By Emma White JD, MA
Assistant Professor and Department Chair, English, University of Hawai`i, Maui College
Navigation and cartography may be overused clichés, but they helped me through tenure’s stormy seas. And the process of obtaining tenure is an especially stormy sea for women in particular. Data from the American Association of University Women shows that only 27% of tenured faculty among four-year institutions are women. Women faculty—especially women faculty of color—also face additional barriers in the form of systemic sexism, racism, and isolation based on the marginalized identities they hold. I cannot solve most of the challenges women face around promotion & tenure in one article, but I can share some of my own experiences in hopes of helping other women faculty along in the process.
I applied for and was awarded tenure while pregnant with my first child. Over the five-year process to gain tenure, I followed a highly effective strategy that helped me improve my teaching, align with my goals, and manage my stress. I’ve since had the honor of mentoring other women through the tenure process, and as I look back on how I navigated my own, several guideposts emerge.
Accept that you need a map and a team
Many of us come to academia because of our creativity or passion for a subject, but getting tenure is about being strategic. You first have to find your map and outline each step. At most universities, the map is a contract or faculty description. Find out what documents determine your hiring and promotion. You may find them easily on your institution’s faculty affairs website or with an internet search (search term examples: university name + tenure promotion guidelines, faculty classification plan, tenure procedures, faculty contract, faculty descriptions, tenure agreement), or you may have to ask administrators, secretaries, and union leaders for them. Find them early. If permitted, ask to see multiple successful tenure dossier samples. A lot of tenure application stress happens because faculty review these documents too late and thus do not have time to absorb and apply their standards to their lives.
Now that you have a map that you’ve read over thoroughly, your expedition needs a team. This means you must do your best to cultivate supportive tenure track mentorship and classroom observations. Using your map, find out who the people are who will likely be reviewing your tenure dossier. In my university system, tenure committees are composed of someone from your discipline, someone outside of it, someone from another campus, and someone in administration. My goal, then, was to get mentorship that reflected all of those different areas so I could benefit from a diversity of perspectives and grow in a multitude of ways.
It’s up to you to curate the quality of your mentorship. Like many, my college provides a built-in mentorship committee of three who also serve as advisors in the promotion process. This group is organized by a supervisor and very little formal guidance is provided to mentors on their extent of their mentorship. So, I consulted with my supervisor to ensure my voice was considered in this mentorship selection process. I then made a point to schedule check-ins and observations with these mentors yearly. Do not rest on the formal mentorship process as it likely won’t be enough. Go outside friend or affinity group mentoring. Do the work to connect with colleagues who are different than you and who push you out of your comfort zone. One of the challenges that women and men alike have with mentorship is that we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us. Ultimately, this results in the reproduction of the inequitable power structures we want to help break: men get mentored by men, and--since men tend to be in higher positions of power--they then project that power onto the junior men they mentor. Women shouldn’t do the same thing; it won’t get us where we want to go.
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