Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

“What are the implications of the decline of tenure?” A recent forum in the New York Times began with this question and generated an extended blog conversation. Responses ranged from defenses of tenure to reductive critiques of a so-called academic “system” to theories about the labor market. A tenured professor, I found myself rallying around arguments for tenure as well as wondering about the opportunities that might be emerging given the decline of tenure. More importantly, the forum led me to think again about the relationship between a system of promotion organized around the desire for tenure—and the relative economic security and professional acceptance— and the personal costs of that desire.

Just what tenure is—its definition(s) and its value—is elusive in the forum postings. Yet the personal costs of the normative timeline for tenure, the practice of working toward tenure, and the granting of tenure (or not), is clearly problematic for a number of participants. Here is one example:

In my experience, tenure does not provide, or secure, freedom to do anything. How does a person who successfully endures tenure retain any personal integrity whatsoever? Tenure is, in fact, granted only after a professor is successfully indoctrinated into a particular institution, and department. How can professors submit to such pressure to conform and then proceed to “be free” to teach students? After six years of frantic publishing and pleasing those in power is it possible to remember who we are, and what drove us to teach in the first place? Are we able, after tenure, to go back to who we really are, or is that person lost to us after six years of conformity? After tenure are we transformed, instead, into a kind of Stepford Professor that fits nicely into a particular institution, or department? Or worse, are we so damaged by what we have endured to achieve tenure that unknowingly we transfer similar abuse to the new crop of tenure seeking assistant professors?

This comment succinctly summarizes the pressure to conform (“pleasing those in power”), the loss of integrity that comes from conforming to external motives (“frantic publishing”) and the resulting neglect of one’s students and, more importantly, one’s self.   To earn tenure, in such a system, faculty members are encouraged to force intellectual projects into a fixed timeline; they are drawn to low-risk committee work rather than pursuing a more risky department or campus project or initiative; and they spend the minimum amount of time on campus and with students as they chase the gold standard of professional success: publication.

Experiences of the tenure and promotion process vary widely across institutions, for sure. In my experience, the process of tenure invites conformity and too many tenured faculty are content with the idea that untenured faculty members’ careers are in danger from their tenured colleagues to fester. Too often there are smart and well-intentioned junior colleagues showing restraint and caution and senior colleagues perpetuating a system that promotes the kind of intellectual and personal growth we purportedly value.

Changing the system would require senior faculty to promote the idea that working toward tenure, and the awarding of tenure, should involve taking intellectual risks. Quantitative measures of scholarly production may work in some institutional settings; however, a more flexible qualitative measure of a teacher and scholar’s work, as it relates to the mission of the institution and the department or program, would ask junior and senior colleagues to create conditions for innovation and creativity rather than perpetuating a six year period of professional life a junior professor must “endure.” In my experience, the tenure process can promote a professional life with purpose and integrity. The trajectory of intellectual work should not be constrained by a six year period but rather should demonstrate unambiguously a professional life marked by a clear sense of purpose and significant growth. (The best proposal for faculty promotion I know is by the former professor of English at the University of Chicago, Wayne Booth, that I wrote about last year in the posting titled “Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities.”)

I would argue that we need tenure to assure the freedom of faculty to teach and design curriculum unfettered by prevalent assumptions and ahistorical motives that are all too often reductively imposed upon people trying to do their work well. The alternative (that would retain tenure, and for good reason) would be tenured professors working together to rebuild a system to promote professional integrity and a commitment to meaningful contributions among those who aspire to receive tenure. We would all need to work, institution by institution, to dispel the lore that inevitably breeds fear and restraint. We would create the conditions for fresh intellectual ventures, challenging discussions and vibrant classrooms where professional integrity is cultivated and rewarded as the sine qua non.

If this all sounds too idealistic or naïve, we can continue to let the system move in the direction it has been moving for the past thirty or more years. Gradually and inexorably, tenure is going away, and it is up to the tenured faculty to make a better defense of this powerful and transformative idea.

The Warrior Phase

My best race at the national championships, during the 1980s, and in the 1984 Olympic trials, was the fifty kilometer marathon. At the time I was training six hundred hours a year. To use John’s words, these were indeed years of feeling “trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched.”

