Anthropology Newsletter/September 1990

Tenure Narratives

by Edward Bruner (U Illinois)

This past year I served on the campus Tenure and Promotion Committee at my university. My assignment was to read the promotion papers from the Urbana campus that had been approved on the departmental and college levels and were submitted for final approval to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Not only did I have to read all 105 sets of papers recommending promotion to the associate and full professor levels, but I had to vote on each case, yes or no, up or out, and I had to be prepared to justify my vote in committee discussion.

From this experience I learned something about the tenure process, which I should like to share with nontenured scholars, and especially with nontenured female scholars.

As a former Head of Department I had previously prepared promotion papers, but that didn't give me the wider perspective that I gained last year on the campus committee. In this brief commentary, my intention is to look at the tenure process as an interpretive anthropologist and do a bit of applied work for what I hope will be the benefit of my younger colleagues. My aim is to take what has institutionally been "secret" and to open it up a bit, so that others may become more aware of how the tenure process operates.

A key element in making the case for promotion is the narrative constructed about the candidate's academic career. That is, a story has to be devised which "describes" the research trajectory of the candidate, moving from the skills acquired as a graduate student, through the Ph.D. dissertation, to the most recent postdoctoral research. The purpose of the tenure narrative is to demonstrate a sense of direction in the candidate's research accomplishments. The objective is to show that the candidate is moving in logical order from one discovery to another in pursuit of scientific knowledge. Think of all the things a scholar may do, from mastering specific bodies of knowledge, to learning languages, to acquiring methodological strategies, and the technical competence in moving from one research problem to another. At times there may appear to be a randomness even to those of us who are engaged in these activities, and some of us are not always entirely sure of the direction we are going.

But to the tenure committee, these varied activities have to be connected in a way that gives them order and coherence - even a certain inevitability - which is what the tenure narrative is designed to accomplish. A Nobel Laureate may talk of serendipity or the unexpected discovery, but it is less convincing in the case of an Assistant Professor. In the arts there is a comparable trajectory demonstrated by a record of exhibits, performances, commissions and national recognition.

Tenure narratives are constructed, not found, or to put it another way, a construction has to be placed on an academic career which makes sense and provides the coherence usually lacking in real life. The aim is not just to make sense to other scholars but also to members of the tenure committee, who at the college and campus levels will certainly be from many different disciplines. And in the larger academic community there is an idealized prior script of what is deemed to be an appropriate career, one in which the decided researcher relentlessly pursues a significant problem, follows up every discovery, traces every lead, acquires every new technology, and publishes the results in timely fashion, to the greater glory of science and the university. I have become ironic again, but the point is that someone has to construct a tenure narrative, usually the head of the departmental committee, or the department chair, and this narrative must be acceptable and recognizable to those in other disciplines.

The consequences of not devising an appropriate tenure narrative can be devastating, for then the varied activities of the candidate will appear unrelated. Where is this career going, they ask. There are, after all, a limited number of promotion scripts recognized in academic discourse. The challenge is to place the events of an academic life in the framework of an acceptable tenure narrative.

At the committee meetings this year, I found that the promotion papers were prepared at varying levels of competence, and in one controversial case the committee was about to reject the candidate. But then one member devised a new expanded argument, a better tenure narrative, and the final vote turned in -a candidate's favor. In another case on appeal, the rejected candidate himself presented not only new information, but placed a new construction on his activities, and the appeals committee reversed the decision. The hard-nosed critic may say, "Publish enough and you will get tenure, it is that simple." But many scholars don't publish "enough," many are on the border, and even those who do publish enough will be helped by a well-constructed tenure narrative.

If I were a nontenured scholar I would not trust the departmental chair, who may after all be from a different subdiscipline. I would try to provide some input into the construction of my own tenure narrative.

Of course, institutions and departments differ, and there may be more or less opportunity for appropriate input. At Illinois there is a "candidate's statement," designed to engender narrative reflection. In some cases it does, in others it does not. In other words, even when given the space to formally present a tenure narrative, some candidates don't take it seriously, or they misunderstand its purpose. I would, however, suggest that candidates take advantage of whatever opportunities are available to present the Chair - in a statement or a letter or in conversation - their own version of their academic accomplishments. I would place all my activities, field research, conferences attended, papers presented at professional meetings, and publications, not in a random list but in the framework of a career and academic narrative.

Promotion papers prepared without a firm tenure narrative in place give a sense of scattered, disconnected activities, as if there were no sense to it all. It is not wise to be shy or modest or to downplay one's accomplishments. If possible, I would present the Chair with a well-formulated tenure story that would be recognized by the decision-making persons in positions of responsibility, and hopefully the Chair would use it, or borrow from it. If you have conversations with the Chair or with members of the departmental committee prior to the preparation of the tenure papers, use the occasion to educate them. It is important not only to tie together previous work but to extend the narrative to the future, to say what you are doing next, to enhance the scope of the story and to provide direction.

Female scholars may have an especially difficult problem if those preparing their tenure case are older while males. Many of the latter are well intentioned, but most grew up before the feminist. movement sensitized us to sexist language. And most universities are indeed patriarchal institutions. The problem is that older men may write about women, even about others in their own discipline, in ways that enhance what they perceive as their feminine qualities, indicated by the use of such phrases as "cooperative," "caretaking" or "sensitive," all expressions which can be deadly for purposes of promotion. The tenure committee wants a research tiger and a dedicated publisher, not a sensitive colleague.

A department chair could use feminine caretaking language with the intent of purposely undermining a candidate, although I saw no examples of this last year. There were, however, cases in which such language was used without, I felt, awareness of its implications. The idealized script for tenure is basically a male narrative, stressing intellectual aggressiveness in getting grants and publishing research results. My remarks here are based on only one year's experience on a tenure committee at Illinois, which I acknowledge is limited, but if I were a female scholar without tenure I would make every effort to see that the Chair was aware of these issues. This is not easy, as many gender issues operate at the unconscious level.

I am not advocating that women become like men or adopt male academic styles. Such issues are beyond my competence. My aim is at a more pragmatic and simpler level.

My point is that if I were coming up for tenure, I would take responsibility for input in the construction of my own tenure narrative, stressing coherence and community in my academic career, and if I were a woman, I would be very aware of the possibility of sexist language in the promotion papers.