Coming Up for Air, or Life as a Tenured Professor

At least once a week, I make a notation in my notebook about a weekly blog post. I love having the space to work through ideas, to seem “less” academic, and to communicate quickly with folks (as opposed to waiting for the long slog of the publication cycle). Writing this is good for my soul, even when I’m writing about hard or infuriating things.

The experiences people have post-tenure vary. Some folks feel a sense of ennui, wondering where their work goes next. Others experience a sense of depression. When you spend 6 to 7 years working toward a goal, meeting that goal can feel anti-climatic. It’s easy then, I think, to question the amount of life and energy you spent working toward that goal. Earning tenure, apparently, comes with a whole host of complicated feelings.

For me, post tenure life means that I’m expected to be present in many more spaces. I chair two high-profile committees in my college (Faculty Affairs and Diversity*), I’m now part of the Promotion & Tenure committee, and my focus on institutional equity and critical race theories has raised my institutional profile, meaning that I’m invited to talk about these things more often. I enjoy doing this, and firmly believe that tenured professors should do a bulk of the service work.

However, what is taking up the *most* time is supporting graduate students. This will be my post for next week because I have important things to say on this topic–earning tenure makes me much more emboldened in calling out individuals within the institution, not just the institution itself.

Oh, and I’m still expected to maintain the type of research productivity I had while I was an assistant professor (albeit with less anxiety because my job is secure). Sure! Why not? 🙂

Anyway, I plan to carve out more time for writing. There are some exciting things on the horizon and sharing them here makes sense.

* I have feelings about the diversity committee. They can be summed up in this post

It’s Another Academic Year!

Welcome back! The school year has started, so I’m resuming my weekly-ish blog posts. Looking forward to sharing lots of interesting things now that I’m tenured. Woot!

Heads up–today’s post isn’t about my current life as a professor, but how I got started in higher education. Slightly different than my usual posts, but this is where my origin story begins 🙂

My career began in student affairs, specifically university housing. I was a peer mentor, and then RA, at the University of Michigan. I followed that up at Arizona State to study higher and postsecondary education–where I was a graduate hall director in Manzanita Hall. Then I got my first full-time residence life position at a small, private, liberal arts college–Grinnell College. I later went to work for the Department of Residence at Iowa State University before leaving the field completely and moving to the other side of the house–as a professor.

My student affairs peeps know that it generates a lot of paper memories. I have cards, affirmations, notes, papers, from training, meetings, teambuilding sessions, you name it. And while I’ve slowly gotten rid of most things, I’ve kept a few folders of notes/handouts that meant a lot to me. I came across one of these folders last week.

As I shared above, I have “both sides of the house” experience. I was a student affairs professional and now I’m a tenured professor (not within a student affairs or higher education program). And while both are challenging in their own ways, my hardest day as a faculty member doesn’t come close to my medium days as a housing administrator. In fact, sometimes I’m amused by the issues that upset faculty. There is nothing in the functionality of my job that will ever be a true emergency. Nothing.

The same is not true for student affairs professionals.

In January 2005, I was in my second year as a Residence Life Coordinator at Grinnell College. The semester was starting soon, but I was back on campus watching a basketball game with my supervisor and the college president (small schools are like that). The president then got a message a student had died in a car accident (it was winter in Iowa) and gave the same to my supervisor. She showed me the name on a slip of paper: James Ewins. Then she asked if I knew who that was. It took a moment to register. Yes, I knew who that was. He was on my student staff.

JR had this incredibly infectious energy that was all positivity, all the time. But not in a way that made you feel like you needed to be positive–he just exuded this sense that things would be ok. He was a particularly strong leader in our group and we all loved him.

Student death is a hard, and sad, reality of working on college campuses. Students were returning to campus that day and we decided that I would hold an emergency meeting with the staff and tell them that JR had died. So I gathered everyone in my apartment and told them their friend, our friend, had died. For some, it was the first person close to them that had died. I don’t remember much from that evening.

