") One adds to and adjusts the second year dossier to assemble the fourth year dossier, and then puts together the version on which tenure hangs in year six, by which time it looks something like this:


There's about an inch of unused binding power there! If I'm granted tenure, I may be able to keep using this single binder for the dossier I hope eventually to prepare for promotion to full professor.

Not that I can think that far ahead right at this moment.

The organization of your RTP dossier is an exercise in presenting your professional activities in such a way that their quality and significance, and the connections between them, are intelligible. The dossier is the faculty member's proxy in the committees that will decide whether tenure and promotion are appropriate. So there's a reasonable amount of pressure to make the dossier tell your story (and sing your praises) in a clear and compelling way. The committees can't speak to what isn't in the dossier (unless the faculty member makes a big mistake like omitting a required component -- and then, the committees can probably only comment on the omission itself, rather than on the content of what was omitted).


Here's a glimpse of some of the parts I've included in my dossier. See those DVDs? Those contain the 15 lectures we produced for my online philosophy of science course. According to our current RTP policy, the development of that course counts as scholarly achievement. (However, as a number of people had mentioned to me that some members of RTP committees seem to best remember the policy as it stood when they were tenured, my description of this scholarly achievement was prefaced with a citation of the relevant bit of the current policy ... just to make things easier on the folks reading the dossier.)


Hey, is that a tab that says "Academic Blogging"?

Yes, it is.

My department has been quite insistent that the blogging I do here does constitute a kind of scholarly activity that ought to be recognized. They think that communicating philosophy to a wider audience is A Good Thing. So, a colleague wrote an evaluative letter about a selection of posts, and that letter and the posts are included in the dossier. I'll let you know how that goes.

In some ways, the collection of the letters evaluating one's every contribution (be it pedagogical, scholarly, or servile) is the most challenging part of the process, because you have to bug other people. Sometimes repeatedly. The dossier closes Friday, and I'm still waiting on two letters.

Once the dossier leaves my hands, it goes first to my department RTP committee. They all read it, meet to discuss it, and write their recommendation based upon it. I get a copy of their recommendation and 7 days to submit a response if I disagree with their recommendation (or feel like what they say in their recommendation overlooks something important that's in the dossier, etc.)

Then, the dossier and the department RTP committee's recommendation (plus my response, if I make one) moves up to the college RTP committee. They all read the dossier (plus the department committee's recommendation), meet to discuss it, and write their recommendation based upon it. I get a copy of their recommendation and 7 days to submit a response.

Then, the dossier (and the department RTP committee's recommendation, the college RTP committee's recommendation, and any responses I've made to these recommendations) moves up to the university RTP committee. They all read the dossier (plus the other committees' recommendations and any responses), meet to discuss it, and write their recommendation based upon it. I get a copy of their recommendation and 7 days to submit a response.

Then it moves up to the university president for final judgment. The letter conveying that judgment typically goes out right before commencement.

By Friday, I hope to be at the stage where I can let go of actively worrying about this whole process and the peculiarities of decisions made by committees. I seem to recall that there are important aspects of life that you can't cram into a three-hole punch.

More like this

In light of the ongoing flap about Iowa State University's decision to deny tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, I thought it might be worth looking at an actual university policy on tenure -- the policy in place at my university -- and considering the sorts of judgments required by policies like this.…
Five years ago today, I put up the first post on a blog that was mean to capture the overflow of discussions and ideas from my "Ethics in Science" class. Back then, I wasn't entirely sure that I'd manage to maintain the blog through the end of the semester. It just goes to show you that you can't…
Here at Mystery U, we are evaluated on a calendar year basis, so in early January I turned in an up-to-date CV to our departmental review committee. Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Finally, a few weeks ago, I got a chance to see what the review committee thought of me, and I got to…
Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad ponders faculty "service" in higher education. For those outside the ivy-covered bubble of academe, "service" usually means "committee work" or something like it. The usual concern is that, although committees are necessary to accomplish significant bits of the…

Glad to hear the blogging is a recognized part of your dossier. It is indeed a GoodThing.

...love to be a fly on that wall though

Bluehair Prof: "Eh, what's this? Flogging? Bogging? Whatever are these kids up to now?"

Dr. Greybeard: "Is this even legal?"

Dean (snorts, perks up): "Did our lawyers vet this?"

Tenure? The heck with tenure! With all that work you put into this, and of course your extra cool sci-blogging, complete with most excellent pictures, they should bow down and worship you as their new Department Overlord, and beg you to stay.

And if there are any problems, just pull out your Friday Sprog Blogging. I believe this would totally seal the deal.

