Chapter 15 Benevolence or Bitterness

In: Critical Storytelling: Experiences of Power Abuse in Academia
Antony T. Smith
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I found the pathway to tenure stressful and fraught with tensions, and I know I am not alone in feeling this way. In the American university system, the tenure track races toward a fifth-year tenure file submission and a sixth-year vote by colleagues and administrators on whether to award tenure (i.e. promotion to associate professor) or not to award it (meaning termination of one’s assistant professor position). From day one of Fall semester I knew, every moment, that the hourglass was trickling sand slowly and irreversibly until my tenure file submission was due. I am not afraid of hard work, but I soon learned that this high-stakes tenure pathway is not just about effort. Academic expectations, university structures and senior colleagues create tensions deeply rooted in systemic power imbalances. In trying to cope with these tensions while moving toward tenure, the destination became a question about my own emotional and mental state: Would I arrive in a state of benevolence or bitterness?

1 Availability

My PhD advisor tried to give me some advice on my upcoming academic journey as an assistant professor in a tenure-track position. Looking up from a student essay, she peered at me over her reading glasses and stated, “Don’t make yourself too available. If you’re around campus too much you’ll end up doing more service work.” I wondered, what would that look like? How would I, as a new hire and assistant professor, make myself scarce while also somehow being regarded as a hardworking and contributing colleague? Should I skip faculty meetings, avoid the program office, or work from home? How many days per week should I work from home? There were no answers to these questions.

I tried to strike a balance between being present and not always being available, but I don’t think I was very successful. Course and meeting scheduling interfered with my efforts. As a junior member of the faculty I did not have say in what courses I taught or when I taught them, and as a result my weekly schedule was sometimes a disaster. One semester I had one course that began at 8:30 am and another that started at 4:30 pm, both on the same day, so rather than commuting back and forth from home I stayed on campus—making myself unintentionally available for service work between classes. Faculty meetings were scheduled on Fridays, causing me to lose a prime day for my scholarship and instead be on campus for hours.

Summers were even worse when it came to availability. On nine-month faculty contracts, we do not receive any salary from June through September unless we teach summer term. Described as “optional,” teaching summer term was a necessity for me since no matter how much I managed to save I could not go without a paycheck for almost four months. Summer had the university expectation of research, to which it was hard to dedicate much time during the academic year due to teaching and service work—but in summer, this time for research was without compensation. Established senior colleagues used grant funding to support their summer research work, but I had no such grants in my early years. I tried three times to secure an internal grant for this purpose but was denied three years in a row—each proposal taking weeks to write with budget plans I had to develop myself; with each rejection I was left with a denied proposal that added nothing to my curriculum vitae. So I ended up being available to teach courses each summer, needing to pay rent and buy groceries.

In faculty meetings and other interactions I was inevitably asked to join work groups, committees, search committees and task forces. For all my attempts to be less available and to protect time for scholarship, I found I couldn’t say no to these requests. Senior colleagues, some of them having been full professors for more than 20 years, were watching, judging my actions to determine my worthiness in academia: Does he work hard? Is he a team player? Is he a valuable colleague? Daring to say no, and making myself less available, had consequences. Saying yes, and taking on service work that would erode my time for scholarship, also had consequences, but only for me, and so this was the path I took, thinking to myself, “I’ll find time for my scholarship somewhere. Maybe I can get up earlier, stay up later, or work on weekends.” So I said yes to multiple search committees. I said yes to being on a campus-wide writing and communication task force, a group notably populated by junior faculty without institutional knowledge and with the absence of any senior faculty. Clearly these senior colleagues had the agency to say no at times when junior faculty did not, to a series of meetings across an academic year that resulted in a written report promptly ignored by the administration.

The consequences of my inability to say no and to make myself less available extended beyond the workday into what could only be considered personal time. One time a colleague hosted a dinner for a candidate she wanted to impress (and hire). It was scheduled at the last minute and my colleagues and I were expected to come. As it turns out, I had a family commitment I could not cancel, so for once I did say no, and I was the only one who did. Everyone else attended the dinner, making me look bad. So bad that I ended up taking the candidate to dinner the next night to make up for it, paying for the dinner myself, since the university did not consider the dinner a reimbursable expense. The dinner turned out well, so it seemed that I had managed to salvage this particular situation.

