2020 Annual Meeting

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Working Toward Tenure

AAR Career Guide for Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession

Chapter 4


John J. Thatamanil
Assistant Professor of Theology
Vanderbilt University School of Divinity

Anthony B. Pinn
Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies
Rice University

Rosetta Ross
Associate Professor of Religion
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Spelman College


Miguel A. De La Torre
Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology
and Director of the Justice and Peace Institute

Luis G. Pedraja
Executive Associate Director
Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education

Andrea Smith
Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan

For junior faculty, tenure is often the Holy Grail of academic life; therefore, it can easily become the summum bonum to which all else must be sacrificed. One hardly needs to be a theologian to see that the danger of idolatry lingers perilously close. There are many goods that ought to rank higher: one’s health and sanity, the well-being of family and community, your own career plan (which should amount to more than finding tenure), and not least of all maintaining integrity. Ironically, to make a successful tenure bid at an institution that is a good fit, you will need to remember that tenure should not become a blinding obsession. If you find yourself losing perspective, overburdened, and exhausted, you probably need to step back and ask yourself whether you are making the right choices.

Making Choices

Several major choices must be made over the course of your pre-tenure years, and all require honest introspection and courage. You will have to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. I have my doctorate in hand, but do I really want to be in academia?
  2. What other careers might I pursue?
  3. If the academic life feels right, then in what kind of institution and department do I ideally want to be? A high-powered Tier One research institution? A teaching college? A community college?
  4. Where am I most likely to flourish, and what sort of institution will best enable me to meet long term career goals and aspirations?

Realistically speaking, these choices are often made for you by external contingencies—the job you manage to get right after graduate school, your significant other’s career plan, a chance job opening that happens to materialize at your alma mater, etc. Nevertheless, long-term success depends on your willingness to ask hard questions and then make decisions that best honor your deepest commitments.

Competing Commitments

Academic success in pursuit of tenure requires negotiating complex and competing commitments. Surely the most important predictor of success will be your ability to prioritize.

Extra Demands on Minorities and Institutional Commitments

While the three areas of performance evaluated for acquiring tenure – scholarship, teaching, and service – are fairly universal, it is important to take into account your institutional context, your professional goals, and the realities of being a minority faculty member as you make determinations for completing the tenure process. To begin, gather information about what is expected of you by reviewing your faculty handbook. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about policies that may be unclear. Portfolios of and conversations with faculty who have recently successfully completed pre-tenure review and tenure processes are another great source of information, especially for determining informal policies of your institutional context. Once you have determined the performance norms of your institution, take stock of extra demands that may fall to you as a minority faculty member.

Communities of identity and solidarity will often have expectations that racial/ethic faculty will participate in various identity group activities. In addition to community expectations, many racial/ethic scholars prefer to engage their own communities above and beyond similar participation by majority faculty members. Your awareness of this engagement as potential "extra" work will go a long way toward helping appropriately manage time and commitments, especially when there are conflicts. When making choices, seek participation opportunities that both fulfill identity group expectations and have direct relevance and usefulness for your tenure process and other professional goals. In some instances this will be self-evident. In other cases it may be prudent to have a conversation with a dean, tenure committee chair, mentor, or other appropriate senior faculty members.

In addition to expectations made upon racial/ethic communities, and preferences of the racial/ethnic faculty themselves, the institution might have their own set of expectations, such as requiring or assuming they will participate in any number of "minority emphases" sponsored by the institution (e.g., globalization committees, multicultural celebrations and committees, immersion experiences, etc.). Again, it is important to discern when this should be identified as "extra" work. In the case of institutional expectations that add to your workload, it is appropriate to consider negotiating a trade off with regular committee work for these additional tasks. Remember to consider whether the trade off seems more prudent than performing regular committee work and decreasing or setting aside participation in "minority emphases." In the case of such negotiations, it is important to determine how such work is valued by your institution. Also, make sure that it is clear with the appropriate institutional official or committee that this unusual service counts toward tenure as much as does traditional committee or other work. It never hurts to have unusual considerations clarified in writing.

Beyond the "minority emphases," institutions and minority students also may expect racial/ethic faculty to counsel, listen to, and generally be available to racial/ethic students over and above regular advising responsibilities. In the case of minority women faculty, this expectation may be higher based on historic identification of women, in general, and women of color, in particular, with nurturing roles. Negotiating these expectations may be delicate, but negotiating is nonetheless necessary since wholesale taking-on of these expectations can contribute significantly to lowering your productivity and increasing the possibility of burnout.

Depending on the atmosphere in your institution, you may be called upon and/or regularly (and more frequently than other faculty) appointed to committees as the missing or much-needed "minority voice." Conversely, your ability as a minority and junior faculty member may be immediately and regularly undervalued resulting in your appointment to committees that have less significant impact on faculty and institutional governance. These may be problematic circumstances or useful options. Read your institutional context. If you find yourself called upon more regularly than other faculty, be savvy about negotiating your workload. Assignment to less labor-intensive committees early on may be helpful with getting settled into your career. In instances when you are concerned that your potential contributions are undervalued, determine a course of action that results in both realistic management of your time as well as opportunities for you to participate meaningfully in faculty and institutional governance.

  1. Making savvy service choices. Make informed choices about using time, managing your workload, and performing responsibilities. As a general rule, whenever possible, try to make community service choices that may also meet professional service expectations.
  2. Making savvy choices regarding activism. Many minority faculty members find activism essential to maintaining relevancy to their communities and to scholarship. If activism is important to you, keep time management in mind as you make decisions about being an activist. Just as it is important to relate service choices to your tenure processes, wherever possible, when you make determinations about activism, try to connect activism to professional service expectations and to your scholarship. Do not presume activism will help you with tenure. In fact, it is often the opposite - it might work against you. The implicit thinking behind many people on tenure committees is "I did not have time to do activist work and do my scholarship. If this person does have time to be an activist, they must not be spending enough time on their scholarship." Or as one professor was told by a review committee, "We assumed that you are spending all your time protesting on the streets so you must not be taking the time to think lofty thoughts." You might want to consider not letting people in your university know about your organizing activities.
  3. Just say no! To repeat, make smart choices about service and activism so that as often as possible they can meet professional, community, and personal expectations all at once. If this is not possible, and sometimes it is not, it is important to be realistic about what you can do. Assess the possibilities, liabilities, and assets of opportunities you encounter. Prioritize responsibilities and goals. Recognize your limitations. You can’t do it all (and there is always lots of good to try to do). Sometimes you will have to say no. When necessary, be prepared to say no.

