Professors- Don’t Panic, Organize

I have put off writing this post until the absolute last minute because I still don’t know how to talk about the election, and yet I can’t seem to talk about anything else. What does it mean for my queer marriage? What does it mean for my undocumented students? What does it mean for my community college where we live and die by Pell Grants? I have been selfish- thinking mainly of myself and making contingency plans from the banal (get personal documents in order) to the ridiculous (preserve all the vegetables so we can eat underground after a nuclear apocalypse). It is only in the past week that I have started to think collectively, and remembered that community, allies, and coalitions are the best place to start.

In academia, we are horrible at collective action. The structure of our disciplines creates silos, and our research can lend itself too readily to isolation and over-inflated egos. We start to believe we only need our impressive intellects to thrive in the world. As contingent faculty have taken on more labor to free the select few who have access to tenure, we have wrapped ourselves in the comforting lie of meritocracy. “It should be this way,” we tell ourselves, “the system is working.” At best we think, “I don’t have time to deal with these massive structural problems in my field.* I am trying to write my book.”

We have forgotten how to work together for systemic change. Humanists in particular write about social justice movements. We don’t often participate in them. In fact, the folks I have seen in the greatest state of panic are my tenured colleagues and mentors. I think it has been a long time since they confronted this level of vulnerability. I think of Slavoj Žižek delighted with himself as he publicly endorsed Donald Trump for his disruptive potential. It felt so familiar. The white, leftist professors I knew in my graduate program have made similar flippant remarks. Privilege is a powerful enabler of delusion.

This week I started doing small things. I began reinforcing my emotional support network, which overlaps with the network of activists and organizers in my local community. I took time to call my friends, near and far. I worked with a few other professors and the student equity program to organize an event for vulnerable students to come and talk about their reactions to the election. We created a poster campaign with messages of inclusion and acceptance to paper the hallways of our campus. These are tiny steps. The next ones will be crucial. I hope we can unlearn that academic privilege that asks us to be individuals with great minds, and relearn how communities strike back against injustice in all its forms.

*sexual harassment, racism in hiring and promotion practices, contingent labor, rising tuition and student debt…



Is Tenure Worth All the Trouble?

A few months ago, I became a full professor! Much like when I earned tenure (I just changed that word from received to earned), for a while I was in a haze of disbelief. Was the quest really over? Was anything different?

In both cases the resounding answer for me was yes. I’m really happy at the new opportunities, freedom and empowerment the promotions have provided.

Our blog focus on real difficulties, impediments and challenges the road to tenure can contain for women.  In a later post, I’ll talk about why entering grad school significantly later than most people may have made the road a bit smoother for me than some. Meanwhile here are my top 3 reasons each promotion has been awesome.

Three reasons becoming a Tenured Associate Professor was Awesome

  1. I could explore research, writing and outreach projects that may not lead to grants or publications, while continuing existing productive projects in order to continue to advance in scholarship.
  2. I could take on a position in the upper administration and develop new initiatives for my institution, which was viewed favorably in my review for Full Professor. In this position I regularly interacted with the Dean and Associate Deans and work with faculty of all stages. It gave me a new appreciation and a more holistic view of my institution.
  3. I could say no to “being a new shiny happy prof face” for visitors and parents because there were new people to do that, while saying yes to some important all-campus committees.

Three reasons being a Full Professor is Awesome

  1. Interacting with other professors feels different.   At a recent conference I had more confidence to approach other full professors as a peer. I still have less experience, but many of them are my age (or younger) and it feels nice to (at least in my own mind feel like I) belong at the table. After I served on a career panel, many untenured professors came to me to ask advice. It was great to be able to share my experience and be generous with my time.
  2. I can serve in roles that are important to my institution, such as member of the tenure and reappointment committee or Dean.
  3. I have been freed from the looming promotion-centered hoops that must be identified, understood and jumped through. That is so liberating. I can take greater risks in my teaching and research without fear. Teaching evaluations will inform my practice but not threaten my job status. I can devote time to professional service at a national level.

Managing Health on the Tenure Track

When I started my first year on the tenure track, I did so knowing that it would be challenging. Not only would I have the tenure process to worry about, but I also began teaching more than I ever had during my graduate school training. On top of these challenges, I live with a chronic autoimmune disease which can be unpredictable and flares under new and stressful conditions. It was a perfect storm and I knew that my health would suffer if I didn’t make it a priority.

Today I submitted grades for all of my writing classes, and I want to briefly reflect on what worked as I tried to take care of myself this year.

