Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Balancing the tenure clock

The realities of the tenure clock can result in enormous pressure on faculty no matter what the circumstances of a particular person or institution.  There is no one-size-fits-all model for succeeding in a tenure-track position.  Sometimes the department, college, and university expectations for tenure and promotion are clearly communicated. Often, they are not. Even when you know what’s expected for tenure, the timeframe can be tight and nerve-wrecking.  And even when you have met the requirements, a certain anxiety creeps in and seems unavoidable.  This post explains my journey to tenure and promotion. Tomorrow’s post will then conclude with a few thoughts about life on the “other side” as a tenured associate professor (spoiler alert: it doesn’t get easier, but it does get better!).

In my previous post, I explained how I turned in my initial book submission in late May 2014, two weeks before my son’s arrival.  Sending in my manuscript meant I had the first several months of my son’s life free from research to focus on my baby. When I received my initial readers’ reports that November, I slowly returned to writing and revising.  See my earlier post on balancing feedback for more on those initial reports and incorporating their suggestions.

Fitting in my revisions around teaching three classes and caring for two young children was no small challenge.  It took me nine months to complete what I hoped would be the last round of revisions.  I sent the revised manuscript to the press the day before starting class in fall 2015.  [You might be noticing a pattern of how deadlines usually work for me.] 

Late in the fall of 2015, I received two new reports on the revised manuscript from my initial readers, Martha Jones and reader #2.  These reports were probably the hardest set of feedback I received because it meant that my book required additional, substantial revisions. The ticking of my tenure clock grew louder.  I never believed the book was perfect.  But I had hoped that any additional suggestions from my second reader would include a recommendation that it be published.  Instead, my editor indicated that the book would be sent to a third reader to determine its fate. If the third reader recommended publication, I would be good and my tenure application in fall 2016 should be safe. After many years of working of research and writing, it felt like so much was riding on what one person thought of the book.

Martha Jones, who identified herself to me at this point in the process (and gave me permission to name her in these posts), continued to recommend publication. But she challenged me on chronology, in particular.  She warned that using a thematic structure for the book obscured a sense of change over time in the St. Louis freedom suits. She also pushed me to define my place in the historiography.  I knew that tracing change is important for a historian, but by this point in my revision, I felt wedded to the thematic structure of the book. In my view, the St. Louis freedom suits did not lend themselves to a simple chronological organization. The cases began with smaller numbers that increased rapidly by the mid-1820s and then dropped off sharply after 1845. From the mid-1820s until the mid-1840s, a similar set of issues came up in court and resulted in similar overall patterns of outcomes. To help address her concern, I resolved to make these periods of chronological change clearer in the revisions.     

I was less sure how to respond to the feedback I received from reader #2.  The second reader remained frustrated with the appellate material I included in the book despite my efforts to trim it down and explain its place.  Given that I argue for the importance of using local court records, I understand this reader’s frustration with my use of appellate cases for context.  I made the decision to use appellate cases mostly for practical reasons.  The tenure deadline meant that I simply did not have time to complete additional large-scale research in local courts across the slaveholding states.  Until additional local studies of freedom suits are published, the appellate material remains the best way to contextualize St. Louis’s story.  The second reader also had concerns about my use of the term “legal culture,” asking me to clarify further not only what legal culture is, but also what it is not.  These comments reminded me that legal culture cannot be everything or the term had no meaning.  I then crafted a more precise definition that made clear what I meant by using the term “legal culture”.    

Reading back through the manuscript with these critiques in hand, I felt the creep of self-doubt and discouragement.  I knew the second reader was right about both of these issues, but I was unsure how to fix them.  My editor cautioned me against making too many changes while waiting for the third reader’s report. Because so much was riding on the third reader’s evaluation, the editor sought out someone who had time to read the manuscript quickly. A swift response would allow me time for further revisions or, in the worst-case scenario, submitting to another press.  I was panic-stricken while waiting for the third report. I had sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden days.  [Post continues after the jump break.]

Thinking about how the process unfolded for me, I feel fortunate that my institution allowed some flexibility with the timeline for tenure.  (Auburn allows extensions on the tenure clock for a number of situations, not only for having a child.  Even institutions that do not grant family leave often have some sort of policy in place for extending the tenure deadline with a major life event.)  I did have to take the step of affirmatively applying for extra time—which I did.  I received two years’ extension of my tenure clock (one year for each child).  At the time of my first application for that extension, I never thought I would need the extra time. I underestimated how much revising I would need to do. Waiting on the third reader’s evaluation, I realized how important taking those extra years could be.

I was also very fortunate to have a research leave semester in spring 2016.  I had planned to use my leave semester to begin another article project and start thinking about my next book idea.  Neither of those plans happened that semester.  When the third readers’ report arrived, I knew that I would be using all of my leave time to finish the book. My third reader recommended publication, but the report also included a long list of strong suggestions.  I hoped my editor would recommend publication and take the project to the Press board for final approval, but he asked me to make one final push to address reader #3’s concerns.  I am grateful for this last set of revisions (and for reader #3!). 

When I initially read the reader’s suggestions—for example, improving the “narrative drive” of the manuscript—I felt lost about how to implement them.  None of the critiques struck me as unfair or incorrect, but I struggled to figure out how to put broad ideas like narrative drive into an increasingly polished (or so I thought!) manuscript.  I once again sought advice from trusted advisors and colleagues, and, after developing a plan of action, I scheduled a phone conversation with my editor.  In that phone call, I pitched to him a list of specific ways I intended to address the reader’s concerns.  For example, to improve the flow of the narrative and the readability of the book, I agreed to include brief anecdotes to start each chapter.  I also cut all of my chapter’s conclusions because they tended to repeat what I’d already said throughout the chapter before transitioning to the next chapter.  I tightened the argument and set up for the book in the introduction, cleaned up some of the wordiness throughout the chapters, and wrote yet another draft of a book conclusion.  It was tough to cut so many of those hard-fought words from the book, but in the end, I know they made the book stronger.

I turned the final manuscript in to the Press after a couple of months of full-time revising. And then I waited. I felt fairly confident after my discussion with the editor that the book would eventually be accepted. Now I worried about the timing for tenure. If I could submit the final manuscript by May, I could go up for tenure the following year.  If not, I would be bumped into that last year of my twice-extended tenure clock. I continued to fine-tune the manuscript and add final pieces of historiography to the footnotes while I waited to hear from my editor.

I think I will always remember the exact moment I got my editor’s email that the Press Board had approved my book for publication. I was walking back to my office hallway (which we affectionately call “the cul-de-sac”) with a colleague, and I heard the familiar ding of my email.  I glanced at it while we were talking (I know, I should stop doing that).  I started jumping up and down, and she immediately did too.  It was a good day.  All of the hard work, the late nights, and the multiple rounds of major revisions were worth it. 

Tomorrow I will conclude my month at LHB with a few final thoughts on post-tenure life.