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.

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