My tenure packet is wending its way through the nearly year-long process, and while I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, all signs point to me having a job here in the future. My teaching load and service load have already seen step function increases, and I’m starting to acknowledge that I am finally, well and truly, mid-career. It appears that this professor gig is what I’m going to do with my life. Now what?
With job security in the offing, there’s a world of possibilities out there that aren’t constrained by what my PhD committee, search committee, or tenure committee will think of my choices. With job security in the offing, I can make choices that aren’t simply to always push for that extra paper or next grant proposal in case that’s the make-or-break statistic for my tenure portfolio. It’s liberating to be able to make those choices, but it’s also daunting. What do I want to do with my life? Now what?
Now that I don’t have to simply calculate what the highest-short-term-reward-least-time-cost item is on my to-do list, I can actually decide what I want to do with my research time over the next few years and beyond. Do I want to stay the course and continue to focus on the topic where I have been making progress over the last several years? Do I want to pick up some lost threads from earlier in my career? Do I want to pivot – slightly or acutely – and explore new directions? Now what?
Now that I don’t have put “papers and dollars über alles” to keep my job, I can also decide how much of my discretionary time I want to put into those research products. I’m not suggesting I’d stop doing research, but maybe I’d like to reclaim a few evenings a week for relaxation (and housework). Or maybe I’d like to invest more of my time and energy on outreach, pedagogy, mentoring, or working to enhance diversity in my field. But maybe I really like research – and I’ve gotten to be reasonably good at it – so maybe I want to keep pushing hard. Now what?
I can see why there has been a tradition of giving faculty a sabbatical or research leave after a successful push to tenure. That semester or year off teaching allows for some deep breaths that reinvigorate. It allows for soul searching and finding new directions in research and beyond. It allows for the exploration of new ideas that might be more risky than what was pursued pre-tenure. Whatever justification is used by university administration, my suspicion is that post-tenure sabbaticals are really used to answer the question: Now what?
I won’t get a post-tenure sabbatical, because I haven’t been at this university long enough. Instead I’m trying to answer my Now what? questions while doing even more teaching and service than ever before (and parenting a big kid and a baby). I know I want to make some changes in my research stream, but I’m not sure which ways I want to turn. I think I want some changes in the mix of ways I spend my discretionary time, but I’m not quite sure what mix I want. But I definitely want some more of those evenings off. Yet I don’t have time, or really the quiet space, to carefully plot out how I want my research and life to shift, much less to explore new ideas that require investment of sweat and brain cells. Instead, I find myself making snap judgements and saying yes or no to things without a careful plan. I feel like I’m not so much asking Now what? as What now?
But maybe rather than beating myself up for feeling a bit adrift and storm-tossed right now, I could be OK with not knowing the answers. I could tell myself to just be excited by the opportunities that are coming my way in this new post-tenure world. The things that I’m saying yes to *are* exciting and they will lead me on new professional adventures. Maybe better answers will emerge after I’ve drifted for a while.
Wikipedia tells me that “emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.” Maybe that, in and of itself, is the answer to my Now what? question. Watch the patterns and wait for emergence.