  1. Health Insurance! As I have mentioned in the past, benefits for full time faculty at CCs can be substantially better than other types of schools due to a strong union presence. This was the first time I had access to all the medical help I could want, and I took advantage. From taking care of my Vitamin D deficiency to getting referred to a dietician, this benefit was immensely helpful.
  2. I had a health coach. In the past couple of years, I have noticed an increase in the availability of life coaching, career coaching, or other kinds of guidance beyond a therapist/patient relationship. A friend of mine was beginning a coaching career and allowed me to work with her for a discounted rate as she earned her license. We talked on the phone twice a month about my goals and values alongside her speciality in mindfulness and meditation. These conversations became an opportunity for me to re-center my health as work demands constantly drew my focus.
  3. My chronic illness buddy. My very good friend suffers from an autoimmune disease similar to my own and we are working to create structure and support for each other even though we live far away. When doctors do not take our pain seriously, we take each other’s pain seriously. We have a Google Doc with updates on our health, procedures, and doctor visits as well as resources such as recipes and articles in the news.
  4. Rituals for Selfcare. From Adeline Koh’s line of Sabbatical Beauty to Rebecca Schuman’s 10-step Korean Skin Care Routine, to Sarah Ahmed’s Selfcare as Warfare this has been the year of academic women taking care of ourselves. My personal rituals include epsom salt baths with Ylang Ylang and lavender essential oils, watching The Americans while eating chocolate, and sleeping 9-10 hours per night.

What rituals, practices, and support networks do you turn to when health issues flare up?

Crowdsourcing solutions to tenure-track concerns

The tenure process is probably unsettling for everyone on some level.

Even if everything goes well, the process of being judged by your peers and others, with the possible outcome of losing your career can pretty much give anyone a stomachache. Sometimes we can channel worry into productivity and use it to keep from coasting or becoming complacent. Sometimes it is just discouraging or paralyzing.

Maybe some level of worry is unavoidable, and we just need to push through.  But what about when a concern calls for action?

The following concerns are based on real situations that have occurred at a variety of institutions.  What would you suggest? Continue reading

Magic Money and the Partially Funded Sabbatical

It was mentioned repeatedly during my on-campus interview: there was a pre-tenure sabbatical after year three. Having already taught at an R1, I knew pre-tenure sabbaticals were a rare and wonderful gift. Even in my first year, I was already imagining all that I could accomplish during this year away from teaching.

The amount of research you can accomplish without a pre-tenure sabbatical varies depending on the orientation, culture, and organizational structure of the institution. My SLAC operates using shared governance and a teacher-scholar model. (Terms that were all new to me 2.5 years ago) Our model of shared-governance features a compressed administrative bureaucratic structure – no provosts, no chancellors, and few deans (a much-needed option in this era of the corporatization of institutions of higher ed). But here is the hitch: this shared governance model requires that almost every faculty member (T-T, tenured, adjunct, etc.) engage in quite a bit of service work. Thus, this sabbatical would be a welcome break from not only teaching, but also an unusually heavy service load.

Both the casual conversation and the language in the faculty handbook regarding reappointment at years 1,2, and 3 focused almost entirely on assessment of teaching (thus the teacher-scholar model). I was actively advised to focus on teaching (with an implicit suggestion that research should or could (??) take the back burner in these early years). Continue reading

Off the beaten tenure track

Last week, I got an email from a friend suggesting that my husband (who adjuncts) apply to a tenure track position two and a half hours away. Even though I am happy in my full-time, non-tenure track position here, my (tenured) friend still saw this as an option. Why?

“Because tenure-track trumps all,” my husband said, and he’s right. Even with the stress, workload, and uncertainty faced by my TT friends and colleagues, it’s clear most see NTT as an unacceptable option. Yet despite the shadow cast on anything except tenure-track jobs, three years ago I chose a non-tenure track over a tenure-track job offer. Today, as I work to juggle being the family breadwinner with taking care of a newborn, I still think this was the best decision for myself and for my family.

As criticism of the percent of faculty who are adjuncts grow, I expect to see universities increase the number of faculty who are full-time, but not on the tenure track. This is not as bad as it sounds. Before I explain why it’s worked for me, let me add this caveat: My R-2 university has a long-standing NTT structure, one that includes a union, a benefits package equal to TT faculty, and the opportunity for promotion. The structure of the university’s NTT positions promotes permanence. So, this is not an part-time adjunct or “instructor” position.

In this position, I am expected to teach a solid number of students, with a focus on general education courses, and to teach well. I get paid less. I am not required to do research, but I can continue to research and publish if I choose to. However, I can’t expect to receive workload reductions in exchange for being research active. I cannot get tenure, so although there is a 9-year “post-reappointment” zone, my job is less secure than tenured faculty. Continue reading

Now what?

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?

Continue reading