Making Your Case
Strategies for an Effective Tenure Package
University of Virginia
June 7, 1999
This document is for tenure-track faculty at American Universities, as well as for senior faculty who are mentoring them. It describes strategies for creating an effective tenure package. Much of it is common sense advice gleaned from conversations with colleagues and mentors: the kind of common sense that is rarely written down.
Purpose: Building the city, making the guidebooks and maps
|You can look at an academic's cumulative work as a kind of city ... this document is about how to make its maps and tell its story|
You can look at an academic's cumulative work as a kind of city: There are districts of research, teaching, and service (service is low rent), and each has its interesting sights and buildings. A tenure case is ultimately decided on the response of reviewers to that city. While there is no substitute for quality work, it is also true that the case will be clearer if reviewers have good guidebooks and maps: that is, supporting documentation that gives an overview of the work, along with its motivations, trajectories, and interrelationships.
One of the difficulties in preparing that documentation is that it must speak to a diverse audience, including deep experts in your field, and other people--very smart people--who know nothing about it. An effective package will be accessible to both without alienating either.
The primary purpose of this document is to offer ideas about how to organize and create that supporting documentation. You're building the city now; this document is about how to make its maps and tell its story. I'll frequently cite examples of what I did in preparing my own package in 1998; Recognizing that all cases are different, I include these examples for the sake of concreteness and as possible starting points for adaptation and adjustment.
Structure: Three tiers
|Addressing a diverse audience requires documentation that is readable at multiple levels.|
Addressing a diverse audience requires documentation that is readable at multiple levels: something an outsider can skim productively and an expert can dive into deeply. One solution is a three-tier organization as follows:
Continuing with the city metaphor, the top-tier narrative is a concise guidebook that explains not only the facts, figures, and places of the city, but also its history and development. It should be interesting to read, and should give each reader a clear idea of what parts of the city he or she would like to see more closely. The appendices are like maps with lots of detail, too much detail to be useful for a causal tourist, instead useful only to people with a deeper interest in a particular area. The source documents are not a map or a book; they are the place itself, the assembled tangible products of your work. All you need to do with the source documents is to have a clear index system, like a clear street system in a city, so that people can easily find what they're looking for.
The following discussion outlines strategies and approaches for each of the three tiers and how to cross reference them.
|One of the dilemmas is that you need to describe the importance and quantity of your accomplishments, without sounding pompous and long winded.|
One of the dilemmas of assembling a tenure package is that you need to describe the importance and quantity of your accomplishments without sounding pompous and long winded (you must wait until tenure for that). Here are a few tips.
This is your life: Let others sing your praises
Avoid expressing opinions about yourself, since you are admittedly not a very credible source. Imagine the narrative as a documentary film where you are an off-camera narrator, describing what you did and why you did it. When it comes time for an opinion to be expressed, turn the camera on someone who was there, and let that person speak directly. Excerpts from letters and email messages are extremely effective for this. The following is an example excerpt from my narrative. Note that the names and dates in square brackets are cross references to source documents, using conventions explained later.
|In addition to essays, I've also given ten invited presentations concerning teaching with computer technology. Details are listed in Appendix F. The most significant of these was the plenary talk for the 1997 UVa January Teaching Workshop. Marva Barnett, director of the Teaching Resource Center, reported on the talk in a letter to then-chair Peter Waldman:
The talk also generated two articles in University newspapers [Shepherd 97.01.24; Hurrelbrinck 97.01.24].
In this example, my part of the narrative is primarily reporting facts and giving references to source documents or the appendices. To express opinions, I've effectively turned the camera on Marva Barnett and let her do the talking. Not that this isn't a little pompous, but it's much less so than if I had tried to express the opinions myself. My narrative included more than twenty quoted excerpts.
This approach is a bit like the old television show "This is Your Life", where a guest would meet people from their distant past who would tell stories about them. It's cute for an audience to hear your 3rd grade teacher tell what a precocious kid you were, but it's a bit much if you try to tell it yourself. You report the facts, let other people express opinions whenever possible.
|From your first day on the tenure track, you should have a special folder to save email messages that might later be used in your case.|
Email is a fertile source of unsolicited written testimonials. From your first day on the tenure track, you should have a special folder somewhere to save email messages that might later be used in your case, including messages from students, people who respond to your publications, or just about anything where someone says something nice about you. You won't use them all, but you'll want a complete collection to select from. Don't just print them out, keep them in electronic form so you can easily cut and paste them.
