Monday, June 20, 2016

Ms. Peppercorn Considers: The Promotion Statement

--> We are pleased to bring you the latest words of wisdom from our our advice columnist in residence, Ms. Peppercorn:

Dear Ms. Peppercorn:

Again I solicit your advice! I need to write a personal statement that explains who I am as a scholar – not for tenure, but for promotion from associate to full professor.  A brief look on the web yields consistent advice for those seeking tenure: write for three audiences (your Dean, your reviewers, and your school’s committee); don’t presume that anyone will read all of it; tell a story, don’t just annotate your cv.

There is less advice about the process from associate to full.  Many law schools actually do not have that step, but some do and certainly those in history departments face the task. Those of us in this betwixt-and-between position are still unsure: do we sit at the kids’ table or with the grownups at Thanksgiving dinner?

Tenure statements are supposed to demonstrate our dogged pursuit of one Great Idea (singularity of purpose). But those on the other side of the tenure divide know that much of our work is the result of fortuitous circumstances, random discoveries, and archival detours.

How can I write a statement that reflects the role of evolution and discovery and chance, and also actually get promoted?

Peregrina (quandary #2)

Dear Peregrina:

Ms. Peppercorn’s first repeat player!  An elite category that entitles you to frequent query status and all its many rewards (TBD).  Tenure statements seem more fraught than personal statements for promotion, to this observer.  After all, you already have a permanent job, which should not be downplayed – security is nice!  Sadly, there is no tenure for advice columnists.

That said, it is clear that promotion statements matter, and that this is not the sort of thing one can safely “mail in.” The exercise is designed to suss out scholarly maturity, forcing you, the candidate, to explain why your most recent work should result in a step up in prominence and responsibility.  Some schools have even held workshops on how to put together such a file, but not all scholars are so fortunate. Ms. Peppercorn also recognizes that for some scholars – such as those who are inclined toward modesty, or who see themselves as part of a collaborative community – the promotion statement may be daunting indeed.

Ms. Peppercorn has called upon three sage advisers: the first a department chair, the second a senior scholar in a history department, and the third jointly appointed in law and history.  All have been through this stage at different universities (two private and one public), and have helped others who have applied for promotion.  They agree that productivity and growth, NOT a single big idea, are the keys.  They also endorse the sense that evolution in approach and ideas reflects the best in a scholar’s trajectory.

Here are the three answers I received to your question: 

1.      When I advise people on the personal statement, I say to think of it as a dynamic intellectual biography that clarifies the trajectory and stakes of one's work, in a way that might not be apparent simply from reading the work. Important to discuss all teaching and professional service too, especially areas of leadership. 

2.     The key is to show intellectual growth (and publications!) since tenure.  In other words, someone who is progressing from associate to full professor should demonstrate that his/her scholarship has expanded and evolved since the first book, presumably the one that secured tenure.  Evaluations committees want to see continued publication (in history, a second monograph) and a scholar who continues to develop and produce.

3.     I do think it's important to create a narrative, to situate one's work in broader scholarships and to mark its significance, and to note where one is headed as well as where one has been.  I don't think this requires that one have a Hurst-like scholarly life-plan.  I don't, frankly, think that makes for the most interesting scholarship.  For most a combination of life events, place and nature of academic appointments, developments in scholarship, and discoveries along the way shape and reshape even the best laid plans. 

So, dear Peregrina, rest easy:  your sense that you have changed since tenure accords with the experience of these senior scholars.  Not only that, all three see the promotion statement as an opportunity to situate yourself and your fine work in ways that others can understand, and that show how you have changed as your work (and your experience as a scholar) has unfolded over time.  This is all good news!

Onward!!  Ms Peppercorn has great confidence in Peregrina’s instincts, which have led her to exactly the right question. 

Ms Peppercorn is now ready to take other queries under advisement.  Repeat players encouraged.