Sufficiently Awesome

When I was first hired as an assistant professor, I sent a business card to my grandmother. As you do. She said "maybe someday you'll be a professor yourself, not just an assistant to one." I need to write this time capsule for myself at this strange liminal time in my life. Forgive me if it is too naval-gazing, but I want to capture it before the moment passes.

Last summer, as I was preparing my final dossier for tenure and promotion, my son asked me: "why is it called 'ten years'?" My response? "I wish."

I've been on the tenure track since 1998. My first assistant professor job was at Penn State. I was the first of my friends to land a tenure track gig, at what seemed to be an impossibly young age. It was a good job with good people. I had wanderlust and was tempted away by a glitzy gig at Ithaca College after three years. It was a good choice, I met so many people who were critical to my development as an artist and person. Like many jobs, the fit changed, and after five years I decided to come to the University of South Carolina to try some new things with colleagues I'd known for a while. Again, an important choice and the right one. So many wonderful connections and relationships I've made here. However, each time I changed jobs, I started the tenure process over from zero.

An explanation for laypeople. Assistant professors on the tenure track have five years to prove that they are sufficiently awesome to stay employed. How is that awesomeness measured? My school is ranked Carnegie 1 Research (the highest level given) so the most important criterion is research and creative accomplishment. For folks in my discipline, that means that a.) I have to make a lot of work, b.) it has to be excellent, and c.) it has to be proven to be excellent by peers in significant national and international arenas.

Then in the sixth year, a bunch of ranking people at other comparable institutions (I don't choose them and will never know who they are) look at everything I've accomplished and write letters (which I will never see) about me, indicating whether they think I'm sufficiently awesome. Then, all the tenured faculty in my department read those letters and look over my entire body of work, my teaching (am I effective, do students get what they need?), service (do I carry my load and help the place run well, do I ease the burden on my colleagues?), etc, and discuss whether or not I am sufficiently awesome to keep working. They vote on whether to keep me around or not. I know how the vote turned out (positive!) but I'll never know what the count was, or what was discussed.

Then, the chair of the department writes a letter summarizing the vote and highlighting important points in agreement or not in agreement. Then it is all passed to the Dean's office, and the Dean does the same thing. Then, it all goes to a committee of people at the whole University where twenty-four professors from all disciplines look at it all again, read all the summaries, and then give their vote and opinions. Then the Provost of the University, then the President, then the Board of Trustees. Anyone at any level can say "no." I will never know what individual people said. I still do not know the final result. All I know is that I will find out between now and May 15, 2012 whether I will gain the title of associate professor, or if I will spend the next year looking for another job.

There is a popular misconception that having tenure means that you are employed for life. Alas, this is not true. But to earn tenure is to earn a certain amount of freedom. It means above all that I could not be fired for political or specious reasons. I could take even greater risks with the work I make, since my career would not be imperiled by every whim of film festival and art world tastemakers.

As I write these things, they seem silly. It's not like I keep my mouth shut, like some shrinking violet of academia. I probably think I hold my tongue more than I actually do. And my work isn't exactly conservative or conventional. But for my entire career thus far, I have labored under this vulnerability, and I realize how much it affects everything I do. Constantly checking myself. Is this my place to express my thoughts? Am I going to be considered an uppity junior prof? If I vote this way, how might that affect me years down the line should this person seek revenge? And I admit, there have been art ideas I have loved but not pursued for fear of the result being too far afield of what the market will lavish with the right kind of attention.

To be clear, I am confident. The criteria are spelled out, and I have well beyond fulfilled them. I have been fortunate, prolific, and well-received. I feel fine about that. But I have been working since September knowing that people all the way up the ladder have been discussing my future, considering my life, passing ultimate judgement. That's a lot of people behind a lot of closed doors. How many of those people might be out to get me, without me even knowing it? How many of them don't even think that mine is a legitimate discipline worthy of academic pursuit? Such people exist.

Seven months in limbo. How will I find out? Will they mail a letter to my home or my office? Should I wait to read mail until I am alone? Should I wait until my wife is around before I open any official looking envelopes? How will I feel? How am I going to react? What will it be like on the other side?

The most difficult part has been looking back and second-guessing every decision I've made since I started, wondering which mistakes might come back to haunt me. Maybe I shouldn't have left that first job. Maybe I shouldn't have left the second one. Maybe I was too young and impatient, too hot-headed to be trusted with the decision to move on. If I'd just stayed put in the first place, I'd probably be a full professor by now, like some of my friends from when I started. But I wouldn't know all the people I know now, I wouldn't have done the things I've done. But what else might I have accomplished in the time not spent starting over? It's marvelous to be able to decide on my own terms to move on to the next great thing. But there's a limit to how long you can do that. At some point you have to prove that you can close the deal, or else all other paths are blocked. 

I think that I may have made my peace with the fact that it is out of my hands. I'm grateful for this line of work. It has sacrifices, and I believe they have been worth it. I would like to continue, and to go farther. But more than anything, I need to resolve this bit of business that's been unfinished for so long.

(Follow up post: The Weight)