THE BINDER: Post-traumatic thoughts on the tenure application process.

binderBy Chantal Richard
Department of French, University of New Brunswick

It appears I’ve reached new heights in multi-tasking. There are laws that prohibit talking on your cell phone while driving, but as far as I know there’s no law against talking into a micro-recorder. So here I am today, driving to Halifax for a conference and I’ve got five hours ahead of me so I figured I’d dictate this blog. Multi-tasking is, of course, something we’ve all learned to do, especially those of us who have kids.

I’d like to share my experience of applying for tenure from the perspective of someone who waited a very long time before getting a tenure-track position and therefore, had two children in tow during the process. I call this post THE BINDER because this was my focus for several months. THE BINDER contains your academic life. It contains all of the pertinent information the evaluation committee will examine in great detail – or not, who knows. So for a few months, I conscientiously began collecting material to put in THE BINDER and talking to other colleagues who were up for tenure or other promotions and who were putting together their own BINDERS. We all began getting BINDER anxiety. One colleague had a BINDER that looked like an art exhibit. Everything was coordinated, there were little stickies pointing out important facts (better truck on down the hill to get some colour stickies I thought!). Some had very thick BINDERS (is mine big enough?). There were even rumors that someone had once brought a whole BOX to the evaluation committee! At the eleventh hour, I found out I needed dual BINDERS! One for my tenure application and one for sabbatical. Late night photocopying here I come… A colleague desperately tried to figure out how to get in an article before the BINDER submission deadline – and succeeded! This did nothing to alleviate the stress that comes with being evaluated for tenure. Don’t get me wrong, I found a support group for the first time in my career – and at this point I had been teaching at various universities for almost 15 years. There were several of us young faculty (some of us not quite so young, such as yours truly) and we sat around and talked about the voraciousness of the BINDER and various other frightening topics as we fought off hornets (that’s a whole other story), but we were there in solidarity. We shared a drink when the BINDERS were all submitted. We all crossed our fingers and hoped that each one of us would get what she wanted. I look back upon that time with a great deal of gratitude for those who were there supporting me: from senior academics who took the time to offer incredibly useful advice, and peers who gave me a much-needed pat on the back. Everyone should have this kind of guidance and support rather than experiencing the tenure application process as a kind of initiation ritual meant to torture and humiliate potential candidates. Don’t get me wrong, I think academics need to continue to perform well in research, teaching and administrative tasks. I know some who are sorely lacking in at least one, sometimes two of those areas. But we are more than the sum of our binders. I am writing this in the hope that other tenure candidates, and those on evaluation committees, will remember that we are also human.

Let me back up a bit. I started teaching part-time while finishing up my master’s degree and starting my PhD. Throughout my masters and PhD when I wasn’t overseas doing an internship, I was teaching. So this wasn’t exactly new to me. I knew this was the career for me, but I hadn’t had access to a tenure-track job for various reasons. My son was born three weeks after I defended my PhD thesis. I had a brand new baby and a brand new diploma on my wall which is not the best timing, apparently. Less than two years later I had a second child. After having a couple of kids, it became more difficult to be mobile. One of my children was diagnosed with a developmental disorder, and was in therapy 20 hours a week which made moving across the country for a job unrealistic or at the very least, difficult. I taught part-time for years, exceeding the normal full-time course load for a ridiculously low salary, but appreciating the flexible schedule I needed to take my son to his appointments. I also left academia briefly, to take a job in government, only to find that I was miserable working 8:15 to 4:30, counting words. It was just not for me. So I meticulously searched, keeping an open mind but hoping that something might open up at the university where I had taught for over a decade, and eventually, miraculously, it happened. First it came in the form of a two-year contract, then a coveted tenure-track position which I applied for, and got. I had several years of experience already, so within a couple of years, well in my forties, I was finally able to apply for tenure.

