Failure in the Tenure Process: We Can Do Better

Tenure is the brass ring of the academy, and careers are made or broken in the effort to achieve it in an all-or-nothing race against the clock. Yet, there are few authoritative sources on the rules of the race or how it is to be judged. Instead, the tenure process is generally conceived but highly variable and relatively opaque, and it goes under-scrutinized because those who succeed rarely question the methods and those who fail rarely talk about their experience.

In my contribution to the PS: Political Science and Politics symposium, Reflecting on the Profession, I reflect on a few of the institutional failures apparent from my own denial of tenure in 2010, including lack of transparency, accountability, and effective leadership. I argue for intentional hiring with written contracts that define tenure requirements; clear and transparent tenure standards so junior faculty understand expectations; honest pre-tenure reviews that provide candid feedback about progress toward tenure; meaningful consideration of external evaluations that provide a broader context for understanding accomplishments of tenure candidates; and, effective leadership in the decision making process.

The article is online with the other thoughtful, insightful contributions to the symposium. All are ungated for the month of October.

Taking Back My Happy Place

I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it's such a big deal.

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The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.

After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.

Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.

* * * * *

When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.

Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.

But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.

I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.

For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.

At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.

The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.

Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.

What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.

Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.

Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.

And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.

But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.

I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.

* * * * *

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.

Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.

Or back, as it were.

First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.

Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!

Grad School Reflections: The Dissertation Support Group

For the last three year, I’ve taken my students each term to the Library of Congress for a research seminar and tour. I lucked out when I was first assigned to a wonderful librarian; I’ve been able to schedule him for almost every visit since then. He spends about 45 minutes with us discussing the history of the Library and how it works, and my students get their Reader Identification Cards so they can use the Library for their research. After a brief look at some of the smaller rooms in the library — like the Children’s Literature Center where the smallest book in the world is displayed, and the Microform Room where my students look at me with their “The what?” expressions — he takes us into the Main Reading Room. The audible gasp from my class when they walk through the door is my favorite part of the trip. The grandeur is overwhelming and is not lost on them. I love hearing them remark that they feel smarter just for walking across the threshold; I have the same feeling every time. Another regular part of the visit has become a joy for me, although it wasn’t initially! During the seminar portion, as an example of how to search online databases, the librarian includes one for dissertations. And he pulls mine up every time. It’s a very nice gesture and method for engaging my class, but it was startling for me at first! I have two copies of my thesis in my home office, but haven’t opened them for years. It’s been a long time since I defended, an obvious point when he scrolls past the publication date of 1995 and the students do the math. No one is more shocked than me to realize that over 20 years has passed and the thesis is older than every one of them.

Yet it feels much more recent than that and the memory makes me happy. I liked grad school — mostly — but my favorite part was writing my dissertation. Well, maybe not the actual writing, which was a bit dry and formulaic as academic writing often is. It was the research that I enjoyed, designing a study of my own. I wasn’t sure that I’d like it or that I’d be any good at it. But I loved having the time to think bigger thoughts and to be creative. Unlike course work, this was fun!

It was also a challenge, every bit of it. And stressful. Unlike many of my classmates, I didn’t feel the need to be the best, to write a masterpiece (as if). I wanted to do good, solid work. And I wanted to finish. It helped that I took “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” advice to heart.

More important, though, was the Dissertation Support Group. We were four, from the same cohort, with different intellectual and personal experiences and histories, different substantive interests, and different professional goals, who bonded through the “boot camp” years and worked together at the end to get it done.

Initially, I wasn’t so sure about a group. I preferred working alone and at my own pace; I was disciplined and knew how to structure my time. I resisted competing with others and found it difficult to be around the hyper-competitiveness that’s so prevalent in grad school. For some, that environment was stimulating and productive. Not for me. It made me anxious and increased my self-doubt. School was hard enough; I didn’t need the extra pressure of everyone else’s crazy.

But our group worked. Although we had different work habits and varying levels of intensity, we were able to put them aside to support each other. We’d work at the library, get coffee to start the day, meet for beers at the end of a long week. We’d touch base on our progress, work through individual challenges, and set goals for the next time. And we’d vent. A lot. This and other social aspects of the group was much more important than I’d anticipated. When course work ends and dissertating begins, the time spent alone increases exponentially. Even for someone like me, who valued solitary work space, loneliness was a challenge. I’m sure there was friction at times, but I don’t remember it. In the end, we withstood the inevitable tensions of writing and defending our dissertations with our friendship — and (most of) our sanity — intact.

I’m now reminded of this remarkable camaraderie every term when we visit the Library. As my students calculate my age from the publication date, I smile to myself while the librarian continues to scroll through the pages of the dissertation to the acknowledgements. There — with the dedication to my family and my closest friends — is my tribute to the members of the Dissertation Support Group. Truly, the best of times.