Review, rinse, repeat. Episode 2: Attack of the dossier

This past December, I wrote a blog post about the review process at Bates and tenure and pre-tenure reviews in general. Last week I turned in my fourth year review dossier, and I thought this would be the perfect time for a follow-up post.

As I have mentioned, the dossier is meant to be a way for me to tell the personnel committee “my story”. This means I have to submit an updated CV (the easy part!), teaching, research, and service statements, my research papers and a sample of teaching documents. Putting all this together turned out to be more difficult than I thought, and in some unexpected ways.

The first thing I worked on was what I expected from the beginning to be the most difficult task: writing a research statement. The main challenge was to write something that described my research enough for it to sound new and interesting, but in a way that non-mathematicians could understand. I am a number theorist, in the most general sense. I started doing arithmetic geometry in my Ph.D. thesis (and have continued some of that work), but I have recently been doing research in other areas of number theory, like analytic number theory and arithmetic dynamics. It is hard to build a narrative that connects these different areas and makes them part of a cohesive story. I opted for trying to tell the story about why I like number theory (broadly defined) and how all these different projects fit into it. It remains to be seen how it is received by the non-math folk. Also, inspired by one of my colleagues whose dossier I borrowed, I decided to write a separate document (to be read before my research statement) defining many of the terms and motivating the areas of number theory that I work in. This was suggested by many people and I have since found out that other number theorists have tried this for their tenure dossiers.

I thought the teaching statement would be much easier and so I left it for the very end, and boy was I wrong. First of all, my teaching has become much more focused and I have grown a lot as a teacher since I started at Bates. This made my teaching statement from when I was applying to jobs pretty obsolete (although some of the ideas and themes have remained, I am much clearer about what I like to do). So I basically had to start from scratch. But the other problem I had is that I had too much that I wanted to say. OK, maybe that is not a problem, but you need to have a reasonable narrative and at first I didn’t have one. It was almost a bulleted list of “cool things I have done while teaching at Bates”. This does not make for a good narrative or story. I decided to really pinpoint the big idea I’m always after while I’m teaching and then wrote about the cool things related to that. See, the nice thing about the dossier (as opposed to a teaching statement on a job application) is that you can include all the cool things you’ve done anyways. After the teaching statement, I split the documents into sections relating to things that I like to do, like extra credit assignments and clicker lectures (there were others, but I don’t want to bore you all with details). Surprisingly, many of these sections coincided with my old blog posts, so I had already written something about them! Again, I don’t know how this will be received, but I’m happy with the discovery of the connections between my teaching and my blog.

For the service statement, I split it up in service at Bates and outside Bates. This was less involved, and I was assured this was OK by everyone I spoke to. This was mostly a list of things I’ve done with descriptions of my roles and contributions.

While working on the service section, however, ¬†I was stumped about how I would include activities like this here blog. On the one hand, this is definitely not research or teaching (although I may muse about research and teaching). On the other hand, it is more outreach than service, and it is something that I really care about and think is important for me to do. One of my colleagues said I should explain what I do and why I think it’s important, since they were afraid it might hurt me that I’m spending time on writing about mathematics rather than publishing papers. Another colleague said that this should be part of teaching, as writing for a general audience could be considered “teaching outside the classroom”. Many colleagues, however, said that this is simply service to the mathematical community as I’m contributing to the public awareness and image of mathematics. In the end, there was no consensus, so I added an extra section at the end called “Mathematical Writing”, wrote a brief statement about what I think about writing about mathematics and why I do it, and included the article I wrote for MAA FOCUS last year. If the dossier is indeed my story, then all this should be a part of it, and should not be hidden in other sections of the document.

A surprising challenge was putting all this together. We need to make a physical dossier, in a three-ring binder, with sections. I had to make copies of all these things, punch holes, and organize them. I need to confess, I’m really bad at these things. For example, I didn’t realize until I was about to turn it in that most things were printed double-sided, but a few things were not. I imagine this won’t hurt my chances too much, but shows a lack of attention to detail which nobody wants to flaunt (and by confessing in public, and knowing some of my colleagues read my blog, I may be digging my own grave right now). I think it looks OK now (although I also got a binder which was a tad small for all the stuff I printed out, for example). I made my colleagues in the math department (who will be writing letters for me to the personnel committee) an electronic copy, in which I just merged all the PDF files I used for my dossier, and I was much happier with how that turned out (I even had a table of contents with page numbers!). I guess I’m more of a computer gal than a binder gal.

As far as suggestions go, the main thing I would tell people is to talk to lots and lots of people who have gone through this. I made heavy use of facebook, for example. I would just post a question, and at the end of the day I would have several very thoughtful answers, and even some words of encouragement. Having someone else’s dossier really helped, just in the sense of giving me a big picture of how a narrative can look. I wish I had borrowed a couple more, just to see the differences from person to person. I suggest that you find a couple of people in your school, maybe not in your department, that can guide you and read your materials. It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes to catch things you may have missed (at Bates, this is built in to the process, everyone gets an “examiner” whose job is to do exactly that). And finally, talk to people who are working on their own dossier. I had a couple of very fruitful work sessions with one of my colleagues from Bates. We would just sit at a coffee shop all afternoon and write, and periodically discuss things. ¬†Another friend, who was working on her tenure documents this summer, became my “writing buddy”: we would tell each other our goals and then the next day discuss how much we accomplished. This also worked really well (although she was done with her review much sooner than I, and then I had to motivate myself, which is always harder).

Now, I wait. It is possible that the committee will want clarifications on certain things, and so I may have to include more statements or documents addressing their concerns. Otherwise, I will hear by the end of November whether I get reappointed or not, and it is mostly out of my hands. This part is scary, but we all have to go through it.

So, dear readers, any more advice or suggestions for those who are going into these big reviews? Any other ideas or experiences you would like to share? Please, we would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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