Redefining Service

Our working definition of faculty service is less than useful. Service is in part defined by the reward system for many faculty that privileges scholarship over teaching and service; and yet, this reward system perpetuates an attitude toward service that renders this dimension of academic labor far less meaningful than it might be.


In his most recent post, Mike Branch reminds us, “there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling.” Mike also makes an observation about the enormous privilege many of us have in academic institutions to pursue “the work—which Henry Thoreau called ‘morning work,’ John Muir called ‘natural work,’ and Gary Snyder calls ‘real work.’ This is the work that matters most,” Mike writes, “that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values.”

But in a 2010 blog post “Counting What Counts” that Mike contributed to Stay ing Alive he cautions us to consider “the extreme circumscription of what counts” as faculty work and the “harmful effects” of this narrowing “that are substantial and often unrecognized.” Mike argues “definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest.” He then calls on Emerson to help articulate a model of professional commitment that does not fall into the zero sum game of institutional life:

I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support.

I too rely on Emerson when it comes to institutions. At the same time, I have found profoundly useful a document published by the MLA over twenty years ago, a document that offered me a productive space to think more carefully about the professional life I was hoping to pursue. Reintepreting Professional Service made a case for intellectual work less confined to professional hierarchies and more sensitive to the need for generative faculty participation in that area of our jobs we call “service.”

IMG_1573A couple of years ago I pulled together some thoughts about what institutions call “service” for a group of new faculty at Keene State College. In sharing the document at a new faculty orientation, I explained that service should be a rewarding and productive part of our jobs and that it could also become a dimension of academic work. Might redefining service offer another way to stay alive in the academy?

Service is Personal and Professional Growth

  • Maximize personal strengths, draw on your expertise, enjoy the work you choose
  • Pursue a personal or professional goal that you find interesting
  • Do something completely new and potentially meaningful, if not transformative

Service is Building Relationships

  • Strengthen relationships with students by choosing committees that include students (e.g. advise student group or honor society)
  • Collaborate with students to sponsor campus events or organizing off-campus activities
  • Work on committees with staff to build your sense of institutional place and history from long-serving members of our community

Service is Building and Sustaining Community

  • Engage in campus-wide service
  • Collaborate with amazing colleagues and make new friends
  • Change the culture of College for the better
  • Partner with community and regional groups and initiatives
  • Pursue rewards of high-profile service that contribute to governance of the College, including administrative roles and leadership opportunities

Service is Teaching and Learning

  • Energize your teaching and learning (e.g. Faculty Development Committee, Student research Committee, IRB, Sabbatical Committee)
  • Imagine new opportunities for yourself and for others. What would you like to change to improve the conditions for your (and others’) teaching and learning?

Service is Scholarship

  • Relate, apply, extend your professional identity and expertise
  • Conduct service-learning and community-based research, or seek out and/or create opportunities for service as a public intellectual (local, regional, national, international)
  • Contribute to your intellectual / disciplinary / professional field(s) through editorial and peer review, leadership and collaboration, etc.

Service is Productive

  • Get things done
  • Improve group process (e.g. action items, goal setting, deadlines)
  • Make meaningful contributions to the work
  • Resign from the committee that is not productive (or the committee to which you are not making meaningful contributions)

Service is a Part of the (Your) Whole

  • Be actively involved rather than overextended (there is always too much work to do but don’t do too much or you will not do your work well)
  • Say no to committees (or, don’t say yes to all committees)


Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

What is Truth? Find Out with Memo Decoder®

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Killer Apps to Boost your Career in the New Year

The R & D Team here at Staying Alive has been hard at work devising a suite of career security apps that we are pleased to release  just in time for the new year.  Those of you dreading an upcoming tenure review, grant deadline, or MLA convention need look no further for simple, hi-tech solutions!  They’re perfect gifts for any stressed-out professional.

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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?



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.

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.

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.

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.

It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

In the summer of 2001, I received word that I had been  appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR). Our work over my three-year term of service included establishing for the first time Recommendations for Entry-Level Full-time and Part-time Faculty Members that have been published annually by the MLA since 2003. Currently, the MLA recommendations are set at $6,800 per course for members off of the tenure track. When we established these recommendations, we knew that faculty and chairs and deans would use these numbers in arguments for per course pay commensurate with the demands of the work; those of us who are employed as faculty, however, were under no illusions that the baseline numbers were aspirational, and that the reality on the ground would be different.


More recently, in his President’s Column “Non-Tenure Track Faculty Members and the MLA: a Crowdsourcing Project,” Michael Bérubé calls attention to the MLA guidelines for adjunct salaries we developed over a decade ago. He also mentions Josh Boldt’s The Adjunct Project. What turned out to be most interesting to me, though, was a link on Boldt’s site that led me to other thoughts on adjunct faculty. “All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy,” I thought, recalling Emerson’s comment in “Poetry and Imagination.”

I first discovered, on Boldt’s blog,  a “reblog,” “Just Not That Into You,” that originally appeared on the blog “Music for Deckchairs” by Kate Bowles. (There is a list of links at the end of her posting that offers a further chain of associations.) “When is it time,” Bowles asks, “for adjuncts to walk away/stay/lobby for change?” Then I found myself reading Amanda Krauss, at The Worst Professor Ever, commenting frankly, in an engaging and edgy voice, on the paradoxes of academic life, from the perspective of someone who decided that the life of a college or university professor is rife with more enabling fictions and illusions than a sane person can bear. (For a sample, have a look at “I Don’t Need your Stinking Tenure.”) In Krauss, a reader finds an irreverent if occasional pursuit of central themes in the Staying Alive Project.

Krauss’ voice also appears on yet another blog, The Professor is In, by Karen Kelsky, (a former tenured professor and Department Head with years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). “Be careful What You Wish For” echoes the quiet desperation we often hear from faculty. Krauss comments,

most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure.

Perhaps she needs to find new friends. But she has a point: academics are often motivated by arbitrary external rewards and “going places,” as she ironically puts it, on the way to overcoming that “last” obstacle, “before everything got super awesome.” She goes on to say that “surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.” And she concludes,

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

Finally, there is also mention of a piece by Penelope Trunk called “My Financial History and Stop Whining About Your Job” that is followed by an impassioned string of commentary about institutions and the market that are instructive and, once again, intersecting with concerns we are seeking to make visible here. What one finds at these blogs are people  engaged in an ongoing conversation about life and work that we will continue to cultivate.