At this time of year, Assistant Professors turn their minds to their tenure applications. Last week, apparently in the throes of the process, Chris Wolff asked whether anyone had “any advice for someone reluctant to sign their own praises”. I gave some brief replies in that thread, but I wanted to expand a bit here. There is plenty of good, easily accessible advice out there on how to structure your package and what to put in it (and of course, don’t forget to read your Faculty Handbook).
I would like to talk here about the overall approach to writing a tenure package, rather than the details. The tenure package can be traumatic to write, but it shouldn’t be. Here are a few pieces of advice I’ve picked up along the way from my mentors. I hope they can be helpful to those going through these processes now or soon.
It isn’t hazing, It’s a rare opportunity to reflect
Writing a tenure application is scary. The stakes are very high. Tenure denial, at the very least means major life-changes, and at worst, the end of an academic career. I won’t tell you to forget the stakes, because you won’t. I will ask you though, to think of tenure not as a test, but as an opportunity.
Writing a tenure application is often the first opportunity we’ve had since starting grad school to really think about what we’re doing, rather than just getting it done at breakneck pace. Ask yourself: When is the last time you gave yourself the luxury of thinking beyond the next 18 months, beyond the next grant application, course prep, or paper submission? More importantly, when is the last time you’ve taken the time to do any looking back at all?
Not only can you afford to give yourself that luxury right now, you are expected to. For a few months, “working on my tenure package” will get you out of most any other professional responsibility, with a knowing, understanding nod, and perhaps even a rare note of approval. Take full advantage of the opportunity.
Looking back, what is the long-term program on which you’ve been engaged? What is the one (or two at the very most) question that has animated your work? What ties it all together since the beginning? In other words, what is the big unanswered question that keeps you up at night?
Depending on the mission of the institution at which you are applying, this program will be one either primarily of research, of teaching, or of service to the community. The basic question is the same: what are you trying to accomplish with your career?
Before you start writing, you should be able to answer this question in a couple of short sentences, in a way that your local shopkeeper will understand and relate to. Because after all, you’re doing it for them and their children, and their taxes are helping you do it.
Change your perspective
Even though you can’t forget the stakes, you can let them recede a bit in your mind, to give room at the front for your writing. Do something that helps you divert your attention from the most dire potential consequences of your unfortunate life choices. Go jam with some friends. Sit on a beach with a book and a beer. Make a curry. Binge watch the third season of Gilligan’s Island. Whatever works for you.
Then, feeling refreshed, and with the urgency of the situation slightly attenuated for short while, ask yourself: What story am I trying to tell here? How did I get here? Where am I heading? The answers to those questions should be right at the top of your first paragraph. They should orient the reader and prepare them to interpret the things you will show them.
Connect your starting point and your ultimate goal
Don’t try to convince anyone that you are worthy of tenure. This is your chance to document what you’ve done so far, how it fits in with your long-term program, and how it naturally leads to what you are doing now and what you will do later. This applies to research, teaching, and service.
Again, depending on your type of institution, you will describe either how your research informs and improves your teaching, or how the insights gained in teaching feed into your scholarship. The documentation will be primarily papers in peer-reviewed journals or monographs and their reviews in some contexts, and student and peer evaluations along with course syllabi developed in some others.
The important thing is that the materials you include tell the story of how you got to where you are, and where and how you plan to go on from here. If you have been lucky enough to be able to align your service activity with your research and teaching goals, tell that story, too.
Tell people what your destination is, and how it connects to your starting point and your present location. Take the time to give the committees and the external reviewers the tools and knowledge they need to understand the contribution you’ve made, why you’ve focused on it, and where it will lead.
Reconnect with your trajectory
The underlying assumption here is that you have a clear and simple story to tell. You may not feel that way right now, but lost in the minutia and urgency of grad school comps, dissertation, post-doc projects, course preps and grading, grant applications, collaborative projects and co-teaching, of responses to reviewers, and yes, even of committee meetings, there is a story. There is a trajectory. Take the time to reconnect with it before you start writing your tenure package. You did what you did for a reason. You did it because you want to go on and do other things. Even under strong and unwelcome constraints, you made the choices you made. Take the time to find out why, and tell us all about it.