An Appendix Operation: Removing obstructions from the narrative
After subduing the problem of sounding overly pompous, there remains the problem of being long winded. It's easy for the narrative to become bogged in detail: detail important and relevant to some readers. This happened many times as I wrote my narrative. The flow was interrupted by a great lump of dense detail, like a big tumor. The simple solution was to cut out the tumor and move it to an appendix, stitching together the narrative by replacing the transplanted material with a few sentences describing the concept, and giving a reference to the appendix. My package included 14 appendices. Your mileage may vary.
Your Work and its Impact: The stir around the McGuffin
|The McGuffin is the thing that everyone is after, and no one in the audience cares what it is. |
Alfred Hitchcock once described an element of cinematic storytelling called the McGuffin, which is the thing in the movie that everyone is after, and no one in the audience cares what it is. In the film North by Northwest, the McGuffin is microfilm hidden inside a statuette. The content of the microfilm is never explained, and it indeed doesn't matter. The interest of the movie is the stir that surrounds it.
When academics assess the work of people outside their field, I think they often view it as they would a Hitchcock movie, where the content of the work is the McGuffin; they are less interested in the work itself than in the stir that surrounds it (the movie, hopefully, is not Psycho). In contrast, people in your field will want to break open the statuette and read the microfilm; that is, they want to see the actual work in all its gory detail, and the narrative should give references to help them find it as easily as possible. But since the narrative aims at a general audience, it should emphasize instead the work's impact and effect: the stir around the McGuffin. That stir may take many forms: invitations for speaking or writing, travel, national committees, awards, citations, etc. Whatever it is, emphasize that stir in the narrative, pushing details of content down to the appendices and source documents.
The appendices are the middle ground between the brief conceptual narrative and voluminous source documents. I found appendices fell into two broad categories: laundry lists enumerating facts supporting the narrative, and analytic commentary that gave order to various collections of source documents or other information. A third, special category is the "little glass case", reserved for your best, must-read work.
Laundry lists and commentary: Details, details
Examples of laundry lists for my case included the following:
These appendices provide more detail than my vitae, and are too cumbersome to include in the narrative.
Examples of analytic commentary in my case included the following:
Such commentary is too specialized or too detailed to include in the narrative, but there are some readers who will be interested. Even the ones who are not interested still know the appendices are there.
As you put your package together, you will frequently face questions of whether to include a particular item or idea. Putting the item in an appendix with a brief reference from the narrative is often a good solution; it's there if someone wants to see it, but it's not cluttering up the narrative with needless detail.
The Little Glass Case: Must-see work
|Each tenure container should have a little glass case which includes the top work. |
-- Worthy Martin
Worthy Martin of UVa's computer science department once said he thought that each tenure container (he avoided the words 'tub' and 'bin') should have a little glass case on the side, which includes the very best examples of the candidate's work. In computer science, that would typically be five or six journal papers that were particularly influential. In other fields, it may be something else altogether. Whatever it is in your field, it's probably a good idea include a little glass case: a highly selective handful of your very best work that reviewers should see if they look at nothing else. In many cases (including mine), the little glass case can be an appendix, duplicating copies of publications that are included in the complete set of source documents. I think it can take many forms.
In organizing your package, it's important to remember the key goal of making the process as easy as possible for reviewers; the concept of the little glass case (i.e. explicitly identifying a few documents representing your very best work) does just that.
Tenure typically depends on both quality and quantity of publication. The little glass case focuses on quality, while the source document collection, discussed next, deals with quantity.
There are two key issues in organizing the source documents:
My case included four volumes of source documents as follows:
Of these, only the Publications volume was mailed to external reviewers (along with another thinner volume that included the narrative and appendices). The specific breakdown of volumes will vary a great deal from case to case, and the specific indexing system is not so important. The system I used for dates is kind of geeky, and could be improved. The important thing is that each item has an identifier (like a call number on a library book) which makes it easy to refer to in the narrative and appendices, and easy to find in the source document collection.
The following is a collection of assorted tips about planning and preparing your package.
Give reviewers a clear starting point
Any tenure package is likely to be a rather daunting collection of documents. It is important to include a few pages that give reviewers the lay of the land and explain how the collection is organized. The following link is to PDF files for my introductory pages. The specific organization will vary great deal from case to case, but the overall principles will be similar.
