One great concern
I have, related to my academic work in educational equity, is that many
students, especially those from culturally diverse backgrounds and/or who
are first generation college graduates, may not have the information they
need to successfully navigate the university system. My concern is compounded
by my strong belief in the importance of the university in sustaining a
free and democratic society and in fostering the active participation of
people from the complete range of backgrounds and experiences found in
our society. I believe that the university's role is hindered when what
we do is poorly understood. Therefore, I offer my perspective in the spirit
of creating a better understanding of what professors do (or at least this
professor does), outside of teaching classes.
Types of university faculty:
University faculty can be divided into several general categories, for example, tenure track vs. non-tenure track, and, if tenure track, into tenured and non-tenured, and by faculty rank. Additionally, some faculty hold 12-month contracts and others, 9-month contracts. Examples of non-tenure track faculty include instructors, visiting faculty, research-track faculty, and clinical faculty. Generally, if someone holds a position as an 'assistant professor,' 'associate professor,' or 'full professor,' without any additional qualifier (such as visiting assistant professor), they would hold a tenure-track appointment.
What is tenure? Universities typically provide technical definitions of tenure that relate to the process of obtaining tenure and the responsibilities of tenure-track and tenured faculty. But it can be difficult to figure out exactly what it is in general terms. Here's my best attempt at explaining it, from the perspective of my own experience. Tenure is an employment status that applies after a faculty member has passed through his/her institutionally defined probationary period, if he/she holds a tenure-track appointment. Once a faculty member has obtained tenure, it does not mean a position for life, as there are many rules, regulations, and responsibilities surrounding a tenure appointment. However, it does mean that a faculty member is no longer on a probationary appointment, nor do tenured faculty hold a year-to-year contract, as with some other (non tenure-track) appointments.
Typically, faculty begin the path toward tenure as an Assistant Professor and their probationary period may be around six years (depending on the institution and other circumstances, such as previous academic positions or whether the faculty member has taken a leave of absence). Often there is a 'mid-probationary review,' at which time the faculty member presents required documentation of their body of work to date, in the areas of scholarship, teaching and service, and that documentation is formally reviewed by some process established within their university and program (e.g. College, School, and/or Department).
If a faculty member passes their mid-probationary
review, they will usually continue as a non-tenured, tenure track faculty
member until they "go up for tenure." Often (but not always) the evaluation
process for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor happens at the
same time. This "T & P review" can be a nerve-racking process for faculty,
as it is the culmination of many years of study and work, and it is not
automatic that faculty will be granted tenure and promoted. Additionally,
this review process can take up to a year, depending on the established
process. For example, I submitted my "dossier" in August 2005 and was advised
that I would be awarded tenure and promoted to Associate by the end of
June, 2006. So, if you know that a faculty member is "going up" for tenure
and/or promotion in the near future, you might be understanding if they
are a bit stressed while they are putting together their dossier and waiting
for the results, as it can be quite an elaborate process. It is also a
very high stakes process, as tenure track faculty who are not awarded tenure
lose their faculty appointment -- they cannot continue indefinitely as
an assistant professor and continue presenting for tenure and promotion
repeatedly. Additionally, if an individual is denied tenure, it is often
the end of their career in academia, as it may be very difficult to secure
a faculty position at another institution once denied tenure.
There are typically three ranks for faculty within U.S. higher education institutions: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor. Promotion from one to the next involves a formal process of evaluation of the faculty member's body of work. Typically, faculty have one shot at getting promoted to Associate, often at the same time that they are being evaluation for tenure, and usually, they must do so at the end of their probationary period.
Promotion to Full Professor is a different process -- typically, it is not mandatory that Associate Professors advance to Full Professors, ever. And, while there is usually a minimum period of time from promotion to Associate before one can go up for Full, there is usually not a maximum. For example, if at a particular institution faculty must have worked at least six years as an Associate before presenting for promotion to Full, they usually don't have to do so at that time. They can wait until they feel that they have accomplished the university requirements for promotion to that rank. Additionally, unlike promotion to Associate, if an individual does not get promoted to Full on the first try, they often can wait, work to improve their body of work, and then go up another year.