This incident showed me I had to make myself available despite my advisor’s words of wisdom, to be at the beck and call of any senior colleague who wanted or needed something, or who wanted me to represent the school at the campus level so that they wouldn’t have to and could work on their scholarship instead. One bitter senior colleague, who I ended up referring to as the Viper, invited me to a holiday party at her home. The Viper’s unpredictable behavior made me nervous, but I wanted to be on her good side, so I went to the party with my cheerful husband Ken, who I thought might help gloss over any awkwardness at the party. Very few other people were there. While Ken and I stood with our glasses of wine, she came up to us and said, “So good you came! But of course you did, because you want tenure after all, right?” This was followed by a forced and maniacal laugh. I cringed, knowing she was kidding but also that she wasn’t. Vipers don’t make jokes. She and four other senior colleagues would eventually get to decide my academic future.

2 Imbalance

My inability to make myself less available created an imbalance in my work life. A benevolent senior colleague, whom I nicknamed Grace due to her calm demeanor and ability to speak in complete paragraphs, once acknowledged this work/life imbalance and her own struggles with it. She explained to me, “Tony, this work is, at its very core, mathematically impossible. We are expected to accomplish work in three areas: teaching, scholarship and service. The expectation, really, is 50% teaching, 50% scholarship and 50% service. There’s always more work than can possibly be finished.” I understood her point, and so for the next five years I did my best to give 150% to my institution, always searching for ways to create more time for scholarship, to work faster, to somehow teach more efficiently despite having to create seven new courses in three years. Being a former school teacher, I couldn’t justify cutting corners in teaching—I continued with complex practicum-based assignments for classes of nearly 40 students, without a grader or teaching assistant. I couldn’t say no to service work, so I continued to serve on multiple committees and, later, review and editorial boards. I also ended up chairing the curriculum committee, a position of authority ill-suited for junior faculty.

This increasingly severe work/life imbalance took its toll on my scholarship and my personal life. Stacks of unread research journals accumulated in my office and living room; articles and book chapters had to be written at four in the morning, eleven at night, or on weekends when I wasn’t grading or planning for class. I missed one grandmother’s 90th birthday party, and I seldom visited my other grandmother living in a nursing home. Persistent friends stayed in touch, but the rest faded away, as did all of my hobbies and recreational activities. I didn’t have time for them. Ken, a patient man, stayed with me, but years later confessed he got awfully tired of hearing “no” and of going to movies and concerts alone.

At my third-year review, the halfway point to tenure, I was told I wasn’t doing enough, feeding a rapidly expanding and overwhelming sense of inadequacy. I needed more publications and, importantly, I needed to get at least one grant—and it had better be a big one. So I stayed up later, got up earlier, worked longer hours on weekends and got a major state-level service grant. This victory made my work imbalance markedly worse, requiring me to travel multiple times over the course of a year to a remote logging town, working with math and science teachers on content-area reading and vocabulary instruction—topics they did not want to teach. I did my best, spending time collecting tree core samples and touring timber mills; I wrote an un-publishable final report (service grants seldom lead to publications, I later learned) and realized afterward I had missed nine weekends of life with friends and family. The grant award is a single line on my CV, at high cost.

3 Inadequacy

Over my years along the pathway to tenure, pressures and the persistent work imbalance led me to feel an ever-expanding sense of inadequacy. No matter what I did, I was convinced it would not be enough. I asked myself, How might I get more manuscripts published? If I apply myself and work harder, might I get another grant? A larger one? A multi-year research grant? How do my peers from other institutions manage to publish more than I do, while maintaining a cheerful attitude and networking with researchers all across the country?

The Viper likely sensed my growing thoughts of inadequacy and feelings of failure. She offered to help secure an internal technology grant, and I, desperate to achieve more, foolishly said yes. Any momentary elation over receiving an award vanished when I realized I was not on equal footing with the Viper on this project. Deeming herself the expert on all things technology, she seized control of the project. “I’ve been working in educational technology for years, especially mobile technology as a way to reach underrepresented communities. I don’t think you know anything about that.” The Viper did the research and creative work, and I ended up installing software updates on 40 mobile devices, one at a time. She also took all of the mobile technology home after the project ended, so that nobody else would be able to use it for any purpose she wasn’t part of. I cautiously raised this issue with the dean, believing that the equipment belonged to the university and not to her individually; the dean agreed but did not want to intervene and provoke the Viper’s maniacal wrath.

