Taking the Guesswork Out of Tenure
After spending many years as an 8th grade language arts/social studies teacher, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned that relationships are the cornerstone of teaching and learning. Treat your students with respect and kindness, and that’s what you’ll get in return. I also learned that the best-laid plans rarely play out that way. I learned that flexibility is worth more than gold, and that getting enough sleep is next to godliness. But, in terms of assessment, I learned very quickly that it was only fair and just that I informed my students ahead of time how I would be grading their assignments. I provided rubrics that corresponded with specific criteria. I provided checklists and exemplars and tried as hard as I could to avoid playing that age-old game of “guess-what’s-in-the-teacher’s-head.” It’s a dumb game that nobody wins, yet it’s played out again and again, and not just in middle school classrooms.
When I made the switch to higher education nearly a decade ago, I was surprised to find how similar my former career was to my current career. Relationships continue to be the cornerstone of faculty/student and faculty/faculty interactions, things rarely go as planned, and flexibility and sleep are crucial. However, what I learned about assessment—about how I was to be assessed—was, sadly, very different. Where were the rubrics? Where were the criteria? Let me explain.
Unspecific Assessment criteria
In academia, performance is judged in three main categories: teaching, scholarship, and service. As faculty, we are expected to deliver quality instruction, disseminate our scholarly research, and serve our departments, colleges, the university, and our professional communities. This we know coming into the profession, and it’s pretty standard practice no matter where you go. What surprised me, though, was how vague it all was. I was expected to demonstrate “high-quality teaching.” What does that mean? I was expected to “publish in scholarly journals.” How many? Which ones? I was expected to provide “quality service” to my department, college, university and professional community. How? What did it all look like? I like to have the dots placed pretty close to one another. I like structure. I like knowing what the outcomes are supposed to look like before I begin. I like to know exactly how I’m going to be judged. I’m funny that way.
To me, the process of becoming tenured (re: being allowed to continue working at the university that initially hired you) is akin to hazing in a fraternity or sorority. All anybody remembers of it is that it was really, really hard, they never want to do it again, but, by golly, everyone else who comes along after them has to do it to! Misery loves company. What’s fair is fair, right?
But to not tell me how I will be evaluated? By not providing guidelines? What good does that do? Not a lot.
As a woman in academia, I have enough hurdles to jump. I was hired for several thousand dollars less than my male counterparts who were hired at the same time. I will never catch up to them on the pay scale, tenured or not. Academia is not a friendly place for women. We have to work twice as hard to prove our worth. We have to dance backwards. Wearing high heels.
The tenure process for me was one riddled with angst. I was constantly asking myself, “Do I have enough? Am I ready? I feel like I need to do more.” Finally, my time ran out and I had to go up. I had to submit my materials, not really knowing if enough was really enough. So I prayed and I cried and I ate and I was a general grump for the six months that it took the Tenure and Promotion Committee to render their decision. In the end, I passed. I had “enough.” I was allowed to continue to be a member of the club. I was initiated. But the whole process left me feeling wrung out and depleted. I should have felt relieved, grateful, but all I felt was more angst, because I knew that in five short years, the cycle would repeat for my “post-tenure review,” and on and on—a lifetime of wondering if I have “enough.” If I am “enough.” Something had to give.
At the first opportunity I had, I ran for a vacant seat on the Tenure and Promotion Committee. What better way to bring about change than do it yourself, right? Much to my surprise, I was elected, and began to serve my three-year term. If change was going to happen, it was going to happen from the inside, and slowly, I brought models of how other universities conduct tenure reviews. You can bet your bottom dollar that rubrics were involved in nearly all of them.
3 Plus Women Make the Difference
Now, here’s where a little bit of magic came into play. During my time on the T&P Committee, it was comprised of all women! Perfect! We all felt defeated by the tenure process, and we all felt like a change was long overdue. Oh, sure, there was some hesitation (change occurs at a glacial pace in academia), but before long, everyone was on board. Pretty soon, there were exclamations of “Wow—we’ve been going along all this time without any criteria or standards! No wonder this is such a painful process!” We agreed that we would never subject our own students to such vague assessment standards, so why were we subjecting ourselves?
So, I am now happy to report that after nearly two years of drafting and re-drafting, my college now has a new Tenure and Promotion plan, complete with standards, criteria, and rubrics (oh, my)! We now spell out very clearly exactly how much is “enough.” Simply put, it takes the guesswork out of tenure. Now, new faculty can gauge their progress, and not have to question their worth, work-wise or otherwise. Happier faculty, better relationships, with others and ourselves. Makes sense to me.
by Lauren G. McLanahan
Lauren G. McLanahan is an Associate Professor of Secondary Education at Western Washington University. Her specialty areas included literacy and environmental and sustainability education.