Regardless of faculty rank (Assistant,
Associate, Full), it is appropriate to address faculty as "Prof. X" (last
name), in written correspondence or in person, unless the customary address
is otherwise (e.g. by first name). At some institutions, students frequently
address faculty as "Dr. X." However, unless you are certain that the faculty
member has obtained a Ph.D. or M.D., "Professor" would be a more appropriate
title, as some faculty have obtained their terminal degree in a different
field (e.g. Fine Art, Law), where "Dr." is not commonly used. Certainly,
many faculty feel comfortable being addressed by their first names, or
as "Mr.," "Ms.," or "Mrs." However, "Mr." or "Ms." is usually not the appropriate
title to use when referring to faculty who do have an advanced degree (e.g.
Ph.D., Ed.D., M.D., J.D.), within a professional context. It is especially
inappropriate to use "Mrs.," unless you know the faculty member personally
and know they truly prefer to be referred to by their marital, rather than
professional, status in an academic setting.
Contract and Responsibilities
As mentioned above, faculty can be on either a 12-month or 9-month contract. Many tenure-track faculty are on a 9-month contract, meaning that they are not required to teach summer school and often use the summer period to work on research and publications. If you notice that many faculty are not around during summer unless they are teaching summer school, that may be a good indication that they are on 9-month contracts. It is important to know this, as some students expect it is part of a faculty member's responsibilities to be available during summer for advising, mentoring, teaching individual classes (such as independent study), grading comprehensive examinations, and attending proposal defenses. However, if a faculty member is on a 9-month contract, students need to recognize that if faculty do perform these functions over summer, they are doing so out of their own time, during their vacation, and students should be accordingly respectful of the faculty's efforts and time constraints.
Because faculty are typically paid a salary (not an hourly wage), over a specified period of time (academic or calendar year), that means they have assigned responsibilities, such a maintaining an active research agenda and publishing within expectations, fulfilling a specified teaching load (a certain number of courses/classes per quarter/semester), and providing "service." Depending on the level of the institution (e.g. four-year college, university with graduate programs, or a doctoral-level institution), the relative emphasis on different aspects of these responsibilities will shift. There may even be different expectations within the same university, depending on the College or Department. Those responsibilities will be defined within a faculty member's contract. My reason for explaining the different responsibilities of university faculty is that students (including those who are interested in pursuing a career in academia) many not understand that faculty members' work typically extends far beyond that readily visible.
Scholarship: As a faculty member in a "Research I" doctoral level institution, I have a relatively high level of responsibility for continually engaging in scholarly activities, which primarily means conducting research and publishing in academic venues (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, handbooks, and books). The production of a single research article will often result from a several year process of designing and implementing a research project, collecting and analyzing data, presenting the results (usually) at a national conference, writing the results into a paper that is then submitted the journal for review and, hopefully, publication. Depending on the journal, the process of reviewing a submission may take anywhere from 3-12 months. After it has been reviewed, the author might have to perform a major or minor re-write, followed again by another review period. At any point in the review, the submission might be rejected. This is common in academia and does not mean that the article or research is necessarily "bad." However, it does mean that the article will have to be re-written, usually at least to some extent, in preparation for submission to another journal. At my level of institution, failure to publish will result in failure to obtain tenure and promotion. For an Associate Professor, it means not being able to progress to Full Professor, and quite possibly, negative consequences such as poor post-tenure annual reviews. The phrase "publish or perish" comes from the importance of publishing for faculty working at higher ranking institutions. Getting published is the number one priority for most tenure-track faculty at Research I universities.