Close examination of the Table of Contents reveals a significant and basic error in the way I organized the documents. I included a brief curriculum vitae bound in the volume that included the narrative and appendices. I'm sure it would have been much better to include in the mailing packages a full vitae as a separate document, sitting on top of the bound volumes so that it would be the first thing an external reviewer would see.
The full vitae is a fundamental yardstick and point of comparison; in the three-tier organization of narrative, appendices, and source documents, it is effectively a topmost fourth tier, giving a highly concise overview of the body of work.
Incorporating web sites
Self-published web sites, such as course materials and other resources, are a relatively new arrival on the tenure-review scene, and there are no clear conventions for handling them. I have a lot of material on the web, both in course materials and research reports, so I had to give this some thought.
My basic assumption was that reviewers would not spend much time actually looking at web sites. Following the stir-around-the-McGuffin principle, I included discussion of the effects of my web sites, in the form of email messages from people responding to them, and in a detailed web log analysis showing who was looking at which sites and patterns of traffic. I think documenting the impact of the web sites is most important; you give references to the sites themselves as additional background.
In terms of reviewing the sites themselves, I did the following: I made a web page called "Review Materials" which was organized in outline form. The page included links to the sites I wanted reviewers to see, and each link was assigned a number based on the outline (e.g. link 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 in section 1, links 2.1, and 2.2 in section 2, and so on). At the front of the narrative, I gave a URL for the review page, and also included a printout of the review page as an appendix. In the narrative, I referred to the various sites by their number on the page, rather than by URL.
The motivation is to avoid cluttering the narrative with a lot of URLs, which are visually awkward and difficult to type in correctly. Using the review page approach, a reviewer needed to type in only one URL, a relatively simple one for the review site, and could then get to any site by clicking.
In practice, I'm not sure that people used this. It's more likely that reviewers searched for my name on Alta Vista, and then clicked around a bit. Even so, it's important to have a clear referencing system so that someone can find exactly what you're talking about if they want to.
More important than the way that you reference self-published web sites is the value that you assign to them. If you have a web site that gets a lot of traffic, is used by people at other universities, and generates lots of email inquiries, it's tempting to equate it with peer-reviewed publication. I think that is a hard case to make, since publishing material yourself and receiving praise is not the same as having experts review the material and deem it worthy of publication. There are web-based peer-review journals, and that it a completely different story; the issue is not web vs. paper, but rather self-published vs. peer-review published. I think you're on much firmer ground to make the case that the traffic and attention paid to your web sites enhances your department's and school's reputation as a center of knowledge and excellence.
Physical organization and mailing packages
I put the narrative and all the appendices in one volume, which was less than one inch thick. Since this volume included the "little glass case" of selected publications, it was practically enough for a reviewer to decide the case (external reviewers also received the publications volume, which was bulkier). The idea was to have one small volume (comfortably fitting in a briefcase) that would pretty much tell the story.
As for mailing packages, I think its a good idea to prepare and pack these yourself in mail-ready boxes, so that someone can simply put on a label and drop them in the mail. It's just one less thing to go wrong.
Get feedback from people inside and outside your unit
A few months before the deadline for submitting your package, ask a couple of senior people you respect if they'll be able to read a draft of your narrative in a couple of months (people are more likely to do you that favor if you give them a couple of months advance notice). Ideally, it should be at least one person in your academic unit, and one person from outside, because both perspectives are important in writing an effective narrative.
Regular maintenance along the tenure track
The best time to start preparing your tenure package is about five years before it is due. Set aside folders (both paper and electronic) to file away copies of anything that may later bolster your case. When the final year rolls around, you should not need to spend a lot of time gathering things together. You should already have copies of your publications and other materials gathered together as part of regular maintenance along the tenure track. A least once a semester, and better once a month, update your files and keep things in order.
I found, as have others I've talked to, that preparing the tenure package was a valuable reflective experience: a chance to look back and think about some of the bigger ideas and themes. It also consumes a lot of time, money, and energy, but is much more manageable if the final effort of assembling the package is the culmination of several years of regular maintenance and planning, rather than a last-minute scramble.
I hope you can use or adapt some of these ideas, and I wish you the best of luck in preparing your package. It doesn't seem so at the beginning, but it's ultimately a unique opportunity to reflect and learn about yourself and your work.