To answer George’s call for blog entries explaining how an English department works, I’ll start by pointing to Jimbo’s entry, “The Tenure File.” I’m not yet in a tenure-track position, but from my understanding, Jimbo’s suggestions illustrate the factors that English departments use in determining whether or not to award tenure to a junior faculty member.
Tenure is important because it protects the academic freedom of the professor, preventing him or her from being fired for holding politically unpopular opinions (note: the Wikipedia explanations of tenure and academic freedom are also good starting points on this topic). The tenure system has often been criticized because it is believed that many professors become negligent or lazy once they have achieved tenure (which is probably part of a larger cultural perception that professors don’t work very hard), but it’s my observation that most tenured professors continue to work very hard to contribute to their field and to provide the best classroom experience possible for their students.
For readers who are less familiar with how English departments work, tenure-track professors are given from five to seven years, depending on the university, to earn tenure based on publications, teaching, and departmental service:
Publication expectations may vary based on the university’s teaching requirements and national reputation, but most top research universities require that applicant publish a book (although this policy is the source of controversy right now because of tighter budgets at most university presses) and several articles in respected academic journals. Jimbo also suggests that junior faculty keep track of citations of their published work. If a tenure applicant can demonstrate that his or her work has been widely quoted or has become influential in some way, then that will help to support the tenure application.
Universities also require professors to demonstrate their effectiveness in the classroom. Strong teaching evaluations can be very helpful here (some professors who have a lighter publication portfolio often benefit here). This effectiveness can also be demonstrated through syllabi, sample assignments, and samples of graded work.
Service work is the final major factor and includes committee work (looking at grad student applications, etc) as well as participating in the intellectual life of the department by bringing in guest speakers, setting up a lecture or film series, and so forth.
Of course, as the Wikipedia entry on tenure points out, a large percentage of English department faculty positions are adjunct or non-tenure track professorships, most of which pay less, offer fewer benefits, and require a significantly larger teaching load than tenure-track faculty members.
Suggestions and clarifications to this explanation are welcome.