Note from Meghan: This is a guest post from my colleague, Gina Baucom.
There has been a procedural error in your tenure case at the college level. I’m going to recommend that we stop your tenure case this year, and redo it again, from the beginning, next year.
This is not what you want to hear when you are going through tenure. Unfortunately, this is what I heard at a meeting the Dean called with me last January, even though the department vote on my tenure case had been unanimous and positive.
Winter term is usually a very hectic term for me; I’m co-teaching a 400-student genetics course and sometimes prepping grants. This particular term I was also squeezing in some extra seminar travel, planning a symposium for the next fall, and doing some society level work. So imagine it: I had heard positive news from my department the previous fall, people were congratulating me, “Rubber stamps from now on, usually!”; I’m busy teaching a large and stressful course, and then everything came to an abrupt halt because of this procedural error. I’m going to remain appropriately vague about the specifics of what happened, but I will say that the Dean assured me it was not a weakness in my case, and that I should take a vacation. Could he pay for a vacation for me? I’m not sure if he was joking or serious. I didn’t take him up on it.
The weight of what happened didn’t hit me immediately, but broke in slow waves as new bits of information came out. I remember not sleeping the night after I received the email from the Dean telling me there was a problem with my case, but before I had any real information. Wow. I did everything right and I’m losing my job anyway. What will I do? I like making jam. I could open a roadside stand. I could sell pie. I’m cool with that. But don’t they realize I managed to get a job in 2010 after the market crashed? And then I managed to get a federal grant, and then another tenure track job in a place my spouse could find work? And then another federal grant, and when the department told me to aim higher with my publications, I did? I thought I did everything right?
So once these thoughts started happening, and the confusion set in, and then answers about specifics of the case started to become more apparent, I noticed something else happen in the background, kind of off to the side of my anger and complete disappointment: people started showing up for me in various ways. My spouse started bringing me treats home after work. Mostly chocolate. My friends messaged me on facebook ‘Hey, how’s it going today?’ People I only knew through social media messaged ‘Do you need anything? Can I read a manuscript draft for you?’ Meg and another group of friends texted me every day to check in and make sure I was ok. One of my senior collaborators helped me clarify thoughts for a grant; we wrote a couple together and managed to get them funded. Effectively, there were people that stepped in and said, through either action or words, “Whoa, this is not cool. What can I do to help?”
This support network is something I knew was there, but didn’t quite know how strong it was, or necessary, until I saw my career falter. It’s difficult to express how disconcerting it is to have a stumble like this, and how clarifying it is to see who is there to help. It’s also humbling to have your trajectory altered when you don’t expect it. I think a lot now about people who have gotten negative tenure decisions, and how their lives were altered as a result. Not just the more logical next-step sorts of things they had to deal with, but also the mental load of being turned down. It’s a heavy weight to deal with.
Recently, Meg brought up the idea of the invisible support network, and it resonated with me. We are incredibly lucky to have an active Advance office on campus, and they were instrumental in giving me advice and stepping in when needed. But beyond that, the experience of this last year crystallized just how important an invisible support network can be for a woman on the tenure track in academia, and how clarifying it is to see who is on your team. Some of the support that was offered to me came from the obvious places; much of the support came from less expected places, people who have been doing this for a while, and who knew, from experience, how sleepless nights and self-doubt could compound together into a shit stew that no one should be served. It also changed my view of how people interact with each other in a broader sense. Things that I used to think impressive — “Whoa, they did XYZ and managed to publish it in this journal? Cool!” have become a lot less impressive. I have begun looking at people less for what they climb toward on their own and more for who they bolster along the way.
I decided to write up this perspective for people as a way to encourage women, and others, to think about what sort of invisible support they can offer one another. As my lawyer says — and yes, I got a lawyer AND a therapist out of this deal — women have particular types of issues with tenure. We really need each other in ways that you might not understand when you first start on an academic track. Support can be as simple as “Nice talk, have you thought about doing <blank> before?” or “Let’s start a writing group” or “Damn I had this weird interaction, how do I respond?” There are stories like mine out there, and people dealing with loads of things you aren’t aware of. When you hear stories like this, and regrettably those that are much, much worse, I encourage you to think, ‘Wow, that could easily be me. What can I do to help?’