Posttenure Blues

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers five questions to ask yourself if you’re newly tenured and in a crisis-ridden department.

November 9, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

I have the posttenure blues … or maybe it’s frustration. Nope, it’s anger. I’m recently tenured but have been so immersed in department politics, rotating leadership and battling a culture of mediocrity that I have lost my own work in the process. Part of me feels as if the best thing I could do is become chair of my department. But another part of me feels like I need a break. I am looking forward to a sabbatical next year where I hope to find space to recommit to my work without the department nonsense. But what can I do in the meantime when I feel surrounded by toxicity?



Dear Lost,

I’m sorry to hear that your department is going through a difficult time, particularly during what should be a joyful season for you: your first term as a newly tenured professor. I’ve been through my share of departmental meltdowns, rotating chairs and chronic drama, so I know how that can take a toll on your scholarship, morale and health.

Let me suggest a few questions that you -- and anyone else who is newly tenured and in a crisis-ridden department -- might ask to get yourself recentered.

What Is Your Posttenure Pathway?

The first question I want to ask you is whether you have consciously and intentionally chosen your posttenure pathway. The tendency for most newly tenured professors is to keep working at their pretenure pace and simply add on an enormous pile of new activities, responsibilities and problems that they felt they couldn’t tackle as an assistant professor. Then they overcommit to a wide range of service, become exhausted and realize that it’s impossible to be highly effective when they’re spread too thin. In the process, the things that matter most to them and their future success (i.e., their writing and personal well-being) fall by the wayside. This is a surefire recipe for burnout, and it sounds like you’re already experiencing the limits of that approach.

Instead I encourage you to take a step back and spend some time thoughtfully considering what you want your career to look like in five years. I agree with Bette Bottoms’s excellent advice that it’s unwise to step into any significant administrative position as an associate professor. As a newly tenured faculty member, you have neither the experience nor the political capital to lead a contentious unit to health. Whatever posttenure pathway you choose, use it to establish clear priorities and calibrate your participation in department skirmishes accordingly.

Where Does It Make Sense to Invest Your Energy at This Time?

If your posttenure pathway involves expanding your scholarship, ambitious new writing and research projects, and/or elevating your visibility in your field, ask yourself if the time and emotional energy you are currently investing in your department’s drama make sense. If you’re not sure how much time and energy you’re currently putting into it, why not pause to track your time and emotions this week?

When I’ve had posttenure clients try this exercise for a week, they often are surprised by the number of hours they are spending in email battles, carping with colleagues in the hallways and complaining about work to their family members. And more important, they become aware of the emotional energy they are pouring into the battle du jour (worrying about it, losing sleep and ruminating on the bad behavior of others throughout the day).

Once you get clear about the amount of time and energy you are investing in your department’s political skirmishes, pause and ask yourself: Is this a wise investment? If so, keep doing it. If not, consider that while you do not control your colleague’s behavior, you do control three important things: 1) the time you spend responding, 2) your role in the conflict and 3) how deeply you allow it to impact your internal well-being. If your time is not aligned with your posttenure pathway, now is the moment to reassert control over yourself and redirect your emotions into a positive direction.

What Do You Need?

When you’re physically exhausted and emotionally drained, it’s usually a good idea to step back and take stock. I encourage you to gently and lovingly ask yourself: What do I need? I mean this personally (in terms of your physical health, relationships, emotional well-being and so on) and professionally (your intellectual community, mentoring, funding opportunities and the like). I recommend you start with the personal, because it sounds like you are overfunctioning on your service at the expense of your scholarship and personal health.

How About a Reframe?

Once you’ve clarified where you’re headed and start prioritizing your health and well-being, I encourage you to consider reframing your current situation. The fact is that your department has rotating leadership and conflict over a wide range of issues. It sounds like you’ve created a story where it’s your responsibility to ride into the chair position, solve the conflicts and lead your department out of mediocrity.

That is certainly one possible approach, but there are many other potential stories about this situation and your role in it. So why not create a story that is aligned with your posttenure pathway and that allows you to redirect your energy? In other words, you have about six months until your sabbatical year begins. As such, you are not in a position to become a leader of change in your department, because change takes time and you’ll be gone for year. So why not reframe your remaining academic year? Instead of trying to save your department from itself, why not dedicate your energy to choosing your posttenure pathway and preparing to maximize your upcoming sabbatical?

How Can You Make Concrete Changes?

I hope that once you answer the previous questions, you will be able to visualize positive changes easily. The best thing you can do is to make these changes concrete and put them in your calendar. For example, this week you could:

  • take a 20-minute walk every day at lunchtime;
  • start your day with 30 minutes of writing before you open email;
  • create filters in your email so that you choose when to read your colleagues’ messages instead of experiencing a constant barrage throughout your day; or
  • create a visual reminder of your posttenure goals.

I know that departmental politics can feel overwhelming, but it’s also true that you are 100 percent in control of how much time you spend on the conflict, how you process the group dynamics and how much you allow drama to impact your inner peace. Your first posttenure semester should be a time of transition, reflection and goal setting. I hope that you give yourself the gift of space to do that work. One thing I know for sure -- there will be plenty of problems and drama left for you to engage with when you return from your sabbatical.


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