05 February 2010

Tenure guidelines usually leave something out

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak as a panel member to a new faculty workshop, about “common pitfalls and best practices” on the road to tenure. One of the interesting things about the other speakers was that several of them were very down on presentations, arguing that too many faculty go to conferences for the wrong reasons.

As it happened, I had been attending a meeting earlier that day in place of our department chair. I had an opportunity to review the tenure requirements of a lot of different departments, which you normally don’t have a chance to do. A few things stood out.

Many of the departments had long, very legalistic tenure requirements, often containing fairly trivial things. For example, “You have to give your a syllabus to classes, preferably on the first day” was the sort of thing that some had. (Given that a syllabus is a CYA document, it does make sense that it would be referred to in another CYA document.)

I told the faculty that it’s a mistake to think of those tenure requirements as a checklist. Tenure requirements are almost always written for the benefit of the tenured faculty, not the tenure-track faculty those requirements are ostensibly there for. Tenure requirement are often written in such a way as to give the tenured faculty the balance of power in making tenure decisions.

While the written guidelines cover minimum expectations for teaching, research, and service, there’s typically a big unwritten set of conditions: collegiality. If the tenured faculty don’t like you, the tenure guidelines are usually slippery enough, referring to intangibles (e.g., “publication quality”) that it will be hard to get past the gates.

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