Life in a Post-Tenure World: Next Steps on Your Academic Journey

by Emily Allen Williams

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The months and years of working have culminated in the much-sought academic pinnacle -- tenure. Not only are you to be congratulated for your engaged work towards this accomplishment but also you are to be commended for continuing to engage in the daily teaching, research, or combination of the two while deliberations were made by the tenure and promotions committee.

Now, of course, you know that your work is not done! While you likely had quite a bit of advice and mentoring on your path to tenure, now that you are tenured the fountain of advice for the next part of your academic journey -- surprisingly -- may not flow so freely. It could be that it is presumed by those more senior tenured faculty and by administrators that you know exactly what the next steps on your journey should and will be. Years ago, however, when I secured tenure I immediately felt that there was a void I needed to fill to replace the space that I was constantly filling to ensure that reviewers would see me as 'more than' for tenure. I poured so much energy and expertise into those pre-tenure years that I intuitively knew that I had to start actively developing a plan for life after tenure if I were to effectively harness the efficacy of energy that led to tenure. Subsequently, I came up with some self and academically liberating ideas and that also took me beyond the parameters of 'expected' tenure work to the academic work that I wanted to do that was far beyond the fringe of tenure requirements.

Here I am more than a decade and half later, and as during pre-tenure, sharing my career findings with colleagues. I offer some suggestions for life after tenure. In short, your entrée into a post-tenure world affords you the opportunity to:

  • Celebrate yourself! Earning tenure is no easy accomplishment. You have prepared for this time many years beyond your initial appointment. Countless hours of research, writing, discussions, and dossier preparation have contributed to, undoubtedly, one of the biggest achievements [to date, at least] in your academic life. Now it is fitting to do something special for yourself that may have been pushed to the recesses of your mind. Do it! I took a trip to several Caribbean countries which were foundational in the culmination of my dissertation; however, I spent the post-tenure time enjoying the landscape and culture far beyond the frame of a focused research endeavor.
  • Mentor someone in the tenure pipeline. Remember when you were trying to find your way to surety in what to do, what to include, what to exclude, what projects to engage in, what projects to flee from, and the like? Please, don't forget this space of understanding, sooner or later. Someone [perhaps quite a few experts] was there for you to lend both extended and temporal support. Now that you are an expert in the realm of tenure acquisition, there are so many ways that you can now be of service to pre-tenured professors. You might consider some of the following things, which are far from exhaustive and ultimately dependent on your college/university cultural environment:
    • Organize a brown bag lunch discussion with tenured professors as presenters and invite pre-tenured professors for a session on best practices for a successful tenure review. Try to hold a session at least once per semester. Think of the session(s) as central in your service activity.
    • Engage in an unofficial evaluation of a pre-tenured faculty's class. Teaching and learning centers, faculty resource centers, and academic deans organize opportunities for faculty to visit one another's classes and offer critical commentary on pedagogical best practices. Classroom observations provide windows into pre-tenured faculty pedagogical and research platforms.
    • Offer to review and provide feedback on pre-tenured faculty articles and monographs being submitted for publication. No, you are not serving as an editor; instead, you are providing baseline commentary on content and its suitability for the publication, as well as its currency and importance.
    • Accept tenure review requests as presented. Make sure, however, to identify conflicts of interests and professional biases that may prohibit you from engaging in a fair review.
  • Retool your teaching box. You may already be engaged in amazingly innovative teaching strategies in your classes, which is only one of the reasons why you were unanimously approved for tenure. Or, you may still be navigating the safer side of pedagogy with more traditional teaching strategies. Either way, now is a splendid time to embrace and implement new teaching methodologies to engage students toward greater and more demonstrable learning outcomes. Technology abounds! Digital methods [may] create deeper and richer expeditions into knowledge! So many of these resources are already available for use at most higher education institutions. If not, in your newly tenured wisdom, make the case for necessary resources in advancing teaching and learning at your institution.
  • Be the change and the voice for the pre-tenured that you consistently talked about in your former state. Memories…What are some of the things that you endured -- unnecessarily so -- due to your status as a pre-tenured faculty member? While this article is not the place to recount some of the untenable situations that I can speak to as a 'many sunsets ago' untenured faculty, it is, indeed, the place to reflect on the unnecessary continuity of such untenable academic situations. The voices of your untenured colleagues are more than often unheard when there are problems as they will, instead, choose a brand of protective silence rather than [de]constructive commentary. As a newly tenured faculty member, speak up and remind your newly joined cohort of tenured people as well as administrators of the need of cultivating faculty dignity and respect on both sides of the academic channel.
  • Choose service where your best self (aka, expertise) comes to the fore. While service is a required aspect of your work as faculty, navigate your path less fortuitously in your newly tenured status.
  • Learn to say 'no' and mean it. Remember saying 'yes' every time a [then] senior colleague asked you to write an encyclopedia article, contribute an essay/article to an edited collection, and submit a proposal to present as part of a panel at a forthcoming conference? You said yes because your best mind told you that these things would stack up nicely as you prepared for tenure. Guess what? You were probably correct -- at the time -- even when some of the activities you engaged in were a bit outside of your discipline expertise; however, the activities provided strong evidence of your involvement in the life of the academy. Breathe! Take time -- immediately -- to consider how future activities may derail you on the trajectory to the next tier in your academic journey. Will the paper prepared for a conference presentation be 'one and done,' or will it translate into a larger project such as a published piece (article or book)? If not, consider how much time you will need to appropriate for a short-term academic deal. Will the request to write an encyclopedia article or a contribution to an edited volume advance your work now? Can you, instead, recommend an outstanding pre-tenured scholar who needs to do this type of work but may not be well-known to your colleagues?
It is important to enjoy this 'tenure time' in a celebratory manner; however, there is so much work to be accomplished now that the permanent halo of tenure travels with you. You are now empowered to implement, innovate, and advance different ways of knowing and doing at many levels. Applause is yours to own along with the life-long responsibility to expand the academic envelope.