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Imagining a more action-oriented tenure process

Randall F. Clemens

On the first day of school, two students started fighting. One student tried to escape. The two ran from the first to third floor. A crowd followed them. Just before the fight stopped, a security guard’s head slammed through a window in my classroom’s door. She never returned to school. A few days later, someone fixed the window.

From August until December, school safety worsened. Gang and neighborhood beefs played out in the classrooms and hallways. Community officers found out about a group driving from this or that area, and administrators and teachers locked down the school. In December, dozens of police in riot-gear walked the halls. A fight began. After the police used pepper spray, the principal yelled over the intercom, “I will not put my teachers in danger!” Just before winter break, she resigned. 

My first four months as a teacher have informed everything I have done since then. My daily experiences were maddening, schizophrenic, and also rewarding. In such a hectic context, I interacted with hundreds of amazing and bright students. I tried (and often failed) to be a good teacher. But, my students always supported me.

As a critical scholar, I am well aware of the importance of framing narratives. I worry that some will read the above story and think, “Oh, here we go again.” Or, even worse, others will read it and think, “Just another inner-city school.” I usually try to avoid telling sensational stories; however, my experiences as a teacher—and how I make sense of them—frame who I am as an academic. 

As a first-year assistant professor, I have spent more time than ever before thinking about the tenure process. I wonder how being part of academia fits into the overall project of increasing social justice and educational opportunities for underserved teenagers.

In The Art of Fieldwork, Harry Wolcott argues, “Best intentions notwithstanding, I think we must concede that the person who stands to gain the most from any research is the researcher” (p. 136). He talks at length about the benefits that accrue to a researcher in relation to his or her participants. A researcher receives a salary, benefits, prestige, job security, etc. Meanwhile, participants receive a $5 Starbucks gift card and / or the knowledge that they are benefiting humankind. 

I disagree with Wolcott. Research can most certainly be self-serving, but not necessarily so. Peer-reviewed journal articles need not be the only important outcome of research. However—despite the wonderful research and service by many scholars—the tenure process at many R1 universities still favors old models of basic science. In that regard, improving education and getting tenure are not always congruent goals. 

What if we imagined a new tenure process, one where tenure committees equally recognize peer-reviewed journal articles and service-based outcomes? What if academics exerted as much energy working with students, schools, and communities as preparing manuscripts?