Taking on additional responsibilities in the areas of teaching or service, or spending an disproportionate amount of time on teaching or service activities, may cause problems down the road if the faculty are subsequently unable to produce scholarship of the quantity or quality expected within their institution. It can be difficult for faculty to balance the competing demands of scholarship, teaching, and service, as there are frequently no hard and fast rules for exactly how many papers must be produced (per year or in total) and which publication venues are acceptable (e.g. practitioner vs. research journals, or journals vs. books). To make it even more complicated, expectations necessarily vary according to the discipline and the level of institution. A faculty member in Music could not be expected to produce scholarship in the same way as a faculty member in Sociology -- both the types of products and how those products would be disseminated should be evaluated according to the norms of the academic field and therefore, there cannot be one quantifiable standard on which a body of scholarship across disciplines could be evaluated. Part of life as an Assistant Professor is learning how to navigate multiple competing demands according to unwritten or incompletely defined standards.
Teaching: Teaching is very important to me, for many reasons, including that it is part of my established responsibilities. However, my understanding is that I should be spending the bulk of my time and energy toward scholarship in my area of expertise. Given that I have a relatively high level of teaching responsibilities (three courses per semester), compared with colleagues at peer institutions, this means I have to be very efficient with my time. From the outside, teaching three courses per semester might not seem like a heavy load, but when you factor in course planning and preparation, grading, office hours, responding to student phone calls and e-mails, advising, and mentoring doctoral students, this can easily account for more than 30 hours a week. Additionally, if students wish to take a "Problems" course with me (independent study), be mentored in teaching (such as by co-teaching a course via an internship), or work on a research project or paper, that takes additional time, for which I do not receive additional compensation. I personally enjoy contact with students outside of the university classroom and actively seek out such opportunities. However, faculty, and especially "junior" (untenured Assistant Professors) have to be very careful to make sure that they are fulfilling ALL of the responsibilities of their contract, especially with regard to scholarship.
For me, this has meant learning to work at home, as often as I can, and, when I am at the university, working with music (and sometimes headphones) on and the door shut. While I am uncomfortable not being able to have a open door policy, I found that the constant interruptions, from used textbook salespeople to lost students wanting directions to the closest restroom, made it impossible to fulfill my required duties without regularly working 14 hour days Monday-Friday and 8-10 hour days on the weekend. I therefore try to be proactive in scheduling time to walk and get a cup of coffee with colleagues and doctoral students. However, I do recognize that it means I am not as readily available as I was when I first joined the faculty and am constantly striving to find a more comfortable balance. Part of that is recognizing that I need to take time on a regular basis to enjoy my personal life and relationships.
Most of my students are teachers in the public schools. Therefore I schedule my office hours in the evenings, frequently after my afternoon (4:20-6:50) classes, in order to make sure that they are able to get in to see me after their work day is over. On the positive side, this means that I can often stay late with students, if they feel the need to talk. On the downside, that means that at least three nights a week I usually get home pretty late (but almost never later than 10:30). In order to make sure that I stay connected with my husband who has a different schedule, we have reserved one evening during the work week when we spend time together. My colleagues respect and support our "date night" and my classes and office hours are therefore never scheduled late that afternoon or evening. In addition I regularly meet with doctoral students as a group, such as the students who have chosen to work with as their advisor and the students in the doctoral program I coordinate (Educational Linguistics). Those meetings also take place in the afternoons or evenings.
Service: Many different activities come under the banner of service for academics. As a faculty member in a College of Education, I am sometimes asked to provide inservices or consult with local or state education agencies, such as school districts or the Public Education Department. This work is sometimes paid, but often, simply part of the service I contribute to the educational community. Many faculty also engage in service activities at the national or international level, which is vital for those who wish to eventually be promoted to Full Professor. Examples might include holding a position in a national organization, sitting on a committee or Board for a national (or international) organization, or participating in organizing a conference (local, national, or international). In addition to service to the local and national community, I provide service to my academic program(s), my Department, my College, and the University. Often faculty must attend many meetings, as part of the service they provide. While often, each meeting occurs only once or twice a month, they can add up to quite a bit of time. Recently I counted all of the meetings I am supposed to attend (including conference calls), and it added up to almost 10 hours a week. That does not include the work that results from attending or preparing for meetings, of course... With regard to service activities, as with teaching, faculty have to learn to develop a balance that fulfills their professional goals (e.g. getting tenure or achieving the rank of Full Professor), attends to demands from their colleagues, and satisfies their personal criteria for a productive and healthy life.
