What I Wish I’d Known About Faculty Life: The Tenure Track, Etc.

This is the final third post in Kevin Birth’s series, What I Wish I’d Known About Faculty Life. Previously: Departmental Politics, Teaching the Curriculum. Update: Kevin surprised us with a fourth post, which we’ll publish next week. 

Behold how good and how pleasant it is: for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1, KJV)

Tip: Meals with  InterVarsity staff are (usually) more enjoyable than faculty committee meetings.

Ah springtime—the time of annual reviews of junior faculty. That time when tenured faculty give reassurance that somebody is well on their way to getting tenure. Or, more rarely, that time when the powers-that-be must be brutally honest with an untenured professor.

Cynthia was one such case. Her tenure decision was two years away—when considers that for most journals it takes a year or more from submission to publication, it is not that long a time. After her initial unbelief that she was in trouble, she asked the chair for a lighter teaching load. “If only I had more time to write, I know I could get published.”

Unfortunately, the chair to whom she made this argument already taught more and published more often than Cynthia. In addition, the chair remembered a time when senior faculty routinely robbed junior faculty of release time that they had earned. The chair knew that by giving a course off to Cynthia, she would be taking a release course from somebody else—somebody already considered a “productive scholar.” The chair fought back the desire to simply reject Cynthia’s request. In bygone days, chairs would have said, “Deal with it,” and then worked to fire the faculty member before the public scandal of a failed tenure case. Having lived through those times, the current chair was more charitable: she told Cynthia, albeit coldly, “I’ll take it to the P and B.” 

The P and B

P and B is short for Personnel and Budget Committee. This is the group of tenured professors who make workload, tenure, and promotion decisions for the department (the “budget” is superfluous since the department has no budget of its own). They are also the ones who write the official report from the department either recommending or rejecting tenure.

A few days later, the chair gathered the P and B during the lunch hour. As the door to the chair’s office closed, venerable Edward, the senior member of the P and B, said, “We are too nice to junior faculty. I remember when I was untenured—I was not given any breaks, and I survived.”

Harriet, who had been on the faculty almost as long as Edward, responded, “Maybe that is why we didn’t keep anybody back then.” Indeed, Harriet and Edward had been together longer than they had spent with any of their 5 combined spouses.

“You kept me!” Edward replied.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” chirped Bob, a mid-career associate professor feeling his oats after getting promoted, but who had not published a thing since then.

The chair sighed. To be fair to the junior faculty, there were many years when the administration took the perspective that there was a surplus of Ph.D.s, so new faculty could be treated badly, and if they left, they could be easily replaced. Indeed, only a year before, a high-ranking administrator had said, “Anybody any good would not stay here.”

Churning faculty lines is expensive, however, and the administration is extremely conscious of these costs. As a result, starting salaries have improved; more release courses are offered; and support for conference travel has improved. These changes are for the good, but looked at with some envy by those senior faculty who weathered harder times.

The chair liked Cynthia, and did not want to lose her; even more, the chair dreaded conducting another search process in which she would have to read 199 dreary applications to find one person worth hiring. On the other hand, one did not want to be constantly giving in to junior faculty demands, either.

So the chair asked, “What should I tell Cynthia?”

“Well, look at the time, I have to prepare for class,” Edward muttered.

“I do, too,” said Harriet as she moved toward the door.

Bob and the chair were left in the room to figure out what to do. I think Cynthia got those release courses—it was easier than antagonizing her.

Caught in the Crossfire

Big blow-ups do happen, however, and often junior faculty find themselves in the crossfire.

Many years before, under a different chair, Andrew had been caught in the middle of such an explosion during his first faculty meeting. He had been in the department for only two weeks. He went to the meeting with no inkling of what was about to happen. The topic for discussion was the major overhaul of the department’s curriculum. It would be the climatic battle of a war that had unfolded during the previous three years. The cause for conflict was a proposed change to the title of the introductory course. The majority faction wanted it to be called “Introduction to Feeling Good about Yourself and Others” whereas a vocal minority faction wanted the course title to remain “Introduction to Truth and Science.”

Andrew sat quietly as the yelling escalated. After only two weeks, he still did not know who his supporters were in the department, and who had argued against hiring him. Suddenly, the leader of the “Science and Truth” faction turned to Andrew: “What do YOU think?”

Pausing, obviously seeking an answer that would not offend anyone, Andrew offered, “I think both titles are good, but maybe “Feeling Good” would attract more students.”

Woe unto Andrew as he turned to confront the withering glare of Professor Science and Truth.