Watching the Olympics, for me, is coming back to a former self. I recall the focus and dedication—and the feelings of success and achievement when winning a race, setting a course record, or placing among the top finishers in a national field of competitors. Too, I remember the gradual recognition that I could not sustain the ever-narrowing focus that comes with success as a nationally competitive athlete. The closer I reached the elite ranks of an activity I loved, the more I found myself narrowing my focus in training, if not in life.

Reading Mike’s “Counting What Counts” has me thinking about the full engagement of the warrior phase. The image of a warrior on Liberty Bell (an elegant spire in the North Cascades I’ve had the good fortune to climb!) embodies the strength, flexibility, and centeredness that only develops through years of conscious activity. The metaphor that aligns the life of the body and the life of the mind is helpful for me, in particular, as someone who was climbing mountains and backcountry skiing when not sitting in a seminar room, or working in the Suzzallo library, at the University of Washington.

Staying alive through the Warrior Phase, at least for me, involved translating the practice of strength, flexibility, and centeredness in my activities out of doors to the personal, professional, and institutional self I was discovering in school. But of course translation can be difficult, especially in a university culture that limits the range of intellectual activities graduate students and faculty members are able to pursue. For too often we restrict, as Mike says, the full range and capacity of intellectual growth of our faculty. For those of us who love our work (Mike and I are kindred spirits, it seems), I would ask that we speak more authentically about what we do: the real work that we think should be valued. As full, tenured professors we have a special obligation to cultivate our suspicion of institutions at the same time that we throw ourselves into the ongoing and never-ending labor of making them more humane.  For those who find less satisfaction or opportunity in the intellectual culture of the academy, I would ask a similar authentic way of speaking about how strength, flexibility, and centeredness have helped them stay alive despite the challenges and inequities that are endemic to any domain of labor. As Mike attests, “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. We need to encourage our academic institutions to do a better job of counting what counts, and when they are incapable of doing so we need to have the courage to do what counts even, and perhaps especially, when we know that it will not be counted.”

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At one time, I imagined working in a large graduate program at a large research university. And Mike’s posting reminds me of the satisfactions I experienced as a graduate student and during my years as a postdoctoral instructor at a research school. I am confident that had my work of reading, writing and teaching taken root in this kind of institution, I would have thrived on precisely those human connections and possibilities to pursue my love of research and writing, activities to which Mike so eloquently attests. However, the trajectory of intellectual work, as Mike suggests, can be “stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed,” opening up a rift between the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Mike’s litany of professional activities considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities should give anyone pause: publishing in non-peer-reviewed venues; publishing edited collections; book review publishing or editing; editing special issues of journals; collaborative writing and editing; writing for general or popular audiences; scholarship that focuses on pedagogy; research that is out of one’s supposed area of expertise; mentoring junior faculty or students; service learning; contributing to professional development forums such as Staying Alive; and, most tellingly, community service of any kind whatsoever. How can we devalue these intellectual commitments? How might we cultivate strength, flexibility, and centeredness in institutions that have no intrinsic interest in these significant relational activities?

A Sense of Where you Are

In a lunch conversation with a job candidate yesterday we found our way to the subject of student engagement. We were talking about developing what John McPhee memorably called in his book-length profile of Bill Bradley, a sense of where you are. We touched on the struggles young people have as they weigh the experience of college, sort through the often conflicting impulses to focus on means or ends, and imagine a meaningful relationship between their academic experiences and the results of those experiences beyond school.

The challenges of our academic lives, it seems to me, revolve around similarly conflicting impulses. On the one hand, we are where we are, and the opportunities of our professional lives take place in the day-to-day labor of reading, writing and teaching. On the other hand, we frequently lose that place as we seek to move from where we are to someplace else. I’ve already written here on what seems to me the necessity of movement in academic life. But what about learning to embrace the work we are privileged to find ourselves doing? What about making the most of it? What about living in the present, the place we have constructed through the choices we have made as well as by the conditions that have shaped our choices?

My conversations with John have helped me to think more productively across the phases of an academic career. These conversations have intersected with the little reading and thinking I have done on life stages: Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, Robert Keegan’s evolving self, Carl Jung’s process of individuation and Parker Palmer’s more recent explorations of identity and integrity. And I have sketched  the map of development that identifies the student or apprentice, the warrior, the householder, and the sadhu.

