Scott Robertson on missing tenure, persevering, and connecting to mission & community

Scott Robertson comes from a psychology and cognitive science background and is now a Professor in the Information and Computer Sciences Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Scott shares the experiences of being rejected for tenure twice and how he dealt with that. His story is one of perseverance and courage, doing what you care about, and the importance of mentors and being part of a community. He is now in a tenured position and enjoying the freedom to follow his mission around civic engagement and to get back to acting.

UPDATE: Scott has just been made Chair of his department! So not getting tenure is definitely not the end of a story!

“You have to do what you care about”

“So [failure/rejection] is survivable, not just survivable but also then you can go on to the next thing and make the best of whatever situation you are in.”

 “[Don’t] define yourself by your position or your affiliation [but] by your mission in life.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 His early career as a child actor eg on the Brady Bunch! Current acting interests and how it has enriched his academic and personal life – acting like HCI as understanding other human beings. And inhabiting another world.

05:38 Time to focus, becoming present to the moment, a centreing exercise

06:35 Discussion of early career: social science at UCI, then cognitive psychology masters, then cognitive science PhD at Yale; first using a big Vax computer in a statistics class and getting interested in computing at Yale; dissertation in how people use text editors and presenting at the first CHI in ~1981, feeling intimidated by Don Norman in the front row; HCI as his direction then

10:30 End of the story: full prof at Uni of Hawaii but not a straight forward to get there; started usual ass prof pathway in a psych dept publishing in HCI; tenure evaluation ‘what is CHI/HCI’, not publishing in APA journals etc; failed to get tenure

12:10 Still an issue for several people, feeling misunderstood in their dept, ‘what is HCI’ still

13:00 Mentors who helped at these transition points; feeling part of the CHI community but alone in the Dept so able to rely on mentors in CHI community eg Gary Olson wrote a letter, Jack Carroll helped figure out next step to IBM

14:45 Incredibly devastating – work hard, trajectory going nicely, so quite a shock; “when you look back on it you wonder why you spent so much time thinking about it” but did take a long time to settle it; move to IBM a smooth transition though intimidated as no idea how to be a researcher in a company

16:20 Felt out of place in the year after tenure denial as have to go back to the institution, the so-called terminal year; tenure denial because of vote he missed by less than half a percentage point so felt like it was random – those kind of things did occupy his mind for quite a time

18:10 Thinking back, it did allow him to move on; “so it is survivable, not just survivable but also then you can go on to the next thing and make the best of whatever situation you are in.” Doesn’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’ as he was often told, but “I do believe that you can turn a situation to your advantage if you focus on it and try”

19:10 In industry/research labs at IBM and US West in Colorado, doing quite different work than what he would have done in a psychology dept; chairing the CHI conference during this time and a talk he gave about the importance of the CHI community, an anchor.

21:08 Going back to academia, starting trail to tenure a second time, this time in an iSchool; better fit however also missed tenure so two tenure denials; continuing story of ‘what is CHI’ and also had decided to change research interests, looking at e-voting systems and political participation which might have cost in terms of publishing but another close decision

23:55 Shift of topic area – wanting research to have some impact and where he could make a difference; realised not the voting machine per se but the education beforehand where the real challenge is for technology

26:40 Awareness of impact/risk re tenure? Didn’t think the shift of topic was not a good idea. “I feel like you have to do what you care about.” Never thought of them as risky decisions, never focussed on the tenure issue, focused instead on what he cared about. No regrets about anything.

29:04 Experience of second denial, again surprised as had good feedback; a good lesson re having to be clear with non-tenure professors about how they are going; went through appeal process but a waste of time, should have moved on more quickly; did win an appeal that process not followed correctly but same outcome when done over again

31: 45 Still glad he went on a new direction of tech to support political decision making so easy to slide into current research on use of social media for political decision making

32:15 Same people around to support eg Jack Carroll, “so important to have a mentor all the way through” not just in tangible way but other intangible ways of advice, listening, see at conferences and ping him when he needed support/advice

34:30 Dealing with the second tenure denial, focussed more on it than the first time, later in his career; and partner/wife also an academic in humanities going through tenure process that also didn’t work out – spent half of marriage living in different places, decided not to do that any more

36:50 “Need to keep a confidence of some kind, that you are doing the right thing. It’s important to have your community.”

37:50 Difficulty putting down roots, friends in local community, getting back into theatre when in Philadelphia, dislodging from that difficult when moving on; value of getting back into theatre, like CHI, people interested in others and wanting to impact them

41:10 Moving on to another faculty position in Hawaii, the only one he got. Most of these transitions, only got one option each time. Prepared also to go back into industry and would have seen it just as ‘next step’ and how to make the best of it

42:45 Can’t help having something in your mind that you didn’t live up to expectations, being nervous coming back to conferences because people would know it happened but very different experience, people on his side

43:54 “When something like these things happen I think it is important to just pick yourself up and put yourself back into the game”; practical tips eg centering, who am I at the core, did these really change me, being able to see it as an external event; not an easy thing

45:00 Hawaii hard for partner’s work – not landed a job there yet but has a community;

46:00 Perspective on where you are at any given time has changed, from thinking it would be a model of prof with tenure staying put, to more jumping from one thing to another, “people are going to have to re-define themselves several times during their career … think tenure model will come to an end”; “Wouldn’t define yourself by your position or your affiliation [but] by your mission in life”; Scott’s mission around civic engagement

48:30 Tenure process at Uni of Hawaii, now in a computer science dept, supportive colleagues, tenure process opposite of everything before, smooth; one thing that has changed for academics is need to bring in money but harder to get  but also more needed to support students; success rates down around 10%; half of all writing and effort goes into proposals but not a total waste of time, making up your dream, what I want to do, creative writing of an aspirational document; if don’t get the grant then re-work it, “Persistence is extremely important”; also dealing with rejection in acting

53:00 Celebrating tenure and then having to think about what to do now so deciding to write more for general public; can’t do this though before getting tenure

55:22 Liking the computer science department, interested in work of colleagues doing things he doesn’t do, more so than when in psychology

57:00 Final thoughts – now can tell this story, “my responsibility to say that these things happen, and you can preserve through these things, but the critical issue is knowing who you are, …research direction and who you are as a person.” And realising you can jump across icebergs and be fine. And focussing on the larger community.

01:00:39 End

Related Links

Scott Robertson - http://www2.hawaii.edu/~scottpr/

Art Graesser - http://art.graesser.us

Gary Olson - https://garymolson.com

Jack Carroll - https://ist.psu.edu/directory/faculty/jmc56

Mary-Beth Rossen - https://mrosson.ist.psu.edu

CHI2017 Career Development Symposium - https://chi2017.acm.org/careerdev.html

CHI Stories - https://chi2017.acm.org/stories.html