Citizen Metaphors: Dead Wood

Let’s say you get tenure after all the stress and agony of the review.  What then?  Party down, take a holiday, reward yourself, bestow thanks and blessings upon your significant others.  Then take a deep breath and gaze out upon the landscape stretching before you inside the gated walls of academe.  Most likely, this is where you’ll be living for the next thirty-five years.  And the question is: what kind of life will you have?

I have traveled a good deal in academia—for almost forty years, truth be told—and I’ve been amazed to encounter so many unhappy people.  Not all, certainly, but enough to wring your heart.  Who made them serfs of the soil?  You would think that job security, a good income, and relative prestige would make anyone happy, but experience shows that tenure is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. Indeed, many associate or even full professors seem to run out of steam, content to teach their classes and draw their salaries without publishing or even taking an active role in governance.  Many desk chairs seem padded with fading laurels.  No wonder so many on the outside view tenured faculty as coddled and privileged, shielded from the political and economic perils that torment the rest of us.  Those who seem to be reaping permanent benefits without doing much work are scornfully referred to as “dead wood,” another master metaphor that, like “peer review” and “academic freedom,” speaks volumes about our condition.

Image

Dead wood.  It’s pronounced with a sneer by junior faculty, with a sigh by administration, and with a shudder by tenured professors.  The young resent the palpable double standard as their elders hog resources and privileges while resisting evaluation and sending the scut work downhill.  Administrators, frustrated by sloth, obstructionism, and truculence, gnash their teeth as deadlines press and decisions pile up.  The tenured, meanwhile, cling to a fragile sense of entitlement, acutely aware of critical glances and whiffs of suppressed contempt.  No wonder so many begin to suffer from low self-esteem and a creeping fear that they, too, may have passed their peak, may already have begun to rot invisibly from within.

In the spirit of inquiry, then, let’s gently unpack this metaphor.  Dead wood is rigid, barren, and heavy.  The tree supports it, but it does nothing to feed or nurture the tree.  It puts forth no blossoms or leaves; it bears no fruit; in short, it does no useful work.  Moreover, it’s not growing; it’s not green but brown or gray, weathered and naked to the wind, no more than a “bare ruined choir where late the sweet birds sang.”  It’s a lost cause, a hopeless wreck, a relic of the past.  Each term of the metaphor carries its own pejorative charge.  “Dead” suggests fixity, inertia, hopelessness, a bitter end: no second chances here.  “Wood” suggests rigidity, stolidity, even idiocy, making a strong contrast to elasticity and grace: think “dumb as a post” or “a wooden expression.”  No wonder calling someone “dead wood” feels like a cruel, if not unusual, punishment.

Now consider the opposite case: living wood.  Interestingly, academe offers no catchy metaphor for staying alive. Living wood puts forth green leaves and fruit.  But when applied to people, “green” often connotes inexperience, clumsiness, or ineptitude, all of which we frown on here in the ivory tower.  Think “greenhorn,” for example: it’s an image from the frontier, from the world of hard physical work in the outdoors.  Plus, it’s a manly term, gender-inflected.  (Strike two!)  Nevertheless, if we think of living wood as green, the shadow of dead wood so to speak, then more hopeful possibilities emerge.

 Image

In the botanic world green suggests life, growth, change that branches out in all directions, adaptation, exploration, and discovery; we all know how trees and other plants grow toward the light.  Orchardists speak of “bearing wood,” meaning branches that produce blossoms and fruit.  Those on my apple trees, for example, begin to bear after three years; properly tended and pruned, they can produce for decades.  In contrast, unpruned limbs put forth suckers and sprouts in all directions and bear only small gnarly fruits.  After a few years, most of these shoots begin to die off; the limb grows leggy and tangled.  Eventually, a disease like fire blight enters through a dead twig and migrates through the sapwood, killing the limb and eventually, if not cut away, the entire tree.

A well-pruned fruit tree looks good: flourishing, symmetrical, green all over.  It appears to be leading a healthy and balanced life.  Pruning channels sap to the bearing wood and controls rankness by eliminating suckers; the limbs stay short and sturdy while the fruit grows  larger and more abundant.   A well-tended tree has no dead wood and lots of bearing wood.  It reflects good husbandry  (memo to chairs and deans!).  This is what we mean by those who appear to lead a convincing life:  you will know them by their fruits.

