C.11: “FWIW — For What It’s Worth...”: Ignoring Conventional Wisdom on the Tenure Track

Reviewed by Natalie Dorfeld, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL (ndorfeld@fit.edu)

Chair:  Lisa Shaver, Baylor University, Waco, TX

Speakers: Jennifer Cellio, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY, “The Unexpected Rewards of Being a WPA, or, Reframing Our Perceptions”

Cristy Beemer, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, “Changing Lanes on the Tenure Track”

Sarah Blomeley, Belmont University, Nashville, TN, “Wide Open Spaces? Pedagogical Risk Taking at a Teaching School”

Lisa Shaver, Baylor University, Waco, TX, “‘Wait until You Get Tenure’: What’s on the Other Side?”

Publish and present as often as possible. Become a strong presence in the classroom and receive glowing student evaluations. Give back through departmental and university service. The rocky road to tenure is neither a glamorous nor a sure thing these days. In fact, it is often paved with steadfast and monotonous advice from the good ol’ boys club: Stick to the program. For those daring enough to veer off the beaten path, it could be considered career suicide.  For the audacious and spirited women of panel C.11, “‘For What It’s Worth . . .’: Ignoring Conventional Wisdom on the Tenure Track,” however, taking alternative routes to the golden ticket of academia meant so much more. It meant finding their true passions. Individually and collectively, they shared personal experiences of how bypassing conservative perceptions served them, and their students, in a plethora of unexpected ways.

The first speaker, Dr. Jennifer Cellio, discussed the joys of working as a Writing Program Administrator (WPA) in The Unexpected Rewards of Being a WPA, or, Reframing Our Perceptions.” She knew the perils when she interviewed for her first job, including the advice to avoid administrative work until obtaining tenure. It’s just too precarious. Despite all of the advice given by people she admired (peers, mentors, and scholars), Cellio still decided to take a WPA position at Northern Kentucky University. On this decision, she stated:

The default position between WPAs and their home departments is almost always antagonistic; the risk I took—perhaps naively—was to turn away from this construction of the WPA as fighter and to instead view my job as consensus builder, helpful expert, and member of a department, not a field.

Although optimistic, she was subjected to an onslaught of negativity stepping into her new role, which included words and phrases such as authority, survival, health risk, and battle. She felt such terminology was damaging because it limited the kinds of relationships that WPAs might have with their departments and perpetuated the “continuation of an antagonist model”—an us versus them mentality. Knowing she was a junior faculty member without any real sense of power or authority (no tenure), she felt compelled to use a different set of techniques for achieving her goals. They included leaving her door open during meetings, talking instead of email, listening instead of judging, addressing common concerns through workshops, saying yes a lot, and requesting and using input from colleagues.

By getting to know her colleagues one-on-one, she created a sense of community. Furthermore, by listening instead of adding her two cents right off the bat, she was able to get a handle on their apprehensions. She stated, “I tried to hear the concerns my colleagues were expressing” (e.g., they feel stressed about grading and their 4/4 workload; they don’t recognize the value of rhetoric; they want to teach literature because they are familiar with it) instead of “how they were expressing it” (e.g., “my students are terrible writers,” “I always teach narrative, description, exposition, and argument,” “I use novels and short stories to teach comp”). By being on a more even keel and saying yes to as many jobs as she could handle, she found starting points where peers could participate and collaborate on shared goals within the department. And the results, not surprisingly, yielded her positive results, both personally and professionally. She obtained tenure from a supportive department, support for a curricular revision of English 101, feedback from both full- and part-time instructors about the curriculum, deeper institutional knowledge, frequent requests to serve on important committees, and help from faculty within and beyond the department when sending new curriculum through the approval process (i.e. addressing external pressures of dual credit, etc.). 

Make no doubt about it, taking on any administrative role without tenure is risky. It comes with little authority, budget, or voting power. Moreover, it can become incredibly antagonistic when individuals feel threatened, as in “Who does junior faculty think he/she is, telling us how to do our jobs?” Cellio, however, was able to rise above it by leaving the antagonism briefcase at the front door. By doing so, she created a writing center that was not only effective, but also an oasis of tranquility for students, staff, and faculty alike.

The second speaker, Dr. Cristy Beemer, also felt the pressure not to make waves in her presentation, titled “Changing Lanes on the Tenure Track.” The traditional advice has always been the same: dissect the dissertation for publications, and stay focused on the research agenda. There is little room for missteps. Above all, never swap topics halfway through. So, that is exactly what she did, adding:

I teach at a research university where there are two paths to fulfill the scholarship requirement: several solo-authored articles or the monograph. It’s a pretty traditional expectation. I was told not to “put all of my eggs in one basket” with a book. If I chose the article route, I could also pursue both my interest in early modern women’s rhetoric, specifically women rulers like Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, and Mary, Queen of Scots, the topic of my dissertation, along with professional and technical writing as I taught and administrated that program in the English department. It seemed like a win–win to me.

Therefore, she kept churning out articles. She thought if she published at least one a year, she would be all right. However, in her third year on the tenure track as she was about to revise an article on the rhetoric of early modern women rulers, she was given the diagnosis every woman dreads—aggressive breast cancer. On a positive note, her university was very supportive. She began surgery and chemotherapy immediately, but her health crisis became all-consuming. She said:

When I wasn’t sleeping or watching old, familiar, comfort movies, I played with the horrible app CancerMath that gives you your survival odds in light of your diagnosis and treatment, or I watched my four-and-a-half year old play while I tried to invent ways to make sure he’d remember me if I didn’t survive, and I researched cancer.

She spent untold hours in online breast support communities where she found kindred souls that challenged the system and shared valuable information. More than anything else, she garnered support. She humorously stated:

Suddenly, writing about White, privileged, long-dead queens seemed rather unimportant. My head was simply in my fight, and I felt that sharing this feminist community was much more imperative research. And so, I came to my current research project, “From the Margins of Healthcare: Breast Cancer and The Rhetoric of the Online Peer-to-Peer Healthcare Community.”

Primarily a rhetorical analysis of the unique rhetorical features of this online space, this study researches 112,731 topics on 73 forums where 142,755 mostly female members (numbers increase daily) share their experiences with one another. This jump, from fortunate queens to feminist survivors, was in her words “a methodological risk.” She broke the first rule of research by switching topics midstream. While the transition was not initially smooth, the interest was there, including fields of narrative medicine, medical humanities, and trauma writing. Luckily, Beemer was given extra time on her tenure clock for treatment. She goes up for tenure in the fall of 2016 and has made considerable headway on a book manuscript about her cancer journey. She said she has looked around the department at her institution, and they’ve all published their dissertations. It is a safe route, a noble one at that. She, on the other hand, took a risk. She followed her passion, interests, obsessions, and perhaps most importantly, her heart. Will it be worth the gamble? Only time will tell. 

The third speaker, Dr. Sarah Blomeley, took a chance from jumping from a research school (publish or perish) to a teaching school (4/4 load, mostly first-year students) in her presentation entitled “Wide Open Spaces? Pedagogical Risk Taking at a Teaching School.” Advice, she stated, was not difficult to find: Set small writing goals of thirty-odd minutes a day, say no to busy work, and stay dedicated to one’s research agenda. She quickly landed a job at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, all the while loving her peers, students, and the energy of the city. Her days began to fill with service work, directing the writing center, and serving on committees. Teaching, however, remained at the forefront. She said she had dreams (via all the Chronicle advice columns) of designing courses to match the schema she developed in grad school, such as Women’s Rhetoric. She added:

When I got to Belmont, though, I realized those dreams would have to be, at best, deferred. For one thing, rhetoric courses did not seem to be a big hit among our English majors; the last time one had been offered, it didn’t make. For another thing, other, more interesting, teaching opportunities began to catch my eye. Belmont has a robust general education program that includes a Learning Community requirement, wherein the same set of students take two separate classes, linked by a common topic, problem, or issue, offered by faculty in different disciplines.

Because students had to take such courses, chairs were always desperate for professors to teach them. In her second year, her chair asked her if she had any interest in collaborating with a peer in the music department for Learning Community course.  She had been toying around with an idea for quite some time, for a course called Rhetoric of Country Music. She said:

I had no idea what readings I’d use, what assignments I might develop, even, really, whether the course was all that feasible. Certainly this course did not fit into my existing research agenda, nor would it provide me with any nooks and crannies into which to fit my own writing.

It would take a lot of time to create, she hadn’t been hired to teach it, and no one would be disappointed if she said no. Still, it seemed like a virtuous idea, so she went for it. The course included classical rhetorical theory, in particular the five canons, as a framework to examine country music as rhetoric. Further examples included the following:

  • Enthymemes in the Country Music Response to 9/11
  • Hank Williams and Quintilian and “A Good Man Speaking Well”
  • Brad Paisley’s Sophisticated Use of Irony
  • Antistrephon and Synecdoche and Asyndeton in the Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash
  • Sexism in Contemporary Murder Ballads
  • Protest Songs and Kairos
  • Heteronormativity in the “Bro Country” Phenomenon

At the end, the students would write and perform their own country songs, which worked out smashingly because half of them were already musicians. The risks of teaching such a class were obvious: Would the rhetorical analysis alienate general-education students?

Country music is popular, but it’s often harshly judged in terms of music genres. Would it even be successful? As it turned out, Blomeley was teaching it for the sixth time because it fills every semester, and it was the topic most discussed in her campus tenure committee meetings. In the end, the wager paid off, and she was granted tenure. However, her discussion brought up genuine points. She proposed:

What I would like to think about, though, is why this course seemed so risky to me as a junior faculty member. . . . It felt somehow wrong to be teaching a course just for the fun of it, a course that didn’t feed my research, a course that would be a time suck, however enjoyable. . . I felt like I was transgressing the tenure rules.

Perhaps a one-size-fits-all model isn’t working; in fact, it might be stifling our young scholars. Instead, a better question to pose is: To what degree do tenure requirements match up with the advice junior faculty receive in grad school and on the market? 

The fourth and last speaker, Dr. Lisa Shaver, discussed what happens when all the academic dust settles in “‘Wait until You Get Tenure’: What’s on the Other Side?” It is important to note that she pointed out earlier in the panel’s introduction that all the women were blessed, seeing that three-quarters of the teaching workforce in colleges and universities are now considered contingent labor, a problem that continues to alter the landscape of the academy (Sanchez, 2013). That being stated, the other side of the bridge: glorious, delectable tenure isn’t lined with kittens in baskets. It comes with its own set of issues.

She stated, “According to a 2012 study of more than 13,000 professors at 56 colleges and universities, many tenured professors cross to the other side only to find themselves disillusioned.” The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard, which conducted the study, found “associate professors were significantly less satisfied with their work than either assistant or full professors,” and mid-career years were marked by fatigue, distrust, and even melancholy. The question then becomes—why so glum? Believe it or not, there is such a thing as post-tenure depression. Assistant professors do all that work, and when tenure is finally achieved, they’re essentially left with more of the same. David Perlmutter (2015) stated, “Joyless tenure is just an extension of the joyless tenure track… the pressure does not relent just because you have grabbed the brass ring. With tenure, the departmental and professional demands on your time will be greater than before.” Drawing from numerous reactions to the 2012 survey, Shaver noted additional reasons offered for this post-tenure malaise, including the following:

  • The wall of disillusion (Is this what I’m going to be doing for the next 30 years?)
  • Endless institutional labor (There are numerous committees, meetings, and more meetings.)
  • Ill preparation for management and leadership (Many associate professors are thrust into management and leadership positions with little experience or guidance.)
  • Lack of mentorship/isolation (Many associate professors admitted that they felt incredibly isolated in their positions.)
  • Undefined goals (Often for the first time, the goals are unclear.)
  • Difficulty of writing second or third book (Amid their other responsibilities, many associate professors noted the difficulty of continuing the sustained labor required to complete a book, which is often the requirement for promotion to full professor.)
  • More personal responsibilities (Children are getting older and they require more time and attention, and many associate professors have aging parents.)

Couple all these feelings with the fact that academia is radically changing and that tenure often limits mobility, and it can often result in a woe-is-me mentality. All hope, however, is not lost. As a newly minted associate professor, Shaver said she struggled to rid herself of the incessant worrying and culpability that comes with trying to get tenure. Drawing from her own experience and research, she encouraged her peers in similar predicaments to “celebrate, be patient, take charge and more risks in one’s research, find support groups, explore different paths to promotion, become an advocate for adjuncts, make each project count, and have a reality check.” She also noted that this mid-career dissatisfaction is part of a natural cycle. Workers tend to be more content at the beginning and end of their careers, which may simply reflect the struggle of the mid-career years, as people try to balance bills and life (Wilson, 2011). However, “at the same time, you don’t have to look too far outside or even inside the academy to be reminded that associate professors ‘have a position that provides absurd job security, a decent income, ridiculously long holidays, and no heavy lifting’” (Shaver, quoting Blanchard, 2012).

The PhD itself can take a lifetime. Add working toward tenure on top of that, and it could add up to twenty-five years or more. For those who obtain it, congratulations. It doesn’t come easily, but take time to enjoy the view. At the end of the day, the safe and sound advice (publish and present, teach, and provide service) is put in place for a reason. It gets junior faculty to the end goal relatively, for a lack of a better word, unscathed. But does it take into account the yearning that fuels us all? For Cellio, it was walking into a position with her eyes wide open and creating a collaborative environment instead of an inimical one. Beemer changed her research agenda midstream but discovered her passion and will no doubt help thousands of women across the country with their journey in the process. Blomeley introduced rhetorical analysis to a general education population, which could have ended in a disaster, yet the class took off like wildfire. Lastly, Shaver was brave enough to discuss a topic most shun—What now? We are taught to constantly write, publish, and repeat in academia. How does one turn that off? Is it possible to stop and smell the proverbial roses in the courtyard? Indeed, all these women did, and they succeeded more than admirably.


Blanchard, Kathryn D. (2012, January 13). I’ve got tenure. How depressing. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://chronicle.com/article/Ive-Got-Tenure-How/130490/

Perlmutter, David. (2015, February 2). Avoiding PTDS: Post-tenure depression syndrome: Why are the years  after academics have “made it” so gloomy for so many? Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://chronicle.com/article/Avoiding-PTDS-Post-Tenure/151553/

Sanchez, Claudio. (2013, September 22). The sad death of an adjunct professor sparks a labor debate. NPR (National Public Radio). Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debate

Wilson, Robin. (2011, July 24). Associate professors: Academe’s sandwich generation. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from http://chronicle.com/article/Associate-Professors-/128302/


Created by SamanthaClarkson. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 21:08:21 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.