A little off track

The tenure process is mysterious to just about everyone. On campus, it’s spoken of in varying tones, from ominous to hushed to “don’t worry, it won’t be so bad.” The public at large doesn’t understand it, and radio talk show hosts rail against it because it means professors who anger them can’t be fired easily. And the media, try as they might, have a hard time describing it.

At least this story from The Boston Globe tries to define tenure, and it’s a decent effort. But the story’s definition goes off track:

Tenure, which requires professors to have the highest degree in their field, is a permanent job appointment designed to protect academic freedom.

The problem is in the “which” clause. Not all tenure-track professors (as opposed to lecturers and adjuncts, who are typically hired from semester to semester or year to year) have the highest degree in their field. I know because I am one of them. I have a master’s degree, but the highest degree in journalism and mass communication is a doctorate. I am one of several people in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill whose highest degree is a master’s. It’s possible, but rare, to get a tenure-track job with just a bachelor’s degree.

I am part of the “practice track” faculty. I have a higher teaching load than “conceptual track” faculty. That means I am in the classroom about 18 hours a week, compared with about six hours a week for my Ph.D. colleagues. My classes are hands-on skills courses such as editing; their courses tend to be lecture courses. Both formats have their own challenges and rewards.

In another part of the job, faculty members with a Ph.D. have a higher expectation for research than I do: They need to publish frequently in peer-reviewed, academic journals. I can do that too, but for us “practice track” faculty, writing articles for trade publications and the like will satisfy this part of the tenure requirements. There’s a difference in what “counts.”

Any newspaper article about tenure should probably include a textbox that explains what tenure is and how a professor goes about getting it — that is, doing well in teaching, service and research/creative activity.