Advice for Tenure-trackers

I did the exact opposite of every piece of advice on this deranged list of suggestions for first-year tenure-trackers.

As a result, not only do I have tenure, but I also had a fantastic time in these past six years, always saying and doing exactly what I wanted, not scheming, not manipulating, just being who I am (including not selfish, not cutting corners in teaching, and very loud all of the time).

So I have some advice of my own for people on tenure-track or any other career path: forget these stupid scripts, be passionate, be honest, enjoy yourself, and you’ll get everywhere you want to get without turning yourself into a mental invalid in the process.

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30 thoughts on “Advice for Tenure-trackers”

  1. Yes. That’s terrible advice. It’s also guaranteed to make someone hated. Can you imagine working with such a colleague? I don’t expect people to be self sacrificing but miserable, “selfish” types are terrible to work with. Just be a decent colleague, learn about your school, and work hard: all will be fine. It’s not magic.

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    1. Also, during the end of my first year/ start of my second year, I spearheaded a massive change to our curriculum: a change that won me the respect of my colleagues and it was a change that nearly everyone mentioned in their letter supporting me for tenure. So the bit about “your job is not to fix the curriculum” actually wasn’t true in my case at all.

      This part is also horrible.untrue:
      “You job is to teach your classes as well as you are able. Your job is also to explore avenues for minimizing the amount of time you spend on those classes. Your job is to study how senior faculty in your department cut corners in their teaching in ways that are considered acceptable within the departmental culture.”

      At my school, this is the precise way to NOT get tenure (and I know of faculty who didn’t get tenure because of poor teaching.) Teaching is more important than research at my school (though research has to happen also.) And my school is hardly the only one in the country to prioritize teaching in tenure bids.

      So young faculty need to know their institutional culture before they decide where “cut corners.” I’m actually quite astounded at how terrible this advice is! I really hope that young faculty read this thread instead of that horrible post.

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      1. Absolutely. And this advice isn’t only harmful to one’s work life. It’s also likely to lead to a lot of unhappiness and depression. Nothing is worth turning oneself into this fake, scheming, calculating mouse of a person. Who needs tenure if it comes at this price?

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  2. Kelsky does tend to infantilize and remember, she has announced that as a department chair she made assistant professors cry and that they thanked her for it later when they got tenure. She also made her own self so miserable as an academic that had to she quit. Now gives advice apparently intended to replicate this experience.

    I suppose the very general points that it is not a warm and fuzzy world and that you must make sure the immediate demands of teaching and service do not take over your research and writing time are worth making to people who do not realize these things. And I am sure there are departments where this advice applies. And people who act this way are not always liked, but they do tend to be successful or at least to stay safe.

    Kelsky is naive to think there are “trusted mentors” available, and I find odd the idea that if one has such a colleague, one should take direction from them as slavishly as she seems to feel one should.

    But what most irritates me about the piece is the supposition that it is realistic for most people to count on time off for research and writing in the second year. Some places have pre-tenure sabbaticals, but not that soon, and you can’t count on it, and external funding for such things is not that common — especially not for new beginners.

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    1. Yes. It’s comparatively few schools that offer pre-tenure sabbaticals. It’s a nice perk if you can get it. But if you don’t have that option, you better figure out how to get tenure without it.

      Regarding “mentors.” I completely benefited from the wisdom and experience of various more seasoned faculty members at my institution. Maybe I’m lucky. But I found that most people were eager to help and be kind to me and that I didn’t need to be either slavish or manipulative.

      Along these lines, a piece of advice I would have is:
      “Assume good intentions. Very few people are ‘out to get you.'”

      And Z is right. Kelsey seems to encourage such horrible and inauthentic relationships. Nobody likes to work with a phony. I don’t know why she seems to think that people want this type of person as a colleague. I just really disliked her piece.

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      1. I had really great mentors. We get assigned mentors, and mine were extremely helpful.

        I agree completely with “assume good intentions.” A defensive attitude predicated on the assumption that enemies lurk around every corner never helped anybody.

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      2. It is advice to be paranoid and grim. Very odd considering that one has gone into a field and an activity because one enjoys it, and one would not have gotten this far had one not been organized about work for a long time already.

        I appreciate the spirit of making sure not to neglect oneself and one’s interests, but the way this is framed, oneself and one’s interests are alienated, and one is tied to them by grim duty. This is soul crushing.

        I actually got this kind of advice from assigned mentors and it was scary since not to obey one’s mentor could then be considered un-collegial or thought to mean you did not understand how things worked. It is better, I found, to talk to everyone, and take your time finding someone with whom you are actually comfortable asking questions you’re afraid to ask, and whose views you really trust.

