Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University
reviewed by Susan Gardner - October 19, 2009
Title: Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University
Author(s): Anna Neumann
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801891310, Pages: 320, Year: 2009
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In her book, Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University, Anna Neumann offers a new perspective on the faculty career, focusing on the little understood period of development of recently tenured faculty. Specifically, Neumann provides an intimate glimpse into the scholarly lives of 78 faculty members at five universities in the immediate years following their tenure and promotion to associate professor. Building on the work of scholars such as Baldwin and Boyer, Neumann focuses on what she terms the scholarly learning of these early mid-career faculty, providing a better understanding of how the roles of teaching, scholarship, and service inform one another and provide a rich and holistic basis for post-tenure faculty life.
In the seven chapters of the book, Neumann presents the perspectives of a diverse group of faculty members who attest to their commitment but also their surprise at this new turning point in their careers. In direct opposition to the myth of post-tenure deadwood, Neumann paints a portrait of early mid-career faculty productivity and passion. Situated within a conceptualization of learning, or what she describes as the construction of knowledge, scholarly and otherwise, that a person experiences through mental processes that involve realization, surprising juxtapositions of thought, contextualization of ideas within other ideas or building bridges between them (p. 6), Neumann demonstrates that these post-tenure faculty clearly strive to learn, many of them working hard to hold onto their scholarly learning and also to learn other new responsibilities that come their way at this career stage (p. 101).
Chapter 1 provides the context for the studies described in the book, situating the concept of scholarly learning that will guide the remainder of the text and her guiding propositions regarding this learning. In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the realities of post-tenure faculty life and how learning is an instrumental part of this experience.
Chapter 2 discusses the passion, beauty, and love that accompany scholarly learning. Indeed, this discussion of passion and beauty is one of the most salient features of this book, providing a much more intimate and stirring view of these faculty members motivations.
In Chapter 3, the reader discovers the contexts in which this fire or passion for scholarly learning is stoked. It is through this chapter, in particular, that Neumann debunks the myth of post-tenure decline.
Chapter 4 then visits the locations in which post-tenure faculty pursue their scholarly learning, including an interesting discussion about the blooming of interdisciplinarity or what Neumann refers to as cross-disciplinary learning, as well as further development of the idea of blending the faculty triumvirate of teaching, research, and service, akin to that of Boyer (1990).
Chapter 5 situates such scholarly learning within multiple contextual frames, including that of personal, disciplinary, temporal, and organizational, among others. Neumann specifically examines how faculty at this turning point in their careers struggle to balance work life with personal life.
Finally, chapters 6 and 7 provide audiences with direct and accessible implications from these studies, specifically bringing together a compelling intersection of the individual with the organizational. The final chapter ends with a summary and missives to specific stakeholder audiences to foster such learning among their faculty.
Taken together, the book is best suited for those audiences with a keen interest in faculty development with a specific focus on this developmental phase in particular. Researchers interested in faculty development will be provided endless fodder for future research and a comprehensive view of the early mid-career faculty experience, thereby filling this substantial gap in the current literature. Faculty development centers and professionals will also benefit greatly from this text, being able to extract many ideas for supportive programs and policies to foster faculty growth.
The limitations of Professing to Learn are few, in my opinion. One such limitation is the redundancy that is present from time to time throughout the book. Certainly, given the dense nature of the extensive research and narratives enveloped in the book, this is understandable. Second, Neumann makes a choice to avoid over-contextualizing the data she presents, instead leaving the discussion of institutional context to the latter part of the book. Such a decision is strategic and well explained by Neumann but at the same time leaves the reader wondering how specific institutional and disciplinary cultures influenced the participants experiences overall as well as individually.
Several questions are also raised from Neumanns work. Of course, future researchers must continue to examine how institutional type and resource availability affect newly tenured faculty work and productivity. Neumann certainly opens the door to these and other future explorations of faculty members lives, at the associate rank and beyond. However, she also paints a portrait of faculty members often feeling overwhelmed, particularly by service and outreach obligations. It leads one to question whether the premise of sheltering assistant professors from service is indeed proper socialization for what is yet to come.
In toto, Neumann provides the reader with an elegant and reverent understanding of this often misunderstood time in the career lives of faculty members while at the same time reminding us of why we do what we do.
Boyer, E.L. (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.