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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Serial specialization?

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, who is not an academic, about the tenure and promotion process. We have a mutual friend who is going up for full professor and she's at the stage where her department is sending out the requests for letters. My non-academic friend was asking about the process and he made a comment about how stressful it must be given that, at this point, there really isn't anything one can do to influence those letters. I said that was kind of the point, that in order to become a full professor, one needs to have been consistently productive and building a reputation as a contributor in one's field.

But lately, I've been thinking a lot about the costs of this process. In order to build that reputation, we all specialize, sometimes in pretty small niches. Of course, as an economist, I generally believe specialization is a good thing but when one has wide-ranging interests, becoming 'stuck' in a specialization can become stifling. Academia is one of the last professions where people may stay with the same 'company' for their entire careers but does that mean we need to DO the exact same job our whole lives?

A big reason this is on my mind is because I am trying to figure out how to navigate and integrate the different hats that I want to wear. I spent many years cultivating my reputation as an education policy researcher - I earned tenure and promotion to full professor on the basis of my work in that field and I'm proud of the work I have done there. When I started getting more involved with teaching and economics education, my only real concern was how to balance that with my ed policy work, which I did not want to give up entirely. One way I managed that was to keep publishing but in somewhat different outlets (which I really could only do because I already was a full professor at that point). Instead of trying to get into econ journals, my ed policy work the last few years has been more in the form of policy briefs through think tanks, and my econ ed stuff has been in books and teaching-related journals. Fortunately, that's been enough, technically, to satisfy the 'professional growth' requirements of my department but I have to admit that I've struggled to be OK with it - it's hard not to feel like I'm "slacking off". I tell myself that it's all right because a) I'm certainly more than compensating with the teaching side of my job and b) I've chosen my ed policy projects to maximize the impact I could have on actual policy (which has always been more important to me personally than which journals I could get into). But aside from the work itself, it's also been hard to feel myself slowly growing apart from my ed policy community, even as I have loved developing new connections with the econ ed community (that's you all! :-)).

And now I've acquired a THIRD hat, as CTL Director. Although there is some overlap in the work with my econ ed hat, it's a whole new community. Like the econ ed community, the professional development folks have been super-helpful and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know everyone. I just got back from the POD Network's Institute for New Faculty Developers and I'm already looking forward to seeing many of those folks in the fall at the POD annual conference. But I wonder how I'm going to integrate this role with my existing worlds. Is it possible to do all of this, and do it well? I mostly fear that my ed policy hat is going to shrink even more than it already has and that makes me sad. But perhaps that is simply the reality I have to learn to accept...

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