The debate continued until some smart aleck who had served on the college’s Academic Senate too long employed Robert’s Rules of Order to “call the question.” Members of the Senate were fond of using Robert’s Rules, but in a small committee, most people find such tactics irritating. Even though those gathered did not appreciate the use of “rules,” there was relief that maybe the debate would end.

As soon as the vote was announced in favor of “Feeling Good,” Dr. Science and Truth yelled, “I will not be a party to this!” and then stormed out of the room, slamming the door.

It seemed like the slam was still echoing when I saw the chair at the time (may she now rest in peace) enter Andrew’s office. I later asked the chair what her conversation with Andrew was about. She said that she had tried to convince him that departmental meetings were typically peaceful affairs, and that she hoped he would not form a false impression of the department.

I asked, “What did Andrew say?”

The chair grimaced, “He asked when he could get a raise.” A truly silly question since at this institution everyone received an annual salary increase, but only stars received something more. I guess after two weeks, we could not expect Andrew to know the contract under which he worked.

We Merely Expect the Impossible

Junior faculty enter departments that have histories, hidden agendas, entrenched traditions, and mind-numbing bureaucratic procedures. With the accumulation of remembered episodes over time—both good and bad—it is difficult for a newcomer to know the past shapes the present actions. Every department is different, and sometimes it is difficult for a new professor to figure out exactly what the department wants—particularly with regard to the balance of teaching, research, and service.

As one benevolent senior professor told me soon after I was hired, “Oh, we merely expect the impossible: that you be an excellent teacher that attracts students to the major; that you publish like you would at a research-oriented institution; and that you serve on every committee that we senior faculty don’t want to serve on.”

He wasn’t exaggerating.

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Kevin Birth

Kevin Birth is a professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He studies cultural concepts of time in relationship to cognition, and has conducted ethnographic research in Trinidad and on the current leap second controversy. His publications and presentations cover a wide ranging array of topics including chronobiology and globalization, comparative calendars, timekeeping in Roman Britain, culture and memory, cognitive neuroscience, early modern clocks, and ideas about roosters in the Middle Ages. He is the author of three books: Any Time is Trinidad Time (University Press of Florida), Bacchanalian Sentiments (Duke University Press), and most recently Objects of Time (Palgrave Macmillan).

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  • hughe036@gmail.com'
    Joel commented on September 27, 2011 Reply

    Kevin’s entries are interesting and enlightening, but I wonder if a vision for evangelism and discipleship might play a more prominent role in faculty life?

    Here’s what I wish I knew about faculty life (and want to tell aspiring future faculty):

    A tenure-track faculty position is an ideal place from which to reach the campus for Christ. There are not enough Christian faculty on secular campuses, and there are millions of college students who need Christ. The institutional church is largely uninterested in reaching college students (see Benson Hines treatment at http://reachingthecampustribes.com/) and para-church organizations have problems of their own (e.g., insufficient financing, the need for individuals to raise personal support like missionaries). Faculty are uniquely positioned with the resources, access, and leverage to make a big difference.

    If God upholds your professional success, you are upheld. Matthew 6:33 “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well…” is in the context of not worrying. The faculty life has a lot to worry about with tenure, teaching, research, funding, departmental politics, etc. This is analogous to the gentiles’ worries regarding food, shelter, etc. Nevertheless, I try not to worry about it because the prime directive is to seek the Kingdom of God by fulfilling the Great Commission. Everything else is secondary, and consequently my professional success has been safeguarded by God. If it were not, I’d get on with something else that serves God.

    I could go on. Stay deeply rooted in the body of Christ. Do not love the world (university) or the things in the world (university). Learn the Word. Pray. Etc.

    I wish I had a dozen colleagues on campus that held these views. I hope that many Christian students will join the faculty with a similar vision.

  • Kevin commented on September 28, 2011 Reply

    Joel is right, but the potential for being a witness is something about which most Christian scholars are aware before taking tenure track positions. I wanted to document unexpected circumstances and the behavior of non-Christian professors. As Joel points out, the reality is that many Christian scholars in the secular academy are not blessed with having had examples of Christian professors in the secular academy to follow. Prayer and studying the Word are incredibly important as a means of preparation and reflection.

    The stories I’ve told are often about situations in which choices must be made. Some may find such situations as the source of worry; some may laugh; some may feel sad. In some stories, there maybe is a clear way to seek God’s kingdom, and in other cases, the right thing to do is less obvious. I’m not a preacher who can instruct professors how to act, or equipped to judge the actions of others. I am an Christian anthropologists and ethnographer who sought to describe what situations that new faculty might encounter. So I hope nobody looks to these stories as guides for actions, but instead take Joel’s advice of learning the word and praying about this strange institution called the university.

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