None of my grad school classes prepared me for that. They didn’t prepare me for the weeks that followed, as the campus moved on but the rest of us did not. They didn’t prepare me for helping his parents pack his room. They certainly didn’t prepare me for giving one of his on-campus eulogies. Or for his father to pull me aside and give me a bottle of wine (JR had asked his parents to buy me a bottle of wine as a birthday present–the bottle was destroyed in the car crash–his dad wanted him to replace it for me) while telling me how he punched out a fellow prison employee for telling him that “JR was in a better place now.” JR and his family were extremely religious but felt like all of us did–that JR’s place should still be with us. I will be forever grateful for Grinnell College chartering a bus so that we could drive to his funeral and be safe.

All of this came flooded back because I found the JR folder–with the cards, notes, pictures. I held on to it because I didn’t want to forget. But you can never let this go. It stays with you. It informed how I relate and approach students.

There are certain professor things I’m fastidious about–others, not so much. How can I be, when I was confronted early in my higher education career with the fact that life is fleeting?

I generally have a reason for these posts–but to be honest, I am not sure what I want you to take away from this one. The pandemic has definitely changed some of my feelings about the start of the school year–but I also know there’s a new group of students who are excited about what the future holds for them. I left student affairs because the demands of the job shifted into areas that were not my strengths. But I credit my time in student affairs with making me the type of professor I am today.

Take care of yourselves out there. See you next week.

Fighting for Shared Governance

On Friday, the Purdue Board of Trustees (BOT) approved a civics literacy requirement for all undergraduate students at Purdue campuses. For the past two weeks, I’ve worked along side my fellow colleagues in the AAUP to protest this vote. The faculty did not approve this requirement and the branch campuses received no notification or opportunity to provide input. This move is not only a complete overreach of the BOT power, but is politically motivated to serve the whims of a conservative, racist university president. Here is a summary of actions that got us here.

Critics of our protest claim its because we’re against civics literacy. Honestly, I could care less if the university adds another graduation requirement. The university is full of requirements that are, at best, performative. Students will find a work around to this requirement, much in the same way I’ve found a work around to the multiple certifications I have to complete each year (my work around–using the answers I’ve saved from the first certification, because the questions do not change). The issue is not the requirement.

The issue I’m protesting is the complete disregard for the will of the faculty. The history of this decision is clear–the Purdue WL Faculty Senate voted no on this proposal and now the BOT is doing it anyway. Overriding the faculty is insulting and demeaning to the important role we play in the academic and curricular decisions of the university.

It’s also a very dangerous precedent to set. I know some of my colleagues think “it’s just a graduation requirement.” But what happens if the BOT decides to overturn the university’s promotion recommendation? Or decides to remove the very process that protects our academic freedom? Faculty governance has been eroded by state legislatures, boards, and university administration for decades. The goal is clear: allow neoliberalism to destroy the role of education in our society. This ideology harms the important work universities do, and it especially hurts student learning. Universities are not businesses, in the same way that students are not widgets.

The BOT responded to our protest by arguing (I’m paraphrasing broadly here) that the BOT had sole power to enact curriculum decisions, and the number of faculty against this initiative is small. Again, I’m sure many faculty do not see this as inherently problematic–but would their perspective change if we weren’t talking about a civics literacy requirement? Would faculty be on board with a unilateral decision to implement a social justice and equity requirement? Maybe I’ll start a campaign for the BOT to institute this. After all, they have the “exclusive authority to prescribe the curricula.” The BOT is also highly committed to equity as evident by their task force, and the large financial commitment to the task force initiatives. Surely I will have their full support, as they have already done this very thing! Right?

I’m wrapping up my summer class right now and then I planned to go off the grid to write some things I desperately want to write. Instead, I’ll be on the grid more often, to continue fighting for shared governance. While tenure provides me the time and the protection to do this, I’m frustrated that I have to.

I’ll end with this–important things are worth fighting for. So that’s what I’ll do.