Picking Research Projects

While expectations for publishing differ based on the type of institution one is affiliated with, it is safe to say that most institutions require some level of participation in shaping one’s field through publications. It is always wise to secure some sense of what is generally considered the standards for quantity (and quality) of publications by:

  1. reviewing your faculty handbook
  2. researching the number of publications of those who have successfully completed the third-year review and tenure process over the past five years
  3. talking with trustworthy colleagues about publishing within your institution.

Once you have a sense of the quantity and quality of publications required for advancement at your institution, you will want to carefully select your projects. Research projects should be grounded in your training and expressed areas of interest. Because the dissertation serves as the "rough draft" for articles or a book manuscript, seek first to publish a portion of or the entire dissertation manuscript. An extremely useful guide for junior scholars who are trying to publish some or all of their dissertation is William Germano’s, From Dissertation to Book.

Most institutions will require scholars to show signs of "developed" scholarship that goes beyond work done in the dissertation. The form your scholarship takes will depend on your scholarly agenda and the expectations of your institution. Much also depends on your tenure clock and whether your institution grants course release opportunities or pre-tenure sabbaticals for junior scholars. In general, you will want to select projects that build incrementally but also substantially on your previous work. Junior scholars will rarely have the luxury of time to move in dramatically new directions. Consult widely with colleagues, your editor, and friends who have read your work to get a sense of what seems to be a logical development and extension of prior dissertation-related work. Junior scholars would do well to remember that every substantial piece of writing, not just their dissertation, is ultimately a collaborative enterprise. Developing a trusted network of scholarly collaborators is critical both for sanity and productivity.

  1. Politics of researching your own community. Some might suggest that it is politically problematic to research one’s community of origin. Those taking this position argue that such work lacks critical distance and can easily become "special pleading." However, there are too many examples of sound and award winning scholarship by scholars within the context of their own communities for this to be taken as a given. The various forms of liberation theology in the United States suggest the merit of work within one’s community of concern. Think in terms of Vine Deloria’s God is Red (1973), Virgilio Elizondo’s Galilean Journey, or James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). Others will assume that minority scholars should conduct research on their communities of origin. The minority scholar will be expected to produce a brand of scholarship expected from persons who belong to the group in question. This approach fails to recognize the legitimacy of working outside one’s own "home" community and constricts the options available to minority scholars.

Successful scholarship requires negotiating such conflicting expectations and winning the freedom to choose whatever trajectory you wish to follow. It is vital to recognize the positive potential for work that engages one’s primary communities. Such work allows the scholar to perhaps gain greater access to research materials because of connections to the community of concern. In addition, such work may allow the scholar to forge important links between personal commitments and professional interests. Ultimately, however, it is essential that one select research projects that can sustain one’s interest and energy – that satisfy one’s intellectual curiosities.

When it is time for review (third-year, tenure, promotion) there is an opportunity to place one’s scholarship in perspective and provide a rationale for areas of research selected. Furthermore, external reviewers familiar with the scholar’s work can speak to its importance.

  1. Maintaining contact with country of origin: a special challenge for internationals. International scholars committed to maintaining contact with their country of origin face special challenges imposed by geography. International scholars will have to negotiate the difficult challenge of securing funding for travel. Inform deans and other administrators of your commitment to research in your country of origin toward the end of your hiring process or upon your arrival on campus; this should alert them to the nature of your research agenda and may motivate them to find ways to support you in your work. Often midsize to large universities will have an office dedicated to serving the needs of international scholars. Getting to know the international office and taking advantage of available expertise can be a critical help as you continue your research work.
  2. Ethics of research. It is vital to maintain an ethical posture when conducting research. It is important to acknowledge sources and assistance received. Avoiding questionable practices during the research phase will prevent questions concerning how research was conducted and materials written up that might negatively impact review processes. Be mindful also of your institution’s policies on research with human subjects, confidentiality policies, and the like. Most institutions have formal policies on such matters, and it is your responsibility to know and implement them.


The Meaning of Boundaries

While it is important to nurture and mentor students, it is also important to maintain boundaries so as to avoid charges of improper comments and actions, or sexual harassment. The power dynamic at work between faculty and students makes relationships of mutuality extremely difficult, and the best posture is to maintain relationships with students that are committed strictly and solely to academic and intellectual ends. One can maintain this posture in part by making certain that the office door is open when meeting with students, avoiding physical contact with students, and limiting conversation to professional issues. Nothing will derail prospects for tenure faster than charges of impropriety. So take time to read your school’s policies on relationships and dating.

Minority Professor's Relationship to Students

Often minority faculty are both formally and informally expected to help minority students develop community and address issues related to their status as minority students. While this is often an expectation (from students, staff, and faculty), you must determine the level of involvement with students that is based simply on shared racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation. These interactions can be rewarding, but they also require time and energy, and schools often have a difficult time assessing the importance of this work with respect to tenure and promotion.

There is no obligation to give more time and energy to relationships with students than white faculty. When these expectations arise it is important to develop a strategy for dealing with them by:

  1. talking to trusted members concerning the best approach to the issue
  2. talking honestly with students (and student organizations) concerning how you plan to manage your time.

Politics on Campus

As with any community, the academy has its share of gossip and political maneuvering. It is wise to avoid participation in such negotiations as much as possible; the result is often damaged relationships and misunderstandings. In particular, it’s junior and non-tenure track faculty take on unnecessary risk with respect to political tensions in the department or larger academic community. Be careful when sharing information and be cautious when responding to information. This is accomplished by being aware of the political landscape of your department and institution, and figuring out where the "battle lines" are drawn.

When ideological, theoretical, and political engagement becomes unavoidable, try insofar as possible not to "play politics." Maintain principled commitment to your core convictions even if it means having to disagree with senior faculty. Over the course of your pre-tenure career, you are bound to differ with nearly every colleague on some issue. Some measure of conflict is inevitable; hostility and rancor are not. You are far more likely to earn the respect of your colleagues by operating out of well-considered convictions rather than by constantly jockeying for safety and the allegiance of those whom you think can best advance your cause. Such finagling can give the appearance of insincerity and duplicity. Be shrewd and insofar as possible as straightforward as possible.

Email and Voicemail

A related issue involves use of email and voice mail. It is important that one approach sending email with the same care given to person-to-person interactions. Remember, once you send email it cannot be taken back, and you have no control over its distribution. So, don’t write an email message you wouldn’t have as a personal conversation. Important messages sent and received should be copied to your file. You will want to keep copies of email that involve inappropriate comments or harassing comments made to you. Also keep copies of other email exchanges that impact beyond your immediate circumstances.

Remember that you have no right to privacy with respect to email. Precedent suggests and institutional policies often explicitly state that employers can read or monitor email. Keep this in mind when you are about to fire off any electronic missive.

With respect to voicemail, the same care should be given. Avoid leaving messages that can be misinterpreted. Once the voicemail is left, you no longer have control over its impact and distribution. A good rule of thumb concerning email and voicemail: don’t send messages that you wouldn’t want shared with colleagues beyond the intended audience.

Building Relationships within Academic Culture

Achieving tenure and a general sense of well-being on your campus also involves the development of relationships with mentors who are familiar with the workings of your campus and who are willing to "run interference" for you when necessary. Because of their familiarity with the campus culture, mentors can help you avoid landmines. You must seek out mentors and not simply rely on an assumption that potential mentors will approach you. Give the same care to selecting mentors given to selecting your graduate program and advisor.

It is important to become involved in the life of your campus and profession, and to participate in its development. Tenure and promotion is based in part on one’s growing relationship to and importance within one’s profession. Attending and presenting at, as well as pursuing opportunities for leadership, is a vital component of career development. However, it is important to avoid over-extending oneself. Read your faculty handbook, talk to the chair of your department, and find out expectations concerning levels of service on campus: are members of the faculty expected to serve on one major committee? Two committees? Keep in mind, that while it is necessary to be active in the profession, this does not mean you should accept every opportunity to participate. Select carefully. Take into consideration your career objectives, other commitments (e.g., family), and recognize that you are under no obligation to say "yes" to every request. When you feel uncomfortable doing so, mentors can help you think through the appropriate level of involvement based on your rank, and develop appropriate strategies.


Another dimension of academic relationships involves collaboration with colleagues in both teaching and publishing. Team-teach only with colleagues you trust, and whose pedagogical style is compatible with yours. You want to avoid "competing" in the classroom for the approval of students. Don’t get caught up in the "who’s a better teacher struggle." Also find out your school’s policies concerning team-teaching. For example, will both instructors receive full credit for the course?

In terms of collaborative publishing projects, make certain that you have similar work habits with your potential co-author. You will want to avoid working with those who do not have the same sense of appreciation for deadlines and workload that you have. When you have decided to publish jointly with a colleague, work out the responsibilities in writing. Make certain that everyone involved knows what they are accountable for in terms of the project, and the consequences for not fulfilling responsibilities. You will also want to know how your institution evaluates co-authored materials. Ask the chair of your department about this as well as your mentors. Keep in mind that some institutions will only grant credit toward tenure and promotion for co-authored projects if it can be clearly established who is responsible for writing which portions of the text. You will want to know this in advance.


Passion for teaching is often the primary motivation that drives scholars to enter academic life. With each passing year, skilled teachers grow in their appreciation for the infinite complexity and rigor of their craft. A fresh and vital teaching life requires regular investment in thinking about teaching.

Junior scholars, in particular, will almost certainly need remedial education on teaching. A great many (dare we say most?) graduate programs rigorously prepare students to be first-rate researchers and all but ignore the work of teaching how to teach. Most of us learn how to teach by way of the sink or swim method - a method sure to generate haphazard and inconsistent results.

How should one go about learning how to teach in a more deliberate and thoughtful way?

  1. Read. Invest some hard-won research skills to digging up the best books in your field on the art and craft of teaching. There is in any field a short list of classical books on teaching. Read them. Begin each teaching year by reading a short article or chapter that gives you new perspective on the teaching life.
  2. Find out whether your institution has a Center for Teaching. A great many mid-size to larger universities have on staff extremely gifted scholar-teachers whose primary work consists in mastering learning theory, cognitive development, and a great variety of other resources so that you won’t have to. It is their job to help you learn more about your students and effective teaching. Take advantage of this priceless resource.
  3. Work collaboratively on improving your teaching. If your institution does not formally mandate teaching evaluations from senior colleagues, invite senior colleagues whom you trust and whose insights you value to visit your classes, and let them advise you. Invite your trusted junior peers to swap syllabi and writing assignments. Find out who the master teachers are on your campus. Make arrangements to visit their classes. Talk to them about teaching. Learn from their hard-won wisdom. Become a deliberate rather than an accidental teacher. Finally, as you prepare for tenure, document the steps you are taking - teaching workshops attended, syllabi modification, changes in teaching philosophy, etc. - so that you can demonstrate that you are thinking seriously about the teaching life.

Pedagogical Philosophy

Early in your career, work out a pedagogical philosophy. What do you want your students to learn? What goals do you have in mind for your students? Think as broadly and deeply as you can about the fundamental pedagogical issues in your discipline. Such thinking is a necessity rather than a luxury as many institutions expect you to evaluate your own teaching regularly in light of your philosophy of teaching and learning.

  1. Authority and teaching. Every teacher upon entering the classroom faces issues of authority. How do you establish yourself as a legitimate authority in the classroom? Beyond the credentials you bring to the classroom, what authorizes you to teach the material you do and evaluate your students in ways that will have significant bearing on their futures? Questions of authority are delicate and complex matters for all teachers but especially so for minority or international instructors. How does a minority scholar for whom English is a second language respond to challenges by students that they lack the expertise to correct a native speaker’s grammar or diction? How do dress codes transmit messages about authority and accessibility?

These are complex matters that allow for no ready algorithm or quick prescription. Instructors, especially minority instructors, will be best equipped to meet these challenges by being aware of them in advance rather than by being blind-sided by such issues when they first present themselves in the classroom. When direct challenges to your authority and decisions do materialize, face them squarely and directly. Consult colleagues, but make your decisions in one-on-one conversations with the students involved, and then adhere to them firmly. Junior colleagues, in particular, must know that such challenges are "part of the territory."

In general, establishing an atmosphere of mutual respect instead of high-handed authoritarianism is most likely to meet with success. How you treat the authors and texts read in your classes also helps set the tone around issues of authority. Do you treat the authors and texts you read with respectful engagement even as you are being critical? Creating a community of warm, rigorous, and sensitive engagement around central issues and vital texts is likely to direct student’s attention where it belongs: on the materials you are teaching and not on you the instructor.

  1. Rethinking teaching. Scholars will complain about having to address racism among students in the classroom, without questioning how the nature of the traditional classroom dynamic creates the conditions by which racism flourishes. The reason is that professors often focus on the "content" of what they would like to convey to students rather than the process and praxis by which students could learn new information and transform consciousness. In addition, when people of color teach, they are not automatically granted the same authority as our white, male professors. The typical response then, is for professors of color to insist on their authority, and before they know, they can often become more authoritarian. To get out of this trap, it is possible to reconstruct authority in the classroom so that we do not unwittingly re-inscribe the oppressive dynamics in the classroom that we seek to resist outside the classroom.
  2. Evaluating your own teaching. Learning how to evaluate your own teaching honestly, clearly, and reflectively is vital to your teaching career. At many institutions, teaching is evaluated not just by students or the occasional visit from the department chair, but by year-end self-evaluations. Such evaluations should demonstrate that you take your students’ feedback seriously. Strong self-evaluations should also demonstrate that you know best your own weaknesses and are working to address them. Above all, these evaluations should show that you are constantly in the process of considered change and growth. You can undo much of the harm of uneven student evaluations with self-evaluations that demonstrate that you know the critical issues at stake and are working to address them.

More positively, strong self-evaluations will skillfully frame your successes as a teacher and show that these successes were not accidental but are the results of well-considered planning and reflection. Celebrating your own growth as a teacher is wholly acceptable so long as that celebration is accompanied by a clear-eyed sense of what remains to be done.

  1. Student evaluation of your teaching. Essential to quelling dissent in academia is the student evaluation. Evaluations are often the bane of many ethnic studies professors’ existence. One Native American professor shared that all the students who took her Native studies for a requirement were disappointed she did not perform a sweat lodge, hence proceeded to rip her to shreds in the evaluation. However, the problem is not so much the students, but the evaluation process itself. That is, the student evaluation is designed to quell dissent. Students are not supposed to question the instructor during the class itself. They are given an outlet at the very end of the class to complain when they have no chance of actually impacting their classroom experience. Thus, this process is designed to ensure student powerlessness during the class itself. So, it is not a surprise that when students, given no opportunity to fundamentally impact the classroom experience, completely erupt during the one opportunity they are given to "talk back." As James Scott notes, when dissent is not allowed during the public transcripts, it erupts in the private transcripts by which students undermine the professors authority by whatever means at their disposal. To change this dynamic, the students must have a voice in shaping the classroom experience itself. Of course such principles are well known within Freirean praxis method which relies on a dialogical teaching method rather than one structured by hierarchy. Yet, progressive professors tend to rely on hierarchical methods of teaching. Because of the conviction with which one might hold certain political views for instance, a professor may convey in overt and subtle ways that there is no room to disagree with her or him. The lecture method of teaching is particularly problematic when one is teaching a class that is politically contentious because there is nothing more frustrating for a student then to have to listen to political opinions they disagree with for two hours with no opportunity to talk back. The student inwardly fumes until such time as s/he has the opportunity to complain to administrators or write scathing evaluations. In this respect, the academy sets up ethnic studies professors to fail. Either we feel we must suffer bad evaluations, or we must water down the content of our lectures to avoid the bad evaluations.
  2. Teaching radical ideas. A key reason why students often appear to be reluctant to engage radical ideas is not so much a problem with the ideas themselves, or necessarily the conservativeness of the students, but with the structure of the student/instructor interaction. In opportunities where students can talk back and can feel free to disagree, it is surprising the extent to which even the most politically radical instructor can still have a reasonable experience teaching very conservative students. When students feel they do not have to agree with a professor’s views, they are more likely to be open to listening to those views. When they can make their voices public, it is possible for the professor and other students to converse with these views. It is only through conversation that people can change their minds, and that cannot happen if students do not feel free to share what they really think. Once students feel free to disagree, they do not have a problem listening to the most radical ideas articulate.
  3. Raising consciousness. The problem with the traditional method of pedagogy is that it presumes that a change in consciousness happens overnight. When a student says something racist, professors are tempted to argue with that student until the student appears to comply. However, students do not change 20-plus years of racist thinking in one argument. A transforming pedagogy must instead provide a framework that allows the student to at least be open to hearing new ideas, even if the student is not immediately convinced by them. And in general, that is one of the key mistakes made - professors emphasize what they feel students need to learn rather than what would actually enable the student to learn the material.

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is the oxygen that sustains scholarship, but like oxygen it is largely taken for granted and goes unnoticed except when missing. In a post 9/11 era, academic freedom can no longer be taken for granted. Right-wing groups now explicitly seek to intervene in colleges and universities. The recent (failed) attempt by the House of Representatives to enforce "balance" of invited speakers to college campuses by means of legislation is only the most prominent of assaults on academic freedom. Yet another is the Department of Homeland Security’s act of revoking the visa of the prominent Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan.

Minority scholars who are committed to issues of social justice are especially likely to face challenges. Muslim scholars also seem particularly at risk. In this climate of increased vulnerability, minority scholars should cultivate strong relationships with national professional organizations and campus representatives of American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Such relationships should ideally come before you have need of them. Scholars of color should consider active participation in such organizations an essential part of good university citizenship. Through networking and activism scholars can hope to create an atmosphere on campuses that enhances academic freedom.

Interdisciplinary Issues

Talk of interdisciplinarity has become a commonplace on campus. Centers and institutes of all sorts are springing up with the intent of generating research that transgresses conventional disciplinary boundaries. For creative scholars, especially minority scholars, who are asking new questions about hybridity, globalization, postcoloniality, and postmodernity, this is welcome news. However, when scholarly work is assessed for promotion and tenure, what matters is how your scholarly contributions advance the work of a familiar discipline. You may do work that crosses over from religion and theology into sociology or economic theory, but the people who evaluate your work will be religionists who want to know how your work engages dominant questions within their field. Only a few universities have interdisciplinary departments or institutes that have tenure-track lines. Put simply, the institutional structures of most colleges and universities have not caught up with the cutting edge research work now most prized. New work is expected but assessment still follows older and more predictable patterns.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon untenured faculty to ask forthright questions about how interdisciplinary work will be assessed. Who will assess your work when it comes time to make promotion and tenure decisions? How will that work be assessed? Junior scholars should be prepared to demonstrate that their work also fits within disciplinary boundaries even as it spills over those same boundaries.

Curriculum Issues

One overlooked factor, especially in the early stages in your teaching career, is the relationship between your teaching and the curricular needs of your department and institution. You will often be expected to teach courses in the college’s core curriculum and required survey courses in your department. Being forced out of disciplinary ruts and into teaching with a larger agenda can be rewarding and energizing. However, such teaching also diminishes the likelihood of creating deeper connections between research and teaching. Rather than teaching courses that help you think through the questions you wish to advance in your writing, you may find yourself having to catch up on the latest research in order to effectively teach material, cultures, and time periods that are new to you.

Good departmental and university citizenship will require that you pull your fair share of the work in core and survey courses. But good citizenship should not amount to exploitation. Talk to senior colleagues to see that your time is protected and these courses are not foisted on you disproportionately. Don’t be afraid even in these settings to tailor these courses in ways that enable you to "kill two birds with one stone"- courses that meet the college’s needs as well as your own.

In general, whenever possible teach the courses that are most likely to help you think through your research agenda. Teaching figures or topics about which you are writing will enable you to put your best foot forward with your students and keep you on pace with your own work.

It is unavoidable that in your early years of teaching, you will be investing a great deal of time developing courses that are wholly new to you. But in two or three years, you should begin to cut down on new course development and work instead on revising and refining your courses rather than starting new ones from scratch.

Teaching Overseas

Teaching overseas can offer rich rewards especially now when internationalization of the curriculum and globalization have become academic watchwords. Such teaching provides opportunities for scholarly development, new venues for research, and an extended network of colleagues. Some institutions specify that promotion to full professor requires that your scholarship is recognized internationally. Clearly teaching abroad will help cultivate such recognition.

Nonetheless, several factors must be taken into consideration before teaching overseas. Will your service abroad be recognized and valued by your home institution? How will it affect your tenure clock? Are there available sources of funding that will support you in your venture, or will you have to expend precious time and resources to secure such funding? Will teaching abroad enhance your research agenda or retard it? If you are able to answer such questions to your satisfaction, there is every reason to believe that teaching overseas can be a highly prized opportunity.

Institutional Teaching Evaluations

Teachers look forward to student evaluations with the same "eagerness" that students await their grades. Both are often regarded as necessary evils. But student evaluations are serious matters and, if well-designed, a treasure trove of specific information for measuring your teaching effectiveness. At teaching colleges, student evaluations play a crucial and even determinative role in the tenure process.

Does that mean that teachers ought to teach to the evaluation forms, just as teaching is often geared toward exams? Yes and no. First the no: undergraduate and graduate instructors typically have in mind a broader set of pedagogical goals than can be accounted for on teaching evaluation forms. These goals are discipline and course specific, usually quite broad in scope, and tend toward the philosophical. What, after all, does it mean to teach theology or Eastern religions? Why should such materials be taught and to what end? Questions of this sort and the answers they demand are impossible to measure in a 10-20 minute evaluation period at the end of the semester when students are thinking about Christmas or summer vacation.

But other questions can be posed quite fruitfully in student evaluation forms. How clear is the instructor about the goals of the course? Does the teacher clearly articulate criteria for evaluating papers and exams? Course evaluation forms attend to the nuts and bolts mechanics of teaching; gearing one’s teaching to these elements seems wholly appropriate, even prudent. Teaching surely is more, but it should not be less.

Story: A very gifted, even brilliant, teacher has her college’s teaching evaluation form taped to her bookshelf where she can see it before she heads into the classroom. She has highlighted areas of weakness so that she can keep these in mind before she enters the classroom. Teaching to the evaluation forms in this sense demonstrates a commitment to teaching excellence (if perhaps in a slightly obsessive key).

But institutional evaluation of your teaching usually includes more than teaching evaluations. A great many institutions (especially liberal arts colleges) encourage or even mandate visits to the classroom by the department chair or other senior colleague. Almost always, these visits are worked out in advance. These visits should be treated as collaborative opportunities rather than invasive intrusions. The information senior colleagues gain and the feedback they can give provides a qualitatively different kind of information than can be found in evaluation forms.

Finally, as noted above, institutional evaluation of teaching customarily takes into serious consideration your self-evaluation and the evidence you provide about the concrete steps taken to reinvigorating your teaching life. In sum, institutional evaluation of teaching goes well beyond student evaluation forms.

Career Paths and Exit Strategies

Junior scholars should bear in mind that working toward tenure at the institution you first happen to land in after graduate school is not the same thing as developing a career plan. Few scholars spend their entire career in a single institution. Don’t let the immediate pressures of institutional life force you to lose track of your long-term goals.

Given the pressures of the market, finding any tenure-track job is likely to seem miraculous. While divine intervention and pure luck may be operative factors, it is also likely that your ability to land a job demonstrates that you have highly prized skills and talents. Think carefully about how you would like to develop them, and consider where you think your passions and skills are most likely to flourish. Honest, clear-eyed, and realistic self-assessment is essential to developing a focused career plan.

Keep in mind that the highly-prized positions at a Tier One research school may not be where you feel most at home. Tendencies toward hyper-specialization along with a singular and nearly absolute focus on research at the expense of teaching, service, and activism are some of the risks that come with life in Tier One Institutions. If what you care most about is teaching undergraduates, publishing occasionally, and working actively in the college and the local community, high-powered research institutions will not feel like home.

On the plus side, such institutions are far more likely to offer reduced teaching loads (2-2 or less), release time for scholarship, and the constructive pressure that will "stimulate" you to focus on your research goals. Minority scholars must also consider another great reward of life in research institutions: the opportunity to train the next generation of racial/ethnic scholars. Teaching at undergraduate colleges will obviously not give you the chance to participate in the graduate training of minority scholars. If this is something you hope to do, then you would do well to develop a portfolio that will increase your chances of being hired at a high-powered research institution.

When considering moves, remember that in the short-run of moving up on the institutional food-chain it is in some respects easier (albeit riskier - there’s nothing quite like moving with tenure) to do this earlier in your career. Less is at stake if you are being considered for a tenure-track position than for a tenured position. Nonetheless, if moving is your goal, it is mandatory that you carve out significant time for research at the very beginning of your teaching life.

If you are already securely tenured, a move to a more prestigious institution will require that you have already managed to establish research credentials comparable to tenured colleagues at your new would be institution. That is not easy to accomplish if you are in a smaller institution and are drowning in a heavy course load and exhaustive service obligations. Inordinate attention to the mundane responsibilities of life at your current location will make it impossible for you to develop the kind of profile you need to move. Of course, you must avoid giving your colleagues the impression that you consider their institution a way station on your way to somewhere else, but you must also remember to shield yourself sufficiently so that you get your work done.

Finally, plan deliberately and independently. Don’t be lured by your graduate school mentor’s notion of the ideal or normative career path, and look for opportunities that will allow you to grow into the kind of scholar-teacher you want to be.

Book Publishing

There are two major options with respect to publishing books: academic and "trade" presses. Which one to publish with will depend on a variety of factors, including:

  1. your institution’s expectations regarding publishing houses and their ranking thereof
  2. the nature of your project: is it written for a general audience? An academic audience of experts in the area?
  3. your timing.

You will want to know what your tenure and promotion committee understands as "legitimate" outlets for books. Keep in mind that this committee will be composed of scholars outside your particular areas, who are less familiar with some of the smaller trade presses related to your field, but quite aware of university presses. The review process may include a preference for presses that make use of an external review process before selecting manuscripts for publication. Some will argue that this guarantees a more intellectually solid product. You will want to know your institution’s position before selecting a publisher. In addition, give consideration to the type of project you are proposing. For example, it is unlikely that university presses will publish liturgical projects. And, it is just as unlikely that a trade press will publish a book related to a narrow academic question or concern. You can avoid unnecessary delays with respect to your project if you give consideration to this in advance.

Take into consideration your time frame. University presses, because of the external review process (as many as three or four readers), take much longer to accept projects for publication. It can take as long as 12-16 months to receive final word, plus an additional 12-16 months for the book to be produced. Trade presses typically make their decisions "in house" and this takes less time. Also, they can produce books in a shorter period of time (as little as 6-8 months is not unheard of).

Keep in mind that it is unnecessary to provide a completed manuscript before receiving a book contract. University presses, for example, might offer "an advance contract" based on a proposal and a few sample chapters. This contract requires that the final manuscript be sent for review (to those who reviewed the initial proposal and sample chapters). The press, while making a commitment, is still free to decline the project even when "an advance contract" is offered. A firm commitment to publish the volume is based on positive evaluations during the second review. The "advance contract" is the university press’ way of indicating a firm interest in publishing the book, if it develops into a full manuscript that meets their criteria. Trade presses will often generate a contract to publish based on a proposal and sample chapters. It is wise, however, to ask an editor at the press for their guidelines.

It is also important to avoid sending your project to more than one press, unless you notify the presses and they agree to multiple submissions. Processing a project for potential publication is an expensive endeavor and most presses prefer to have exclusive rights to review the project. You don’t want to develop a poor reputation with publishers by disregarding this process. Still, if you want to submit your proposal to various publishing houses you should first ask if the press discourages multiple submissions.

Whether you decide to exclusively submit to one press or send your proposal to multiple presses, it should be indicated in your cover letter. If you do submit to just one press, you may wish to conclude your cover letter with something like: "Because I am not making this proposal available to any other publisher, a timely response will be appreciated greatly." If you do not hear from the publishing house within six week with an update on your proposal, you can follow-up by asking for one. If after an additional two weeks you still haven’t heard any information concerning your proposal, it would be appropriate to inform the press that you will now be making this proposal available to other publishing houses. Most publishing houses interested in your work will let you know they have received your proposal and will provide some sort of timeline as to when they will be able to respond with an answer. The whole process shouldn’t take more than a few months. If the press states that the proposal needs to be rewritten to clarify or include certain things, or if your sample chapter is returned with editorial comments, this is a clear indication of high interest. Make the necessary corrections as soon as possible.

The Book Proposal

Who to Propose to?

Before writing a book proposal, you should know who you will be propositioning:

  1. You should never forget that the publishing firm, academic or "trade" press, exists for the purpose of making money by selling books. If the press doesn’t believe it can turn a profit, they will not offer you a book contract, no matter how intriguing your subject matter is, or how brilliant you may be. If the press feels it will be unable to sell a certain number of books to recoup its investment plus make a profit, it will not offer you a contract. You must therefore be willing explain to them why your book will be successful.
  2. You should avoid publishing with any type of vanity press. These are publishing firms that will publish anything you write as long as you pay part, if not all of the publishing costs. True, you may have a published book, but it will probably not be respected within the academy.
  3. Your proposal should be addressed to a specific individual, not to some "Dear Editor." Ask senior colleagues within your institution or within your field for contact names and possible introductions. When it comes to religious subjects from the perspective of racial/ethnic minorities, there are a few presses that concentrate their efforts and resources to these issues. Simply check your bookshelf to see which publishing houses are dominant in your specific field of interest. These are the publishing houses you should probably first contact. If you do not know anyone who can formally introduce you, then make it a point to visit their booth during the annual AAR conference. Be sure to ask for the editor and request an appointment. Their main purpose for being at the AAR conference is to meet emerging scholars like yourself. Briefly explain the thesis of the book you wish to propose and ask if they would be interested. If they are, follow-up with a book proposal. If they are not, approach a different publishing house.
  4. An excellent book to consider is Beth Luey's Handbook for Academic Authors.

The Cover Letter

Your proposal should have a cover letter that explains:

  1. Why they are the press to publish this book
  2. Why you are the one to write this book
  3. The book’s topic
  4. How it will be marketable
  5. Who is the audience
  6. Why it will be a money maker
  7. Intended audience. Who will buy it?
  8. What will be the book’s length. Keep in mind that published pages are roughly 75% of a double-spaced 12-font manuscript. Some publishing houses are more concerned with word count than with total page numbers.
  9. Which books presently published will be your book’s major competitor and why your book will be superior to what presently is available.

The Book’s Outline

Besides the cover letter, the proposal should also include an outline of the book which includes:

  1. The book’s tentative title. Remember, the publishing company usually chooses the book’s title (and cover art). You may have input, but this is their decision.
  2. A one to two page abstract. The abstract should situate the book within the academic cannon, elucidating who will be your principle conversation partners. Additionally, the abstract should explain why this book is different from all the rest, illustrating its unique contribution to the academic field.
  3. A table of contents with a paragraph per chapter explaining each chapter’s major thesis and its contribution to the book’s overall purpose.
  4. A disclosure of any part of this book that has already been published as an article or book chapter.
  5. A timetable showing when the book will be completed. Be realistic here, and give yourself more time than you think you might need. It is better to hand in a manuscript ahead of schedule than behind schedule.
  6. A sample chapter. Many publishing houses would like to see a sample of your chapter. At times, a published article would suffice.

Your CV

And finally, the proposal should include your updated CV.

The Book Contract

When a contract is offered, READ it. Make certain you understand and agree to the terms. You are free to ask that issues be clarified or omitted. Take your time and make certain you are comfortable with the terms offered. Keep the following in mind:

  1. Many contracts ask for a right of first refusal on your next book. Unless you are totally thrilled with this particular publishing house, you would be well advised to cross out this paragraph.
  2. Many contracts state you cannot publish another work prior to this one’s completion and publication. However, if you do have another manuscript you are finishing, or if you are working on more than one project at a time, you may also want to also cross out this paragraph.

Of course, it would be wise to first inform the press of your intent of crossing out any paragraphs with which you are uncomfortable. They would provide you with valuable verbal feedback, suggesting to go ahead and make the change, or suggesting instead that an addendum will be added to the contract, or possibly warning you that such a change might jeopardize the contract. On this last point, it should be noted that one particular scholar of color who has signed over 12 book contracts in 6 years, both with university and trade presses, has never had any publishing house complain about crossing out these particular paragraphs.

Institutional Evaluation and Review

At least twice in the course of your pre-tenure career, you will be subject to major institutional evaluation and review. As already noted, the three categories on which you will be evaluated will be scholarship, teaching, and service. Most colleges and universities have put in place some kind of mid-tenure review. Mid-tenure reviews are becoming serious affairs and less and less pro forma matters. It is absolutely vital for you to attend seriously and earnestly to areas of concern identified by your senior colleagues. Most institutions are committed to your success and want to tenure junior scholars (There are notable alleged exceptions within Ivy League schools where rumors of promotion to tenure are mythic and refer to persons now long since dead) if for no other reason than to avoid another exhausting round of job interviews. Make it a point to talk over matters in the written review that are unclear and cause concern.

The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for the review process is to document, document, and document! At the beginning of each school year, create a document on your computer in which you jot down your contributions to scholarship (articles, conference presentations, books, invited lectures, editing scholarly journals, etc.), teaching (teaching workshops attended, new courses and syllabi developed, old syllabi redesigned, invitations to teach in other classes and departments, etc.), and service obligations (committee service, service to professional organizations and scholarly societies, lectures to churches and community organizations, activism, etc.). You cannot possibly reconstruct retrospectively all that you accomplish over a year. Don’t try. Record as you go.

Remember that no research driven institution is likely to tenure you because of extraordinary service to the college or community or even for stellar teaching. Research institutions will grant tenure only to superb researchers. Likewise, teaching institutions will be wary of hiring strong scholars who are nevertheless poor teachers. What matters most in such institutions are your skills in the classroom and your passion for teaching. Plan and budget your time accordingly.

During your final tenure review, you will be asked to develop a list of scholars who will read nearly everything you have written and offer an assessment of your promise as a scholar and your stature in the field. Your institution will also seek external reviewers at their own initiative. The best way to prepare yourself for this stage in the review process is through active involvement in the relevant scholarly societies from very early on in your career. What are the most distinguished scholarly organizations in your discipline? How often have you presented papers or published in the organizations’ leading journals? The more you are known and respected, the more likely you are to generate strong and informed evaluations of your scholarship from external reviewers.

At a teaching institution, you might be asked to request student letters on your behalf. Keeping track of your best students even after they have graduated may prove necessary if you are to develop a strong cumulative case on behalf of your teaching.

Warning Signs

Given the growing importance of annual and mid-tenure reviews, looking for warning signs is less and less like reading tea leaves or peering into crystal balls. In most cases, if your tenure case is weak, you will know because you will be told. Even if you are in an institution that does not have a strong or explicit culture of evaluation, you will almost certainly know when you are trouble. If your institution has a two-book threshold for tenure and your first book is nowhere to be seen come mid-tenure review, you may be renewed but you will be given strong and overt signals that you are in a precarious situation. If you are increasingly playing a marginal role in the decision making processes of your institution, if you are not sought out by colleagues for advice and participation in community life, you can well guess that your career at your current institution will not be a long one.

Both the explicit and more indirect signals should be treated as valuable information rather than signs of personal failure. These warning signs should motivate fresh thinking about the basic question, "What is it that you really want to be doing with your life?" If you are not meeting the formal requirements of your current position, this might be a sign of poor fit. Be prepared to explore alternative options BEFORE you are forced to do so in the terminal year of your contract. You are on strongest footing when you leave of your own volition and have managed to line up another position.

Not Getting Tenure

So you did not get tenure. So what? Suck it up and roll with the punches. Life is not over and neither is your academic career. On the contrary, this might be an opportunity in disguise for you to dare to dream beyond the droll rut of tenure track positions. Because you no longer have to worry about the immediate pressure to publish or perish - and since by now you have probably discovered that you can publish and still perish - you should take a break from the grueling grind of academic expectations and do something fun. Treat yourself to something you enjoy and don’t feel guilty about it. Instead of getting anxious, angry, or depressed, you need to take care of yourself and get re-energized for the road ahead.

After you have taken some time to collect your wits and regroup, take an honest look at your situation. If the only thing you ever published was your name and address in the local telephone directory or if you forgot what classes you were supposed to be teaching on a given week, then you probably need to consider a different career path. On the other hand, if you jumped through all the required hoops like a poodle in the circus only to find yourself dangling from the last hoop by your toes, then maybe it wasn’t about you. Maybe it was about them. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and find out what happened.

In academia, many people tend to think of tenure as the golden fleece of academic security and success. In reality, think of it more like an immigration check point along the border. Yes, you might have received an exit visa from your doctoral program, but when you were hired, you were only given a temporary entry permit work visa into the land of academe. Now that you applied for a more permanent status, politics, economics, and other factors play a role in whether you get to stay. Remember that regardless of what you are told, tenure decisions are never objective. There are always subjective factors, opinions, agendas, and power plays influencing how the committee interprets your portfolio, and their subsequent decisions. Race and gender also color the decision (particularly if your research and teaching focused on those areas) since colleagues might interpret this focus as less "academically rigorous," subjective, limited to special interests, and parochial - unlike their so-called solid, objective, and detached work in the "classics."

As you take stock of the situation, you may want to assess whether you were a good fit for the institution or whether the institutional politics changed since you were hired. If your strengths are in teaching instead of publishing, you might not be a good fit for a research institution. If your views are substantially different from the rest of your department, or if you were constantly at odds with the powers that be, you might not have been politically viable. Even economic considerations and budget constrains might have influenced the decision, regardless of what you were told. Trying to get a sense of what happened will help you make more informed decisions as you apply to other positions.

You will also want to appeal the decision all the way up to God, as well as you should. Now, don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you will actually change someone’s mind, because this probably will not happen. But you can get some satisfaction out of knowing that they will have to read all your voluminous appeals and sweat out any possible repercussions from their decision. Don’t waste time in preparing pointless appeals when you could be cleaning up your vita and writing cover letters for other positions. A simple one or two page appeal letter will do - then attach copies of your portfolio, and every single piece of correspondence you ever received or wrote to the dean, department chair, students, faculty members, etc. that you can find in your files. These should be sent to everyone in your institution’s hierarchy, all the way up to the board members.

Not getting tenure can actually be quite liberating. For instance, you can actually speak up now and tell everyone what you really think. After all, what are they going to do, fire you? Of course, this temptation needs to be tempered, because you don’t want to burn too many bridges. Hopefully you might have some allies in the department who will support you and be willing to serve as references. So it might not be wise to bad mouth the institution or the department. After all, in the words of the godfather: "it’s not personal, it’s business." Enjoy the time left at the institution to do research and experiment with your classes, instead of attending all of the countless committee meetings your colleagues must still attend.

While you might feel like a pariah and want to hide, you should keep your head high and spend time with your supporters and friends. Start networking right away. Apply for jobs and be willing to consider different types of positions that you might have not considered before, including administrative positions and alternate career paths. After all, you now have years of teaching experience and a higher education degree.

Finally, not getting tenure is not the end. Just like in dating or marriage, rejection by one institution does not mean everyone else has rejected you. Some scholars who were denied tenure at one place were offered tenured positions at other institutions within a year or less. Some have gone on to become deans, vice-presidents, and senior administrators. We even know of one scholar who was denied tenure at one place and went on to become president of another leading institution. Instead of pouting, think of it as an opportunity to re-invent yourself and your career. Keep on publishing, and show everyone how wrong your school was for letting you go. Be willing to dream and to take action, and you never know where you will end up.

Mistakes to Avoid


A major strategic error for many scholars is failing to engage in the life of your institution. As noted earlier, giving the impression that you are just passing through is sure to make you a suspect commodity. Also alienating are colleagues who are constant complainers; the squeaky wheel will most certainly not get the grease in such cases. Do find ways to care about the place where you are, even if it is not ideal. Engage yourself, albeit wisely and judiciously. You don’t have to sink into exhaustion to make yourself a valued and trusted colleague.

  1. Combativeness. Many scholars have done themselves in by fighting too many battles. Be prudent. The life of any institution will be disrupted by systematic injustices and inequities of various kinds. Sort out what you are willing to risk, and fight accordingly. Being constantly in battle is not likely to help you win friends and influence people.
  2. Failure to prioritize. As many of our earlier remarks suggest, the most serious and yet common mistake is failing to be deliberate about prioritizing the many commitments that make up our lives as scholar-teachers. Investing a great deal of time and effort in developing your teaching but forgetting to make time for regular writing at a research institution will make receiving tenure unlikely. Drowning in a thousand immediate commitments and forgetting the one serious long-term obligation of developing and advancing a research agenda is a sure recipe for failure. Likewise, investing a great deal of time on service and activism when teaching excellence is the primary criterion for tenure at a teaching college is sure to lead to disappointment. Know your institution, know your strengths and weaknesses, and plan deliberately.