“Dead wood” may be a cruel metaphor for a depressing condition. But it does not have to be our fate.

Posted in Citizen phase, Master Metaphors, Post-Tenure, Stages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Balance: A Refresher

In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career.  Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness.  In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches.  When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of  an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.

When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop.  The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer.  I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over.   I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position.  But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.  Image

I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position.  If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself.  It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.

Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase.  Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes.  Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship.  The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values.  The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community.  The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.

To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.  Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot.  Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and  begin to breathe evenly.  After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand.  Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head.  Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand.  Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back.  After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position.  Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm,  Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.

It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way.  Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath.  So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful.  When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant.  In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness.  Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty.  A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.

As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary.  My muscles were always working; they were never at rest.  As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing.  I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me.  Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation.  And the key was managing energy flows.  That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies.  We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives.  Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done.  It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.

(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )

Posted in Citizen phase, Post-Tenure, Tool Box | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Citizen Tales: the Perils of Privilege

With membership come privileges and powers; that’s why it feels like success.  But these pose perils of their own.  If power corrupts, privilege can desensitize, and the process occurs so subtly and naturally that we may not even notice the loss of our capacity  for empathy and compassion.

I remember one EnglisImageh Department colleague who had a reputation for tough teaching.  He was blunt, even scornful of shoddy work, maintained a lofty magisterial air, and wielded a sharp, ironic wit in lectures and department meetings.  He always wore a tweed jacket, white shirt, and tie.  After department meetings he would serve sherry in his office and hold forth, making no secret of his belief that Jane Austen had been the last great writer in English. Everyone on campus, from the president on down, thought of him as the classic English professor. When the student paper profiled him, they photoshopped his head into a Roman bust.

His students feared and adored him.  “I’m so grateful to Professor J___,” one gushed to me. “He convinced me I would never be able to write.  It was so freeing! Now I’m a geo major.”  Another, who became an English professor herself, told me about taking his class.  She was terrified, like everyone else, but she appreciated his passion and depth of learning.  She worked hard to finish her final paper on time, but when he called for them in class, she was the only one ready.  He raised a fierce eyebrow, “Anyone else?”  When no one spoke, he scrawled an A on the title page and handed it back.  She was flustered, delighted, embarrassed, confused.  A precious A!  But he hadn’t even read it.  Finally, she screwed up her courage and went to see him.  “I suppose you want comments?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.  He later returned the paper with comments and a grade of B+.  “It was as close as he came to apologizing,” she said ruefully.  This was thirty years later.

In department meetings, he would sit with arms folded, scowling amusedly.  Most of our ideas had already been tried and found wanting back in the 60s or 70s.  The students were so much smarter then, and better prepared.  The profession cared more about quality and good taste; admin listened to the faculty;  the department had a reputation.  Now we were sliding into mediocrity.  One year, when we were discussing merit and promotion, he quipped that they should give us all “injured merit” raises.  It was a great line, straight out of  Paradise Lost.  But think of who speaks it there!

Over the years I’ve come to suspect that Professor J____ must have been damaged in some way.  He loved his material, his department, and his students but could not show it in the usual ways. He did not know how to spare the rod.   He took refuge in irony.  He never published or went to meetings, and so missed out on the fellowship of his peers.  Inside, I sensed a temperament that was proud, sensitive and even shy.  He may have felt crippled by his own high standards, fearing that his own work could never measure up.  Why take the risk?  How much easier and safer to wrap oneself in the cloak of an elite institution and the cocooning comfort of the classroom, where one could set one’s own standards and dispense salutary judgments at will.

Professor J____ was a fixture at the college, even a sort of legend.  No one doubted that he was a man of principle. But was he a good citizen?

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tenure: the Road Most Taken

Image

Robert Frost came to a fork and then chose the road not taken, although he did confess that both looked to have been worn about the same. Both had been taken, though he would have preferred to think otherwise, because it would have made for a better story.   Frost looked down one road as far as he could before the view was blocked by undergrowth.  He couldn’t see far enough to tell how things would turn out.

So it is with tenure.  If you get it, things don’t necessarily get easier, nor, if you don’t, do they get harder.  They just get different. Either way, the path holds challenges.  Once tenured, you still face the fundamental problem of staying alive and leading a balanced life.

