Psychology Professor Casey Tobin steps into a classroom to meet with students taking the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s cross-cultural psychology class.
While the course’s instructor, Psychology Professor Berna Gercek-Swing, steps out for about 15 minutes, Tobin, 44, handed each student an evaluation on the professor’s effectiveness as an educator. She did this for three of Gercek-Swing’s classes last week, part of her role as a mentor for the junior faculty member.
Tobin is a tenured faculty member in the UW-L psychology department, of which she has been a faculty member for eight years. Gercek-Swing is in her first year as a tenure-track professor after a year as an instructor in the department. Tenure is important to Gercek-Swing, who applied for the tenure-track position to follow her two passions: teaching and research.
“It makes you better and more useful to the system as a scientist and an educator,” she said. “That’s why I want tenure.”
Academic tenure is a performance review and job security system that has been a formal part of higher education for decades. It can trace its roots back a century or more. It is not without controversy as some outside the ivory tower of academia question the value of the system and voice concerns that tenure protects lazy, ineffective or bad professors from punishment or dismissal.
“Rather than tenure being about academic freedom, it seems to be more about job protection,” Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a critic of faculty in the UW System, said in an interview last year with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s this idea a tenured professor could decide they don’t have to show up, or keep up with ideas in their field.”
Tenure protections for public university employees were changed by Republican legislators last year with new provisions that allow for the dismissal of tenured faculty for financial or programmatic reasons. This has raised concerns from UW-L Faculty Senate Chair Brad Seebach, who was also a participant in the UW System task force on tenure that met this past fall and winter.
Along with the changes made in state law, the UW System Board of Regents is also looking at making tweaks to the tenure system, and regents are prepared to vote on the proposed changes at their meeting this week. As the voice of the faculty at UW-L, Seebach said many of these changes continue to erode tenure protections in favor of financial rather than educational reasons, protections that are vitally important in an academic setting.
“Financial concerns can be used as a big hammer,” Seebach said. “You can use it to close down any program you want to.”
Tobin is one of 26 full-time faculty in the psychology department, with 23 of those tenure lines. The department serves about 700 students who are psychology majors, 400 who have a psychology minor as well as another 1,200 students who take classes as part of general education requirements or as electives.
For many of the professors in the department, tenure is a goal to strive for. And for those who have achieved it, it is more than just job protection. It is a mark of accomplishment and a spur to work harder in a field they are passionate about.
“Tenure means I have achieved a high standard,” Psychology Professor Bianca Basten said during lunch with her colleagues in the department Thursday. “And that I had better keep this up. We are all in this job because we enjoy it.”
At UW-L, the majority of students are undergraduates and much of a tenured professors’ work at the university revolves around teaching, mentoring and advising them. For Tobin, that means teaching classes and coordinating the department’s internship program and student volunteers.
This semester, Tobin has 37 interns and 44 volunteers. In her human-sexuality class, Tobin has another 44 students and 24 in her online class on child and adolescent psychopathology, which studies mental health struggles and behaviors in children and teens. She is also the faculty advisor for an undergraduate research project and a mentor for a psychology honors student.
Much of her time last week, like most weeks, was spent working for her students. Along with prepping and teaching, Tobin also had a number of meetings with students both during and outside her office hours.
On Monday, she discussed the progress Lisa Smith, her undergraduate research student, was making on her project studying the disorders that result from interpersonal post-traumatic stress disorder, which can result from abusive relationships. With a lot of source material to go over in her work, Tobin helped Smith stay out of the weeds and keep organized.
“I’m so excited to read this when it is done,” Tobin told Smith after outlining some goals for the project. “You have no idea.”
Her honors student, Tanner Taylor, has his own research project on the topic of how threatened masculinity impacts gender-related attitudes that he will be presenting after three semesters of work at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research and the Midwestern Psychological Association conference later this spring. He is also the teaching assistant for Tobin and stopped in to meet with her several times last week to discuss the work on his project or things going on in the human-sexuality class that he could help out with.
“I’m feeling a lot better about this project,” Taylor told Tobin and Basten after a sit-down Thursday afternoon where the three discussed ways to use the data from his research for a poster presentation on the project. The two also gave Taylor some homework to finish up before the university goes on spring break March 14.
On Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, Tobin’s human-sexuality class meets for about an hour-and-a-half. While she has also taught a number of other psychology courses including abnormal psychology and general psychology, Tobin describes this class as her baby and is working to revamp the course, which is taught each semester.
Tobin said she grew up with limited exposure to information on human sexuality in school, and she attempts to approach the course from a sex-positive perspective. Human sexuality has a lot of influence on people, she said, and many students from a number of majors outside psychology take the three-credit elective course.
“We are all sexual beings, from our gender and biological sex to the menstrual cycle and prostate exams when men get older,” she said. “It has so much impact on us that without sex education we are not doing ourselves justice.”
This week, the class finished up learning about topics and issues of gender before moving on to sexual arousal and response. During the class periods, Tobin led discussions on gender identity as well as the stages in the different scientific models on human sexual response.
