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.