Even though I spent huge amounts of time on course development, teaching and advising, feelings of inadequacy filtered into that part of my work, too. In my school, students can choose their own advisor; not wanting to be picked on by the bitter colleague or ignored by the inattentive benevolent colleague, a large number of students chose the faculty member who was available and eager to please—me. At one point I had 23 graduate student advisees, while the Viper and two other colleagues, together, had nine. The school had no mechanism for faculty to say no to new advisees. I could not find enough time to advise each of them sufficiently and so I felt I was failing them, too.

My sense of inadequacy in teaching came from course evaluations. My mentor and colleague expressed anguish at the end of one semester for getting a combined student course evaluation score of 3.8 out of 5. “I’ve never gotten such a low score in my whole career. I normally get at least a 4.8 or higher!” I had never gotten a 4.8. What was I doing wrong? Was I failing my students as well as my scholarship? When I send in my tenure file, will my senior colleagues see my student course evaluation scores and shake their heads in dismay? Clearly I wasn’t doing enough or working enough, so I tried harder. Every day. For almost six years, until I turned in my tenure file with decent course evaluation scores, several grants and a reasonable number of publications.

4 Attitude

Once I turned in my tenure file I did experience a gradual change of attitude and all the emotions that come along on such a stressful and arduous journey. First I felt a sense of profound relief, followed immediately by fear—after all, the Viper was on my promotion and tenure committee. Her unpredictability and moments of random wrath petrified me, so I remained terrified until, months later, I received notice of my successful tenure and promotion.

Fear was mixed with gratitude during these months, as I came to appreciate several senior colleagues (including Grace) who went to battle for me and neutralized the negative maniacal critiques and actions of the Viper. Outnumbered and outvoted, all she could do was seethe and plot petty schemes to make my tenured life miserable, which she did until her recent retirement. Nobody bothered to throw her a farewell party, although she had been at our institution for almost 30 years. I wondered, what might have happened if I had been in a school with three bitter senior colleagues and one benevolent one, rather than the other way around? I shudder to think about it.

Immediately after receiving tenure I went on sabbatical for a year with high hopes of resetting my work/life balance to make the next 20 years sustainable, positive and interesting. I tried, but the following year I was appointed to leadership positions for a number of years. In a small school with retiring senior colleagues and newly hired junior colleagues, I found I could no more say “no” as an associate professor than I could as an assistant, although the reasons were different.

Looking back across this journey to tenure, it seems that once we arrive we either become benevolent or bitter. Do I manage a better work/life balance, find my teaching stride and a research niche, and be a benevolent colleague like Grace, or do I stay off kilter and miserable like the Viper, spreading bitterness in every meeting and class session? Assistant and Associate are both nine-letter words, but what they represent are worlds apart. Shifting into the new title and role of associate (tenured) professor was a positive experience for me overall, as I realized I was ultimately free to pursue the scholarship I found interesting. It wasn’t a publish-or-perish choice anymore; I hadn’t perished, so now I could choose. I’m not sure if this has made me a benevolent colleague, but it certainly has kept me from becoming bitter. I say no to service work, but judiciously. I look out for and try to protect my new junior colleagues from too much service work. I choose research projects carefully, focusing on what interests me most. I take weekends off—all of them! I will go up for full professor soon, but the difference is that I get to choose when, based on my own sense of readiness. That makes all the difference. It will be my decision, not the hourglass trickling sand irreversibly, the way it did on the pathway to tenure.

Perhaps the pathway to tenure could be different, more supportive and less arduous, making the outcome more likely to be benevolence rather than bitterness. I wonder, is six years enough time to prove worthiness? Are junior faculty scholarship activities sufficiently supported by university structures? Can junior faculty’s time be protected, limiting their service load for work that is highly time-consuming yet counts for little on a CV? It seems that universities have no difficulty in demanding and expecting high amounts of work and effort to achieve tenure. The true difficulty lies in actually supporting junior faculty to succeed in their teaching and scholarship so that they grow through the process in a positive and supported way, emerging from their pre-tenure chrysalis of panic as benevolent butterflies rather than bitter worms.

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