Thursday, September 24, 2009

Promotion Paranoia

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from a friend/colleague at a university on the West Coast. (I'll try to stay purposefully vague about things, which will include avoiding gendered pronouns.)

The person, a rigorous scholar in the social sciences, is frantically trying to get a dossier completed for a pending promotion review, which explains why I would get a buzz at 8:45 in the morning, Philadelphia time. Said friend/colleague was pulling an all-nighter.

This colleague was freaking out about the tenure process, and our conversation went something like this:

ME: Hey, it has been a long time. How are things?

THEM: I'm going crazy over here.

ME: Why? What's up?

THEM: This tenure thing. They are trying to make me go insane.

ME: All the material you have to assemble?

THEM: No. Well, yeah. But not just that. There is all this voting about the process. Everyone is constantly voting on whether my file should move to the next phase. All these hurdles. Voting, voting, voting. And I've caught myself interpreting every small exchange with my colleagues as an indication of how they might stand on my case, on how they might be voting. Ugh! And every once in a while I get a strange look or comment that nearly drives me over the cliff. It has gotten to the point where I wish I could just avoid any contact with ANYBODY until the process is done. How did you cope? Any tips?

Unfortunately, I didn't have any tips. At least nothing that I thought would really help. I was lucky enough to be on leave when I first went up for tenure, which meant that I could mostly avoid the kind of "promotion paranoia" that my friend was describing.

I always tell people that one of the benefits of going to Columbia University in the mid-1990s was that you were exposed to some very high-profile tenure denials. There was one in Comparative Literature that I remember. And even in my own department, Anthropology.

Those decisions made some of my fellow graduate students completely terrified of the tenure process, which was so secretive and seemingly capricious. But for other students, those same decisions were potentially liberating. That's because we thought of them (fairly or not) as little more than "political" decisions, either with the capital "P" of ideological differences (people who just don't like your theoretical endgame) or the small "p" of pettier interpersonal differences (people who just don't like you).

Either way, it seemed to instruct us that we had better do what we really enjoyed (as fledgling scholars), because there would never be a foolproof way to game the tenure process, to predetermine the outcome in any particular case. So, we didn't want to get stuck doing a research project for years and years simply (or mostly) because we thought it might land us a good job on the road to tenure.

But do folks have other ways of coping with this promotion paranoia that they would recommend? If so, I'll pass them on.