Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Academic adolescence: Communicating on the tenure track

The teen years of tenure.

Think back to your teenage years (and try to avoid shuddering over that hair style or those clothes or that fight you had with your parents). Remember the emotional place where you felt like an adult but were still treated like a child? It could be empowering to discover who you are and what you stood for, but it could also be frustrating. 

Along the tenure track there are those middle, awkward years similar to our adolescence where we THINK we know as much or more as everyone else, but where we don't have much POWER to act independently. TenureTrackTeen is so close, but still so far away, from adulthood. The academic adolescent is someone who has been at the institution for several years, finally knows the ropes, and feels like he is a pro. TenureTrackTeen forgets, however, that he is still a teen. He isn't fully grown (full professor or tenured), he still has a LOT to learn about the institution and academia in general, and he can sometimes sabotage his chances to be taken seriously.

How do you handle the (sometimes) awkward, (often) emotional, years in between "new" professor and "tenured" professor?

Do you find yourself moaning around about how no one listens to your ideas? How no one takes you seriously? Or how it isn't fair that you have to do XYZ before anyone will listen? Or how nothing has changed (in your 3, 4, or 5 years of time at InstitutionXYZ.).

Easy there. You are still a probationary employee and your teenage temperament could lead others to question your collegiality.

Be careful. TenureTrackTeen can easily start to wear on the nerves of the most patient FullGrownProf out there. TenureTrackTeen does have just as many good ideas as FullGrownProf, but his annoying whining and demands can lead to a few eye rolls and "Because I said so's" from FullGrownProf, who notes what a "short time" TenureTrackTeen has been at the institution, expands on her "lengthy years" of service, and implores the TenureTrackTeen to "not be in such a rush" "wait a while" and "be patient." This advice isn't always welcome.

If you find yourself in a similar situation as TenureTrackTeen, keep yourself in check. If you've been around a typical teenager (or if you can focus back on your own years without too much cringing), then you know the goal is to have others listen and take you seriously.

This TenureTrackTeen has learned a few things over her journey that may prove helpful to you. You have to balance doing what is required while carving your own place in your institution (there's that teenage conflict between authority and autonomy, again). Here are a few COMMUNICATION strategies for any academic adolescents who have to tame their inner turmoil as they rush along the emotional river of the tenure track:
  1. Prioritize your ideas. In this tip,  you want to be aware of what you express and why. Is it worth complaining repeatedly about the tiny issue with mail delivery? Instead, use your time and energy to express your thoughts about a curriculum change. Craft the image of the responsible  FullGrownProf that you will soon be!
  2. Vent, if you need to. Every teen needs an emotional place to reflect and release...but vent OUTSIDE of your institution (and only to those you truly trust). Do not try to unload all of your angst on a colleague or other "teens" -- keep it professional and check those emotions before you regret what you say. 
  3. Avoid making demands. While you are an important part of the department, you ARE still on the tenure-track. You may get stuck with a teaching schedule you don't love or a service requirement that eats up your time. Unfortunately, that may just be part of your growing pains (this depends on the institution, of course). Demanding a stellar schedule (or office space, or pay raise) your third year may seem like something you deserve (of course you do!), but there may be others who outrank you, who have grants/funding that requires certain schedules/spaces, or who get priority in the class choices. Inquire. Explore. Request. But don't demand.
  4. Use your voice to advocate for what you need. Express concerns and ideas, certainly, but avoid threats, demands, and complaints that only serve as an emotional outlet. Your idea (while brilliant, of course!) may have been heard or tried in the past. Be aware that others may NOT be shutting you down, perhaps they have just "been there, seen that" -- so ask questions, learn about the history of your program, and provide data for your point of view.
  5. Have a goal in mind. Communicate with intent. What is it you want from the meeting with your mentor, Chair, Dean? If you don't know, be careful about speaking up. (Test the political climate of your department/program.)
Be aware of the emotions that may come along with your academic adolescence.  Be aware of these emotions in others. Your feelings are valid and you should feel free to express your thoughts and ideas, just do so with intent and a professional demeanor. Too often, those teenage emotions can lead to poor communication choices with a long-lasting impact.

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