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        1. Great observation on how oneself and one’s interests are alienated. This is why even the reasonable advice is framed in a way that makes it obnoxious. For instance, the part about sharing the housework with your partner. The housework should be shared but not because “It’s your job” or because of the tenure-track. The list seems to say, “oooh, I’m on the tenure-track, I’m finally important enough to have my partner share the housework.”

          The part about hiring the housekeeper is also obnoxious. How much do people get paid in their first year to afford housekeepers? I could barely afford making minimum payments on my maxed out credit cards. A housekeeper was not an option.

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  3. Hah. I was on a date with another academic last night, and she recommended this blog to me, talking about how great the advice was, how the blogger had hated academia so much that she’d quit to write this blog, and I thought “Well, that doesn’t sound like someone I want to take career advice from at all!”
    That wasn’t the worst part of the date, but seeing this was one more confirmation that I was right to not text her back for a second date.

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    1. The problem with it, though, is that there are grains of truth. I don’t react well, for instance, to all the exhortations about rushing through things. But “cutting corners” although I do not like the phrase is about managing workload, as professors do have even more work than graduate students and the first year, when so much is new, is particularly hard.

      And so on. But mostly, the insistence that all things are a certain way and that you must follow the very most conservative advice or else is irritating and also not true. The most important thing is that you should trust yourself and do what works for you, in your situation — and not succumb to fear.

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      1. It rubbed me the wrong way especially because ever since I arrived in Vancouver for my Master’s I’ve been getting nothing but doom and gloom predictions from other people who know of my program (or in one case, an older student who complained bitterly that the program was nothing like her previous master’s studying under Judith Butler at The European Graduate School) warning me that I’ll hate it and that I need to do so-and-so to protect myself from the big mean bad professors. I’m here, I’m fully funded, and my adviser, the head of the department (who was described to me as “manipulative” and “shrewish”) have all praised me and my work ethic and my passion. I think I’ll be fine with one less naysayer in my life, even online. πŸ™‚

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      2. Another issue here is the belief that you can control reality if you create a rigid script for every single situation. This is a product of anxiety and it’s actual value is nil. None of these OCD behaviors will prevent bad shit from happening. Because that’s the nature of human existence: we can’t control everything.

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      3. I agree with Z about the grains of truth and the totally inflexible attitude towards things. And the advice to volunteer for search committees is crazy considering how much work they can be.

        Instead of advising people to “cut corners” it would be much better to think about being efficient and balancing workload to minimize stress when it comes to teaching. Assign readings and materials you already know, volunteer to teach the same courses repeatedly to save time on prep, never agree to more than one totally new course in a semester, be organized so that you don’t waste time looking for things or recreating things you’ve lost, look at your calendar when you set up your syllabus so that you don’t get a huge stack of papers the week before a conference trip, spend time creating templates for activities and rubrics that can be adapted and reused in multiple courses, assign a few high quality writing assignments and give really great feedback on them instead of overloading the students with writing that you don’t have time to grade properly.

        Putting in lots of work doesn’t automatically equal good teaching – I know of someone on my campus who assigns lots of reading, elaborate projects, reflection journals, and frequent short papers in a required class. I hear students (even very good ones) complain about the enormous workload and this person always falls horribly behind on grading and the students don’t get timely feedback. It might actually improve the quality of that course if everyone (students and instructor) did less work, but spent more time and produced higher quality on each assignment.

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        1. I agree that overpreparing classes is a mistake. I made that mistake in my first year, and I wish I didn’t.

          As for teaching the same courses and not agreeing to teach more than one new course, are people really given such options? Good for them. With me, it was not even remotely a possibility. I teach whatever I’m told to teach. We are not a huge department and we’ve got to cover everything the students might need.

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          1. In my department there is usually a bit of negotiation about who teaches what and often someone has to teach something because it has to be taught. But I think a new tenure-track person could request only one completely new course per semester and have that request honored. Of course, that is assuming that they come in having at least TA experience for some of the courses that we offer. If they didn’t have much relevant TA experience, then doing a bunch of new preps the first year would be impossible to avoid.

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          2. I am at a research-intensive institution. In my department, we try very hard to let assistant professors teach graduate level courses in their specialty in the first 2-3 years, because we expect them to ramp up their research program (get grants and starts advising some students and postdocs). Also, they are usually not great in the classroom initially, so we like to have them “practice” on graduate students for a couple of years before we unleash them on undergrads who are much more demanding and much less forgiving of bad or even mediocre teachers.

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