Why Do You Think They Give a F**k? Thoughts On Tenure Documents

I’ve been editing a lot of tenure documents lately.  Now that The Professor Is In has been around for over four years, many readers have made it all the way to the point of going up for tenure.  My next book, The Professor Is You: Life After the Ph.D.,  will have a section devoted to the tenure track and another to tenure documents.  So I’m giving a lot of thought to their proper form and approach.

In that light, I’ve been struck by the tidal wave of emotionalism that I’ve encountered in my client tenure docs this Fall.  Lines like (edited for anonymity):

  • What I have found most rewarding in my time at UCSD…
  • It was a particular privilege to be able to teach…
  • I am pleased and delighted at my productivity since arriving on campus
  • It has been gratifying to see these publications emerge
  • I am pleased that my scholarly expertise has led to two invitations to write…

I am genuinely perplexed by this language.  I cannot fathom why the writers believe that their feelings play a role in the institution’s deliberation about their tenurability. Put another way, I cannot fathom why the writers believe that the institution gives a flying fuck what they find personally rewarding or pleasing or gratifying.  Either the record meets the standards for tenure at that institution, or it doesn’t.  You can be as gratified and delighted as you want, but if your publication numbers are low at an R1, or your course evals are weak at a SLAC, it will make no difference. Emotion language has no place in tenure statements, which are meant to simply describe the accomplishments of research and teaching and service, and contextualize them within the department, institution, and field as a whole.

Regular readers of the blog and my new book know the degree to which I rail against emotionalism in academic job documents.  This is not because I personally dislike emotions, but because in any academic context, cases built on emotions have little value and carry little weight.  The Academic Skepticism Principle requires that claims made in the academy must be based on facts or evidence, and defended with arguments and logic.  Expressing thrill, delight, or gratification about some academic claim or another will do nothing to make others accept that claim.  It didn’t work in your grad seminars, it doesn’t work at conferences, and it doesn’t work in your job documents. So why would it suddenly start working at tenure?

It doesn’t.

And furthermore, the continual use of emotion-language sends an additional message of egotism and self-importance.  As if, the truly significant aspect of the candidate’s tenure is not what they provide for the institution, but what the institution provides for them: a stage for a private drama of pleasure and gratification.

I’ll be writing more about tenure documents over the coming year, but for now, I’ll just reiterate the same old point that has applied at every prior stage in job applications, interviewing, and grant-writing—in academia, your feelings don’t count.  Your output does.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Why Do You Think They Give a F**k? Thoughts On Tenure Documents — 22 Comments

  1. Any writer must connect ideas. The writer in this case is trying to drum up a positive, energetic tone. Are you saying that any use of an emotion word strikes a sour note or that one should use a word like that as a special ingredient, like saffron, a slight hint rather than laying it on? I recall in your book or elsewhere you don’t want people using the word passion. I guess it becomes a cliche, like “What’s your biggest weakness?” — “Oh, I’m such a perfectionist and over-achiever, maybe I should tone down how productive and meticulous I am.” My point is a serious one: Is ANY use of emotion language out of place? Wouldn’t a small touch, like “I’m happy to report that the million dollar NSF grant was ultimately approved”, be okay?

    • I am definitely of the school of thought that the “I am happy to report” is unnecessary and out of place in a tenure doc. I would prefer to see: “This research was supported by a successful NSF grant ($1 million) in 2015….” Emotion language is fine in many contexts, but in these professional academic documents, it muddies the message, in my view.

  2. OMG. I so agree. These kinds of empty phrases are the worst. I’ve just submitted my 3rd-year review documents and some of my colleagues have shared what they submitted in previous years. Only one person (a good friend and a very level-headed and sensible one at that) did not go for this kind of verbiage. Her statements were by far the strongest bc her contributions stood out clearly and I wasn’t distracted by these sentences. They are filler taking up valuable space, but from what I’ve seen, it seems to be handed down from one cohort to the next and most people just copy it mindlessly.

