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Bringing alt-ac lessons to the tenure track

Scholar at Large | Topics in Higher Education

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic who is now on the tenure track at Nevada State College.

It’s happened: I’m on the tenure track. As my grandfather used to say, it’s time for me to “put my money where my mouth is” and step into the work that I’ve been building toward for years. I’m ready and motivated to take on this challenge, but I’m wary of the ways that the tenure track might shape me and my career into a true singular “track.”

How can I continue to build a career in the humanities of my own envisioning, a career that represents one instrument in an orchestra of humanities work? How can I stay focused on this goal and build the humanities from within academia without getting exhausted, overwhelmed, and disheartened by jumping through others’ hoops?

While acknowledging that I write this from a position of extreme privilege within the academy (turns out that job market survivor’s guilt is real), my hope is to continue this blog as a space of advocacy for making the profession healthier and more inclusive. This means highlighting and bringing voice to connections, practices, and viewpoints about academia and the humanities that seem a bit “farther afield” than the normalized grind of that tenured academic life. In this sense I continue as a “scholar at large.”

So, as I sit through many hours of well-meaning but rather overwhelming orientation sessions, I consider how the advice being given to me as a new faculty member can relate to some of the best practices in pursuing other kinds of careers in the humanities.

When you’re new to a community, seek out and cultivate connections to folks with shared values across areas, disciplines, and departments.

One piece of advice I heard was to proactively start getting to know people broadly.

“Don’t wait for them to come to you – go and meet them. This is especially important if you’re coming from a large institution with a siloed culture.”

Introduce yourself to everyone. You may find that you have interests that align across areas and disciplines. This advice reminded me of the connections and networks one gains through doing informational interviews. Drawing from that experience will help me look beyond my own department for collaborations and opportunities I would never have known (or felt confident enough) to seek out.

(Nevertheless…the follow-up recommendation to “jump into service opportunities to learn about the culture of the place” struck me as rather dangerous for my first semester calendar.)

Spend time developing an understanding of how my labor is valued in this unfamiliar space.

While on the job market (both traditional and non-traditional), you are writing frequent cover letters, each of which requires you to frame your work in a specific way that addresses the position—rather than simply expounding on all of your accomplishments.

Now that I’m actually starting out in a new position, taking purposeful time to assess my work seems essential—not just for meeting my tenure benchmarks, but for remaining cognizant of how the steps I take align—or don’t align—with that “track.” Also, what labor is most valued by the institution?

In these first months, I need to:

  • Gain clarity on what specifically I’m being evaluated on, and how it occurs.
  • Identify formal and informal mentors who can help me with this process.
  • Define accomplishments for myself (outside of the requirements).

I’m reminded of using my training as a researcher to understand a new field or career; this time, I’m applying it to a new environment.

Keep track of what I’m doing as a way of celebrating my hard work.

I’ve heard some good pragmatic advice about how to prepare for your annual review reports (which, in turn, prepare you for your tenure application). It involves developing a system for keeping track of what I’ve done: such as emailing myself anything of note and keeping those messages in an “annual review” inbox folder; adding regularly to a living Google Doc; or keeping my Outlook calendar up to date so that it provides a 12-month retrospective of my meetings, deadlines, and other artifacts of my activities.

I’m sad to say that I have never systematically kept track of the work I do in such a holistic way. The degree to which I will need to account for myself struck me as far more involved than simply adding the next line to my C.V.. At first, I was mildly panicked by how daunting a task this seemed to be. But that feeling led me to an important realization: I have fallen into a practice of taking my own labor for granted (which risks inviting others to do so, too). I’m reminded of how it can be a struggle for humanities PhDs to shift how we talk about the work we do in the context of different audiences, and how striking it is when we realize how broadly we do have experience, knowledge, and ability. Actively keeping track of my activities and accomplishments is an opportunity for me to maintain my own sense of worth and capability, irrespective of how those fall on my tenure rubric.

By thinking about this advice for new faculty in terms of the broader humanities career landscape, I feel more equipped to develop and safeguard my own short and long term career goals. Put another way: instead of “getting oriented,” I’m more prepared to orienteer my way through academia. That is, once I make sure I start my first class in the right classroom.

 

Author bio: Dr. Molly Appel is an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State College, where she teaches courses on composition and literature. Her work focuses largely on how literature works as a space of teaching and learning for human rights and social justice in the Americas. You find her on Twitter @mollyappel.

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