One of my dissertation advisors was very concerned when I accepted a full-time faculty appointment as an assistant academic specialist here at the Northeastern College of Professional Studies (CPS). The idea of academic specialists’ non-tenured faculty status can be perplexing and we are not always viewed as equal to tenured/tenure track faculty. My experience at CPS, however, has been that tenure is not the only way to find professional fulfillment in academia. Instead, academic specialists have the opportunity to figure out how to be the teachers, scholars, and whole persons that I think many of us want to be. Here are some reasons I’ve found to be happy about my role and to embrace its tenure-less status.
I can become a good teacher and be rewarded for it
The first line in Northeastern’s mission statement is “to educate students for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment.” My position allows me to do that—and do it well. I can make time to learn new teaching techniques, develop new ways of presenting material and provide meaningful feedback to students. I can do this without worrying that it is taking time away from “tenurable” activities, like publishing. I recently sat in a café with one of my doctoral students for two hours going over the first of three publishable papers for her thesis. Not only was I doing my job of reinforcing the standards of doctoral level research and writing, but we also had an intellectually stimulating conversation about an interesting policy issue (and really good tiramisu).
I can do the research I want to do
One of the arguments for tenure is to protect academic freedom. However, the faculty at risk for not getting tenure are not those who ask controversial questions but those who do applied research or studies that address specific community-based concerns. If I want to do a participatory action research project asking about the knowledge and perceptions of proposed development projects in a specific Boston neighborhood, for example, I can do that without worrying about whether it is publishable or how it will impact my tenure prospects.
I can do the service I want to do
I sit on the college and university committees that I feel I can contribute to and enjoy participating in. I don’t have to sit on committees simply to ensure that everyone who might be on my tenure committee knows who I am. Equally important, I can serve my community. This past month, I participated in a meeting with the Boston Public Schools to support parents who wanted a voice in selecting their new headmaster, which was especially important to parents who are learning English. I helped local youth conduct an environmental justice tour for an EPA conference. I’m one of two academics who sit on an advisory group developing recommendations for local municipalities to plan for climate change. All of this is in accordance with the second line in Northeastern’s mission: “to create and translate knowledge to meet global and societal needs.” And I can do this without worrying about whether it will be valued by a tenure committee.
I can have a life
My natural tendency is to be a workaholic. My husband actually has to text me at a certain hour to make sure that I am home for dinner. However, even I recognize that I need to occasionally talk with my parents and sisters, have dinner with friends, read fiction, travel, eat, drink and be merry. (And I actually enjoy hanging out with my husband!) I can make time to be the partner and person I want to be without worrying if working to restore my Victorian-era brownstone will hamper my ability to do or keep my job.
This is not to say that tenured/ tenure track faculty can’t do these things. Radhika Nagpal found a way, albeit by refusing to play the tenure game. But the inability to find the right fit between work, family and life is a common complaint among those seeking or with tenure. It is one that I’m glad not to have to make.