  3. I am a former grant writer (for charitable donations) at an institution of higher education, who returned to graduate school mid-career for a humanities PhD, and who now works in a contract research organization and am occasionally asked to edit contract proposals for my company’s bids for NIH RFPs — and in all three settings, I’ve found that people are totally resistant to feedback about just how weak/hollow such statements are (“We would be honored to contribute to this research” or “It would be a privilege to complete a postdoc at Acme University” or “Our institution would be honored to have your name on our endowment”). One consistent factor is inexperience: it takes experience to learn how to phrase and make a case when you are highlighting your own strengths (to an employer, a funder, a donor), and get the tone right etc. But even with guidance, some percentage of my (current and former) colleagues are just deeply convinced that a direct, emotional but artless statement of personal/organizational passion is needed. They don’t recognize that a sharply conceived, tightly presented proposal/application SHOWS just how keen/serious/capable you are — and, conversely, all those throwaway statements of honor/pleasure/passion are likely to be seen by the reviewer (fairly or unfairly) as filler that is attempting to compensate for substantive weaknesses in the proposal/application. But my personal experience, across 3 decades, 2 continents, and a variety of settings (academic-administrative; academic-scholarly; corporate-academic) is that this is one of the most difficult ideas to make stick. I’ve helped many writers strengthen this issue in an application or proposal, with good results — and then their next application or proposal on goes back to the default setting of “I would be honored . . . .”

    • THIS: “deeply convinced that a direct, emotional but artless statement of personal/organizational passion is needed.” This is the bane of my existence! Although, also of course the reason for my existence!

  4. Some of these emotion-injecting writers may be trying to make an essentially self-promoting document seem a bit less egocentric. And that approach works on me, to some extent. “I was honored to receive an invitation to speak at the prestigious annual meeting of the…” sounds, to me, less like the language of an arrogant prick than “I delivered the closing keynote speech at the prestigious annual meeting of the…” So I guess the question is, are there alternative, better ways of injecting a bit of modesty into one’s writing? Surely the level of bragging needs to be controlled or softened in some way, right?

    • You know, honestly, I see no need to add modesty to a tenure doc. The point is to showcase your achievements. That definitely doesn’t mean brag, as in “I was chosen among hundreds of alternatives as the leading figure in xx field to deliver a pathbreaking keynote address at xxx conference, to universal acclaim.” That is bragging. But, “I delivered the closing keynote speech at the annual meeting of xxx” is not bragging; it’s just stating the truth. I always prefer that, myself, and it’s the principle that I’m always promoting on the blog.

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  6. I agree with all of the above, including the comment above mine. I just wanted to throw out there that, having just received tenure myself, it feels to me that the single-biggest motivator for such wishy-washy language about our feelings has nothing to do with our accomplishments, but the feeling that we need to demonstrate a slavish and uncritical devotion to our administration (and of course, our bosses). Whether this is true or effective is another matter; my point is merely that the vagaries and lack of clarity surrounding tenure proceedings (this varies a lot, I know), and the increasingly disciplinary environment of higher ed encourages fear (I know you’ve written on this) and fear encourages self-subordination (assujettissement, non?).

  7. As a member of the administration specializing in campus culture (aka organizational climate, academic culture, student culture, etc.), I must respectfully disagree. Feelings do count precisely because feelings are intimately related to output. Unhappy employees produce less in any job context. Unhappy faculty produce significantly less and are poor teachers.

    Fear of the tenure review may keep a faculty member productive for a few years, but what happens after they receive tenure? Their productivity will not remain high if they are not deeply engaged, committed, and, yes, happy with their job. I’ve seen the unfortunate consequences of granting tenure to faculty who’d really rather not be here, but here they are because faculty jobs are scares an this was “the best they could do” even though they’d prefer a different type of institution. And now, we’re stuck with them, they’re stuck with us, and the students are stuck in the middle.

