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.

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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.

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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.

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.