As of April the 4th, 2020, I am a tenured professor at UFPA, Brazil.
Brief disclaimer: the tenure track process in Brazil is very lightweight when compared to the tenure track in US or in Europe. Although we are evaluated in terms of teaching, research, and service, I think teaching is what really counts for tenure here. I think I would still be granted tenure even if I haven’t published any paper or haven’t made any service to the university or to the research community. If this is good or bad I’ll leave for another blog post. What really matters now is what changes it would bring to the table.
I knew about my promotion since the end of 2019, and since then I have been thinking what does this tenured position really mean. Am I supposed to change anything on my work? If so, what do I need to change? What does it mean to have a tenure?
First I thought that tenure has to do with freedom. Freedom to explore any research area that I may find interesting, without worrying too much about whether it would lead to a paper published in a top notch journal. I also though about that tenure has to do with responsibility to focus on hard problems (instead of problems that could lead to immediate publications). I also thought about commitment to do the best work that I could do.
The interesting point here is that all these thoughts are related to work (and the kind of work that I do).
However, I happen to receive my tenure letter during the perhaps worst health and financial crisis since World War II. I happen to receive my tenure when billions of people are staying in home fighting for their lives. While staying at home, many of them were unable to make any money; while many of them are being fired from their jobs; while many of them are struggling to stay rational and healthy without income; while many of them are having a hard time to find a way to pay their thousands-of-dollars health insurance bills. I happen to receive my letter of permanent appointment when some long term industries worldwide are collapsing overnight.
At this moment, for me, receiving tenure means just one thing: privilege.
Yes, I do have the privilege of staying in home knowing that my pay check will arrive next month. I have the privilege of knowing that it’s OK to be unproductive during the crisis. Despite of that, I also have the privilege of knowing that it’s very unlikely that I’ll be fired.
Knowing that I am privileged, I should also acknowledge that whatever success I am achieve is not solely due to my own efforts, but also due to a system that supports me. For instance, I don’t need to worry about pay checks. I don’t need to worry about moving to another place in the middle of a pandemic because my contract is about to finish. Any other researcher under time-bound contracts may have much more worries than I do; then, they may struggle to perform at their best because of it.
The point is: what do I do with this privilege I have been given?
I have been thinking about this tenure privilege for a while. It makes little sense to me to keep working as usual, as if nothing had happened. I already wrote in the past about the roles in the academic system, and that my current role is to teach others to do research. I still agree. However, by broadening this a bit, I could see that my role as a tenured professor is to use this position not only to teach other, but to empower others. Important to mention that this can only be done by the discipline of focusing on harder problems.
There are many ways in which we could empower others. Students are our seeds, and they will grow longer and faster if we understand how to help them. How about becoming closer to them? For instance, during teaching activities, how about running a retrospective (similar to those used in agile methods) once or twice? By providing a space for students to reflect on and discuss what worked well (and what did not), we all can improve. We would also be seen as someone available (professors are always busy). When advising, we could think about spending more time with students. How about having lunch together? Or how about start bringing food to the weekly seminar? By making yourself available to discuss random thoughts with students, we could also understand what are their real needs and challenges. And it will be even more fun.
Outreach activities are also very important to empower others. For instance, consider giving a talk to high school students once in a while. At their ages, many of them may be already thinking what career to follow. Moreover, it would be a terrific exercise for you to understand how to convince novice students that your research agenda is important. Similarly, consider also giving a talk to practitioners, and explain to them how your research could improve their work. If your work is not yet applied, consider extending your research agenda so that you could give a talk to practitioners by next year. There are many other outreach activities, such as teaching teenagers how to code or XXX. However, given the current lockdown situation, it may not be safe to run them now. Instead, how about doing a live about your work on youtube?
These activities may not help you in your next research paper. In fact, they would take a lot of time that you could devote to papers and grants. But this way you could potentially inspire someone (e.g., to pursue a career in research or to encourage other to use your research). Inspiring > publishing.
Needless to say that by doing so, we may not have the same time or energy to pursue our research agenda on its fullest sense. My personal take here is: instead of trying to do any research work that I find interesting, I should try to understand what is the harder problem I have at my table, and try my best to focus only on research works that could contribute to this big problem. As a consequence, by working more and more on one hard problem, it would become easier to talk about it, even for non-technical communities. It’s fair to mention that I still don’t know what is this big problem.
All of this is easier said than done. In fact, it requires a lot of discipline to move from the writing-intense mode to the thinking-intense mode (e.g., thinking on how to distill this problem so that students could easily understand, thinking on how my work could improve practice, thinking on the hard and relevant research problems, etc). Moreover, this shift also has a shortcoming: since most of the work that I do is in collaboration with other researchers (then on several different subjects), by concentrating on one (or few) big problems, I also will have to say no frequently.