How to Survive on the Tenure Track

Diana Hume George | March 2000

In English departments, whether in major research universities or small colleges, writers on the tenure track are probably the ones who lie to themselves the most. If you are among them, you are sometimes forced into hypocrisy about what matters most to you. You might be a fresh MFA or PhD, or a seasoned professional adapting to rising expectations. You care a great deal about your teaching. You might love mentoring young writers–but writers who pretend that teaching writing doesn’t cut into their own work time are usually lying. Our vocation requires peace, privacy, long periods of uninterrupted solitude. If you thought academe would afford that, you notice that it doesn’t.

You are not alone in your hypocrisy. Colleges and universities often claim to value teaching above all else. In reality, this doesn’t necessarily hold true. A less than superb teaching record can lose you your job, but a superb one won’t keep that same job. Institutional support for writing time is mostly lip service, and your academic loads cause you to spend most of your time editing student writing, with little left for your own. Why do so many of us go blindly into academic life without understanding that it will bleed our writing lives dry if we aren’t careful? And why do so few academics know the basic strategies that get you through to tenure?

What follows should have been told to everyone in graduate school, including me. If you weren’t told much of it, then senior faculty were derelict in their duty to you. We’ve failed you in the mentoring department. My own college’s faculty survey indicates that junior faculty get plenty of mentoring on teaching, but little on publication. I am astonished to see how unprepared most of my new colleagues are (and a few veterans) for the realities of academic life. You will perish if you’re too slow about publishing. I’ve seen fine writers and superb teachers go down over and over again.

Once you’re on the tenure track in academe, the activity we claim we most want to do cannot be conducted in a leisurely spirit over a period of years. Publication expectations have increased exponentially in the last generation. While most recent MFAs and PhDs are more savvy about this than people who matriculated a mere ten years ago, there’s still a high degree of clue-free behavior in our collective demeanor.

I hate talking in this careerist way about writing, and maybe that’s why I haven’t helped my colleagues sufficiently. I now realize that refraining from such talk is tantamount to withholding essential information for any writer seeking a stable, permanent position in academe.

Here’s an unadorned checklist for those of you who have no choice but to betray the purity of the muse as you enter that low-down, skin-saving, tenure-getting time of your life. If you already know all of this, be sure to take it down the hall and give it to a colleague who doesn’t.

Navigating the Bureaucracy

Make sure you know the timeline for all deadlines and reviews at your college. Some schools have documents on these procedures, and some don’t. If yours doesn’t, shame them into preparing a timeline for everyone. New faculty are appallingly unaware of the particulars about performance reviews. Reviews are usually of two kinds, the annual and the intensive, in years one/ three/ five, or two/ four/ six, etc. Your department or college will examine your credentials with varying degrees of intrusive thoroughness in varying years. These reviews will affect your future.

Make sure you read all performance evaluations of you that you are legally entitled to see–and don’t assume you’ll be told which ones these are. It’s not a plot against us; it’s just bureaucracy at work, especially in non-union shops, where confidentiality is frequently invoked, both legitimately and just because the department has always done it that way. Sometimes there’s a review in your file that you weren’t shown, and that you have a right to see. (Some tenure documents at Penn State have to be read in the presence of a university official and cannot be removed from administrative offices. Only very recently have faculty been told that they’re entitled to see these documents.)

When you’re preparing your curriculum vitae for internal review, make sure you follow the college’s format and protocol. Frequently, pre-tenure faculty–and writers are worse at this than scholars and theorists–turn in documentation with no consistent format, that lacks page or volume numbers or publishers, and that appears to have been dashed off at the last minute. The list of published poems sometimes doesn’t include volumes and dates and page numbers, or the short stories are listed as "published in" a list of journals, sans particulars. Writers often come to academe from worlds where that would be fine, but it’s not acceptable in academe. At my college, we often send badly prepared dossiers back to the candidate or department head–but the word is already out that the candidate was careless. It doesn’t look good when professors who wouldn’t tolerate such infelicities in their students expect to be excused from honoring the conventions themselves.

Yes, a few of the doctors of literature and theory have prejudices about MFAs. We might wish this weren’t true, and it’s only true of a minority, but you need to know that some PhD and literature people regard MFAs as undereducated and anti-intellectual. They still don’t accept the MFA as a terminal academic degree that makes you their peer. Many still think that what we teach isn’t academically respectable–they silently assume our workshops are whiny group-grope sessions, and that we endorse self-indulgent, insipid, and/or narcissistic writing by our students. I heard one senior faculty member seriously assert that all poets are flaky. (I have a PhD and wrote critical studies in my previous life, so I am a reliable spy.) Don’t give them any fuel by dishonoring the conventions. It would be nice not to care what they think, but they vote on your retention and tenure. You don’t need to toady to them, but don’t supply them with juicy gossip about your "lack of professionalism."

