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Friday, November 04, 2011

Fear of Tenure

Further to Michael's post below about how many fields one should write in before tenure, there is an interesting discussion early in the comments about the relevance of tenure to this decision.  One commenter argues that should not be a major concern, because "pretty much everyone with a pulse gets tenure at a law school"; accordingly, the commenter says, the "only relevant consideration" should be to "write about what you find interesting."  To this, Franita responds, "I disagree, mostly because I question your initial premise that 'everyone with a pulse' gets tenure as well as your secondary premise that writing about what I find interesting is 'the only relevant consideration.' If only it were that easy."  The commenter responds that once one counts out the obvious non-tenure cases, the number of people denied tenure is very small.  Franita responds in turn: "The reality is that the number of people who are actually denied tenure tells us very little about the number of people who would have been denied tenure but left before the tenure decision, or the number of people who were close cases. I suppose that being a close case may not matter because tenure is ultimately granted, but who wants to be a close case? And many of my posts are about following a path to tenure that will result, not only in tenure, but also in being a successful scholar who is well known in the field. For me, it is not just about "getting tenure" . . . I want to be a part of the scholarly conversation, so my questions often turn on the best way of accomplishing this goal."

So how big a deal is tenure, and specifically how big a deal is it in deciding whether to write in multiple fields or not?  I've written about this before, so pardon the repetition, but I'm very interested in this question.  Of course it matters, but how much does it matter?

In my view, the answer is: not enough to strongly influence your decision on how many fields to write about as such.

The commenter is basically right: tenure is granted routinely by law schools.  The real entry barrier is getting a tenure-track teaching job, not getting tenure; unlike in other fields, perhaps, generally the hiring decision is a de facto tenure decision.  As with law school admissions, the hard part is getting in, not worrying about being kicked out.  Nor do I think we should add those who left before tenure to the equation: more often than not, those really are obvious non-tenure cases, where, for instance, the person in question failed even to publish the (small) number of papers required for tenure.  Where there are close cases, I think they generally turn on a host of factors (including, sometimes, faculty dysfunction), and not specifically on writing in multiple fields, although I suppose that could be a pretext in some cases where the real issue is faculty dysfunction or spongy issues of "colleagiality" or "fitness."

That doesn't mean one should never refrain from writing in multiple fields; it just means the reasons for doing so have relatively little  to do with tenure as such.  A good scholar should want to do a good scholarly job.  Writing in more than one field involves repeated high startup costs; it makes it more difficult to write enough pieces to qualify for tenure within the relevant time period (although it's still a pretty low number, as I've noted), and more difficult to write pieces of high quality.  But the concern there should be about quality of scholarship as such, not about tenure.  It also depends what you mean by "field."  Many scholars focus on a method, or on particular kinds of problems, rather than on a substantive field: empirical scholars like Ian Ayres, and "interesting problem" types like Adam Samaha or Adrian Vermeule, may end up writing from a fairly unified perspective about a number of substantive fields.  

Franita is right to say that one may--and should--care about having some impact, not just about tenure.  That counsels in favor of remaining in one field.  But how much weight should that have, compared to following your scholarly muse, even if it takes you into more than one field?  The more passion you have about an area or areas, the more likely you are to write worthwhile pieces and to reach out to the scholarly community in those fields.  Following your passions may still lead to better results in terms of gaining a "voice" in the scholarly community than confining yourself to one area rather than two--especially if, as is often the case, one ended up choosing that first area for a variety of reasons, including one's teaching package and one's prior practice experience, rather than out of a true scholarly calling.  

I am regularly met with responses that are variations on "that's easy for you to say," or that I am underestimating the importance of strategic considerations.  I don't think either is especially true.  At least as far as tenure is concerned, I just don't think the numbers warrant undue concern; and even if they do on the margins, I think too many junior faculty are too worried about tenure, not just reasonably concerned but concerned out of proportion to the facts.  And I worry that the more worried they are, and the more strategic they become, the more distorting effects that will have on their happiness, their well-being--and their own actions when they become senior faculty and are judging their juniors.  Given the relatively low risks involved, I think it is better to (mostly) foreswear strategy--kow-towing, putting your senior colleagues' tangentially related work in the footnotes, etc.--and focus just on what you want to achieve as a scholar.  Without being too naive about it, I ask my students to focus on doing the right thing as lawyers, even if there are professional costs involved; can I ask any less of myself or my colleagues?

