Some Advice for the Untentured Conservative Humanist

Mark Bauerlein

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by First Things on June 6, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.

On paper, tenure recommendations for humanities professors have three parts: research, teaching, service. That's what the faculty handbook says at research institutions—though everyone knows that research counts more than the other two combined. Weak teaching and delinquent service won't disqualify you if you've compiled a superb research record. A poor research record will scuttle you even if you have three teaching awards and ten committees in your academic bio.

But if you are an untenured humanities professor who is also a religious or social conservative, know that the bar is set higher for you. You can't downplay teaching and service the way liberals and leftists can. You can’t count on the automatic sympathy of your senior colleagues. A few of them may be openly biased against you. Strong research won't save you from your low teaching evaluations and scanty service record. You must regard a high grade in each category as a necessary condition of promotion.

I will be offering advice for each category. First, RESEARCH.

The formula is simple. The dissertation must become a book. You have five years to rewrite the thesis into a monograph that a reputable press will publish. This requires an adjustment in how you approach your work. In graduate school, you prioritized the academic quality of the work you completed. Back then, the important things were solid evidence, sound arguments, and a recognizable topic in the field. You sought to prove that you could operate as a peer in the scholarly profession. You didn't think about an audience other than the dissertation committee, which would certify your work as the completion of your training, as demonstrating that you had graduated from the twenty-five-page seminar paper to the book-length paper. Your dissertation committee had no criteria other than scholarly quality. An approved dissertation got you your union card: You could then be hired as an assistant professor.

From that time onward, your work has had another destination: an academic press. The criteria have changed. An editor isn't interested in you as a student, and the question of pure scholarly quality is but one factor in his decision. To the editor, you are just one smart young professional among many others. His question is whether your manuscript will do credit to the press, and credit in this case involves many factors other than scholarly quality.

First, if the press doesn't specialize in an area close to your expertise, the editor will ask about the currency of your topic. Is it part of a live debate? Are the questions you pose the same questions others are posing? In 1979, editors liked hearing about deconstruction; in 1989, not so much. Queer theory was hot in 1995, and so was postcolonialism. You must be aware of the market of ideas as you begin the process of revision.

Second, the project has a time constraint. As I said above, you have five years—maximum—to bring the manuscript into submissible shape. Add in your service and teaching duties during the school year, and the time frame gets tighter. The scope of your project must be narrow enough to fit this schedule. Make the book modest, sharply-defined, and manageable. Don't leave yourself with copious archival research to do. Avoid grand theses about a sweeping corpus. Identify a small but important subject that has (again) currency. Choose one that can be related to general pressing matters in your field but that doesn't take on those matters directly. If you have greater ambitions for your work, save them for your post-tenure writings, when you have time and security to probe them as they deserve.

An added note. The modesty element is, paradoxically, hard to attain. Over the years, I have read book-length manuscripts in literary and cultural studies for more than a dozen presses, and the problems they have shown often originate in this: The author is trying too hard. He is trying to show how smart he is, to prove that he is a professional among professionals, to demonstrate that his manuscript is very, very important, and to reveal how much the field lacks his knowledge and perspective. It makes for a leaden reading experience. Modesty about the project and oneself leavens that experience.

Third, be collegial in your treatment of other scholars. Be careful here. After the editor gives your manuscript initial approval, he will send it out to two experts in the field who have agreed to give it a read and make a recommendation. One of them may have a stake in what you say. You want to distinguish yourself as a serious voice in the field, but not a contentious one.

In the old days, assistant professors could be provocative as long as they did intelligent work. Young Turks were everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s, during the Theory Wars. They cast themselves as militant deconstructors, feminists, Marxists, and historicists bringing insights that, among other things, would displace their elders. Even while they cast themselves as the vanguard, however, they relied on the old guard to stick to academic standards at tenure time.

Since then, promotion has become more personal and political, partly because the theories described above discredited so many of the objective norms of academic judgment, and partly because identity issues have become so prominent. Identity matters get personal quite readily. A collegial attitude mitigates this problem—or rather, an adversarial attitude on the part of the junior scholar licenses senior scholars to exert their tastes. Don't give them that opportunity.

Finally, write clear prose. Write your sentences and rewrite them and rewrite them. It has been many years since the clotted baroque prose of theory has signified higher intelligence. People grow impatient with thick sentences. They don't want to struggle with the verbal surface. Everybody's busy. The smoother the reading experience, the more likely it is that you will find a publisher.

With a book in hand, you will stand a chance of surviving the judgment of colleagues who don't want a conservative down the hall. Those colleagues will have trouble criticizing you if your work has passed through peer review and you have included the approving reader's reports in the tenure dossier. They will find it difficult to say that your book should not have been published. To discredit your work would be to dispute the reader's reports and to suspect the very press that, perhaps, published work by some of the other members of the department.

All the research demands have been satisfied regarding your past. You have turned your individual investigations into a contribution to the discipline. But something remains, namely, your future. You have a book, but where are you going?

That question always comes up in the tenure discussion, and you must answer it with two more publications. These are essays published in noteworthy journals that point to a second book project. The essays don't need to form large projects in themselves—you don't have time for that. They need to indicate the work you plan to develop in the coming years. An ideal example would be a report on some original evidence you have found in an archive—not a lot of material, just enough to merit notice in the quarterlies and to suggest more inquiry to come.

If you have these items on the table, your research will earn an “Excellent.” You will have passed one-third of the process.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

This article is the first in a three-part series. You can find the rest of the series here and here.


Image: Wikipedia CC BY

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