Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Balancing tenure and promotion

Tenure and promotion processes can vary at each institution. At Auburn, readers of your tenure file get the summer to review your file and write their letters. By mid-August, the file is disseminated to your senior colleagues for review and a vote.  The file then goes to a college committee for a vote. At this point, if the college vote is positive, the Associate Dean might tell you to “pop the champagne” while waiting an additional three months for the University committee to vote (I happily followed her suggestion). In my case, the Dean told me that by the time I heard from the University committee, I would be on to new projects and the letter would almost feel anticlimactic. While the first part of her statement was correct, the latter was not. I don’t know if I’m unique in this regard.  I don’t know if the stress of having kids along the way or the multiple revisions I’d had to make made me feel differently about that letter.  I do know that almost a year later, I still feel like I am basking in the glow. 

Getting tenure feels great. But as many colleagues will warn you, it does not get easier. I still work most weekends and some late nights. I still feel behind much of the time, or like I almost—but not quite—have my act together.  The demands on my time and energy are more numerous, not less.

But somehow things are different. I think part of the difference is, of course, the security that tenure provides. I also think getting tenure has helped me have more confidence in myself and my work. I know how hard it has been to write my article and my book, and to teach multiple new preps over the years. Making it through all of that has given me increasing self-assurance in my own abilities and more forgiveness for my shortcomings.

I’m also more realistic about what I can accomplish and try to say no more often.  I now ask myself a series of questions when someone asks me to do something.  Do I really want to do the task? Is it important for my research, teaching, or other responsibilities? Will I regret it if I say no? Am I just agreeing to do this task because I feel guilty or obligated?  I know my time is precious and valuable (to me, at least!), so I try to reserve it for the things that matter most to me.

And I’ve come to accept that prioritizing the things that are important to me might mean I publish less often than other colleagues and friends.  This realization continues to be a tough one for me. I definitely have a tendency to compare myself to others. I know I need to get over that (and I’m working on it). I now make choices based on what I’m passionate about and what I want to accomplish. Some of those accomplishments will be publications, presentations, or other academic goals, but many will not. In the past eighteen months, especially, my priorities have shifted to include more volunteer time and work in local progressive causes. I also get to spend more time with my family. Finally, I also value my “me time”.  I see these things as an investment in myself and my sanity. Now that I feel somewhat more confident in my abilities and my professional life, I have also learned how important it is to balance my work with the many other areas of life.  I see these things not as distractions, but as critically necessary elements of a well-rounded person. But I still want to keep researching and writing, too!

In the months since I received tenure, I have faced the mountainous task of starting a second major research project.  The demands of teaching, service, and other personal and professional tasks continue.  It is often too easy to push work on my next project to the side.  But I’ve been warned more than once by other colleagues and friends of the dangers of languishing as an associate professor.  I do want to keep actively participating in the scholarly community.

I vowed to keep moving forward on my research and writing.  I spent the summer after tenure catching up on some reading and thinking about ideas for the next book.  I then spent the fall applying for a few grants and making plans for future research trips.  This semester (spring 2018), I am teaching a class that involves research on slavery in Auburn and the surrounding area in hopes that the research we do in class will contribute to the foundations of my new project.  Linking up my research and teaching so directly will force me to make progress during the semester, when I might otherwise push off research tasks in favor of putting out the immediate fires of teaching and service.

Although I am still working out the particulars, I plan to focus my next project on slavery in Alabama. Practical concerns rate high on the list of reasons for this choice.  But I am also excited to look into a place where slavery was so important (Alabama had the fourth largest enslaved population in the nation on the eve of the American Civil War) and that has received relatively little scholarly attention.  I look forward to sharing with many of you what I find. 

Thank you all for reading my posts and to the Legal History Blog for inviting me to write for you all this month.  It has been a fun and eye-opening experience to reflect on the process of research and writing and think about what kinds of lessons I can take from it.  I hope some of my mistakes and accomplishments will be helpful to future readers and other scholars struggling through the challenges of writing a book and launching a career.