No doubt you’re asking yourself, “What can he possibly mean?  Doesn’t getting tenure mean success?  Doesn’t it mean a job for life along with the freedom, at last, to do what I want, pursue my own work, set my own priorities?  Doesn’t it mean I can finally relax?  After all, I get to belong at last, a permanent and bonafide member of the profession, with an institutional home and community to support my values and work.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Tenure does confer many privileges and opportunities, but with them come a host of challenges and temptations.  To get in and stay in, you have to buy in; that’s the deal.

Now that you are an insider, the club counts on you to keep it going.  You must now uphold the values, administer the organization, master the ceremonies, and keep the secrets.   After seven to ten years of aspiration and struggle, most of us don’t find this so hard to imagine.  But it’s not a one time thing; you have to keep doing it for the next thirty years. I remember a minister friend, a spiritual and balanced person who worked with the homeless and whose wife taught English at the college next door.  She was up for tenure and they had both gone into therapy.  When I asked how it was going, he just rolled his eyes. “The counselor says we have to break out of our workaholic mindset, but the college says she has to work harder to keep her job!”

So the question of balance comes first and foremost.  And the demands don’t stop.  Now the institution expects a return on its thirty year investment, and it starts piling on the committee work.  You dreamed about feeding your spirit, but instead you’re feeding the beast.  Moreover, you’re stuck with the same colleagues, the same students, the same campus, and the same issues.  Sartre was right to declare that “Hell is other people.”  It may not be long before you begin to sense a narrowing of options within the institution, where there is only so much pie to go around.  You have to make agonizing decisions about colleagues who apply for grants, go up for promotion, or stand for admin jobs, which, more often than not, go to outside candidates anyway.

Yet, despite all this bad news about tenure, we can hardly imagine anyone turning it down.  True, occasional reports do drift in from some superstar who has left for more glamorous opportunities, but for most of us that is the stuff of legend.  For most of us, tenure is the road taken, the only route to citizenship in both the institution and the profession.  To be denied tenure is like being banished or struck with a terminal illness.  It feels like receiving a death sentence.

But neither does getting tenure remove the fundamental challenge of staying alive.  Our profession would collapse if thousands of conscientious and devoted colleagues had not grappled with and solved this problem.  Despite the temptations and pitfalls that tenure brings, they seem to be leading a convincing life.  What can we learn from them?

Image source: http://kacabiru.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/the-road-not-taken/

Posted in Citizen phase, Institution, Person, Post-Tenure, Profession | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tenure: A Fork in the Road

yogi-berra-quotes-13People have debated the tenure system for years, parsing its costs and benefits and proposing alternate models that generally stick in the craw.  Maybe it’s like what Winston Churchill said of democracy: it’s a lousy system but better than the alternative.  Whatever the case, it’s not going away any time soon, so those of us who aspire to make our living in academe must learn to deal with it.  Until universities start paying adjuncts and part-timers a living, professional wage—which they won’t until forced by collective bargaining—tenure remains the name of the game.  And the tenure review marks a fateful turning point in one’s teaching career.

Yogi Berra famously advised, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  Indeed.  But in fact this is easier said than done.  Most of the time we don’t take it at all, don’t choose or act with deliberation; we slide into it or let ourselves be drawn in with only the dimmest notions of where were going or what may await us around the bend. Mostly we don’t want to hear travelers’ tales of dragons or wizards up ahead.  We still like to think we’re the exception.  So in fact when we come to a fork, we don’t take it; it takes us.  But this is no way to live.

The tenure review can have only one of two outcomes: up and in, or down and out.  A true warrior must be prepared for both, so that when the path opens, he or she can take it and adventure upon life now.  We commonly think that a “successful” review leads to tenure, but “success”, as we’ve discussed in previous blogs, is a slippery and deceptive thing;  it means you get to do more of the same, which may not be conducive to your own personal growth.  In fact, not getting tenure may turn out to be better for you in the long run.  But of course you can’t know this at the time.  All you can do is take the path that opens and make the best use of it that you can.

