Telling Your Tenure Story

Christine Tulley gives advice on developing a cohesive narrative in your tenure and promotion dossier.

April 12, 2018
 
 
iStock/Z_wei

In his essay “Tenure at Small Colleges,” Alan Hughes describes how small liberal arts colleges emphasize the role of community, or fit, as an area for faculty evaluation, in addition to varying research, teaching and service requirements. One way that my small private comprehensive university measures such community is by the presence of cohesion, or an integrated narrative thread, across the tenure and promotion dossier.

At first, developing a narrative line through the dossier that seamlessly links the areas of teaching, scholarship and service seems like a difficult and unnecessary hoop to jump through. For faculty members at small liberal arts colleges and regional comprehensives, trying to explain how one’s research integrates with teaching is already difficult because some research is too advanced to be taught or used in common entry-level courses. Trying to triangulate random committee work with disparate research and teaching areas also seems to add another layer of complexity to the already stressful experience of developing a successful tenure and promotion application.

But after working to help faculty members navigate this requirement, I’ve come to realize the benefits of having them work to develop a cohesive narrative of where they fit into the university. In fact, faculty members are often surprised to learn how closely the pieces of their working lives fit together. They may not have given a lot of thought as to how service on one university committee relates to classes they teach or scholarship they publish. Because my university asks faculty to provide a picture of their overall role within the university, making explicit connections among areas for evaluation helps them make this case for fit more effectively. Making clear connections across teaching, scholarship and service sections helps a candidate for tenure and promotion demonstrate consistency and accuracy -- a difficult to achieve yet essential step in making a solid case.

As I work to prepare faculty members to create dossiers that are cohesive, starting in year two of the tenure track, I’ve used a simple chart to help them visualize connections. In that second year, I give them a grid in which the categories for tenure and promotion (teaching, research/scholarship, university service and professional service) are listed across the top and also down the left side. Where the categories meet -- for example, when the research box intersects with the teaching box -- faculty members brainstorm how those two areas overlap and use the grid as a guide as they develop the reflective statements to introduce each area of their dossier. Of course, all of the areas won’t connect seamlessly, but the goal is to try to establish as many connections as possible. Connections made between research and teaching, or service and teaching, prove especially useful, as at teaching-focused colleges and universities, it’s essential to show where teaching excellence happens beyond just including data from course evaluations.

To be sure, some connections are occasionally comical and/or quite a stretch, mostly in the area of committee work and service. For instance: “I serve on the library committee because I like to read scholarly books,” “I serve on the student academic standards committee because I like to see fallacies in argument,” or in my own case long ago, “I advise the college dance team because I teach gender studies.” Committee elections are often idiosyncratic and sometimes popularity contests where many faculty members are happy just to get elected to any committee, let alone one that might actually be a good fit for their interests. Yet even making one or two clear connections provides a more accurate picture of how the faculty member contributes to a university over all.

If you would like to try to establish a similar narrative line in your own tenure and promotion dossier (or, like me, you want to help faculty members to do so), here are some questions to consider:

Scholarship

  • What concepts or theories do you use in research that you also use in teaching?
  • Do you collaborate on research with students as part of course work? When and how?
  • Do your scholarly interests align with a service project you are working on for your institution or with your committee work? (For example, if you study writing assessment, are you also on a committee that looks at writing across the curriculum or writing data from the National Survey of Student Engagement?)
  • Why are you interested in serving as a reviewer for a particular journal or as a proposal reviewer for a specific conference?
  • Where do you share your scholarship expertise outside traditional academic outlets (for example, invited talks to a class at a nearby university or interviews with the local paper)?

Teaching

  • What concepts do you teach that also appear (even at a more advanced level) in your white papers, peer-reviewed articles, textbooks, presentations, etc.?
  • Where specifically have you changed your classes to reflect new research you are doing? (For example, have you changed an assignment to better reflect changing research practices in your discipline?)
  • Are there any areas where you mentor students in scholarship?
  • How do you teach your students necessary research skills to complete your courses?
  • What faculty development activities do you take part in to enhance your teaching? Are any connected to professional organizations you serve in some capacity?
  • Do you have the opportunity to use any of your teaching skills in a service area on your campus (for example, teaching faculty members how to use a new technology tool)?

University Service

  • When and how do you advise students outside class? Do you write letters of recommendation for graduate school? Do you run additional office hours for tutoring?
  • What committees best match your teaching and researching skills? Are you serving on those committees? If not, do you have a plan for getting involved?
  • If the committees you serve on don’t match your research or teaching, do your skills from either area help strengthen your work on the committee? For example, do you read for details to clarify problems in the course catalog or identify weak arguments in policy writing?
  • Do you advise a student club that complements your research area? Do you complete community service activities with students in your major? What disciplinary knowledge do you use in these projects?

Service to the Discipline

  • How do you participate in professional organizations and in your larger disciplinary community?
  • If you review manuscripts or conference proposals, how do you use this insight in research or teaching? Do you alter classes or design workshops for students after seeing new research or methodologies?
  • How does your manuscript review, editing, conference proposal review, etc., benefit the larger university culture?

What does making these connections explicit tell a tenure and promotion committee about the candidate? Plenty. Review panels can see at a glance if classes or other institutional and disciplinary spaces gain access to a faculty member’s knowledge of the discipline. More important, a coherent narrative thread clearly illustrates how the faculty member fits into the overall picture at the university -- a key first step in making the necessary argument for tenure.

Bio

Christine Tulley is the author of How Writing Faculty Write, a professor of English and the academic career development coordinator for the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Findlay.

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