Again, there are, of course, scholarly reasons to stay within one field, although there can also be scholarly reasons to write about more than one field.  The quality and integrity of one's scholarship is always a consideration.  On the whole, though, I think the lodestar here should be "write about what you find interesting."  You are more likely to write well, and find a scholarly community, if you listen to what your sense of vocation is telling you, than if you develop an early habit of worrying about extrinsic considerations like tenure.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 4, 2011 at 10:01 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Franita, I've shared your anxieties about just this issue. Striking out in a second area is risky and should be motivated at least in large part by passion to be successful and worthwhile pre-tenure. As someone writing in two areas pre-tenure, I think one can reduce transaction costs significantly by finding a great co-author. I've been passionate about my second area for a long time and always hoped to get into the field at some point, but it was my good fortune to meet a willing and wonderfully complimentary co-author with whom it became possible to start that work very early on while still pursuing my original agenda at something like a normal pace. This worked in my case -- the costs in time and attention may still outweigh the benefits even with a co-author. But a good partnership should reduce those costs somewhat in most cases; and a great one may reduce them substantially. And that's in addition to the intrinsic benefits of collaboration.

Posted by: Garrick | Nov 5, 2011 10:12:09 AM

I don't think you can exclude people who "are obvious non-tenure cases" when doing the calculation. That is like saying that the chance of making partner at a law firm is pretty good, if one leaves out all the obvious non-partner-material associates who left before.

The response that those people are obvious non-tenure cases because they didn't write enough articles also doesn't work. First, what we consider "enough" articles is dynamic: it used to be one, now it is five or six, precisely because expectations have changed, and what was once an obvious tenure case is today an obvious non-tenure case. Second, one potential reason that people don't write enough articles is that they got distracted pursuing another field...

Posted by: TJ | Nov 4, 2011 8:36:52 PM

Thanks for your post Paul. I agree that junior people worry far too much about tenure, but the reality is that you don't know if you have worried too much until you actually get tenure. I know that, given the number of people who successfully get tenure, that it is irrational to worry about it, but it is only with the benefit of hindsight bias that you can confirm that you are being foolish. I guess that makes me rational in my irrationality? In any event, maybe I should have framed my question differently because your points are well taken. I think that becoming well-known in my field is a greater concern than getting tenure, but I tend to view these two issues as being intertwined given that having a national reputation is part of the criteria for tenure at many schools, including my own. I agree that if you are passionate about what you write about and if you do it well, regardless if you write in more than one field, then tenure will follow. I suspect, however, that many junior folks choose to write in one field pre-tenure because one is seriously time constrained and it is difficult to become an expert in multiple fields prior to tenure. Only a select few do it successfully. Take, for example, the individuals you named who started writing in multiple fields pretenure in response to my previous post: Ian Ayres, Adrien Vermeule, and Adam Samaha. For the rest of us mere mortals, I think that the time constraint and initial investment that comes with writing in multiple fields is a pragmatic concern that should carry significant weight, regardless if one is passionate about different substantive areas. We also forget that many of us will be in academia for many years so there is no rush to take on a new scholarly area pretenure unless that is where your passion takes you. If one can do it well, then go for it. Otherwise, I think that it makes sense to wait until post-tenure to engage in multiple areas because it can hurt you (for tenure, in building your reputation, etc) if you do it poorly.

Posted by: Franita Tolson | Nov 4, 2011 7:50:15 PM

Hear, hear! A wonderful post, (not coincidentally) entirely consistent with my own observations.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Nov 4, 2011 7:23:10 PM

I generally agree with your arguments about what to write about. My experience has been that my writing has changed after entering academia (not really in the topics but more in the style and ambition of what I write). I wrote several articles prior to landing a teaching job, and looking back I can tell they were written by a practitioner. They are not bad articles and I clearly knew my topic, but they tended to focus on very discrete questions and did not generally show a great deal of concern with the big picture issues (not surprising since they were usually inspired by things that happened in my practice). Since entering academia in Fall 2009 my writing style has changed. I have tended to focus more on the big picture issues, things that I would have been afraid to tackle as a practitioner. I have also experimented with different writing styles. I have tried classic legal writing. I have tried qualitative empirical. My next article will be quantitative empirical. I have experimented with inter-disciplinary writing. I want to try writing shorter less footnote-intensive essays for a broader audience. In short, I have used the last couple of years to try and figure out what writing style works best for me. I don't think I have finished that process yet, but I am definitely making progress (and in fact I may conclude that I can write and will continue to write in multiple styles).

Throughout this process, I haven't given much concern to how it will effect tenure. I would be lying if I said I haven't considered it at all, but I am not too anxious about it. I continue to write primarily in one area, but largely because I really like writing in that area. And within that area, I have worked hard to learn and bring in new sources of knowledge from other disciplines.

Posted by: Stuart Ford | Nov 4, 2011 4:23:18 PM

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