The Tenure Treadmill At Work

What’s on the mind of an academic librarian going to the ACRL conference for the first time? Hearing some interesting speakers. Networking and meeting new colleagues. Having a good time. No doubt it’s all of these, but in the back of their minds I get the impression that first timers who are on the tenure track tend to focus on how attending the conference can help them make progress on the road to tenure. How is that you ask?

Just prior to the ACRL conference I received the results of a survey that ACRL did with the first-time attendees. Over 350 of them responded to the survey. They were asked a series of questions about different conference activities and outcomes, and how important each was (very, somewhat, not very, not at all). The results showed that the most important topics for the first timers were “how to publish with ACRL (books, articles)”, “how to get appointed to a sections committee” and “how to get appointed to an ACRL division committee”. Those activities were clearly the three that most of us strongly associate with obtaining tenure (publication and professional service). For example, 76% indicated publishing was very or somewhat important and 65% indicated committee appointment was very or somewhat important. By comparison, “how to become an ACRL blogger” was very or somewhat important to only 46% of the respondents. When it comes to getting tenure, blogging – no matter how insightful or brilliant – is of little significance. And despite the importance of legislative advocacy, only 36% indicated that it was very or somewhat important.

While I don’t have any scientific analysis to support my observation that the first-timers’ sense of what’s really important at the ACRL conference is shaped largely by the stress of achieving tenure, the results of this survey would certainly appear to suggest the silent hand of tenure is at work. I would encourage all first-time attendees to engage in conference activity with gusto, and do the things that really bring personal professional satisfaction. Don’t worry so much about doing the things that you think will look good in a tenure dossier. I know some of you will say this is easy advice for me to give since I’m not on the tenure track. But this is one more indication that academic library administrators need to work on broadening the scope of what counts as scholarship for academic librarians.

Perhaps next time the survey will ask how important it is to have a good time at the Saturday night all-conference reception.

7 thoughts on “The Tenure Treadmill At Work

  1. I don’t have to worry about tenure myself. However, I can understand why many first-time attendees worried about the trappings of tenure. If I had to worry about tenure, I probably would have had the same concerns. Nevertheless, I do agree with the overall point of this posting. In the case of blogs, I would much rather do high-quality eloquently-written postings than crank out some “scholarly” tome that will appeal to about 10 people. (Not that scholarly writing is all bad, but I think we can all guess when an author is scraping for tenure.) Unforrtunately, the reality of tenure hasn’t caught up with the alternative reality of Web 2.0… or is it the other way around with regard to “alternative reality?”

    I’m sure many of you have read this already, but The Chronicle had an article last year by a professor who discussed this same issue. It seems relevant to this discussion as well, and it makes some good points about how blogging can have a much greater impact than publishing a certain number of obscure articles within a certain amount of time.

  2. One could also assume enthusiastic professional engagement and wanting to be involved as the reason for these results. Almost half interested in blogging is a very positive result to me.

    What % of first timers are new librarians? I’ve yet to attend an ACRL conference and I’m 12 years in. I have tenure and would still respond as these first timers have if ACRL were my primary association. Participating in these activities continues to be one of the primary benefits, and responsibilities, of academic librarianship for me.

  3. Is it such a bad thing if professional achievement (a.k.a. attainment of tenure) is on people’s minds? Especially given how many of us are paying our own way to participate – it seems to make some sense to want to learn things that would help one be successful in one’s chosen work.

    I’m not certain that there is anything inherently incompatible with wanting to do things that help one achieve tenure and doing things that bring one personal professional satisfaction. I myself find that they are often the same things!

  4. No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with first-timers emphasizing their interests in tenure-related activity. On the plus side, their responses suggest that ACRL committees will not soon run out of volunteers to help manage the business of ACRL. We know how important that is. I guess what stoodout was the high number for whom an interest in ACRL publications (and publishing in them) was important. For people attending a conference for the first time, that came as a surprise. Now if we take into consideration who was asking the questions, perhaps it should be less a surprise. They didn’t ask how important it was to “learn something new” (there might have been a socially oriented question – I can’t recall and don’t have the survey any longer). Perhaps the questions need to be re-thought. It would also be interesting to know how many of the first timers were indeed on the tenure track.

  5. I don’t see why the interest in publishing for ACRL would be surprising. As it is pointed out here, the tenure publish or perish approach is pretty much alive and well. I consider myself fortunate not to be on a tenure line, but I have been in such places. I hate to say it, but it’s pretty much a concern for getting the stuff for tenure, not the altruism that drives many to conferences and the professional organizations. I am not saying there are some out there who are not there for the altruistic reasons, but it seems the survey simply confirms what many in the field already know: you need to publish, be involved in a very visible way, and blogging pretty much does not count (no offense). First timers pretty much need to start from the get-go. One of the places I interviewed in that had tenure line, they actually sat me down with the tenure committee, and I had a strong talking to about the tenure expectations (publish, visible involvement, serious substantial work in a timely fashion, so on). It is alive and well (and as far as I am concerned, I am staying away from it). Best, and keep on blogging.

  6. Since there were plenty of librarians present (and even presenting) – and some for the first time – who have attained tenure at their institutions – some who have even already attained the highest faculty rank possible, I would hazard that people find being professionally active … whether tenure-track, tenure-attained, or tenure-avoiding … rewarding, engaging, and reason for attending the conference.

    My only point was that people also pursuing opportunities that assist them with tenure if that is the track they are on seems reasonable and understandable and does not necessarily signal that people aren’t doing things that are personally professionally rewarding. I suspect as well that not all seeking to volunteer or publish are on the tenure-track or even in a tenure system. As Steven says, perhaps that would be an interesting question for next time – tenure-track/tenured/not in a tenure system, years in profession, etc. Having not seen the survey, I can’t really comment whether that is a viable approach or not.

  7. A bit of a late comment ~
    I’m curious whether you got the vibe that newcomers were focused on tenure from your interactions with attendees, or merely from the survey results? . Perhaps the items ranked highest by survey respondents were due to the conference being their first opportunity to discuss publishing or ACRL involvement with real people? I agree with Lisa, too, that 46% interested in acrlblog is a positive number/sign.

    I was a first time attendee, completed the survey, and am in a tenure system. I received financial support to attend the conference from my institution, and was responsible for reporting back to the institution what I learned. I felt a responsibility to take away as much as I could from the conference, info on publishing, ideas and projects to apply in my home institution, new colleagues with whom to collaborate, and more. This desire for professional development seems intrinsic in many librarians I’ve met.

    In terms of the survey questions, there was at least one on social opportunities I remember, about how important it was to sign up for dinner with colleagues. There was also a question about how important winning the iPod prize was, which I found strange… The tenure status question would be a good one for next time.

    I don’t think blogging is of little significance in tenure. I know it depends where you work, the standards by which you are evaluated, and who is doing the evaluation. But, as blogging has become more mainstream, I think it is/will gain acceptance as a component of evaluation. A colleague I know included her blogging work in her written documentation, with discussion of the blogs aim, links to her blog, etc.; it was well received.

    It seems a larger question is what effect the tenure system has on librarians’ work/decisions/focus/impact on library services ~

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