Unwritten rules and standards exist. Find out what they are. This is something that no one in a department will admit but that all the veterans know, although each will tell you something slightly different, because the standards keep changing from year to year as the ante is upped. Example: you must have x number of publications per year, of x type, by year four. (Do you know what they call publications in many schools of business? They call them "hits." I am not making this up.) It’s not in black and white, and administrations will deny that such unwritten rules exist at all–they’ll tell you that performance review is based on merit, that their standards of excellence are high but reasonable, that they’re not bean-counters, and that no generalizations can be made. Nonsense. Behind closed doors, it all comes down to comparative generalization, and bean-counting is the major academic activity throughout the land. We do not have time for anything better, despite our good intentions. The confidential faculty committee conversation usually begins like this: "She has only four short stories in three years–didn’t Jim have five last year, and he just barely made it through?" Administrators have to deny the counting of beans. You would, too, if you were in their shoes, and if you wanted to maintain the illusion that quality of publications supercedes quantity. And, as frequently as not, it’s your fellow faculty members who enforce these invisible policies as they perceive them.

Never take one person’s word about the way things work in your school. Talk to several experienced people. Find out who has recently served on department, college, and university-wide committees. Ask your unit head for a list of personnel or promotion and tenure (P&T) committee members from the last few years. If she or he doesn’t have such records, ask the secretary or administrative assistant who keeps those files. Save yourself trouble by starting there, as they’re the ones who really know. Records of committee membership exist. It’s these people you need to talk to, because policies may change from year to year.

Don’t depend solely on your new colleagues. Consult with your graduate school mentors, who may have been too focused on course work to give you enough concrete information when you were finishing your degree. Ask him or her for precise information. Names and addresses of editors. Quarterlies where she publishes. And if he won’t cough up, ask why, and say you can take whatever the answer is–and make sure you can. You need insider information on the politics of good placement for your writing. You paid for this kind of professional advice. I find that most people get through graduate school with only vague ideas about how to proceed, and the strangest fear of asking for more information.

Know when you’re talking to someone whose information is outdated.This is the flip side of using your graduate school contacts: consider the possibility that those workshop teachers of yours might be out of touch with what you need to know. Is your thesis director a publishing writer, or did she bring out her last book in 1980? Now is the time to get over your respect for authority and tell yourself the truth about your thesis director. Do the same thing with the new colleagues. Watch out for the know-it-all personality who is probably telling you all the wrong things. In short, you have to become a shrewd judge of character.

The Academic Writing Life

Focus on one project. Get it done. Revise it. Send it out. You need several projects going at once, which only appears to conflict with the above advice. Never hang your professional prospects on one novel-in-progress, one book of poems you’re almost done with, one memoir you’re still working on. Send out poems and stories and essays. Make one project your highest priority at any given time, so that you don’t have a mountain of work-in-progress with nothing ever quite finished. We all knew how to do this in college. When your story was due in workshop, you finished it. The principle is the same as it always was: get one thing done, then go back to another thing and see it through. I know you’re an artist, and you’ve heard that line that we can’t force our creativity, but such a mindset is inimical to your success on the tenure track.

Don’t procrastinate. Period. If you’re procrastinating in year two of an academic job, you’ve already made up your mind about years three and four. Without blind luck, you won’t have enough new publications to make tenure.

But in your first semester, concentrate on your teaching. You’ve been through several major stresses, including moving and becoming accustomed to new surroundings and people. You need a break so that you won’t break. But if you postpone past half a year, you’re making big problems for yourself down the line, and guaranteeing a professional life of unremitting anxiety. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you have to make up your mind early, and often.

The early publications that landed you the job won’t count for squat later. It doesn’t matter how much you published before you were hired. They’re only interested in what you have published lately–specifically what you’ve published while in their employ. That’s entirely unfair, but most colleges now have this policy, which will continue at the next level–when you’re up for promotion later, they often don’t "count" what you published before your last review, but only what you’ve published since. When you come to an academic job with one book, a number of individual placements, and two books in progress, the sense of sitting pretty could not be more illusory. You might have published two books and still end up in the same position for retention as the person hired with just a few poems out.

