Monday, October 18, 2010

Opting Out

Here's the traditional career path for an academic: You're hired as an Assistant Professor. After six years, you endure the nail-biting anxiety of going up for tenure, a process normally linked with a promotion to Associate Professor. Once you have tenure, you theoretically have job security -- at least, most of us breathe a bit more easily at that point -- and can look forward, in the fullness of time, to another and final promotion, this time to full Professor. At UNR, each promotion comes with a ten percent raise.

To be promoted, you need to be vetted and approved by your department, by your college's promotion and tenure committee, by a university committee, and on up the food chain until you get to the Regents.

I was tenured in 2003. Like most people who've gone through the process, I have my horror stories, but everything turned out fine. Since then, though, the promotion process has become increasingly difficult. An extremely accomplished and distinguished friend of mine (in another department) is going up for full professor even as we speak, and is being raked over the institutional coals in ways that wouldn't, I think, have happened before the current budget disaster. Yes, more and more documentation has been required since my promotion to Associate: multiple binders of paperwork, five letters of support from people at other universities (rather than the three I needed), ever more careful scrutiny by the various committees. But watching my friend's ordeal has made me question some of my assumptions: a) that the departmental vote is the most important, a decision almost always supported by the ascending levels (after all, one's immediate colleagues are best at understanding one's work), and b) that promotion to full is a matter of continuing to do what you were tenured for doing, although perhaps at a higher level.

Keep in mind that I firmly believe my friend will indeed get this promotion. But watching that ordeal has made me dread the promotion process for myself even more than I already did. Every year, my chair sends an e-mail to anybody who's been at Associate for four years or longer, inviting us to e-mail him our CVs so the full professors in the department can offer advice about preparing for promotion. I've been getting those e-mails for several years and ignoring them: I find CVs about as pleasant to prepare as tax forms, and I was in no rush to start collecting all the material for those binders, either. But I had to update my CV for my sabbatical application anyway, so I thought, what the hey, and e-mailed it to my chair, who then shared it with the other full professors.

Last Thursday I met with him to discuss their recommendations. These are offered, mind you, in the spirit of wanting colleagues to succeed; they're very much constructive criticism. My chair identified two problems with my case:

1. Lack of national service. It's evidently no longer enough to do a lot of very nice local service. The university insists that full professors have a national profile. This is relatively new, and it surprised my chair when he started shepherding people through the process. In my case, such national service would need to take the form of, for instance, being elected to an office in an august professional organization like the Modern Language Association, being asked to judge a lot of writing contests or to review a lot of manuscripts, or publishing lots of reviews of other people's work ("dozens," my chair said, to clarify this).

I don't do this stuff. I never have. It doesn't interest me. If it interested me, I'd already be doing it.

2. Although my colleagues like how much I publish -- and tenured me for writing SF/F, for which I'm eternally grateful -- my publishing record needs to be more accessible to people who don't know anything about science fiction. So my chair, who was doing everything humanly possible to be helpful, said, "The problem is that people outside science fiction don't know about Tor. But Tor's a subsidiary of Macmillan! Everyone's heard of Macmillan! So what you need to do on your CV is say that you're published by Tor-Macmillan! That would be completely justified! And then they'll get it!"

This is ludicrous. Nobody in SF says they're published by Tor-Macmillan.

My chair ended the conversation by saying that the Upper Echelons would want outside letters that said, for instance, "I've known her work for years and think she's wonderful," rather than, "I've never heard of her, but I really like her work."

I went home feeling rather like a squashed cockroach. I'd expected to be told that I had several years of work to do to get ready for promotion -- another novel, say -- but I hadn't expected the prospects to look so bleak. I said mournfully to Gary, "I'm not famous enough to be promoted."

"Then don't go up," he said promptly. I have tenure; people retire at Associate Professor rank all the time, and there's no shame in it. The big drawback is not getting that ten percent raise (the only chance for any kind of raise, in this economy), but as Gary points out, I could go through the agony of the promotion process and not get it anyway, because each tier is now under increasing pressure to shoot people down. My safest shot at extra income, not to mention additional fame, is to publish more. Running for Grand Poobah of national professional organizations would definitely interfere with that, as would writing dozens of book reviews.

On Friday morning I saw my therapist, who emphatically agreed with Gary and thinks that doing the work I'd need to do for promotion would be actively bad for me. My friend Sharon, who probably knows me better than anyone in town except Gary, was even blunter: "It would kill you." And when I talked to my chair again and said that I was seriously considering just staying where I am, he gave what sounded like a sigh of relief and said, "Yes, I think that's right." Then he told me about two people in the department who've been Associate "since before we were born," because they wanted to focus on their families and on other matters closer to home.

It's a mark of how little any of this matters -- or of how little attention I pay to it, anyway -- that I didn't even know those colleagues' ranks; I'd assumed both of them were full, and were startled that they weren't. I'm really glad my chair told me that, though, because it made me feel better.

In all kinds of ways, I think this decision makes a lot of sense, and I can always change my mind down the line if I achieve unexpected stardom. In many ways, it's like my decision to walk away from ordination to the diaconate (and it's easier than that was). But because I've been an academic overachiever most of my life -- although you wouldn't know it from my non-national profile -- I've had to give myself a stern talking to about how this is a free choice, not a mark of shame or failure.

The irony, of course, is that much of my lack of fame in the academic context arises from my working in popular fiction, in a genre accessible to more people than your average issue of PMLA. Twice in the past year, I've had casual conversations with people who wanted to write SF but didn't know I was a writer; when I said I'm published, they asked me coolly who my publisher was, and when I said Tor, both of them went wide-eyed and babbling. "You're published by Tor? I'd give my [fill in the body part of your choice] to be published by Tor!"

Meanwhile, at my fiddle lesson on Friday, I told Charlene that I wasn't famous enough to be promoted. Her eyes bugged out. She gestured at the bookshelf across the room -- her husband reads SF, and it was stuffed with Tor paperbacks -- and said, "You're published by Tor! Whaddya mean, you aren't famous enough?"

Yup. Of course, I'm not a famous Tor author, which is probably the larger issue -- my readership is exceedingly discerning, but very small -- but in many circles, Tor's more recognizable than Macmillan.

I really do think remaining at Associate is a healthy decision for me, and who knows? Maybe the economy will improve; maybe someday we'll get merit or cost-of-living raises again. In the meantime, I won't be slaving over binders. But the choice also represents the loss of a professional goal, however dimly held. It shifts my internal landscape, already eroded by too much loss over the last two years. And it puts more pressure on my writing, a process that often shuts down at the first hint of pressure.

Yet another reason why the Auburn workshop is perfectly timed!


  1. I once believed I was called to be a CPE Supervisor. After a difficult experience in the certification process, I sought a retreat, and on short notice found the right place close to home. It was while there that I heard the Spirit, after which I withdrew from that process. I don't say it's the same as your decision, and I won't say "I know how you feel;" but I know what that meant for me. As another over-achiever it involved some grief; but it has proven to be right, and the blessings have come. Blessings to you!

    And I certainly know about Tor. Indeed, I was working in a B. Dalton's when that colophon was first released. It has certainly become part of the standards for science fiction publishing. Pity your department head is so poorly informed; and that he's so sure others are, too.

    Again, blessings!

  2. Isn't it great that you have your husband to see so clearly the situation?

    And here's my selfish take on the matter: Yay, Susan Palwick is going to spend more time writing which means I get to read more great stories :)

  3. Anonymous6:53 PM

    And I'd say that you are internationally famous.


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