some notes on receiving tenure

This week, the Tufts Trustees voted to grant me tenure and make me a full professor. I am very grateful to them, the Political Science Department (which is my tenure home), the Tisch College of Civic Life (which will remain my main base) and its dean, Alan Solomont, and the other people–known and anonymous to me–who were involved in advancing and reviewing my case.

I have been working full-time in universities (Maryland and then Tufts) since 1993. However, I don’t believe I should have held tenure until now. Tenure means job security for teaching. It’s a way of protecting instructors’ intellectual freedom. Until now, I have never held a teaching position. More years than not, I’ve taught at least one credit-bearing college course, but not as part of my paid employment. Instead, my salary has come from external sources (philanthropy, contracts, and–in the early years–a state appropriation). These funds have supported me and my colleagues to serve external constituencies with research and organizing. That kind of work must be contingent on funding and performance or it would turn into a sinecure.

So really the big change in my life is that I will be teaching virtually full time, starting in 2019-20. One motivation is our new Civic Studies major at Tufts, which is a major commitment of mine. This major is also part of a more general strategy of making the study of civic life a core academic focus at Tufts, which is another personal commitment for me and a key strategy for Tisch College. At the same time, I am looking forward to the role of a teacher/individual scholar, because that should allow me to explore certain topics more deeply than I have so far–mainly, topics in political theory.

My career is unfolding in backwards order. My degree is in a humanities field, philosophy. Humanists usually start by teaching alone and doing single-authored research: in short, reading, writing, and presenting. Some of them gradually begin leading departments, serving on committees, planning conferences, conducting collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects, and interacting with publics.

I started in an externally-funded center within a state school of public policy, where our work was applied, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and done in public. From an early age, I was heavily involved in working with other people. I was rarely in a classroom but almost constantly on the phone or email, communicating with peers. My most significant publications were co-authored; the Civic Mission of Schools report lists 60 authors.

I will not give up that kind of work but I do plan to spend more time teaching and conducting individual research. If this backwards order makes any sense intellectually, the advantages will be: 1) Breadth–I never sought tenure in a discipline that would have expected me to demonstrate deep specialization, but I had to learn a bit about a lot of things, and 2) Experience in how knowledge, power, money, networks, and organizations relate to each other in the 21st century. I’m hoping to make that second topic a focus of my research.

The immediate plan is to keep doing the collaborative work that I’m doing now (so don’t be alarmed if you are a collaborator) while developing several new courses in 2019-20. I have completed a book manuscript that is under review, so if that goes reasonably smoothly, I will feel free to focus a lot of attention on curriculum and pedagogy during the next academic year. I also have a sabbatical coming up, and I plan to spend that time learning network science and continuing to collect network data of different kinds, toward one or two books on networks and political/moral thinking.

It’s very rare for someone to switch to the tenure track after 26 years in the business. It’s like lifting a heavy locomotive and putting it down on different rails. Tufts has been tremendously supportive, flexible, welcoming, and creative in making this possible in my case. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and loyalty to this institution and my colleagues and students.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.