To keep students interested, she shared recent TEDx talks on some of the topics discussed in the text, such as a discussion on biological sex, gender identity and gender expression by comedian Sam Killermann. Tobin said she is always looking for new ways to keep her class fresh; if she isn’t interested in the material, she figures her students won’t be either.
During her class periods on Monday and Tuesday, Tobin worked to keep the class light and fun, tying in funny anecdotes about her personal life with the topics being discussed. During discussion on gender stereotypes and expectations, Tobin spoke about how she prefers being outside in the garden, while her husband Troy, who loves to cook, is the one usually making meals for the family.
“One day I was weed-whacking and I looked through the kitchen window and there he was with an apron on tossing salad,” Tobin told the class. “And it was awesome. We were both doing what we wanted to do.”
Topics of sexuality can be a sensitive area for students, she said, which brings an added challenge to teaching them. Before class on Wednesday, several students said her open and lighthearted approach to the class made the material much more approachable.
“Some of this can be tricky material,” Emily Francis, a senior studying biomedical science said. “But she makes the course comfortable for students.”
Service and Scholarship
The psychology department puts a lot of emphasis on teaching during the six-year evaluation process for tenure. Like most universities, there are also service and scholarship requirements at UW-L in order to obtain tenure and to keep it during post-tenure reviews.
Tobin came to academia from a career in K-12 education and counseling. After getting her master’s in education, she kept going back to school for more coursework, including a second master’s degree in counseling and a Ph.D. in counselor education. She was brought into the psychology department at UW-L for her clinical background, and it shapes her philosophy toward research.
As part of her dissertation for her doctoral degree, Tobin created a sexual attitudes and experience scale. She still uses that tool today, collecting new data from students in her classes; participation is voluntary and students in her human sexuality class finished their opportunity to participate last week. Tobin shares the results she has collected over the years with her students and uses the data to shape the topics she focuses on in her classes.
Service can be service to the university, academic department or the community, and it isn’t just volunteer work. There are a lot of things necessary to keep an academic department moving than just teaching class and grading papers and professors who have tenure or are seeking it are required to take up certain tasks such as reviewing curriculum or helping interview and hire new faculty and staff.
In Tobin’s office last week, several abnormal-psychology textbooks she is reading sat piled up on a windowsill and she is on the committee picking which one students will use in the class next semester. She and her next-door office-mate, senior lecturer Lisa Caya, frequently bounce ideas off each other about ways to improve their classes or tackle issues that come up during lecture.
On Monday and Wednesday, the two chatted about different ways to respond to a poor showing students had after tackling a test in Caya’s social policy for children and families class. Tobin suggested asking the students to respond anonymously to a set of questions about their performance on the test, and Caya also let them retake a portion for the chance to improve their grade.
“We share a lot of ideas among ourselves,” Caya said. “Student see that and get that we are open and willing to support them.”
As a tenured faculty member, Tobin has worked with Gercek-Swing this first year advising her on ways to improve as a professor. Last semester, Tobin observed her during her classes, and this semester the evaluation process allows Tobin to get a feeling of how students are responding to Gercek-Swing’s teaching style.
“It has been great,” she said about the advice and discussions she has had with Tobin. “She is very helpful. We talk about my worries, and when you are just starting your career there are so many things to keep in mind.”
Tenure still matters despite changes
To fit all of her work into the week, Tobin puts in 10-hour days, sometimes longer, and brings grading and coursework home on the weekends. With two kids, Tobin said balancing housework with her husband is very important. Tobin usually wrangles the kids and breakfast in the morning and Troy, who works from home, cooks supper and watches the kids in the afternoons.
Being a professor also meant many long evenings last week with Tobin catching Wednesday’s screening of Pink Saris, a documentary on the leader of the women’s activist group the Gulabi Gang in India students in her class could attend for one of their required experiential activities. She is also involved in Big Brothers and Big Sisters with a fundraiser she attended Thursday night and stayed late when a student having an emotional day needed someone to talk to Monday evening. She normally puts in 60-hour weeks, something her department chair, Ryan McKelley, said is within the average for the professors whether they are tenured or not.
Many of the faculty regularly meet in one of the lounges in the department for lunch, chatting about an interesting article they read or what their kids are getting up to at school while they munch on their salads, pasta and the communal jug of animal crackers. On Thursday, when prompted, many put their forks down to defend tenure and what it means to them.
“It doesn’t change my day-to-day life,” Basten said about being tenured. “I don’t feel less stressed than I do four years ago.”
Her workload has actually gone up after tenure, with the added responsibilities of mentoring junior faculty and the increased emphasis on scholarship and service in post-tenure reviews. A common criticism faculty encounter is tenure gets them out of work or teaching, but that isn’t true, she said, and the protection it offers for her as a teacher and a scholar is important.
“Without tenure, people want to make our value about what people think,” she said. “What if a professor does work that certain people don’t like?”
“Tenure is quality education, but there are so many aspects around that, “ Tobin said on Friday. “Tenure means that we are really invested in professors that really care about students. That they get what they pay for and a well-rounded education.”