Coulda Woulda Shoulda

I had only two weeks to respond to the chair’s letter, so I focused on things that were obviously wrong. I was too preoccupied with trying to absorb the implications of his decision, continuing to go to work and teach, and taking care of my children, to work through all the nuances. And part of me felt like it would be a waste of time to try to fully understand and respond to his letter. Still, I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, especially when something was amiss. And there was definitely something amiss. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was there.

The part of the letter that bothered me most was the “failure” part. I doubt I’d be writing this blog had he not accused me of failing. Everything he said about me and my record boiled down to that one characterization, and it weighed on me. Had I failed? Was I a failure?

In my last post, I distinguished individual and institutional failure, and described the institutional failure of the chair and the department to clearly define, and to honestly and consistently apply, the standards for success.

But where does individual failure come in? As I’ve suggested, ignoring the standards and advice of senior colleagues would certainly be a poor decision, assuming that clear and accurate information are available. But I asked, I read, and I listened, diligently.

Yet, maybe I didn’t do it right. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions? Maybe I didn’t ask the right people? Maybe I didn’t read between the lines? Maybe I didn’t listen carefully enough? I’ve wondered a lot about what I could have done differently, what could have led to a different outcome.

*****

Her trajectory since she got tenure at Kentucky has been downward – perhaps steeply downward – in terms of scholarly production. I cannot reach any other objective conclusion. This is not to impugn any ill motives to Dr. Diascro, who has always seemed ethical and straight forward. I fully believe that she intended to write these articles and had the ideas for them. I am merely observing that for whatever reason, they never appeared. (Chair’s Letter, p. 4)

The chair’s claim was about the quantity, quality, and placement of my research. The number of peer reviewed journal articles I’d published and the number of manuscripts in the pipeline were neither high enough nor in adequate venues to meet the “standards we set” for tenure. Even though I had published consistently, my work wasn’t considered “scholarly production.” The chair came very close to suggesting I lied about the work I had in progress that, “for whatever reason,” hadn’t materialized.

So, what could I have done to avoid this “steeply” downward trajectory?

Among the possible coulda woulda shouldas was agreeing to write for and with one of my senior colleagues (a public law professor and the chair who hired me, not the chair who fired me). I wrote a book chapter because he asked me to contribute to a well-respected university press series. Knowing full well that book chapters (even peer reviewed chapters, as this one was) were not the same as peer reviewed journal articles, I asked about the chapter’s value for my tenure file. He was very supportive of this type of research and venue, and the reviews I received during the probationary period were positive as well.

Still, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps I should have said no to this invitation (and to another book chapter a couple years later).

Similarly, should I have declined the invitation to write the judicial politics reader with him? Not research, but the book was an interesting twist on a pedagogical tool at an institution that I thought valued teaching. Again, I worried about how the project would be viewed for tenure, and especially that it would be time consuming. But my colleague pointed out that a number of senior people in the department had been promoted to associate and full on similar kinds of work. Book chapters and text books wouldn’t replace peer reviewed journal articles, but they were legitimate components of a tenure file at AU. My probationary reviews buttressed this view.

Again, though, perhaps I should have said no.

Perhaps I could have pursued a different strategy for seeking journal publication of my work. I had no reason to think Judicature wasn’t an appropriate venue for some of my research, until the chair (who does comparative politics) claimed it wasn’t. There were a few other publication outlets for empirical judicial and legal research, but Judicature had a good turn around time and published the kind of research I was doing at the time. For my other work, I sought more generalist American politics journals and ultimately got an R&R at a well-respected interdisciplinary social science journal. Unfortunately, that R&R wasn’t published; I was in the process of revising for a different journal when I was denied tenure. Perhaps I should have had more manuscripts in the pipeline and out for review; I did have a couple in progress, but at the same time I was working on other research projects for other venues that I believed would count toward tenure.

Maybe I should have said no to the opportunity to be the graduate faculty advisor. But I’d taught a graduate class only once (there wasn’t enough interest in judicial politics in the program) and I wanted to engage with and provide mentorship to graduate students. This seemed like a good way to do it.

Also, I might have said no to the dean when he asked me to serve on the university-wide parental leave committee, which worked for three years to write AU’s first policy. But, as he pointed out, I was a new parent and this was a great opportunity to get university exposure and contribute to a very important issue.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have delayed my tenure clock for the birth of each of my two kids, despite being encouraged to do so by the dean. My instinct was to not exercise this option, but having the two years back on my clock allowed me to focus on publishing articles to meet (what I thought were) the tenure standards. Unfortunately, and obviously, this strategy didn’t yield a positive result.

I didn’t have evidence at the time, but I suspected after reading the chair’s letter that stopping the tenure clock played a role in perceptions about my trajectory. Had I not stopped the clock, though, I wouldn’t have published the additional research before going up for tenure. I can’t imagine that this would have increased my chances for tenure. I think I was damned if I took the delay, and damned if I didn’t.

Of course, I wouldn’t have had to worry about delaying my clock if I didn’t have children. I had purposefully not had a family the first time I sought tenure. Putting it off again was not an option. But having two children in the middle years of the probationary period definitely slowed what would have otherwise been a “sustained” research trajectory. There was no “for whatever reason” about it (Chair’s letter, p. 4). The explanation was crystal clear.

And despite (what I’d hoped was well-intentioned) advice from a senior female colleague about how to maintain my productivity – like using my kids’ naptimes to write and using bottles instead of breast-feeding to free up time to work – I opted to sleep when I could and feed my children as I thought best.

I did have a break between the two kids, during which time I planned to increase research production. And, in fact, I did write steadily throughout this time. But, as life – and death – happens, and often unexpectedly, between the births of my children, I spent a lot of time caring for my suddenly and terminally ill father, and then for my family after he died.

*****

In the end, the disparagement of my record, the critique of my trajectory, and the accusation of my failure, was fundamentally about time. How I had spent my time. Whether I had spent it doing the “right” kind of work. It was about whether I was an “ideal worker,” someone sufficiently dedicated to the job such that doing the “right” work was the ultimate priority and that time was allocated accordingly. And the decision by the chair was that I hadn’t and I wasn’t.

Research is the most specialized part of a professor’s job, and the part probably requiring the most long-term, concerted effort to sustain. Dr. Diascro has not done so and, as a former tenured professor at the University of Kentucky, she knows the consequences of this failure. (Chair’s Letter, p. 7)

Maybe.

But what the chair and my “AU peers” knew full well was that the time that I didn’t spend doing the “right” research and demonstrating my value as an ideal worker, was the time I spent having my kids. And burying my dad.

And if my family responsibilities made me a failure in the eyes of my department colleagues – if my family responsibilities disqualified me from continuing as a member of the faculty – then there wasn’t anything I could, would, or should have done differently.