The review itself resembles nothing so much as a trial.  Months, nay years, go into building the case: research, discovery, assembling witnesses.  Eventually, the court convenes.  You, the candidate, sit in the dock, silent, powerless, and apprehensive, facing a jury of your “peers”  while administration presides from above.  The good news here is that, by this point, the whole thing is out of your control.  You can’t affect the outcome, but you can affect what comes after.  So in the next few blogs we’ll talk about doing the math, the after-math.  How do you go on, how do you stay alive no matter what happens?

 

 

Posted in Post-Tenure, Pre-Tenure, Warrior Phase | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tenure: the Institutional View

How does tenure appear from the point of view of the institution?  We’ve discussed how the candidate sees it as a reward for past achievement and the department sees it as a marriage, but the institutional view is more complex.  First and foremost, the institution sees tenure as an investment with a payback period of thirty-plus years.  It’s a momentous decision with dramatic fiscal and political implications; hence it must be made with due diligence and care.

Faculty culture and union contracts have traditionally made tenure an obligation for institutions, part of the cost of doing business with faculty.  Administrators have viewed it as annoying and inconvenient, an obstruction to the managerial discretion they feel is needed to solve problems.  More enlightened leaders have  recognized how it fosters institutional stability and brand identity, the “college family” so important to loyal alumni and, by extension, to fund-raising. Less commonly recognized is tenure’s long-term economic advantage: because it reduces mobility, institutions can keep salaries low compared to those in other learned professions.  On balance, the economic benefits outweigh the costs, otherwise the tenure system would not persist.

For administration, which is tasked to operate and preserve the institution, economics is a big part of the picture, but not the only thing.  Administrators tend to move around, because that is the only way they can move up, so their involvement with a given institution seldom exceeds ten years.  During this relatively short time they have to do a good job, show progress, and exercise their creativity; appointments, tenure, and promotions offer one prominent means.  Administrators prefer to grant tenure as little as possible in order to preserve flexibility, discretion, and opportunity; the candidate and the department must make a bomb-proof case, first to the college-wide review committee, and thence to administration, which holds the power to decide.

Thus, all kinds of factors come into play that have nothing to do with a candidate’s actual merit.  Administrators pay close attention to the tides and breezes of politics, and tenure decisions can send strong messages to reward or punish key players, especially if there’s conflict over budget, curriculum, or institutional identity.  Budget pressures, such as low enrollment or the high price of heating oil, can dry up a tenure slot that a candidate has been promised at hire and toward which he or she has been toiling in good faith.  The institution’s public image may need polishing; racial, ethnic, gender or other criteria may enter in. (I know one up-and-coming university whose president has decreed that any new hires must be members of Phi Beta Kappa.)  And if all this weren’t enough, there seems to be a kind of rhythm in institutional life whereby almost everyone gets tenure for several years, and then some people don’t, leading to widespread outcry and attempts at reform, after which the whole cycle repeats.  The underlying reason seems simple enough: no dean or president looking to move up would want to appear soft on tenure; nor would any institution, for that matter.

In the end, the system can’t work unless some people are denied.  Merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.  Many are called but few are chosen; the others are cast out and left to fend for themselves.  No one follows their stories.  Those left inside close ranks and get back to business as usual.  Indeed, it is very difficult to think of giving up hard-won privileges.  But the fact is that tenure requires that the institution expel some deserving colleagues, who, in today’s depressed job market, can seldom find comparable jobs.  Even if they do, they’ll have to go through the whole ordeal again.

The tenure system persists because it confers many benefits.  But it also demands human sacrifice.

Posted in Citizen phase, Institution, Pre-Tenure | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tenure and the Profession: the Departmental View

The professional values, anxieties, and contradictions that we have noted play out most conspicuously in one’s home department.  How does tenure appear from this point of view?  Consider, first, what kind of beast a department really is.  You have a group of people who share a field of study and a comparable level of training but, in most cases, little else.  Yet history has collected them and tenure has glued them together for life.  They are stuck with each other.

As Gogol observed, “There is nothing more touchy and ill-tempered in the world than departments.”  And it’s not hard to see why.  When people are stuck together, they evolve complicated and recondite ways of getting along that may seem perverse or mysterious to outsiders.  In the worst cases, a department can come to resemble the cheap hotel room in Sartre’s No Exit, where the inmates torment one another with an endless round of seductions, lies, and betrayals: hell is revealed as other people.  But most departments seem closer to families in both situation and dynamics.  Some are bigger, happier, or healthier than others, but all operate like family systems governed by homeostasis.  Behaviors that seem weird or dysfunctional may actually work to keep the system intact; that’s why they persist over time and resist rational or administrative interventions.

