Friday, September 26, 2008

Pushing the Pile

Today marks the beginning of the end of a multi-year process aimed toward my promotion to the rank of full professor.

For those readers who may not know, there are several steps along the path of advancement for tenure-track professors. In my case, the process began in 1998 when I was hired as an assistant professor of communication studies, an entry-level position for folks completing a doctorate and planning a career of teaching, research, and service. As an assistant professor, I did pretty much everything that any other professor does. But I knew always that colleagues were assessing whether they made the right call in hiring me. Tenure is a lifelong commitment; they have to be sure.

Fortunately, my university provides several opportunities to receive feedback on progress toward tenure. On the second and fourth year, candidates are asked to produce detailed dossiers of work to date, and they receive feedback from every level of university governance. Moreover, candidates receive more observations from their local department and college each odd year. No one wanders in the dark about this process.

In fall 2003 I submitted my dossier (copies of syllabi, teaching evaluations, peer observations, copies of published work, conference presentations, evidence of service to the university, field, and world beyond, and more) for tenure and promotion to associate professor. Thanks to the guidance of departmental colleagues, my dossier passed muster and I received the final OK at the end of the spring 2004 semester.

That's right. The final review process, from department to college to university to provost and president to board of trustees, takes a full academic year.

Since I did my best to follow Ray McKerrow's maxim during my probationary period, "when in doubt, act tenured," I observed little difference in my day-to-day life after receiving that promotion. I could serve on more committees and I got paid a bit more, but otherwise I remained pretty much the same guy who shows up to class in tacky aloha shirts.

However, I did note how the obligation to balance individual academic freedom with a focus on the needs of the larger community becomes more real, more tangible, after tenure. Reaching this point of job security is no license to goof off. It's a call to tackle ever more leadership on and off campus, to take responsibility for a university I call my own.

In the years from 2004 until now I've worked to earn advancement to this culminating point. I think I've been more productive since getting tenure than before. Perhaps I just couldn't stop thinking about the next dossier. But I prefer to imagine that I simply acculturated myself to the demands and delights of professorial life. And now it's time to undergo one final year of intense evaluation.

The paperwork is gathered (now including more external review, more articles and books, and even more piles of internal documentation), the pages are hole-punched, and the binders are organized. From the loose pile of paper you see in the photograph above, I've completed a bound dossier that looks fit for review.

It's amazing to think of all those years-old letters of observation and student responses and yellowed newspaper clippings that have endured to this point. I can't even imagine how I'd respond if a fire had swept its way through my file cabinet… We're talking about a thousand pieces of paper, some easily downloadable, some existing only in one copy. I never did count the total, but it's a lot. Finally it's all put together.

Now I can begin to relax. A little. After years of preparation and weeks of editing, my dossier is off my desk and working its way through the university. While I cannot guarantee the results of this process, I have submitted my work with confidence that this department has given me a fair chance to make the case.

I hope I'll have good news next May.

May 22 Update: The letter I received this morning started with "Congratulations!" I'm delighted to report that my promotion to full Professor is effective August 20.

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