understanding what tenure should be
From time to time, you’ll have a discussion about someone who did not get promoted but had a strong record. This raises the question of what a strong record is and, ultimately, what tenure is all about. When talking to people about tenure, I try to distinguish between three situations: the scholarly department; the bean counter department; and the crazy department.
Let’s first dispense with the crazy department. There are some programs that simply have difficult people or unreasonable standards that few people can satisfy. In that case, tenure has nothing to do with quality of record. It’s mainly about kowtowing to crazies or leaving town before dusk.
But if your department has reasonable standards, they probably fall into two other categories: scholarly and bean counter. Ideally, the scholarly department sits down and really judges the quality of the work for themselves. The bean counter program cares about quality but the are happy to outsource the job to journal editors. If you get four “A” publications, you’re in, assuming good teaching. I like to think of bean counters as a “trust and verify” crowd. The department’s decision is really just double checking to make sure the journal review process didn’t make too many mistakes.
The scholarly department can be trickier. They may decide that you simply haven’t made a big enough contribution to the field, regardless of CV length. A lot of competitive programs don’t want CV’s, they want people who are shaping their area. This doesn’t mean “super star.” Rather, Professor Jane has to establish that there is a concrete advance in the work. Of course, the more elite the university, the bigger the footprint has to be.
While long CVs usually make the cut, they don’t always do so in scholarly programs. Aside from summary judgments about the work, scholarly programs may reject a long CV for a number of reasons. One might be that the person is viewed as too much of a collaborator and less of a leader (“professional research assistant”). Too many obscure hits also hurts. Another might be “timing,” too many pubs right around tenure with long empty spaces may signal that you won’t work well without deadlines. Finally, an extremely long CV that isn’t organized may bury good articles in an ocean of short or obscure pieces. This sort of CV raises the risk that the work is not digestible by colleagues, deans, or external letter writers.
The good news is that most folks who apply for tenure get it simply because they move to friendly programs. If you are in the position of having a good CV but still nervous, you should take extra steps to explain how your CV makes sense and what the “big hits” are. A little effort here can make a world of difference.