Work while off-contract: Teaching summer school may be an attractive opportunity for faculty on a 9-month contract (and who are therefore paid extra for summer courses) and/or they might feel pressure to meet student needs for courses outside of the traditional academic year, such as offering courses leading to a teaching license during summers. However, summer teaching cuts directly into time that might be spent on research and publishing. Of course, unless faculty have obtained extra funding, such as through a grant, to pay for the time they work on their research during summer, faculty on a 9-month contract are not paid for the time they spend on scholarship while off-contract. Faculty typically are also not paid extra for other work they might do during summer, such as supporting doctoral students working on their dissertations or Masters students working on a project or thesis, reading and grading Masters or Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, or supervising independent study (e.g. Problems courses). Faculty engage in these activities, and often do so without mentioning that they are taking personal time to support the education of their students, because they genuinely care about their students and believe in the importance of a quality university experience for students. However, again, it is a delicate balance that all faculty members must learn to juggle. Additionally, the balance they find at the beginning of their careers might shift over time.
work: Some faculty, due to the nature of their work, have significant
responsibilities that cut across Program, Departments, and/or Schools/Colleges.
Interdisciplinary work can be interesting and exciting. However, there
can be both positives and negatives to interdisciplinary work. On the positive
side, for those of us who do not fit clearly into one disciplinary field,
interdisciplinary work can help us stay connected to colleagues, students,
and work across disciplinary boundaries. For example, I am a bilingual
special educator and I find it important to engage in ongoing collaboration
with students and colleagues from both Special Education and Bilingual
Education/TESOL. I teach in both program areas, sit on doctoral committees
in both programs, and am Coordinator of the interdisciplinary Educational
Linguistics doctoral program, which is housed in the same department as
Bilingual Education/TESOL (the Department of Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural
Studies). On the down side, being formally involved in three distinct graduate
programs means triple (!) the number of program meetings. It also
means there has been involvement of senior faculty from the Bilingual Education
program, in addition to Special Education faculty, in both my mid-probationary
review and tenure and promotion evaluation. In my case, this was a benefit.
But for other faculty, in other situations, this could be quite problematic
and therefore, should be undertaken only after careful consideration of
all the implications this might bring and with careful attention to different
requirements (e.g. for tenure and promotion) in different units. I have
avoided this by having a formal appointment only in one program/department,
with a written agreement that I may teach in another program. Therefore,
I am formally evaluated only by the Chair of my home Department. Given
that since I was hired in 1998 there have been four Chairs in each of the
two Departments in which I participate (eight total!), that could have
been extremely problematic had I not clearly had a primary "home."
So is a Career in Academia Worth it?
For me, this answer is an unqualified YES! I am proud of the work I do and have worked extremely hard, for many years, to have the privilege of doing it. I work with an incredibly supportive group of colleagues in the Special Education Concentration in Mental Retardation and Severe Disabilities: Studies in Educational Equity for Diverse Exceptional Learners (what a name!), who encourage me to explore my diverse interests while helping me stay focused on issues of social justice for culturally and linguistically diverse individuals, including those identified with disabilities. Every year, my faculty group in Mental Retardation and Severe Disabilities gets together for a "Hopes and Dreams" meeting, where we all get a chance to share with each other our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. As a result, I know I can count on them to support me in moving toward my hopes and dreams. And, as a result of their deep understanding of what matters to me, in terms of my career in academia, they have supported my ongoing collaboration with the Bilingual Education/TESOL program, as well as the Educational Linguistics program. This is a large part of what makes me successful in academia. If I did not work with supportive colleagues, I don't know if I would have continued in academia.