I have to admit that although I took it very seriously, and although there were obstacles in my way, I didn’t put as much effort into getting my job initially as I did into applying for tenure. It is a massive undertaking. For a time, I was talking about my research and my teaching more than I was actually focusing on those two things. You have to promote yourself more, you have to sell yourself better, my senior colleagues told me. I’m not very good at that. Many academics aren’t. Many women aren’t. It seemed counter-productive to be trying to figure out which conference was national and which was international while exams needed to be marked and laundry done, but as people outside of academia eventually learn when they’re around an academic applying for tenure, it’s all or nothing. When academics apply for tenure, they either get it, or they have to leave. This is why some people defer the tenure application process. There are very few jobs where it’s an all or nothing deal. If I did not get tenure I would not be able to stay at UNB. Again, moving was not a good option because at this point, my husband had a well-established career and the kids needed stability. I spent many sleepless nights as I’m sure many of my colleagues did. There were good days when I felt like it was all going to come together and there were days when I laid on the sofa, moaning in self-pity.

The waiting was the worst part. Some may be surprised to hear that when you are granted tenure, it doesn’t come in one great big announcement. There’s no parade. No fireworks. Not even a drum roll (unless you have a pretty awesome department head). It usually comes in small increments. Leaks of information, gradually making their way to you. And then eventually, you start getting letters. There are many, many letters, which start out very promising, but end with some kind of disclaimer stating that the final decision will be made by someone else. It was a bit anti-climactic – which letter is THE one? Can I open the champagne yet?

When I finally did get the letter to end all letters at the end of a long day, I was on my way out of my office to pick up the kids. I phoned my husband and told him “dear, it looks like I’m getting tenure”. My son, now 9 years old, whom I had tried not to involve in the tenure process, overheard me. His younger sister was fairly oblivious to the news, but he, the one who was supposed to be incapable of empathy, was thrilled. After I hung up the phone, he said “Mom, you got tenure, that’s great!” I don’t know how many nine year olds know that word but he did. He also knew a lot more about what was going on in my life that I thought. Because frankly, there were days when their mom just wasn’t their mom. There were days when I was furious about the politicking that was going on and worried at how it would affect me. Like it or not, applying for tenure in my particular circumstances had an impact on my kids. They witnessed it on a daily basis. They witnessed their mom being stressed, anxious, worried, discouraged and eventually, being elated.

The same week I got news that I was going to get tenure, my son’s school called and told me that my son was deemed not to need an intervention plan anymore. That little box that got checked on his report cards would no longer be checked. This completely overshadowed getting tenure but both accomplishments were due to a kind of unwavering persistence and I hope that my children will at least have learned that much.

One last myth I’d like to shatter – at least it was one that I believed – is that after tenure, you can relax. There is no relaxing in academia. Because all that stuff I put into that BINDER to feed that voracious beast like a mouth with teeth wanting more, all those promises I made, grants I got, now had to be fulfilled. And there are other hurdles to overcome. Tenure doesn’t mean you can relax, it means you have more work to do. However, I will say that it gives you stability and that stability is essential to being productive. You cannot be productive in a meaningful way if you’re constantly feeling like your life is going to be taken away from you anytime, like someone can pull the carpet out from under your feet. Stability is essential for scholars to be at their best and focus not on meeting some arbitrary criteria but on accomplishing what they were meant to accomplish as a scholar, teacher and member of the academic community. And so I am very, very grateful that I have tenure. It is a privilege that I hold dear. I’m one of the lucky ones – or perhaps just incredibly stubborn. But that doesn’t mean I don’t keep working hard, thinking up new projects, new ideas, continuing to fulfill my commitments. My husband told me last summer he’s never seen me this busy. He doesn’t get it, I’m on sabbatical, why am I busier than I’ve ever been? Post-tenure and sabbatical only means that you can do a little more of the work you really want to do. I cherish that knowledge.

Being an academic momma means having a very, very full life. Of course you can have a full life without being a momma, you can also have a full life without being an academic, but to do both, you might just have to be slightly insane. Yet, my kids ground me and give me perspective. Because at the end of the day, when I look into my children’s eyes and they tell me “Maman, I love you, goodnight”, I know that I can do it. I will survive the next day and as long as they’re tucked in safe and healthy and happy, then everything else is trivial. It’s hard to develop a huge ego when you’ve got your hands in other people’s excrement all day. Literally or figuratively.

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