Don’t waste tenure


Tenure gives us academic freedom.

This doesn’t have to be an empty concept.

Before you get tenure, you need to live by the rules. After you get tenure, you have to follow the written rules but not live by them. You can choose to ignore as many unwritten rules as you think is wise. You have a lot of latitude.

I find it lamentable that, for most people, including myself, tenure changes very little.

It’s as if six years has been calculated as the amount of time that it takes for us to become a cog in the system.

Here’s another way to think about the time you spend in the system prior to tenure. Being a professor is like being a musician. Don’t they say that great musicians know all of the rules, and after developing technical expertise they know which rules to break, including how and when to do it, to to make extraordinary music? (I’m not talking about John Cage, but maybe the Beatles or the Pixies.)

Do you think the same is true for our academic careers, that we need to know which conventions have to be broken in order to excel?

In terms of research, I have always attempted projects with the notion that their success or failure wouldn’t alter my risk of unemployment. I have a variety of high-risk-but-potentially-really-cool projects happening, that I probably wouldn’t be inclined to take a chance on if I needed to focus on getting more papers and grants. (I’m able to take these research risks not because of tenure, though, but instead because my university isn’t in a position to expect much research productivity.)

Here’s one major change that I’ve made, that I wouldn’t have done pre-tenure: I rarely lecture. When I step into a classroom, I have a set of activities, discussion items and problems to be solved. I might occasionally bust into a 3-15 minute explanation of some topic if the circumstances require it. (As a caveat, I haven’t taught an introductory majors course in a number of years.) There are two reasons I wouldn’t have done this change pre-tenure. I wouldn’t risk a potential tank in my evaluation scores (which actually moved very little). And I wouldn’t have risked doing things so differently from my department mates who would be sizing up my tenure file. (My last department chair at my old job who observed me was actually put out when I stopped lecturing for a 2-minute think-pair-share activity, as I mentioned in the teaching/tenure post on Monday.) How do I find the time to do teach like this? I actually find that doing this takes less time than preparing a decent traditional lecture. I am actually concerned about being accused about not putting enough effort into my lessons, because the real work is being done by the students and not by myself. I just arrange the circumstances for them to learn. That is good teaching, in my view, but at most universities the lecture predominates and a departure from that practice might be viewed upon with suspicion, especially by scientists who aren’t trained in education. I haven’t had much formal education training, either, and by no means am I convinced that I’m doing it the best way. Which is why I call this change a risk that I can do with the benefit of tenure.

Here one risk that I’ve considered in my post-tenure era, but not had the guts to implement yet: In my Biostatistics class, I’d like to entirely do away with all quizzes and exams, and simply implement an oral performance-based final for 100% of the grade. By the end of the semester, the expected outcomes are so straightforward that a student should be able to demonstrate competency or mastery in the context of a short conversation and ten minutes with the software. (Last semester, gave my class the option to do this instead of doing a big take-home final, but everyone picked the time-intensive final.)

Here’s another risk I have yet to do: Instead of offering 0% participation points in a class (that’s a forthcoming post, at some point), switch to 100%. Grade students wholly on perceived effort. That’s the beauty of academic freedom. I can do this. I can’t be fired for it, I don’t think. Imagine if students were getting grades for trying, rather than for guessing right. Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Again, I’ve yet to try this.

This blog is a risk I took only because I have tenure. I’ve put effort into remaining civil and positive. However, a variety of things that I’ve written already could have been a huge liability before tenure, about my former dean, former president, how my campus is tragically underfunded, and how I interact with students. The only thing preventing me from telling it like it is, is my lack of confidence that I really understand how it is. That’s a nice perk of tenure. There are plenty of other pre-tenure bloggers, such as Dr. Becca among many others who I’ve linked to previously, but their identities are often hidden.

Once you are tenured, what risks would you want to take with your research and teaching? If you have tenure, what new risks have you taken or are you afraid to try?

3 thoughts on “Don’t waste tenure

  1. If I wasn’t already following your blog, this post alone would have precipitated me doing so. I do hope that as problem-based and team-based learning formats increase in use in clinical curricula, more non-clinical science departments embrace them as well. Having been on both sides of such classrooms, as well as more “traditional” teaching/learning formats, I have a strong TBL and PBL preference when possible.

  2. Yay! I imagine for learning task-based curricula, problem-based approaches make the most obvious sense. Let’s hope people try it out with other things too.

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