The Proverbial Summer Break

The first time my mother suggested that I didn’t work in the summer because “you aren’t teaching a class,” I politely explained how academic life goes–that while no, I wasn’t teaching, I was still working, catching up on the various reviews and manuscripts and proposals that languish during the academic year. While I don’t ascribe to the belief that writing can only take place in large chunks, what last summer taught me is that having unstructured time is incredibly important for the type of thinking that certain projects require. And this summer, I am teaching a summer course (right now, actually) and it’s tough to do anything else but manage the course–we meet four days a week for four weeks.

Last summer it didn’t make sense to take a “break” from things because it wasn’t clear that there would be things to break for-I had made various travel plans in early spring, only to watch them all dissolve as the pandemic continued to go unchecked. And while there are more things for me to do now as a fully vaccinated person, people and places are still catching up.

So as I carefully considered these things–what I wanted my summer to look like, what things I have to complete this summer, and what non-work fun there is to be had–I’ve decide to prioritize new creative writing projects (more on these in the fall), more reading time, more outside time, and less computer time. I’ve tried to post weekly for much of the last year–it’s been a great outlet as I think through some ideas and perspectives I have. (And full disclosure, I started this because I was worried I might not get tenure and figured that having my work more publicly useful would be beneficial.)

This has all been a very long way to say that I’m taking a break from posting weekly, and plan to do monthly posts for June, July, and August. I also added a new page (“What I’ve Read”) to keep track of all the books. I’ll update that periodically, too–but hope to have more in-depth posts on some of the books I’ve read.

Make time and space for yourselves, however and whenever you can.

What I Read — April 2021

Despite reading over 1000 pages of student proposals/dissertations (which requires attention and commenting), I managed six books this month! A few comments…

  • The book on money was super fascinating and I’d recommend it–very easy read. The authors have several other books as well that I plan to check out.
  • I didn’t know much about The Midnight Library when I got it from the library–I enjoyed the premise a lot as someone who wonders about similar things. I really enjoyed the ending. If you read it and want to talk about it, let me know.
  • The World Doesn’t Require You made me uncomfortable in a good way. I keep thinking about the book and what I learned from it. Here is the review from NPR, which is a good summary of my own thoughts.

Books

The Midnight Library — Matt Haig

The Run-Walk-Run Method — Jeff Galloway

Running & Being: The Total Experience — George Sheehan

The Fuck-It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy — Caroline Dooner

Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter — Dan Ariely & Jeff Kreisler

The World Doesn’t Require You — Rion Amilcar Scott

More Than Just Saying No: Why Academic Boundaries Matter

When I first started at Purdue in 2014, I was also training for my first marathon. This came up during a brief conversation with a colleague–I think he asked me how I was adjusting. Anyway, after I mentioned this, he looked at me somewhat sternly and said, “how do you have time as a new professor to train for a marathon?” I probably mumbled something about being an early morning runner (which I am), but was taken aback that someone thought that my work as an assistant professor could not leave time for running.

One of the more enduring challenges I experience as a professor is how to manage my time. There are many great resources out there on managing time (for example, this one ) and they generally offer advice on one of the best ways to do this: learning how to saying no. Learning how to say no sounds good in theory–but it’s not that easy in practice, especially when we acknowledge that different asks mean different things. For example, I was incredibly grateful when a colleague agreed to be on a student’s dissertation committee a week before the defense because of a completely unexpected situation. Sometimes no doesn’t make sense.

Given that no doesn’t always make sense, and is sometimes not feasible, I’ve started to think through academic boundaries that don’t rely on “no.” These strategies are evolving and are not set in stone, but they’ve made it much easier for me to control my time this semester.

  1. Dedicate two days to meetings. Aside from a few standing meetings (our college/department faculty meetings are on Fridays), I hold all of my meetings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes for long days but it also means that the other days of the week aren’t broken up by meetings.
  2. I do not accept same week meetings unless it’s an emergency. There are not many emergencies in the research factory, which helps, but my entire week could fill with meetings if I let it. So I don’t.
  3. I build reading time into my workday. My job requires a lot of reading and I used to save it for the end of the day–this just means I’m working long into the evening.

