Since deciding to leave the professoriate, I’ve read countless blogs written by those struggling with the same decision. Like me, these folks have endured the time consuming, mentally exhausting, ego busting, money devouring “tenure-track odyssey.” We’ve persisted in our pilgrimage because we were promised the glory of a title. If only we worked hard enough, we would be rewarded. If we published enough, attended enough conferences, served on enough committees, mentored enough students. . . But even that isn’t sufficient, particularly for contingent faculty hoping to become tenure-track.
We’re also expected to walk a tightrope, balancing qualities and habits that are often impossible to reconcile. For example, we’re expected to be innovative in our teaching, but not so much that it threatens the “old guard” faculty. We’re to be completely available for departmental events and student needs but simultaneously advised to say “no” and to protect our “writing time.” We’re expected to be collegial and enthusiastic, but then criticized for being ingratiating. We’re supposed to engage in “student-centered,” “reflexive,” “personalized” pedagogy, but then are told we’re not publishing enough.
So the message is to achieve the impossible. Be imaginative but not too forward-thinking. Be self-sacrificing yet assertive. Dutiful but not keen.
It’s a persistent, exhausting tug-of-war that provides search committees easy “outs” when evaluating candidates:
“She spends a lot of time mentoring students, but she only has one publication.”
“He uses a lot of technology in the classroom, perhaps too much.”
“She seemed pleasant, but I thought she was overly enthusiastic.”
“I just don’t think he’s the right fit.”
And so it goes.
Since earning my Ph.D. in 2010, I’ve served as a Lecturer and Visiting Assistant Professor, both full-time but contingent positions. These past four years were supposed to be devoted to breaking up my dissertation into journal articles and publishing like my livelihood depended on it (which it did). Not surprisingly, teaching three to five classes per semester did not permit me to even look at my dissertation.
My “writing time” was also spent on tasks that aren’t expected of a contingent faculty member. I informally advised students and wrote letters of recommendation. I sat in on faculty meetings and served on committees. I attended just about every department event, typically arriving early and staying late. I participated in professional development trainings, book groups, and workshops.
During this time, I noticed that many of my tenure-track and tenured colleagues didn’t attend departmental or college events. Most didn’t take advantage of professional development opportunities. Some didn’t even show up for faculty meetings.
At first, I convinced myself that I was being collegial and demonstrating how much I valued the department and college. But after a while I started to doubt the professional benefit of setting up tables and arranging flowers at our senior reception or attending every faculty meeting even though I wasn’t allowed to vote. I realized that most of the tenure-track and tenured faculty didn’t volunteer for everything like I did because they were protecting their time. They were prioritizing their research–like I should have been doing.
So this is my advice for adjuncts, lecturers, and visitors who hope to obtain a tenure-track position: put yourself first. Don’t do more than is expected of you. Teach your classes, hold office hours, then go home. Work on your research.
Learn from my mistakes. Don’t get sucked into taking on the role of the dutiful, eager, always-available colleague who will pick up others’ slack.
I thought focusing on teaching and service would help me obtain a position at a teaching-focused, liberal arts institution. But those types of colleges are becoming rare and many are placing just as much emphasis on publications as more research-intensive schools. With the number of PhDs growing larger, search committees have the luxury of choosing from pools of outstanding candidates. If they can pick the excellent teacher with 12 publications, they will. Devoting your time to committee work, alumni receptions, panel discussions, professional development workshops, and book clubs will simply take valuable time away from getting the publications necessary to garner a second look by search committees.
In the end, however, I decided that publishing for the sake of publishing wasn’t how I wanted to spend my career. I decided I value education much more than I value academia. And I value collegiality and collaboration much more than is possible or encouraged in higher education. So I decided to jump off the tightrope and start a new journey that hopefully won’t require such an impossible balancing act.
But, if you still dream of that Assistant Professor title, then put yourself and your research first.