Hogarth, The Committee of the Rumps

You can join a family by birth, adoption, or marriage.  But none of these guarantee a natural, close fit.  Birth is merely an accident.  Adoption involves a choice based on parental dreams more than on in-depth knowledge of a personality that, in any case, is still emerging.  Marriage requires a compatibility test, but for one member only.  So it’s no surprise that siblings and in-laws frequently don’t get along.  All they really have in common is family membership.  Even when relations are amicable, they may not be warm, intimate, or affectionate.

Since one can’t be born or adopted into a department (because everyone is supposedly a peer), the hiring and review process lead to a relationship that’s more like a marriage.  It comes at the end of a lengthy courtship that begins with applying for a job and ends with the award of tenure.  Throughout, the department sees itself as the object of desire and expects to be wooed like a rich heiress or eligible duke.  A glance at any faculty directory shows that departments tend to hire people with similar backgrounds, especially when it comes to where they got their degrees.  They want people just like them.  But they also want people who can compensate for departmental weaknesses, real or perceived; they want to bring in fresh blood and new life.  Needless to say, this puts candidates in a double bind.

Because so much is at stake, departments take tenure reviews very seriously. The underlying question is: can we live with this person?  Do we want him or her around for the next thirty years?  So there is much parsing of articles, teaching evaluations, and outside reviews, along with much soul-searching, hand-wringing, and gossip.  Everyone means well, but they all have their own ideas about what’s important, and tenure protects those with arbitrary, idiosyncratic, often fatal opinions. It usually takes a tremendous effort to reach the consensus that administration demands.   A department can easily come to resemble a family where everyone’s an in-law.

Posted in Pre-Tenure, Profession | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tenure and the Profession at Large

How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole?  Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions.  Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance.  No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.

To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function.  It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through.  It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work.  Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like.  But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction.  For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured.  They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate.  In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.

The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom.  No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest.  But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason.  Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review.  If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure.  If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications.  In short, academic freedom does not apply equally.  In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.

From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation.  We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions.  But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income.  If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business.  As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”

Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket.  Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table.  From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as  a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence.  Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods.  Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.

Posted in Master Metaphors, Pre-Tenure, Profession | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tenure and the Person: Eyes on the Prize

How does tenure appear from the point of view of the person pursuing an academic career?  Once out of grad school, it becomes the main focus of aspiration, effort, and worry.  It’s the next hurdle, yet also the biggest and most desperate. Getting into grad school, finishing the dissertation, and finding a tenure-track job all seem like practice runs in comparison.  The stakes are high, the uncertainties inescapable, the rewards dazzling, the consequences of failure abysmal.  The tenure review both defines and distorts everything.

To the candidate — notice how this term of apprenticeship persists — tenure initially presents itself as a reward for good work, like a grade.  Merit seems to be the key thing, as demonstrated by refereed publications (lots of them), superior teaching (bolstered by hallway buzz and glowing evaluations), and diligent acceptance of all assignments or requests for service.  When we were students, we always got rewarded for good work, and we’re still in school so why shouldn’t that continue?  Matters are further confused by the institution’s stated criteria, which invariably emphasize scholarship, teaching, and service, and a review process that gathers and sifts the evidence without reference to personal likes and dislikes or “external” factors such as enrollment, the economy, or institutional history (about which more later).  In short, candidates believe that if they do a good job, meet the criteria, and say yes to everything, they will get tenure.

Or rather, they want to believe it, they really do.  But everyone knows that you can do everything they want and still be denied.  It’s frightening to think that popularity and being liked, they very things that we learned to loathe in high school, matter as much in the land of research and intellect as they do in politics, business, or suburbia.  Merit turns out to be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for final approval.

Meanwhile, your colleagues, whom you have blithely been treating as friends and mentors (or, in worse cases, as annoyances to be avoided), suddenly assume the role of judges who hold your future in their hands.  You begin anxiously scrutinizing their faces and parsing their remarks for signs of a tilt to one side or the other. You realize that most have already made up their minds; you begin to suspect that the review, rather than some sort of objective analysis, will really be a matter of aligning the evidence to confirm expectations. You begin to feel helpless, vulnerable, and exposed.  You realize that you really have almost no control. You start losing sleep.  A sense of dread begins to infect your life.  

