I have some exciting news: I’ve been TENURED and PROMOTED. Yes, not only did I reach for the brass ring, I pulled that sh*t down and turned it into a pair of fabulous JLo-style hoop earrings. The words on this screen are emanating from the mind of newly-minted Associate Professor Daily Chicana.
This moment came as a huge yet anticlimactic relief. I had to submit my tenure dossier in early September 2013, so it was a long nine-month wait just for my materials to work their way through the various committees and to finally receive the official letter. [Of course, this journey really began six years ago, when I started my tenure-track appointment at my university.] The committees took such a long time because just my dossier alone consisted of two humongous binders, stacking seven inches tall and weighing fourteen pounds (amazingly, this process has not gone digital yet at my school!), and each committee level (department, college, university) had to look through the materials of many more applicants.
It was an effin long, stressful wait . . . because no matter how many times my mentors and senior colleagues reassured me that all would be fine, I couldn’t truly believe and feel it until it was truly official:
Probably no one was more relieved than my loving and patient fiancé, because between submitting my dossier and getting the actual letter, I was stressed, emotional, and liable to cry at the drop of a hat. I hate to admit it, but there may have been a day or two when I went into full-on telenovela mode if, say, I forgot to set the DVR to record Project Runway:
I try never to confirm fly-off-the-handle Latina stereotypes, but hey, sometimes I can’t help it. I need me some Tim Gunn every week.
A few weeks ago, we hosted a grad school friend and her partner for dinner, and it was the first time I’d seen her since The News. She told me, “It’s so weird that you’re tenured! I mean, I didn’t have any doubts that you could do it, but, like . . . you’re tenured. Do you know what I mean?” I think/hope what she was getting at is that it feels strange that suddenly–and somewhat arbitrarily– I’m no longer “junior” faculty. I have some measure of status and authority (a small measure because, let’s be honest, professors and academic politics do not matter much in the face of all the problems in the world). You work so long towards this goal and now it’s like, “Me? I actually made it?!” Especially in light of all the recent, awful statistics about the decline of tenure-track jobs; by some estimates, adjunct, temporary faculty (who have few work protections) make up 75% of instructors at American universities. Then, on top of that, the odds are even tougher for those of us who are scholar of color and the first in our families to embark upon this career path.
Academia is one long journey of constantly feeling like, “When am I going to measure up?” You are forever in the process of submitting your work to others for judgment, whether you are grad student working on a dissertation chapter and seeking your advisor’s feedback; a scholar submitting an abstract to present your work at a conference or sending off a journal article to see if anyone is interested in publishing it; or working a lowly assistant professor, having to check in with senior colleagues and “prove” that your teaching is strong enough, you are publishing enough, and you’re doing enough service for the university. And so to finally get the tenure letter, you want to shout from the rooftops:
I come from a long line of amazing women who often had no opportunities to receive a formal education. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school. So for me to have earned a Ph.D. and made timely progress from assistant to associate professor . . . it’s overwhelming, and I can say it’s an honor even while recognizing that the academy has its host of issues and ugly racial and gender politics.
So how is post-tenure life different so far? The following observations are based on my three months of having the letter in my hands; the eleven days since my associate status actually began; and the seven days since classes started. In other words, let’s see if I agree six months from now on what I am saying in typical know-it-all fashion here.
- The publication pressure is reduced. Gone are the days of struggling to write while that little voice in my head ominously warns, “OMG the quality of the current sentence you are typing will determine whether or not you earn TENURE, so it must be PERFECT!” However, I have been told by my department chair that I should go up for full professor in ~five years, so I still have to keep up my publication record. But now the awful psychological weight is off my shoulders as I write.
- My teaching load has increased. While I was a junior faculty member, my senior colleagues did a lot to help me protect my time, so I had, through various means, a reduced number of courses to teach. Now that consideration is (rightly) going to the new junior faculty who just joined the department. Which means from now on, it’s full on teaching, teaching, teaching (four courses per semester).
- My service load has increased. Now that I’m associate, I
will be expectedhave significantly more opportunities to lead committees and play a more active, outspoken role on them. As with my previous point, when you’re an assistant, you can get away with playing the “no” card more often.
- I have more student advisees. Again, now that I’m a more experienced faculty member in the department, I can’t use the “I need tenure first” reasoning to turn down students who ask me to direct their master’s thesis or undergrad research projects. The result is that I spend more time wondering, “What kind of advisor am I?” The micromanager? The hands-off type? Also, “Oh my god, what do my advisees really think about me and is it my imagination or are they actually running quickly around the corner when they see me approaching?”
- I have more of a “It will be fine, I’ll just wing it” approach to teaching. I care about my teaching–a lot. I am always looking for new pedagogical techniques to share with my students. But after six years of teaching (not counting the other years I spent in a teaching post-doc), I have a much stronger sense of the rhythm of a 75-minute class, how much material I can cover in that time, reliable ways to get discussion started. So I don’t freak out when my lesson plan isn’t fully figured out.
- I simply know more now about how the university works. After six years, I finally know all the acronyms used at my school, who the key players are and which committees do what, who I can turn to for help for particular projects, who are my allies and who are the people to avoid, etc. All of which makes the job far easier and increases the realism with which I approach certain tasks. Instead of being bright-eyed, I am steely-eyed.
Reflecting on the increase of work from assistant to associate, I am reminded of a childhood memory. When I was in first grade, my mom had to drop me off at school early in order to get to work on time. School administrators would take all us early drop-offs (about fifty kids) and usher us into the small auditorium in the building to play a game. This game consisted of one child, specially selected to be “it,” being brought onto the stage to sit in a chair, facing the rest of us, seated in the audience. The “it” kid had two minutes to observe us before selecting the student who had sat the stillest and quietest to be the new “it” for another round of the game. Yes, you “won” the game by sitting as still and silent as possible, just to take a brief, glorious turn on stage and pick someone else, returning to your seat in order to compete again.
I was (and still am) highly competitive; I wanted to win the game so badly that I would turn myself into stone. Have you ever stared at something so hard that your eyes played tricks on you, and you saw weird shadows behind whatever you are staring at? That is how hard I stared at the “it” kid and tried to telepathically convince him or her to pick me next.
Now, thirtysomething years later, I look back and realize that I hadn’t been playing a game at all. We simply had been hoodwinked into behaving quietly until school started and administrators could release us into the hallways. What a buncha bullsh*t! To some extent, that is how the transition from assistant to associate feels: Congratulations, you worked so hard! Now here’s more work!” I have been socialized into the academy and somehow measured up to its definition of success–as always, against the odds as a young woman of color.
Nevertheless, I am happy. This is, after all, my career of choice. I love working with the students in my classes, most of whom are hard-working, first-generation students of color. And I have great, inspiring colleagues who share my commitment to making positive change at our university and advocating for students however we can. I have managed to get my ideas into print, even if few people outside academia ever encounter my words. I may never be a public intellectual like Michael Eric Dyson or Melissa Harris-Perry, but that’s okay because I don’t aspire to that level of recognition. I’m just another mid-career academic, working hard to educate young minds from working-class communities, and there is tremendous personal meaning in that work for me.