Academic boundaries are particularly important in the summer, when the university isn’t paying me, but I’m earning salary for my grant projects. So this year I reached out to everyone I work with to let them know that I’ll continue to read/comment on writing/proposals/etc, but from June 18 through August 13, I’m unavailable for any meetings and am only skimming email once a week. It’s been hard to remind people of this boundary as they attempt to schedule with me (“it’s just one meeting!”) but this summer I need to focus on my own things and I’m going to do that.

When thinking through your own academic boundaries think about what matters to you, not what the academy tells you is important. Several years ago I was told to stop being on so many student committees. But many of the committees I’m on are those of Brown and Black graduate students who seek me out because they are Brown or Black, or are doing work on race/equity. Given the extremely low numbers of Brown and Black faculty, I consider supporting Brown and Black students to be one of the most important functions of my jobs. So I politely told my department chair that reducing my committee commitment was non-negotiable. And I’ve maintained this.

In blog news, I think I’m moving to a Friday posting schedule–not sure what the summer will look like. After all, I’m setting some work boundaries 🙂

The Tenure Timeline

On Friday, April 9, 2021 Purdue University awarded me tenure. I feel like tenure is one of those processes that is both very specific and also mysterious. There are reasons for this (like most things, I both agree and disagree with these reasons), but it still makes the experience of going through it challenging. So in this post, I describe my timeline for promotion and tenure in the College of Education. Even within colleges, institutions may have different practices. Also, colleges and universities vary on how this process occurs–therefore, my experience may not mirror yours. But I hope this is helpful to folks as they think about long-term planning. No one really sat me down to map out a plan for tenure, which I now this is essential for all new faculty.

I do want to acknowledge that in terms of support, the College of Education was excellent. I received annual reviews of my progress every year (instead of just at the 3 year mark), and had a small group of faculty assigned to be my tenure shepherds. They guided me along the away. The final group of shepherds, the ones who presented and defended my case, were instrumental in my success.

March 2020 — My department chair lets me know that I’ve been nominated to go up for promotion. I was also instructed to create a list of external reviewers. External reviewers are people who can speak the contribution you make to the field. At Purdue, these letters are confidential and I do not get to know who wrote them. External reviewers cannot be people you have extensive experience with. My department chair created a list of names, I gave her a list of names, and then she selected between 5-8 people. If reviewers agreed, they would receive a copy of my P&T file (really, a very wordy CV) and three writing samples.

March 2020 — I also started drafting my P&T file this month. At Purdue, we complete what is called a Form 36. The first two sections are general information and then the overall basis for nomination (2-3 page summary of my work). I went up on research (or discovery, as it’s called here) meaning that I should be promoted based on my scholarship. So I had a section devoted to discovery, which included a narrative summary of my research agenda and then lists everything–publications, grants, research mentorship, etc. The next two sections are devoted to teaching (learning at Purdue) and service (engagement at Purdue). Both sections were considerably shorter than the discovery one.

March 2020-June 2020 — Work on the Form 36. Repeatedly. I worked closely with one tenure shepherd who showed no mercy. Her feedback stung. But it was appropriate. Writing this is hard because you’re writing for multiple audiences, who all have varying levels of understanding about your research. I focused solely on this document. Every sentence matters and every sentence is doing a lot of work. When it was near final draft form, I sent it out to other academics to review it. I also hired an editor to help with editing/formatting. I am so glad I did! She really made the document much stronger.

June 2020 — Turn the document in to my department chair. At Purdue, this is it. Nothing else can be added to my file. Folks can be verbally updated on any other accomplishments (like a grant) but nothing is added to the written record.