    My recommendation as an administrator who deals with the problems this creates: only grant tenure to the faculty who are genuinely HAPPY to be here and willing to say so! Please, please, please consider this when reviewing any candidate for tenure or any other job position. It will pay off in output in the long run.

    • As a faculty member, Monica’s comment is the scariest comment I’ve ever seen published anywhere by any university official. It suggests that the stuff of tenure files, namely our training, credentials, awards, scholarship, teaching records, reputation – in short, our entire careers – should mean nothing when weighed against an administrator’s interpretation of our inner emotional state. This goes against literally everything the university, as a place meant to foster the life of the mind and the pursuit of knowledge, stands for. Monica, whoever you are, you should take a long look in the mirror and think about how your work on “organizational culture” can serve the other members of your university rather than be a cudgel to enforce your ideas about which emotions are “productive” and which are not.

        • As some one who applied to work with a recently tenured adviser who was miserable in the institution, I get what Monica is saying. The administration wouldn’t want to inflict a colleague who is constantly bitching about the institution of department to undergrads, or actively applying for jobs elsewhere while taking on graduate students. But I can see how there is no easy way out of this. No one should be stuck with such a colleague, and they shouldn’t be stuck for the rest of their working life in a place they so actively and vocally detest, but, oh well, but…

      • Marlowe, I said nothing of the sort. Of course, training, credentials, scholarship, etc., are extremely important. We all know this. You’ve been scared by a ghost that is not of my making. As a fellow academic, not only an administrator, I should hope that a tenure committee seeks to find a balance between academic credentials such as you mention and emotional engagement with the work. Because when they don’t, we end up with faculty who “check out” post tenure and then they aren’t the problem of a tenure committee anymore. There are no cudgels here, nor even any “administrator’s interpretation,” just a sincere and heartfelt request that if you sit on a tenure committee, please take into consideration that this does happen and it is not in the best interest of the students, the research, or the faculty as a whole. Please reconsider your frightening interpretation of my comment in that light.

        • I’m sure faculty denied tenure for not being perceived as happy enough will be thrilled to hear that their “extremely important” qualifications were recognized but then ignored. Really, Monica, this is offensive nonsense anyway you describe it. Administrators don’t like faculty who complain; we know this. Don’t advocate for perverting tenure in order to get rid of your inconveniences – you’ll just end up destroying the very community you’re supposed to foster.

          • marlowe, it seems to me that you have been refusing to see this statement for what it is. monica appears to simply have said that (all things being equal) it would be good to favor people who show some genuine interest in the position and not those who would rather be somewhere else doing something different.

          • Zd – I’m not refusing to see anything; I am simply disagreeing. Tenure is (or should be) about judging someone’s scholarly and pedagogical contributions and potential based on their documented record, not your sense of that person’s feelings. Also, generally tenure is not a zero-sum game, in which you’re choosing between equal cases and only have one slot. If a person is hired as tenure-track, it is assumed that they will get tenure if they have earned it, so I don’t see how the notion of “all things being equal” applies (even if one were to accept “feelings” as a valid criterion, which I do not).

  8. I wonder if these empty emotive statements are related to a trend I’ve recently seen in emails? About two years ago I noticed that people I barely knew and some who I knew disliked me would begin every email with the sentence: “I hope you are well.” At first I wondered if they had heard I was ill. Then I received one from someone I had good reason to know hoped, if anything, that I was NOT well. I finally began using something like this myself rather than diving into content immediately as otherwise I began to think I would sound rude. Where do these fake email openings come from?

    p.s. I hope you are well.

    • I worked in a call centre during my undergraduate studies and we had to open every email with, ‘Thank you for your enquiry. I hope this finds you well’, and close with a similarly comforting phrase. I prefer direct communication and I think this intimate approach is quite disrespectful within the profession.

  9. Realize that this is an old thread but it came up in a search when I looked at people forging offer letters to get tenure.

    What are your thoughts on professors that take the old fashioned way…cheating to get tenure? According to this professor, who is tenured because of a forged offer letter, people do it all the time.

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