The unpublished thesis that earned you the job can be the cornerstone of your publication record. Don’t become neurotic about this. Send the work out while you begin writing in a new direction. The important thing, if you decide to change emphasis in your pre-tenure years, is to start early. Don’t stay with something you no longer love. Either make a commitment to that fiction collection, or abandon it for now. But whether or not you love the work, send out a few pieces while the work is fresh enough that you’re still in touch with it. I’ve noted one mistake above all others common to both scholars and writers, and some of you are both. A scholar often has four or five good articles in a dissertation, each of which would require only a few hours to transform from a chapter into an article, and it doesn’t get done and doesn’t get done, and then it’s too late. Or a short-story writer could revise old thesis stories, but she no longer likes the work. This just boggles my mind. I can’t count the times I’ve pointed out that something is ready to send out with one hour of minor edits–and two years later, that article or story has not been touched. And I’m not talking about rushing inferior and undigested writing into print. I mean wonderful writing.

Your submission letter and hard copy must be completely error-free. It’s vital that you have reliable editing and proofing help. Don’t even think about skipping spell-check on that six-line cover letter because you’re in a hurry. If you don’t spell-check, there will be an error in it, and the editor will spot it and maybe write you off. Never send out anything, cover letter or text, without a couple of people you trust reading it over to catch errors that slipped through your first 17 drafts. (I have paid student research assistants to do this. They catch errors every single time.) I cannot overemphasize the importance of this, both for line-edits and substantive matters. Everyone needs line-editing. An immature story or poem can often become fully realized with deft editing. If you didn’t find help in your grad-school workshops, even though you should have, get it now. Turn to writer friends you respect. Join a local writing group to replace the workshops you were hooked on. I recently did this. I snuck into a neighboring community and became just another writer in a group. It doesn’t have to be academic writers. In many ways, it works better if they aren’t. No talk about departmental politics.

Dump the dissertationese (or its equivalent). As an apprentice professional-academic writer in graduate school, you acquired the habit of writing in a tentative tone of voice that defers to authoritative sources every few paragraphs, that documents more than it asserts. You might have written an article for theory or literature courses–or an academic or scholarly dissertation, even though you identify yourself as primarily a creative writer–that is perfectly publishable, but needs work on the tone of authority. Often just the style of documentation needs to change, or the frequency with which you tug your forelock. Ten endnotes may become one endnote when you shift from writing like an apprentice to writing like an authority. A skilled senior person can help this happen in one revision. As a journal reviewer for many publications, I spot the dialect known as dissertationese in a flash, usually on page one. Assuming I think the piece makes a contribution to the field, I’ll still reject it and suggest it be sent back for revision and resubmitted–which translates into half a year of lost time. Fully half of the articles I’ve reviewed display this problem.

Don’t send out your creative thesis or scholarly dissertation as a book until you’ve sent out individual chapters as articles or short stories or poems. This is basic. If you publish stories or chapters on their own, you generate interest in the entire book, and you make a reputation for yourself in the quarterlies. Publication in journals and quarterlies gives you a stronger position with a university press editor, who knows that you are respected by your peers. In the very crassest terms, this is the only legitimate form of double-dipping–i.e., the same writing appears on your curriculum vitae in two forms, and you get credit for it instead of obloquy.

An aside to the poets: you know that agents are not on your route; they’re not interested in representing poetry. Stay with the quarterlies and small presses. Fantasize about Graywolf and Copper Canyon and CALYX, and the big-league university press series, like Michigan and Pittsburgh, but also keep an eye on those marvelous smaller university press poetry series, such as Cleveland State, and the independents, such as Eighth Mountain, who produce gorgeous books. (As before, this is just my list. Make your own. Spend a lot of time in the press booths at AWP Conferences.) We all know that placing books of poetry takes forever and is notoriously difficult. While you wait, send out your individual poems. But to supplement them–unfortunately, your colleagues don’t really understand that one poem can be the equivalent, in accomplishment and merit and sweat, of an article–I strongly suggest writing reviews of poetry books, or omnibus review articles.

Fiction and nonfiction writers: you’re torn between seeking an agent to get a big trade contract, versus submitting to university and small presses. The required strategy, even the etiquette, is different, almost contradictory. Most university presses not only don’t mind, but almost expect that you’ve published parts of your book, as above–chapters or individual stories or essays–in the quarterlies. An agent, on the other hand, might well prefer that you not send out any portion of a book she will represent, because agents want to use serialization in the bigger magazines as pre-publication marketing for the book itself. Agents might become annoyed if you say you want to publish something from your book in The Georgia Review (GR). They’re not interested in GR’s high status, and there’s no money involved. Ironically, agents might read GR, as well as TriQuarterly and Missouri Review and Ohio Review and Gettysburg Review and Creative Nonfiction (and many more) to spot excellent writers to represent, but once they have you, they don’t want you to give your book away, in effect, to small or no-pay venues. So place a segment with a quarterly before you contract with an agent on that first book, because afterward, it may be poor etiquette to do so. (I haven’t sent out a major essay in two years because my agent wants them only for my new book.)

