Friday, January 21, 2011

Hard stuff

I writing to commend to you an excellent essay written by Dr. Madeleine Li  about her failure to attain tenure. The story is especially heartbreaking, as her father was dying during that same period. To add insult to injury, Li describes being asked to be the institution's graduation speaker (yes, for the whole institution) at the same time that she is needing to find a new job. Her grace and commitment to the students comes through very strongly, and I finished the essay with nothing but respect for Dr. Li.

There are a number of elements to the tenure process that are out of a person's control, leading candidates for tenure to a state of anxiety and a constant series of questions: Will the book get a publisher? Is the publisher good enough? Will the revise and resubmit get through in time? Will they choose an outside reviewer who has a problem with me or my approach to research? Will the two people on faculty who have a grudge against me/my research/my teaching use their pull in the department/college/administration to sink my tenure proposal? Even people with strong records have reason to worry that no one's tenure is guaranteed.

I have known a number of people who did not get tenure, and the experience was devastating for them, even if they were not completely surprised by the decision. Li explains that when her book was not accepted by the press (though it was supported for revision), she knew her chances had diminished. She could have played the tenure game and published essays and articles instead of a book to improve her chances, but that wasn't her vision for her work. That said, embarrassment, frustration, and anger marked her remaining time at her institution.

Yet, I have also seen these same people who didn't get tenure at their original institutions thrive in their next place of employment. Some of these educators were in a situation that was a bad fit (research v. teaching institution), while others were undone by timing issues, tenure process issues, or personal challenges that were addressed by being afforded more time. New institutions and new tenure clocks made a big difference in their abilities to be successful. I hope that Dr. Li's story follows this same trajectory.

This essay is the first in a series, one I look forward to following.

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