June 2020-October 2020 — Wait 🙂 I was encouraged to scale back my productivity during this time. Since nothing could be added to the record, it didn’t make sense to try to get publications out. I took this advice to heart, and only worked on one manuscript and continued to collect data on ongoing projects.

October 2020 — The first vote was at the department level (called the primary committee). My department chair emailed when the vote was done to tell me it was positive. Apparently back in the day, people learned the number of people who voted in favor/against.

December 2020 — The second vote was at the college level (called the area committee). In my college, there are only two departments so most of the area committee had already voted once. The dean called me to tell me this was favorable too.

February 2021 — The final vote was at the university level. This is somewhat perfunctory–the cases discussed at the university level as usually ones where there are mixed votes or concerns. My dean called to let me know that the university approved my tenure and there were no concerns and to keep it confidential until the Board voted.

April 2021 — Board of Trustees makes it official!!

So now it’s over. The promotion isn’t in effect until August but the hard part is finished! The entire process is long and arduous–and while I wasn’t overly worried, the process has a lot of moving parts, and I wasn’t in control of many of them.

If you’re a new professor and reading this, my biggest tip is to map everything to the tenure process, but to pay attention to timing. I didn’t factor in publication timing until about year 3–now that I know some journals take months, and others can take years, I have a better sense of what my research cycle should look like as I plan for promotion to full.

I also want to stress that the College of Education prepared me well for this process–yearly reviews, feedback on my documents, etc. If you do not have this in your college, please create a small committee of scholars who will help you do this yearly.

And many thanks to those of you who had to hear me complain about this process in-person. I appreciate it 🙂

What I Read — March 2021

April is affectionally dubbed “dissertation season.” Various deadlines of the graduate school makes April a busy month for proposal and dissertation defenses. Not sure how much I’ll be able to read outside of the *six* proposals/dissertations on my calendar this month. But I’ll try. I highly recommend each book this month. An Anonymous Girl is in the same vein as Gone Girl–a thriller with lots of twists. Anyway, always happy to take recomendations!

Books

Moon Over Soho — Ben Aaronovitch (the second in the Rivers of London series).

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession — Rachel Monroe

The Radiant Lives of Animals — Linda Hogan

An Anonymous Girl — Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Articles

Dancy, M., Rainey, K., Stearns, E., Mickelson, R., & Moller, S. (2020). Undergraduates’ awareness of White and male privilege in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education, 7(52), 1-17. Doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00250-3

Holley, K. A. (2011). A cultural repertoire of practices in doctoral education. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 6, 79-94.

Murrar, S., Campbell, M. R., Brauer, M. (2020). Exposure to peers’ pro-diversity attitudes increases inclusion and reduces the achievement gap. Nature, 4, 889-897. Doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0899-5

Smith-Doerr, L., Alegria, S., & Sacco, T. (2017). How diversity matters in the US science and engineering workforce: A critical review considering integration in teams, fields, and organizational contexts. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 3, 139-153. Doi.org/10.17351/ests2017.142

Reflections on Classrooms as Counterspaces

Last week my latest publication, Classroom Counterspaces: Centering Brown and Black Students in Higher Education came out (50 free copies are available for download–if you want it and it’s not free anymore, let me know). In this article, I use the concepts of bridges and islands, which are drawn from Borderlands theory, to understand the fractures that exist in doctoral education for Brown and Black graduate students. Bridges and islands reflect the tension that exists in spaces where one feels like they are at home and also a stranger. Bridging, or creating bridges, servers to re-center the voices of Brown and Black students and to draw connections between their experiences and what occurs in the academy. Bridging is what allows change to occur. As you can imagine, bridging is not always welcomed. Fundamentally, bridging acknowledges the absence of Brown and Black perspectives, and forges a pathway for inclusion of those perspectives. Islands are the opposite– they are the metaphorical places that Brown and Black students inhabit, the places where they are disconnected from the practices of academia. Islands are places where Brown and Black students try to negotiate the importance of their work, while remaining on the margins. These are not static–Brown and Black students move along bridges to islands and back again–reacting to the contours of the academic landscape (e.g. coursework, peer and faculty interactions, research). But these reactions are ongoing and there is no reprieve.

