In April 2016, after clinching a job offer to join the faculty of what was then Tusculum College, I wrote the following introductory words:
I have written entirely too many of these things, because I have moved my family around entirely too many times.
Real Professional Development Goal, August 2016-forever: make this the last of these things I ever write.
Well, I’m on my way to succeeding at that goal.
When I arrived at Tusculum in August 2016, I set a more formal goal for myself: to put together the accomplishments necessary to be promoted to full professor within eight years. On scanning the faculty handbook, I thought that was the most realistic time frame to accomplish the tasks necessary to earn the promotion. So much of the circumstances surrounding the doctrinal situation at Shorter (despite the “tenure” that I earned there) and the financial situation at Virginia Intermont had kept me from thinking about the long term in the positions I held between 2003 and 2014, and the position I took at Tennessee Tech in the aftermath of Virginia Intermont’s closure was temporary by its very nature. I took the position at Tusculum with the long term in mind.
When I looked at the position I found myself in at the start of this academic year, and as I was talking to other colleagues about their standing and reviewing the faculty handbook, I realized I had the teaching accomplishments and the service experience, if not the breadth of scholarship, that I needed to take a shot at that promotion a couple of years earlier than I had planned, and so I decided in October 2021 to submit a promotion portfolio.
Forget 2016 to 2022; my life has changed a lot between October 2021 and February 2022.
The news of a successful promotion application is a lot more hollow now than it would have been then; celebrating anything is not appropriate in the aftermath of December 4.
But I need to take a moment and reflect on where I am, and on this successful step towards making this the last stop in my career.
I’m not at a perfect place. I was warned away from Tusculum, externally and internally, before I accepted this job, and over the course of my first year at Tusculum, the reasons I was warned away did come very clear. Not only did we struggle to retain students in our program, we struggled to retain faculty, and the original vision I was hired under in 2016 almost immediately dissolved into the necessity of my work in chemistry to maintain a shell of a program. It speaks to the widespread instability that, six short years later, I’m the senior faculty in the department and I’m working overtime to maintain connection to the institutional memory.
This is not a promotion that comes with tenure, because no position at this institution comes with tenure. I will enter academic 2022-2023 on a five-year contract; that is the closest thing to academic security that I can get here. That by itself is a foundation for the concerns many have had about me making a career out of this place, and I understand them.
As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued in many forms of late, this institution cannot love me. I don’t even have to go back 48 hours to identify the last move the institution made that I fundamentally disagree with. The person who took the very photo attached to this post, who had her role in recruiting me to Tusculum, is no longer at the institution, and I’ve never gotten over that.
This community cannot love me, either. Coming face to face with the people who supported the change our country went through in November 2016 was bitterly painful, and the reverberations from that change strike me anew daily. The damage we’ve taken from living here, directly and indirectly, is much to bear.
This is a broken place to live and work.
That is true alongside this statement: I have never been at a place where I have received so much professional and personal support. From day one, people went to work to clear a path for me to establish novel scholarly work, to teach courses across the sciences with excellence, and to serve the educational community outside of the campus. The love I’ve received from the students of this place has been real and substantial, and they put trust in me that makes every goofy stunt I pull in the classroom work. There have been key points in the past six years where deans, faculty peers and administrators have gone to bat for me personally to make plain that I belonged on this campus, that the work I was doing for this campus was good, and that I would benefit the campus over the long haul. I’ve been supported, my program has been supported, and my college has been supported.
And of course, in the awful aftermath of December 4, the outpouring of support from this campus community has been incredibly tangible and sustaining.
This is a broken place to live and work. I love this place and am fully invested in it.
I am not satisfied with the work I’ve done to reach this point at Tusculum University. My scholarship still isn’t fully realized, and I’ve learned entirely too well to allow that scholarship to take a back seat to the teaching needs or service needs that exist on campus. I’m grateful that the work I’ve put into the campus has been seen and recognized, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still have a lot to do in order to be the kind of scholar I envisioned myself becoming in August 2016. The successful work I’ve put in to the General Chemistry and General Physics sequences only serves to underline how much more work there is still to do to make those courses as robust and as legible as they need to be. I’m still a weak upper-division professor at best, and I need to equip students emerging from physical chemistry with more tools to be successful at the discipline – and to gain a love for the discipline at the same time.
But I have spent most of my time in academia being my own worst critic, and setting standards that go beyond anything the institution will ask of me. That pattern will continue through the end of my career here, I fear. What I’ve just received – from my dean, from my faculty affairs committee, from my provost, from my president, and from my board of trustees – is the kind of affirmation of my work that I’m incredibly fortunate to have, and I do not take that affirmation for granted in the slightest.
I moved back to the Central Appalachians in August 2016 intentionally, out of a real love for this region and well aware of all the realities that came with it, with the intention of putting in the work necessary to make this place a home.
I have the most complete support possible from this institution that brought me here.
The past two decades of my career have had many twists and turns, and I would be a fool to speak in absolutes. But it will take a very, very strong wind to blow us away from here now.