Yet oddly, tenure itself begins to look even more dazzling.  If you get it, you’ll be free of this crippling anxiety.  You won’t have to run the gauntlet ever again. You’ll be free to pursue your own interests and your own work.  You’ll wear the laurel crown; you’ll belong at last.  And it would be only fair, because you’ve worked so hard, made the grade, fulfilled all requirements and expectations.  You’ve done what was asked, and arguably more.  It would only be fair.  No one, after all, goes to grad school thinking they might someday not get tenure, just like no one gets married expecting to be divorced.  It’s simply unthinkable at the time.

Of course, you can avoid the whole thing by bailing out.  Some, indeed, jump off the tenure track and into greener pastures alongside — government, foundation work, industry, business, that sort of thing.  But most, having invested so much already, prefer to take their chances and go through the review in hopes that everything will work out. After all, they’ve always succeeded at school; they’ve been the bright, exceptional ones.  Why shouldn’t they be exceptional now?

My aunt Woozle, who is 96, likes to say, “Things work out, because they have to.” Perhaps. But they don’t always work out just the way we’d like, not as quickly, not as easily, not as simply.  The task, therefore, is to stay alive before, during, and after the review.  The warrior’s four way vision provides balance and strength, but it’s not enough.  We must also remember how tenure is perceived by the profession and the institution.

| Leave a comment

Entering the Citizen Phase

It’s fall, the season when everyone starts thinking about tenure.  Energetic new hires jostle for position, third years nervously scrutinize their vitae, sixth years gird for the gauntlet of class visits and the grind of dossier preparation.  Meanwhile, senior members of the department reluctantly trade their rumpled collegial garb for the sterner robes of judgment or advocacy, sometimes both together.  It’s a bewildering time for everyone.  But come spring, it’ll all be over.  We’ll know who’s in, who’s out, and where to go or not to go from here.

For those following the Standard Model, the tenure review looms as a Great Divide.  Make it across this absolute watershed, and you’re set for life.  You get to go on; you get to follow your calling; you get to stay in the game, assured of a comfortable, respectable future and an institutional home.  But fail to make it, and you fall back into bleak uncertainty with no clear path, no security, and every likelihood that you’ll be forced to leave the profession.  You’ll become one of the Disappeared.  No wonder the tenure review provokes fear and loathing even while it’s viewed with incredulity from the outside.  Ordinary mortals can barely conceive of lifetime job security.  What’s more, to face an up-or-out decision after investing ten to fifteen years on education and probation seems like cruel and unusual punishment.  What kind of culture demands that sort of thing from its faithful?  Tenure begins to look like a system of human sacrifice.

Nevertheless, pace Marx, our purpose here is to understand the world, not to change it.  Balance requires that we focus on changing ourselves.   Not present at the creation, we had no chance to give helpful hints for the better ordering of the universe. Perhaps in the next incarnation.  Meanwhile,  time presses, life goes on, and, somehow or other we have to deal.

As a first step, let’s not forget that entering the citizen phase of work life doesn’t just mean getting tenure.  Sooner or later, we have to find a place in the world, and there are so many possible niches for those with academic training.  It’s just that graduate school, with its intellectual hazing and organizing fictions, brainwashes us into thinking that the Standard Model must be the only acceptable path.  But take a look around and notice all the smart, accomplished, prosperous, intellectually vibrant, learned, curious, and creative people who aren’t academics.  Think about those who actually  left the academy for greener fields in industry, government, foundation work, consulting, journalism, the clergy,  or the arts?  Admit that more than once you may have gazed down their road wistfully, may have felt, perhaps, a slight touch of envy. But when you have put your shoulder to the wheel, straining mightily to make the grade, it’s hard to entertain other possibilities.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be blogging about entering the citizen phase, writing from both sides of the divide and considering how tenure looks to the person, the profession, and the institution. We’ll also share stories about stepping off the standard path. Please respond with thoughts, comments, or stories of your own.

Posted in Basic Concepts, Citizen phase, Institution, Person, Pre-Tenure, Profession | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments