Teaching and Tenure

This is my first semester teaching as a tenured member of the faculty at Centre College.

It felt odd, typing that.

Now, some of you might be wondering what exactly this means, even if you have a rough, general sense of what “tenure” means in the academic context. Many people think of it as a job for life, though it is not quite that simple, sadly for me. Illegal behavior or immoral behavior, to choose an egregious example, would still cost me my job and rightly so. I work at a college that values teaching highly, and I do not get to simply stop working at being a good teacher, even if it would admittedly be a more complex job to remove me than it might have been only a few months ago.

Why does tenure exist? The short answer is that it guarantees independence for faculty, who are able to research and teach topics they feel are important without worrying about potential censorship or retribution from the college administration or other actors.

What does it mean here at Centre? If you have listened to the podcast much or read around on the site, you might have noticed this institution values teaching very highly. Is receiving tenure at Centre, or a similar institution, different from receiving it at a larger, research-focused institution?

Honestly… I don’t know! I can hazard a few guesses, but I don’t know. I need to be careful here, as Centre and other SLACs (selective liberal arts colleges) are by no means research-averse. I needed to meet standards on the research side of things to get tenure too, and I am excited by the research opportunities that tenure brings; but Centre Trail is a fairly teaching-focused kind of place, so…

How has receiving tenure changed my attitude to teaching?

I am not so sure it has, though that it is not to say my teaching has not changed. My teaching – and in particular my attitude to teaching as a vocation and discipline – has changed enormously since I arrived at Centre. I talk about teaching now in ways I would not have a few years ago, telling newly arrived colleagues to think about dynamics in the room, the connecting vibes between teacher and students, and the like. I am also trying things I would not have even thought about, like talking robots based on historical figures, built by students.

Mostly I would say that as someone working at an institution that values teaching highly, it is clear that tenure is as invigorating for teaching as it is for research. I feel empowered, I am excited, it really feels like the training wheels are off now, though in truth they have been off a while. Talking robot John F. Kennedy (currently outside my office yelling at passers by thanks to a passive infrared sensor) is just the start!

A lot of it probably is in my head. I am not sure anyone is treating me differently. I feel different, though. Colleagues of mine have remarked that, particularly at a small college like this, tenure is not a one-way commitment. The institution commits to you and you commit to the institution. We are in this together now. It feels that way, and it feels good.

I am not learning to code in order to teach students how to create robots with personalities influenced by historical figures just because it seems like an absolutely bananas thing to do. I mean, that is part of the reason. I am doing it because thinking about how we talk about history, how we create historical narratives, is a major part of my job. Writing books and reading books offer important methods, methods that are often the most suitable for the task of exploring, discussing and reflecting upon the past. Insisting that the world is suddenly changing beyond all recognition is a noticeably ahistorical reaction to the ongoing mayhem that is the passage of time, but refusing to accept things are changing at all would be just as ahistorical.

So, I work on bits of computer code and I think about how to bring bits and pieces of different skills into history classes not because coding is necessarily “the future” all by itself but because learning enough to get by and being able to integrate new ideas and methods into your skillset is a crucial part of being a successful person after you graduate college. The truth is it always has been. There is a reason that so many liberal arts colleges talk about “lifelong learning” as a central part of their mission. It is a commitment that requires a lot of work, a lot of long-term thinking, and a lot of love for our students and for the institution itself. In that context, tenure makes a lot of sense to me.

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