We had a discussion about academic blogging and tenure a while back at the Philosophers' Playground and the sentiment was split between those who say that it is a public good, a way to communicate to a wider audience and give back to the wider community and thus should be valued and counted for promotion, on the one hand, and those who worried that as soon as some start including blog work, it will mean there will be academic standards applied to it killing the blogginess (bloggesquitude? Die Blogigkeit?) that makes it what it is. I'm torn. On the one hand, it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. Especially a place as wonderful as this should surely be seen on par with, say, public lectures. But does that mean we want committees looking through old posts? Still not sure which side I come down on.

We wish you all the best with the tenure process.

It is wonderful that your blog forms a part of your tenure dossier. Do you know if this is common in other departments in your university? In other words, is it possible that your department is unique in possessing a progressive view of academic blogging?

First things first, though. Good luck with getting those two letters in by Friday!

As a poster to this blog, does that mean that I helped you get tenure? And does that mean you now officially owe me part of your salary for the rest of your life?

Wooooooo! Wealth!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

Thanks for your very clear explanation of how the tenure process works at your university - now if someone would just tell me how it works at mine!

Tenure looks like a nightmare process.

Still wish we had it though...

Good luck though. If the blog quality is anything to go by you do deserve it.

Wow, thanks for the explanation of the process, I had a vague idea of what tenure involved but had never had a step-by-step explanation. As a student hoping to go into academia someday, I think it's great when professors blog about the nuts and bolts of life working at a university, dispelling the misguided idea that a professor just shows up a couple of times a week to lecture for an hour and then goes back out to the golf course. Good luck with the rest of your tenure process, I'm sure you'll get through it with flying colors!

Oh, my goodness! Your department seems to be in the hardcopy dark ages.I'm surprised your department has not gone over to all pdf files for the complete dossier, placed online with password protection and online links to all publications in full color, available by wireless connection to mobile laptops.What are you going to do once you get tenure? Relax, work harder, be more creative, outspoken and risk taking under the protection of tenure, move to a more prestigious position?Polly A.

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 26 Sep 2007 #permalink

Thanks to you all for the encouragement.

For the record, I'm not currently interested in the position of Department Overlord. Maybe in the fullness of time.

I have to say, if my department (and especially my chair)hadn't been so adamant that the blog was an important facet of my scholarly activity, I probably would have left it out of the dossier, or at most included it as a public-service kind of thing. I have no clue at all how other departments here view blogging, or whether it's even on their radar. I suspect my department's stance on blogging may put this activity on the radar. We'll see.

Also, I feel the pull of SteveG's worries that formal evaluation of blogging may take what's appealing about the medium (especially, they ways it is different from engaging other scholars via the peer reviewed literature) and suck them right out. The optimist in me has a hope that formal evaluation might be moving in a less narrow direction (one less enamored with the gatekeeper function). But her predictive record is not yet impressive.

Speaking of which ... as a former experimentalist, I'm superstitious enough that I'm not making any predictions about the outcome of this process. Even if the statistics that proceed your case are encouraging, you don't want to poke the universe in the eye and tempt it to show you an improbable outcome.

Is our RTP process a nightmare? Probably no more than trying to fit one's particular case into the taxonomy dictated by a policy that's trying to encompass *all* the flavors of faculty member at a large university. To a certain extent, examining yourself and trying to judge whether you're worthy is always hard. But the fact that the 6th year dossier was preceded by a 2nd and 4th year dossier means that we get rather more feedback about how we stand than faculty do elsewhere -- especially at schools where the process is kept fairly mysterious even to faculty to whom it will be applied. One more reason I'm thankful for our faculty union -- our policy is so transparent because that was negotiated as part of our contract!

Donalbain, if this job ever results in "wealth" or something like it, I shall endeavor to share it!

As for what comes next, I hope a year off to write a book or two, then more teaching and research (but with less free-floating anxiety about being untenured). Also, a willingness to take on more administrative responsibility (e.g., chairing my department for a term), and an increased responsibility for mentoring my junior collegues.

And, if I can swing it, groupies.

I'm a public school science teacher. For us it works like this. Teach for two full years. Don't strangle a child. In the spring you get a letter saying you've been offered tenure. You show up the next school year with tenure. So I guess what I'm saying is if it doesn't work out for you, I'll save you a spot in my department. Consider this a formal offer.

What exactly IS tenure when it comes to teaching in public high schools. I teach high school science in the UK, and there is no such thing, you just get employed at a school or not..

By Donalbain (not verified) on 27 Sep 2007 #permalink