Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tenured at last ... time for a new tat.

Thursday, December 15 was a darn good day. Ten years after receiving my doctorate I was granted tenure at the University of Texas at Austin. What is nice about the situation is that I earned tenure without betraying my sense of who I am to be as a scholar. I staked my career on the importance and viability of community engaged scholarship and was ultimately rewarded by my university.

We don't talk about it this way, but one way to look at tenure is as a ritual hazing process that threatens to render academic freedom irrelevant. While on the tenure track, junior faculty are continually discouraged by caring senior colleagues from engaging any methodologies, publication venues, communities or activities that could be seen as controversial, experimental, untested, or not properly deferential to established norms. There is of course irony in this. We academics are supposed to be in the business of generating knowledge, not regurgitating what already is. Nonetheless, the overwhelming message is to use traditional methods to engage research that is solid, easy to conduct and write up, and to crank out as many publications as possible. The extent to which the publications chart new territory is nowhere near the point. Rather the point is quantity of publications in rigorous publication venues.

While the messages on how to achieve tenure generally come from folk who are genuinely concerned with your success, the critical by-product of the heads down, stay in your lane, nose to the grindstone approach they have been taught to advocate is the production of tenured scholars who are unable to push boundaries, unable to challenge established wisdom, unable to rock the boat. And with apologies for the string of metaphors, for some us, this is an unsatisfying approach to intellectual life.

I am excited beyond words that in the end, my university chose to reward rigorous, purposeful, productive community engaged scholarship. I took a leave to serve in the Federal Government when I was told not to, published in venues that I was told wouldn't count as much, took stands in local controversies when I was told to wait until after tenure, and after amassing the first dozen or so publications I began co-authoring with my advanced students (and allowing them lead authorship!) so that they would be more viable on the job market once they finished. And in the end, it turned out just fine.

While words cannot express my gratitude to the university that signed off on the work I've done, there were also two senior colleagues, Ted Gordon and Doug Foley, who were outliers in their support for taking the stands that I felt compelled to take, and for pursuit of activities and methods that I felt most appropriate. They were, in many ways, the bridge between my work and acceptance by the academy. Words cannot capture my lifelong gratitude to them both.

Along with the wonderful feeling of relief, the congratulations from friends, and the humbling recognition of all the folk who have supported me for years, the biggest lift this gives me is that I can continue to be full-throated in my advocacy for a community engaged approach to scholarship. I can now speak, write and act not as someone who calls for others to do what he would not, but as someone who chose a path because it felt like the right thing to do and then was rewarded. Thanks UT Austin, for your support of a scholar who seeks to be defined by his community engaged intellectual work.

No comments:

Post a Comment