Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fingers Crossed

Today (Wednesday) is a big day in my career. It's not really going to be any kind of different day. I am going to teach Technical Direction class. I am going to answer a metric truckload of email. I am going to do some much need organizational work. If I get to it I will do some grading. I'll eat my lunch at my desk while updating the green page. I might go to a meeting or two or three. If I am really fortunate I will spend some time talking to students and other faculty. If you followed me around you'd have absolutely no clue that it was a day of particular importance.

Following me you wouldn't know because I am not on the CRC. But today is the day that the College Review Committee reviews my tenure case.

The way it works if I am approved I get to wait through another layer of review - the University level; I cleared the School Review Committee back in September. If I am not approved then the clock starts running on my remaining time at Carnegie Mellon. Policy says I would have another full year, academic 09-10 to work here and look for something new. Many people though leave right at the end of the current academic year rather than hang around as lame duck faculty.

Tenure has always been a weird concept for me. When I came to CMU I hadn't had an academic position yet, so I didn't even think about the Renewal, Tenure & Promotion policies and how my life fit with them. It just seemed like this alien thing that comes with working at a University: "and if it works out well you can't be fired!" How odd is that.

Truthfully the concept of tenure for academic technical directors is weird across the entire country. Amongst all the tenured drama faculty I think one would be hard pressed to find even a dozen tenured technical directors, and from that group a great many of them actually made it to tenure on the back of having a design component to their gig. Many, many academic technical directors are actually staff instead of faculty and so therefore don't even have the opportunity to be rejected as tenure is a faculty thing. That's a fairly formidable first hurdle.

After even making it to faculty there's a distinction between those faculty that are tenure track and those that are lecture track (aka teaching track) - there's also such a thing as research track but its not all that common to theatre programs. Teaching track faculty aren't eligible for tenure. My buddy Mr. Hines is lecture track. He can't get tenure, but as a tradeoff he can remain indefinitely without it as long as he clears a periodic renewal. Once granted tenure there are no more reviews for tenure track faculty. Seeing as the percentage of TDs that get tenure is so low maybe it's a good tradeoff.

For those TDs that are fortunate enough to be both faculty and tenure track you also have to actually get the tenure, and here there's another awkward bit. The university standards that tenure stands on are based on research. A professor develops or discovers something, gets it published in a juried professional publication, and those things make up the evidence that someone deserves tenure. There's other stuff, but the truism "publish or perish" is a truism for a reason.

As it turns out there isn't much in theatre that fits the traditional reserach model. Artistic "experimentation" doesn't really equate with academic "research," and there aren't really all that many dramatic academic journals. For drama the standard appears to have shifted somewhat to "Professional Prominence" i.e. have you made a name for yourself in the industry. Here, yet again, TD types face an unusal challenge. A tenure track faculty member is supposed to be building their professional prominence during the time they are on the faculty. Often having the summer off is supposed to provide an opportunity to work in the field. The problem here is that although this works well for Directors, Actors, or Designers, casual employment for Technical Directors at a sufficiently high level just isn't available is small chunks. People hiring a TD want one for the season at least not typically show by show. Even in the rare instance of big time industrials where a casual TD might be possible and the job might be significant enough to matter it turns out to be work that you can't drop in and out of around another gig. They want the guy they had last time or from the last gig, not someone that hasn't worked for 9 months.

It's been an interesting professional exercise.

I've done well I think in the professional prominence arena for a TD. I've got some standing with USITT. I'm known within ESTA, and I was a subject matter expert on the development of the ETCP rigging certification which I parleyed into one of the very first ETCP Recognized Rigging Instructor designations. If alphabet soup can get you tenure I should be fine.

I've done what little I could to try to beat publish or perish too. I've had an article here and there, not juried but then that's really hard to find for the field. I've been an editor for USITT, albeit small time; and I publish a professional website that's got a few hits. There's certainly a book or two I could have written, but like many of my thesis students I never do seem to get around to the actual writing. It is what it is.

If in the final analysis alphabet soup appears to look more appropriate to them under "service" instead of "research" and if a website with 70,000+ hits is also "service" instead of "publishing" - well - then I'm doomed. All the glossy photos, high quality office supplies, and interesting graphics won't do the least bit of good.

It's not really a depressing doomed though, because if that's what it is then there wasn't much I could have done from the very start, except perhaps asked if my appointment could have been lecture track rather than tenure track. Beyond that, looking back I think I have done everything I possibly could have done under the circumstances I was dealt. It's rough trying to develop outside work while also being the coordinator of one's department. It's hard to get much else done when teaching four or five sections per semester. And though this probably sounds like complaining it really isn't. In the end I was responsible for the balance of the kind of work I was doing, and if getting tenure was the over-riding motivation then I guess there were things I could have said no to or moved down on the never ending list. I've made the best balance between my personal interest, the department's interest, and the student's interest I could, and I am really very proud of the work that I've done.

But like I said before: I'm not on the CRC. So for the time being my fingers are crossed.

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