The notions of bridges and islands are not new to Black and Brown graduate students. The talk amongst Brown and Black people on campuses often reflects how different classes, or faculty, or programs, offer more experience with one or the other. In response to the islands (and to build stronger bridges), Brown and Black students create counterspaces. Counterspaces are attempts to ensure that patterns of marginalization that exist in other contexts are not reproduced in these spaces (Case & Hunter, 2012; King & Pringle, 2019). Counterspaces also facilitate and promote the social and emotional well-being of Brown and Black students who experience marginalization and oppression (Case & Hunter, 2012). Counterspaces exist in multiple settings such as campus cultural organizations (Litzler, 2013; Museus, 2008) or academic support programs (Nuñez, 2011), but generally exist outside of central academic spaces such as classrooms (Ong et al., 2018).

In 2016, I started teaching a seminar on critical and Indigenous methodologies. During the initial class, I was struck by something I hadn’t experienced before–not only were there no white men, but almost everyone was Brown or Black. For the first time, I didn’t have to consider the white male response when discussing issues of race or gender or class, and how those relate to research methods. It was freeing for me as a professor–and it was freeing for the students in the class. Week after week, we circled our chairs and used the course concepts to interrogate our experiences as minoritized scholars in the academy. There was no dealing with white guilt. There was no justification of campus racism and sexism. For three hours every week, we pushed back against an organization that was never meant or designed for us. Class was compassionate, challenging, heartbreaking, wonderful, affirming–sometimes all within the same night. We celebrated the wins and comforted each other in the losses, and most importantly, grew together as researchers.

When I realized that the first seminar was not an anomaly, I began to view the course as a form of counterspace. Classroom counterspaces are rare–curriculum often reflects dominant narratives centered on whiteness, and interactions inside the class also reflect this. In fact, creating a course that centers the perspectives of Brown and Black students and that provides Brown and Black students with a place to share the range of their feelings and experiences, is fundamentally an act of resistance in academic organizations. Recognizing and identifying the need for classroom counterspaces acknowledges that the regular hegemonic university structure actually impoverishes the academic project–it withholds the rich, diverse, and important knowledge held by Brown and Black graduate students. And we are worse off because of that withholding. Creating a classroom counterspace is my attempt at building bridges.

References:

Case, A. D. & Hunter, C. D. (2012). Counterspaces: A unit of analysis for understanding the role of settings in marginalized individuals’ adaptive responses to oppression. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1-2), 257-270. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-012-9497-7

King, N. S., & Pringle, R. M. (2019). Black girls speak STEM: Counterstories of informal and formal learning experiences. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 56, 539-569. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21513

Litzler, E. (2013). How underrepresented minority engineering students derive a sense of belonging from engineering. Paper presented at the 2013 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition. Atlanta, GA: American Society for Engineering Education.

Museus, S. D. (2008). The role of ethnic student organizations in fostering African American and Asian American students’ cultural adjustment and membership at predominately White institutions. Journal of College Student Development, 49(6), 568-586. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0039

Nuñez, A-M. (2011). Counterspaces and connections in college transitions: First-generation Latino students’ perspectives on Chicano studies. Journal of College Student Development, 52(6), 639-655. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2011.0077     

Ong, M., Smith, J. M., Ko, L. T. (2018). Counterspaces for women of color in STEM higher education: Marginal and central spaces for persistence and success. Journal of Research in Science and Teaching, 55(2), 206-245. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21417   

This post was submitted to the Teaching in Higher Education blog, which features posts about published manuscripts.

What I Read — February 2021

This was a slow reading month–although I did revise and resubmit two manuscripts and read two dissertations!

Books

Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work on discipline and surveillance is the center of one of my research projects.

Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. Two of my projects draw from Black Feminist Thought but this is a re-read from graduate school.

Articles

No articles. Sigh.