The good reasons to opt for university presses are not all compensatory rationalizations. For a moment, let’s pretend you have no interest in filthy lucre and a big advance. (You would only claim this because you haven’t gotten a big advance. I don’t want to hear it, you do so want a big advance.) To wit: it’s far easier to get a serious, sustained reading in the university press world. They have longer attention spans. I’ve had good as well as bad experiences in the trade world, and nothing but good experiences in the university press world. Consider that in the trade world, you’ll have a shelf life of 15 minutes. With a good university press, the book will survive for 15 years. Two years after the publication date, someone wants to buy your trade book, and it’s remaindered. A decade after the publication date, someone wants your university press book, and they can still order it. In the trade world, if you’re stuck in the mid-list, where you’ll almost certainly land, your book might receive lousy marketing, whereas the university presses market straight to their (much smaller) audiences. And although I can’t prove it, copy editing in the university press world is likely to be more meticulous in general than in the trade world, though trade editors would probably say this is not so. It makes sense, though–university presses operate on a slow, painstaking, noncommercial, often nonprofit model. You can develop a wonderful relationship with your university press editors over the years–mine is University of IIllinois Press, where my long-term editors, Ann Lowry and Becky Standard, are terrific. Given how people move around in the trade takeovers these days, a lasting relationship is not as likely in the trade world. Mind you, I would sell out in a minute for a big advance in the trades.

Guarding Your Time

Just say no to inordinate committee service requests. "Service" can single-handedly kill your chances for tenure. Your new employer will happily, even innocently, use your time to create that new program, with meetings three times a week and endless reports written by–who else?–you! You’re new blood, you have new ideas, they’re so happy to see you! And they’ll give you glowing reviews for all of your collegiality! And then they’ll dump you in year four if you don’t have sufficient publications. Some colleges have a policy of "no committee service" for first-year people, and if you’re at one of them, stay there. More common is lip-service to the light-service ethic, with an expectation that you serve on not just one, but several committees. You get told to say No, but what do you do when it’s your department head or dean asking you to serve on some special new commission, and you’re supposed to feel honored to be asked? Most likely it’s a search committee that’s going to drain your blood and replace it with formalin in one year, or a third-wave reform of the major, or an interdisciplinary international studies committee, or, the newest horror, a First Year Seminar committee. Bottom line: in a quarter century at three different institutions, I have never seen anyone canned because of a light service record. I have also never seen anyone receive appropriate credit for heavy and fine service, ever, and that stinks.

Apply for grants. Secure as much time for your writing as you can. If you work for a university that automatically lightens your pre-tenure load, or gives a pre-tenure mini-sabbatical, fall down upon your knees and kiss the ground in front of the administration offices. If you do not, find out if there are in-house research grants or institutes that sometimes give course reduction awards to pre-tenure people, ones that you aren’t automatically informed about, but can apply for. Given that you’re not likely to land an NEA fellowship or Guggenheim fellowship in your pre-tenure years, investigate your state and/or regional council on the arts. Despite shifts in local and national arts funding, which can cause many states to cut fellowships and others to alternate years in which they grant fellowships, there may be help available. Sometimes there’s more than one category of assistance for which you may be eligible. And be sure to ask about stipends as well.

The best-kept secret of all: if you wanted writing time, you should have gone into any field except English, and within English, any specialty except teaching writing. Academe can be a good gig with plenty of flexibility and security, but our job in English, and especially in writing, takes longer than anyone else’s. When the annual load is six to eight courses, more than half will usually be composition in the pre-tenure years; and if your specialty is writing instead of literature, then your plums, those two courses you get to teach in your specialty, are more writing courses, with more papers to grade. What were we thinking? It may be too late for you, but if some of your best students are writers with a strong interest in another field, tell them to think about it. Academics in math and psychology and art history and business don’t have a backlog of student papers to edit every moment of their waking lives. If I had to do it all over again, I might have become an anthropologist. Everything is fuel for the writing life.

I hope this helps some of you. Knowing these things can help you balance your writing and teaching lives, get some sleep, and have time for your family and the loves of your life.


Diana Hume George is Professor of English and Women’s Studies and Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, Behrend College, in Erie, Pennsylvania. While on sabbatical, she is also affiliated with the MFA program at Goucher College. (My thanks to Peg Thoms, Melissa Bender, Alan Parker, Ann Pancake, and Kirk Nesset.)

No Comments