Getting Tenure, Part I: It Took a Village by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Feminism and Religion

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on a second book manuscript on Asian American Christian Ethics. This blog post was originally published at Feminism and Religion, an online forum for contemporary scholars of women and religion to gather for community and intellectual collaboration.

Grace Kao

On December 1, 2011, the full professors at Claremont School of Theology unanimously recommended two of my colleagues and me for tenure.  Provided that the Board of Trustees approves their recommendation and two extremes never come to pass (either “financial exigency” compels my institution to start laying off people willy-nilly or I do something professionally or morally egregious enough to be dismissed “for cause”), I now have a job for life!

When I submitted my dossier for tenure, I had published 1 book, 9 solo or co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles, 9 published or forthcoming chapters in edited volumes, and 1 book review.  I had received several competitive grants and fellowships (e.g., Wabash, NEH, AAUW, Mellon).  I had been elected to prominent leadership positions in 2  professional organizations (viz., AAR and SCE).  I had won 4 teaching awards and designed and taught 12 undergraduate or graduate courses at 3 totally different schools: an elite private university (Harvard), a large public state institution (Virginia Tech), and a freestanding, progressive Methodist-affiliated seminary (Claremont School of Theology).  I had also done a sizable amount of outreach, service, advising, and mentoring.  Apparently, that quantity and quality of output had been enough in my case.

But those statistics insufficiently capture my life on the tenure-track.  While not officially part of my dossier, the following numbers provide a fuller picture of what I’ve experienced since completing my PhD in 2003:

  • 3 cross-country moves for work and the various upheavals and real estate transactions they entailed
  • 3 of my newlywed years spent commuting 270 miles each way between Blacksburg, VA and Washington, D.C. in order for both my husband and me to launch our respective careers and still see each other regularly (n.b., I logged 8 hours round-trip by car each week)
  • 2 pregnancies resulting in 2 healthy and lively sons, who are now ages 4 and 2.
  • The first involved my gaining 40 pounds but eventually losing 60 due to a

    35 weeks pregnant with #2 (Heather Reid Kwok Photography)

    combination of breastfeeding, exhaustion, and what was probably depression for 2.5 months beginning in the 10th month after childbirth.

  • The second involved, shall we say, “complications” with my contract negotiations at CST, my gaining and losing approximately 45 pounds, my being back in the classroom 3 weeks after childbirth teaching a new course (it’s a long story), and my weaning my child after 1 year (instead of my previous 1.5) to avoid the dramatic weight loss and exhaustion I experienced with my first child.
  • Innumerable occasions, particularly in the first 2 years on the tenure-track, where otherwise carefree moments were suddenly interrupted by what my friend Lisa Schweitzer has brilliantly coined as “t’angst” (i.e., tenure angst).

I say all of this neither to complain, nor to imply that my struggles have been any more difficult than what many other scholars in the early stages of their careers have experienced.  Rather, I want to set the groundwork for the most important point of this post—that the many sacrifices made for my career have not been borne by me alone. It took a village—my extended personal and professional community—to get me to the point where I am today.

In that respect, my experience has affirmed my commitment to feminist and Christian principles of community, interdependence, and the sharing of one another’s joys and burdens in friendship and solidarity.

Here are some of the “villagers” to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

  • My grad school advisors and mentors, for investing in me, painstakingly helping me to select courses each term, employing me as teaching assistants, writing countless letters of recommendation on my behalf, and being gracious enough to allow me to graduate even with a less than camera-ready dissertation at the time of my defense.
  • My incredibly supportive husband, who has continually sacrificed for the sake of my career advancement.  Among other acts of love, he has willingly given up three perfectly good jobs and relocated twice without first having secured job prospects of his own.  (Fortunately, he became gainfully employed within a short period of time in each case, although once only after passing the bar in a new state and taking a $120,000 pay cut).
  • My generous parents, for believing in me, helping us with down payments, and buying 30 copies of my book when it was finally published to distribute to their friends and relatives.
  • My senior colleagues at my first institution, who carefully shepherded me through the mechanics of publishing as well as strategies for dealing with large classes and the occasional recalcitrant student.  I remain especially grateful for their very intentional efforts to protect me from burdensome service commitments (in some cases by bearing the load themselves) so that I could focus on my research. 
  • The many colleagues and dear friends I’ve made along the way, including those who:
  • shared the trials and triumphs of various stages of grad school with me
  • made life in D.C. exciting and in rural Southwestern Virginia not just tolerable but even enjoyable as we bonded over life, departmental politics, and t’angst
  • reached out and comforted me after the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech
  • showered us with gifts and brought over meals in those sleepless weeks after our first baby was born.
  • shared hotel rooms with me at conferences (and in the years I was nursing my children, not only always offered me the “nicer” bed, but also never complained about the distinctive noise my breast pump made when I was doing my business in the middle of the night)
  • invited me to submit chapters to books or journals they were editing, gave me feedback on my work, or came to listen to me deliver my papers at conferences
  • made an effort to visit or kept in touch in other ways (this includes my older brother and his family)
  • befriended my entire family after our grand reentry back to California and helped me to adjust both to working at a seminary and to managing our dizzying pace of institutional change
  • helped tremendously with the actual tenure application process (especially the two friends/colleagues who went through it with me and my anonymous external reviewers)

That list, to be sure, is not exhaustive.  Other important people in my “village” include those known and unknown to me who made it materially possible for me to work (viz., the people who’ve grown the food I’ve eaten, cleared the streets after snowfall, tended to the physical plant of my workplaces, cared for my children when I’ve been away, and so forth).

There is also the matter of how my village was structured: the resources that my grad school made available to me to allow me to finish debt-free, the policies that my institutions had enacted that provided for funded conference travel, occasional research and teaching assistants, “stopping the [tenure] clock,” course reductions following major life events like childbirth, etc.

My debt of gratitude is large indeed.

So now I have tenure.  Not only that, but I have it at an institution with a reputation for academic excellence and a talented and ever-diversifying student body and staff.  The proverbial icing on the cake is that I also get to live and work in a place with fabulous weather (and produce! and great Asian food!), and with close family nearby.

I have indeed won the academic jackpot.  My deepest thanks to everyone who helped to make that happen.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is the first Asian American woman to have been awarded tenure at Claremont School of Theology.  She discusses the meaning and significance of that honor in part II of this blog.

Three happy & newly tenured faculty in good spirits at their second post-tenure party. Congratulations are in order to dear friends/colleagues Monica A. Coleman and Duane Bidwell as well!

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