Sunday, February 21, 2016

De-Mything the Tenured Professor

I have been seeing lots of retweeting of Stephen Walt's post on How to Get Tenure.*  There is some truth to what he says, but it is also much more narrowly applicable than he suggests.  Why?  Chicago/Harvard (where he has worked) are atypical,** where attaining tenure is rare and difficult.  He acknowledges the narrowness of his experience but not the exceptions that these places are. At most colleges and universities in the US and Canada, tenure is not that difficult to achieve--failing to get tenure is the exception.  Instead, the real challenge is getting that first tenure-track position, something that has become increasingly difficult over the years.
* I missed much of the discussion as I was on the road during my school's winter break, skiing and presenting Adapting in the Dust to a couple of universities in Quebec (not simultaneously).
** I was once asked to write a tenure/promotion letter for a candidate at Harvard, and I was given eight names or so and asked whether this candidate was equal to or better than these eight names--all people at the very tippy top of the profession in terms of impact/citation count/reputation.  No other place for whom I have written letters have been that specific about the comparables.
A key caveat here: one of the Iron Laws of Academia, the Iron Law of Hostility and Favoritism, is that merit only matters when there are forces within the department/school that are determined to deny promotion/tenure or determined to grant promotion/tenure.  If folks are arrayed against you, it does not matter what you do.  If folks are arrayed in favor of you, then you don't even have to check that much of the list.  Sorry, but that is the reality.  There are checks and balances--outside letters and committees/officials up the university chain of command--but they can fail.

One more disclaimer: I have taught mostly in research-oriented programs: one near the bottom of the food chain in the US, one at the top of the rankings in Canada, and a university that is ranked in the middle but within the premier international affairs policy school.  But I have not taught at a liberal arts college, in part because I blew one or two of the few chances I had to get positions at such places (and also that Iron Law above came into effect once or twice).

Ok, with those caveats out of the way, let's go through Walt's listicle:

I do concur with Walt's take on tenure itself: that it gives profs the chance to invest in long term projects, to let them write controversial things, that it is the key to providing academic freedom.  What he does not mention is that tenure also allows one to be teach controversial ideas in the classroom, to engage in long term efforts to revise how one teaches, to experiment and thus have low teaching evaluations without threatening one's job.  So, tenure is not just for research academic freedom but freedom to teach.

His list:

  1. Tenure is a wager.  A bet on trajectory. Sure, but the standard is not "chance to best person in your field" except at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and a few others.  Chicago? Meh, the tenure denials I know of didn't have much to do with that wager as those denied turned out to mostly be pretty much the best in their field.  Note in this item, Walt presents his usual hostility to citation counts and adds a soup├žon of hostility to co-authorship.  There is broader acceptance of co-authorship elsewhere, so I am not sure this is a Walt thing or a Harvard thing.  But hostility to co-authorship is real and shows up in strange places (like in my promotion to full professorship at McGill where some folks seemed to think that co-authored work should not count at all--well, that was the excuse when applying the Iron Law of Hostility and Favoritism).  Still, it is about trajectory, but we need to clear that what counts as a good/sufficient trajectory varies from place to place.  
  2. "What is expected is straightforward, but the simplest things are difficult."  Again, your mileage may vary, as some places have elusive tenure standards or shifting ones.  But the basic idea is right--figure out what the department/school values and then try to do it.  If it is an article place (where books are discounted), write articles.  If it is a book place, write a book.  Of course, not all ideas are book worthy and not some projects are best done as coherent books rather than a series of articles.  A related rule here is: don't waste one's dissertation.  If you think you can get tenure without publishing off of your dissertation, then good luck with that.  But one also needs to figure out what one's field values since outside letters matter in this process (and also one usually wants to have a record that would play elsewhere in case one wants to or has to leave).
  3. "You need to do important research."  Here is a very controversial assertion.  What counts as important?  For many programs, citation counts are a key measure.  All research should be novel--the standard for any publication is whether it is original.  Changes how we think?  That is one measure, but it is not the only one.  Not all stuff changes how we think about things.  For instance, Stephen Walt's dissertation/first book was a modest modification of balance of power theory.  Did it change how we thought?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it articulated an important way about how we think about alliance formation.  My first book/dissertation was similarly not so counter-intuitive/earthshaking--countries support the contenders in an ethnic conflict with which they share ethnic ties.  Zowie.  Not so earthshattering, except that I was arguing against a conventional wisdom that said that states, ethnic ties or not, would not support secessionists elsewhere if they themselves were vulnerable to separatism.  The standard of showing up on grad syllabi is not a bad one, but again not a standard that is likely to be applied beyond the top ten schools or so.  Time also works in this: how much time does it take to publish a piece so that it is out there, and then profs then add it to their syllabi, dropping other stuff (with some exceptions, syllabi are not near infinite)  Hmmm.  Importance is really evaluated by the outside letter writers--and then, as Walt mentions, networks, gender and other stuff comes in.  The trick in articles/books/grant applications is to be able to be clear about what one's contribution is.
  4. Quality matters more than quantity, Walt avers.  Well, that depends on the local tenure standards.  I tend to agree with Walt on this, but it is not a universally shared view.  Indeed, some administrators are very much bean counters and articles are beans.  Again, it pays to know what works at your local institution.
  5. Where you publish matters.  Absolutely.  But again, this varies across the discipline.  At TTU, the expectation was (in my day long ago) that one would publish at least one piece in a top journal, with much contestation over what is a top journal: just the big three general journals or the top journals in each subfield.  As a non-Americanist, I vote for the latter, as does Walt.  There is also limited space in the top three, so in a time of everyone expected to publish in quality journals to get tenure, it is simply impossible for everyone to have multiple hits in APSR/AJPS/JOP.  Again, check what works at your place--look at the CV's of who got tenure and who was denied.
  6. Don't Be Afraid to Challenge Senior Figures. I have never seen junior faculty shy away from taking on the theories of senior scholars.  Kind of hard to be important and interesting and relevant if one just focuses on targeting junior faculty and sucking up to senior faculty (although some senior faculty, especially within one's own department, expect sucking up).   So, no disagreement here--target the work that interests you.
  7. What about teaching?  Walt is not wrong on this here for research schools--being an excellent teacher is never sufficient.  Being an adequate one can be necessary, depending on the school.  Despite the mathematically deprived insistence that "everyone needs to be above average", the reality is that few people are denied tenure for being mediocre at teaching.  However, to be clear, teaching and research are not that hostile to each other--that each can foster the other.  Lots of teaching awards go to very productive researchers.  The teaching can raise questions that then lead to research.  The research can lead to mentoring that improves one's teaching.  Indeed, teaching is not just talking to undergrads in big lecture halls, but can mean involving the students at all levels in one's work so they learn by doing.  Supervising PhD students should not be expected for junior faculty, but some places still do have that expectation.  Not enough supervision of students can be a hindrance to promotion.  The really good piece of advice Walt has here is: get it right the first year of teaching and it will pay dividends down the road.  Hard to do, but if done right, it makes it much easier.  My intro to IR class is still mostly based on what I did my first year.
  8. Be a mensch but not a sap. Well, that depends again on one's place.  If you have senior faculty in your subfield who expect deference, then being a sap might pay off. But it does pay to learn to say no and say yes strategically.  For instance, reviewing for journals is not going to get one tenure--so do enough that you are not a shirker but don't make it your day job.  Indeed, service to the profession is mostly for networking and not for tenure for junior faculty.  Service to your school/department is what matters here.  Again, doing a lot will not get you tenure, but doing none might get in the way of tenure.  
  9. Public engagement: Walt argues that this is important but should be limited before tenure and done much more so afterwards.  I don't disagree that one probably should make one's reputation first via scholarly work, but the costs of blogging/tweeting/whatever are pretty low.  And waiting years to weigh in if one's stuff is relevant is a mistake.  So, Walt is more cautious than I am on this.
  10. Departments are sometimes irrational; the system rarely is.  Um, yes and maybe.  That is, again, the Iron Law of Hostility can bite you.  Whether the profession corrects for that, I am not sure. What this does mean is that one should play to the profession's standards while also playing to the department's.  
Lots of tweets about Walt's piece indicate shock, mock or real, that teaching does not matter as much as research, as these folks think that our day job is teaching and research is a bonus.  Nope, universities are places where knowledge is created, where research is done that helps us understand our world and ourselves.  Teaching is about disseminating that knowledge and teaching our students how to think for themselves about how to evaluate all this knowledge that is created.  We should do more to teach our new profs how to teach (there is far more done now than twenty years ago, far more resources to help profs), and we should have more incentives.  But since we suck at measuring good teaching (see all the recent stuff on how teaching evals favor men, for instance), one reason to focus on the research end of things is that we think we know what good research is.

And again, there is far, far more variance than Walt avers.  I was asked about differences between the US and Canada on this stuff, and my first answer would be unions.  That Canada is mostly unionized, which makes tenure denial really hard (Carleton has a short tenure clock, which means departments have to set low expectations).  Otherwise, much similarity to the US, except that the top Canadian schools are nothing like Harvard/Chicago: the expectation at UBC (I think), Toronto (I am pretty sure) and McGill (I know) is that people will get tenured unless they mess up bigtime.  At Harvard, this is very much not the case.

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