Journeying towards Tenure – Personal Experiences of an Assistant Professor
So you think you want to be a tenured academic? There are a few things you should probably know, let’s just say some valuable lessons I learned on my journey toward tenure and promotion. Like any journey, there should be a bit of adventure along the way. When you first enter the academy ‘be prepared’ for a transition to another world, a different culture exists here. No longer will you be asked questions like ‘where are you from?’ or ‘what sports do you play’. Rather, much more likely you will be asked questions such as ‘did you receive the dissertation award’ or ‘what epistemological framework do you utilize’. I can sum up my journey in the following admissions: expect the unexpected, be prepared for surprises, use a GPS system to navigate, always pack the right gear so you’re comfortable, and be mindful of when to stop for service.
Use a GPS to Navigate
The first task after being offered a tenure-track position is trying to make sense of the expectations inherent with your new role. I entered the academy directly from the labour market. But like most with a doctorate, l was well experienced in the role of student within the university culture with several degrees. However, the expectations for a new tenure-track academic are often difficult to ascertain. Yes there are the obvious places to look for guidance; the BUFA collective agreement, departmental guidelines, as well as the workload standards. And traversing the language and expectations of this different realm is a priority and should be the first step in the pursuit of tenure and promotion. But making sense of these documents often requires some assistance, a navigator.
If you’re fortunate (like I was) you will have been assigned a mentor from within your department or unit upon commencement of your tenure-track position. A senior academic who acts as a mentor can help you navigate decisions such as which committees and service roles to undertake, the structuring and sequencing of your course outlines, and how to go about the process of documenting the evidence related to your new role. Moreover, having someone who is already familiar with all the policies related to the University culture is a major asset (the number of acronyms is overwhelming so too is trying to find J block in MacKenzie Chown-GPS please!).
Pack the Right Gear
For me the ‘right gear’ meant creating and maintaining a teaching portfolio (dossier) from the outset of my appointment. This step has been one of the most beneficial undertakings in my journey. I structured my portfolio to mirror the specific criteria defined in the collective agreement (i.e., quality teaching, scholarly work, and service). In each of these sections I included a thorough account of documented evidence (e.g., student evaluations) as well as explicit explanations of the context (since evaluations are meaningless unless a context is provided). For example in relation to the criteria of “sustained satisfactory and effective teaching” (Article 21.01), I included student evaluation summative scores, students’ qualitative comments, my reflections and teaching philosophy, as well as all examples of formative assessments I had conducted. A teaching portfolio is significant for your own professional development as well as providing balance to student evaluation questionnaires which are often plagued with reliability and validity issues (see teaching dossier http://www.caut.ca/home). My own teaching effectiveness could not truly be captured by the use of a student evaluation tool that appears to be at least a decade old and still measures things such as my use of ‘paper handouts’. Thus, I use a myriad of gear that includes an array of formative tools to complement and complete the picture. In smaller lectures, a ‘note out the door’ after each class helps me track students’ understanding and my need to be flexible and responsive. For larger classes, I rely on digital technologies (e.g., clickers, Wallwisher, www.polleverywhere.com). Videotaping your teaching and having your mentor critique and provide feedback is another example of a valuable strategy. The CPI can also provide invaluable insights into structuring your courses and syllabi, making the most of Sakai, and crafting a teaching portfolio.
The broad definition of scholarship within the CA is a comfortable fit and mirrors my own philosophy. A ‘scholarship of engagement’ orientation allows me as an academic to engage in research and scholarship for several interrelated purposes, that is scholarship for discovery, integration, application, and teaching (Boyer, 1991). I began my tenure-track position with a ‘blank slate’. As a new doctoral graduate and part-time teacher at an international school in Europe, publishing for academic journals was not on my radar. Once I made the transition to Brock and realized that I could combine my teacher’s heart with research and scholarship (Palmer, 2007) my publishing record gained momentum. For me, scholarship that provides new insights into children’s learning and teachers’ ways of being in the classroom is meaningful, rewarding, and gratifying. The shoes appear to fit! And I am appreciative that the Brock culture also supports a scholarship of engagement orientation.
Be Mindful of Service
As part of a self-governing organization, service is significant. Again, the CA has a broad definition of what constitutes service to the University and community. Finding balance in your service functions is important and here your navigator (i.e., academic mentor) can really help. My service responsibilities were typically divided amongst my Faculty, department, BUFA, and varied community agencies (and yes my service was in excess of the 40/40/20 workload split). By far, my most rewarding service experience has been in the role of the untenured faculty representative of the BUFA Executive. Here, I gained invaluable insight into the functioning of the University, Union, as well as post-secondary education in general. The opportunity to work alongside academics from all Faculties as well as the responsibility to represent the ‘voice’ of untenured faculty has been truly meaningful and rewarding.
In sum, my journey to tenure and promotion has not been without a few detours and the occasional roadblock. But by being mindful and knowledgeable of the process, engaging others to help with the navigation, and insuring your dossier is varied, inclusive, and comprehensive, your journey to tenure and promotion can be as rewarding as mine.
Authored by: Debra Harwood, Untenured Faculty Representative-BUFA Executive
Boyer, E.L. (1991). The scholarship of teaching from scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. College Teaching, 39(1), 11.
Palmer, P.J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.