Unlike most faculty, I came into academia with my eyes wide open and I believe that my success is also due to the cultural capital I accrued as the daughter of an academic. My father was a professor and high-level university administrator and I literally learned at the dinner table things that I find some of my junior colleagues do not know. For example, from the time I was a child, he taught me that politics in academia can be complicated. Therefore, as a new faculty member, I spent a lot of time trying to read the tangled lines of power and relationships in my Department, across the College, and within the University. I treated any new person I met with extreme caution until I had figured out with whom they were allied. As a doc student, my dad taught me that faculty would be judging me during every interaction (including hallway conversations and informal class discussions) and talking about my performance and "potential" with their colleagues. I therefore treated my time during my PhD. studies as an extended job interview. He mentored me during the first two and a half years of my appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor (non tenure-track) by reading and interpreting each of my annual reviews, giving advice on how to handle contentious colleagues, and helping me stay focused on what really mattered if I wanted to make it in academia. My dad passed away only a few days before my first interview for a tenure track position, and true to form, our last conversation involved last minute advice for my interviews. Thanks to him, I nailed every last interview, including one only a week after his death. I wish every junior faculty had such support.
Due to all of the support I have had, I have been able to "make it" in academia, and that has included getting a tenure track position and achieving tenure, along with my academic spouse. Times have changed a lot since my mother was head of the "Faculty Wives" club and my sisters and I had to "perform" (serving hors d'oeuvres in cute matching outfits and giving music recitals) for the faculty who gathered at our house several times a year for parties that she hosted. My mom fulfilled an important social role in my father's career. These days it's different. Indeed, just out of graduate school, my primary professional role was not as my partner's social support, but as a fellow academic who was also looking for a faculty position, although in a very different field. Because our prioty was getting hired at the same university, we accepted a package deal by the university where he was the primary hire and I was the "spousal hire" (that wasn't great for my self-esteem). That also meant that I did not obtain a tenure track position for the first three years (okay, it wasn't the best package) and that additionally, I had to go back out on the job market after that visiting position ended (really not fun). However, we have been extrememly lucky; I was hired in 2001, on my own merits, on a tenure-line and was able to get one year shaved off the tenure clock. And as of summer 2006, both my husband and I are tenured faculty at the same university, which to me is better than winning the lottery.
A number of our friends have not been so lucky. Either one spouse has had to permanently accept a non-academic or non-tenure track appointment or they have had to commute large distances, sometimes even living in different states. While we have faced that possibility several times, we have been able to live together continuously through two Ph.D.s, one post-doc, a visiting position, and finally, joint tenure-track appointments. As part of the tensions inherent in a long-term struggle toward a singular goal (my husband started his Ph.D. in 1990 and I got tenure in 2006), we made the decision to forego having children. Other academic couples have successfully managed to have children and productive careers, so we know it can be done. However, in our particular situation, we made the decision that we thought was best -- for ourselves, our extended families, any potential children, and our sanity. However, we both are actively involved with our students, from undergraduates to doc students and postdocs, and are content with our decision. That may be why teaching is so important to me, who knows?
I cannot say that I can't imagine an alternative to a career as a faculty member as I can and I actually have pursued alternatives. Prior to going back to school for my doctorate, I worked quite successfully as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) for a regional private practice in Southern California. I had a high degree of autonomy and respect from my employers and was able to make a number of innovations within the practice during my time there. I have also worked in public education, during both my MA program and during my apprenticeship as an SLP. I am an avid gardener, an amateur garden designer (whenever a friend will let me get near with a sketch page and graph paper), an enthusiatic 'ashtangi', and I have designed and maintain several web sites, including my own, here that the university. I am confident that, with some additional training, I could pursue a career related to those hobbies. But, what I like doing, more than anything, is working as a professor with responsibilities for research AND teaching. I hope to be doing this for many years to come.
And, knowing what I do now, would I do
it again? You bet!
|Julia Scherba de Valenzuela, Ph.D.||
Last updated: April 17, 2008