For the past three weeks, I've been focusing on the most common errors that tenure-track faculty make as they transition from graduate student to professor. The first three mistakes (no semester plan, no daily writing habit, and no clarity about balance) generated passionate responses, so I want to reiterate that while the Monday Motivator may feel like tough love at times, I hope each of you know that I am deeply invested in your professional success and personal sanity! If you are mired in one of these mistakes, it's okay. There is no judgment here. I am simply observing the common errors based on my work with pre-tenure faculty and my reading of the faculty development literature. And, of course, I've personally made every mistake that I describe each week and know how much freedom comes from overcoming them! That said, let's move on to Common New Faculty Mistake #4: Investing in Long-Term Institutional Change at the Expense of Your Research Agenda.
If I have seen it once, I've seen it a hundred times. A brand new faculty member (most often female and/or under-represented) decides to work single-handedly to create structural change at her institution. Full of energy and righteous indignation, she bursts on the scene fighting every battle imaginable. She spends many hours each week sending e-mails, protesting policies, serving on committees, writing reports, and/or organizing students while spending ZERO hours writing. She sincerely promises herself that she will devote her breaks to writing.
But when the breaks arrive, her energy has been so consumed by departmental drama and campus conflict that she needs that time to physically and emotionally recover. As a result, no writing occurs. By the end of her first year, no articles have been completed and nothing has actually changed at her institution. Let me be clear, working for change is not problematic in and of itself, but it is an error if you are doing it at the expense of your research and writing (or teaching if you are at a college where teaching is a significant component of your tenure evaluation). I understand the desire to work for change where you are, but if you fail to win tenure and promotion, any progress you've made will likely follow you right out the door.
"Don't Act Like You're Married When You're Only Dating..."
What is a well-intentioned new faculty member to do when surrounded by things that need to change? If you are highly productive, ahead of schedule on your research agenda, and your tenure case is being described as a "slam dunk," then feel free to organize on (as long as your activities don’t make you a thorn in the side of those who will be voting on your tenure case). However, if you're working toward change, but not publishing, here are a few tips:
1) Re-think Your Attitude Toward Institutional Change
If you are an under-represented faculty member, then please understand that your very existence in a predominantly white and male department IS your contribution to institutional change. Your physical presence in the classroom, in meetings, and on campus represents an important change at your institution! Your success in winning tenure will be a further contribution toward change. And as a pre-tenure faculty member, that's enough for now.
If that doesn't resonate with you, let me say it the way one of my mentors said it to me: "don't act like you're married when you're only dating!" I was confused by this at first, but she went on to explain that being on the tenure-track is like dating. If it works out, your institution will make a long term commitment to you by offering you tenure and promotion. And if it doesn't work out (for you or your university), you'll go your separate ways. Post-tenure, your relationship with your university will change. At that point, you're married so you'll be expected to engage in the types of service and leadership activities that are related to institutional well being. It's also when you'll be in the strongest position to work towards institutional change. If you think about it this way, then doing things like chairing a department, re-structuring curriculum, and taking on long-term strategic projects (like creating a new department) when you don't know if you'll be around to see the outcome are questionable. And if you're doing so at the expense of the very activity that will win you tenure (research and writing), it's time to take a step back and reassess what activities are appropriate at this time of your career.
2) Plan Now for Your Post-Tenure Contribution to Change
I encourage you to create a list, file or box where you can keep all of your ideas for change. My list was entitled: "all the things I'm going to do once I have tenure." At the top of my list was "design a mentoring program that actually works". By putting it on my list, I released myself from the need to create that change while I was on the tenure track and instead devoted time to my writing and research. Once tenured, I set out to change the way we understood "mentoring" at my institution and created an under-represented faculty mentoring program that was later institutionalized by my Provost's Office. I also wrote The BlackAcademic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul, started giving campus workshops, and created the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
I was only able to do these things effectively because I was tenured, had an established research record, and could invest time in making the long-term changes I thought were necessary. I'm not writing this to toot my own horn, but to provide an example to encourage you to think of your career in STRATEGIC and LONG-TERM ways (i.e., as a book with many chapters). You can't do everything now, but you can focus your energy today on whatever it is that will allow you the stability, respect, and reputation in the future to achieve a larger set of goals.
3) Limit Current Commitments and Say "No" to Additional Requests
For those of you who are reading this and are already over-committed, list your current commitments on one piece of paper. Ask yourself: what initiative, committee, or project can I work on in a limited capacity that will fulfill my desire to make change with a minimal time investment? Pick something where your senior colleagues do the heavy lifting, risk-taking, and time-intensive labor. Let everything else go by either notifying people that you are over-committed and need to prioritize your research and writing, quietly fading out, or taking a back seat. If anyone asks you to sit on any additional committees, start a new initiative, join a strategic planning project, and/or start some sort of insurrection, just say "NO."
4) Write EVERY DAY For At Least 30 Minutes, First Thing in the Morning
I know you're sick of me saying this every week, but I can't stop! Writing every day will increase your productivity, which is important. But even more importantly, there's something about spending the first hour of your day moving that article, manuscript, and/or grant proposal forward that sends a signal to yourself and the universe that AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME, meeting your research expectation for tenure is your highest priority. Do not take my word for it, just try starting your day with 30 minutes of writing this week (before you check email) and see if it shifts your energy, your sense of yourself as a scholar, your commitments, and how you interact with others on your campus.
The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge each of you to:
Create a file, box, or list to capture ideas about what institutional changes you want to work towards once you have tenure.
If you are under-represented in any way, shape, or form, then stop and appreciate the fact that your very presence on campus represents change at your institution.
Take 10 minutes to make a list of all your current service commitments, highlighting ones that involve long-term institutional change on your campus.
Gently and lovingly go through that list and ask yourself: Does this make sense for me at this time in my career? Is this work precluding progress on my research? How many hours am I spending each week on this work versus writing and research? Will I be here to see this change? Is my commitment to my current institution equal to my institution's commitment to me? Edit the list accordingly.
Write every morning this week for at least 30 minutes. And by "writing", I mean any activity that will move an article, manuscript or grant proposal out the door.
If you remain resistant to daily writing, gently and patiently ask yourself: why?
I hope that this week brings you a long-term perspective on your academic career, relief that you don’t have to do everything all at once, and a sense of appreciation for all that you contribute to your campus by just being you!