Complicating my own personal and professional arc has been that my initiation into the apprentice phase happened much later in life (I decided to go to college when I entered my twenty-eighth year). In fact, the first piece of writing I published in an academic journal, a collaboratively written essay, sought to complicate the phase of apprenticeship in an academic life. For me, the warrior phase was mostly played out in athletic competition—through years of national-level Nordic ski racing or through the inwardly focused challenges of mountaineering. I now see that my successes in graduate school may have had much to do with having already entered into a transitional phase, as a “nontraditional student,”  where struggling and settling in were unfolding in a mutually constitutive way. Looking back, in fact, my intellectual interest in methods of inquiry that preoccupied me during graduate school may have been working through the complicated intersections of personal and professional development precisely where I was.

More recently I had the good fortune to have been granted and, perhaps more importantly, to have returned from a sabbatical leave. This hard-earned moment helped me to see the rewards of what we have been calling here the settler/householder phase, where scholarly commitments and productivity are deeply entwined with commitments to leadership and community. This has been the most apparent gift of my academic life. For I am fortunate to be a member of an academic institution that genuinely values forms of intellectual work beyond the more solitary activities of reading and writing. I cannot imagine any more a life without this solitude (as I once could not imagine a life without days, even weeks, in the mountains). But as I look at where my energies are focused these days I can see how deeply invested I really am in trying to honor the communities of people in which I work.

My sense of where I am includes an awareness of transition and movement. Carrying forms of wisdom and cultivating the significance of story in our lives—what we are calling here the elder phase—seems to me to be associated with the phase of life and profession named in that strange metaphor of the full professor, a title I now find myself carrying. Come to think of it, part of what I have been doing these past few years is listening to those elders I most admire, allowing their words and actions to infuse the possible ways I might move through the ongoing succession of moments that will make up the coming years of this academic life.

We need more of what Bradley brings to all of what he has done in his life—in his case, that preternatural presence on the hardwood floor, that intellectual ability to move without the ball and the awareness that one’s life unfolds across a life’s path that we really have more power to live in than our past (and future) experiences might suggest.

Balance in Grad School: Examples from the ASLE Workshop

We asked participants at our June 2009 workshop to think about people they had known in grad school who were leading convincing lives.  They had to scratch their heads for a moment.  Most of us remember grad school as a period of anxiety and stress, when we are all bound up with ourselves, studying for exams, trying to finish our dissertations, and arming ourselves to face the hopeless odds of the job search.  Among survivors, grad school is hardly remembered as a time of fun, fulfillment, or healthy relationships.

Our yoga balance posture for grad school is the Eagle  PoseeagleforblogWhen you are all wrapped up in yourself, how can you stay on your feet, and even stretch upward, without toppling over?  How can your energy be oriented around the emerging self without strangling it or flying outward in all directions?  It is not easy, but it can be done.

One person remembered a colleague who worked on building a canoe in his spare time.  Another recalled a friend who spent time socializing, often at a local watering hole where he played darts. Another had a friend who liked to act.  Another maintained “two identities,” doing research and playing sports.   Still another, a woman in her 40’s, seemed to “glow” even though her free-thinking put her at odds with prevailing intellectual fashions; she was stressed but not up tight, and she seemed happy amid the “creative chaos” of her life and work.

In discussion the group decided that convincing lives in grad school seemed to “radiate outward.”  These people did their work but also connected to something else.  Some brought family or regional traditions with them, such as the fellow from the South who held “bream cookouts” for his colleagues.  Another described one friend who took a menial stocking job at Target and would bring back  “really refreshing” stories. “These kinds of things buoyed us,” she said.  Reaching beyond your work, connecting to a larger community, and self-nurturing activities seemed to be key tools for balance here.

Up next: a detailed case

(picture source: full-well.blogspot.com/2008/09/yoga-finally.htm)

A Writing Prompt

Write for five minutes about one person who you believe lives a convincing life in the academy.

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I’m grateful for John’s recent summary of our workshop in Victoria. I thought I would follow with this specific writing prompt for those of you interested in the conversation about staying alive. As John mentions in his post, the most illuminating part of our workshop was listening to one another describe people we knew who live convincing lives in the academy. If you take this up, you might consider writing about someone in one of the four phases of academic life we identify: 1) graduate school, or apprenticing (immersed in culture; involvement and engagement; observing culture and persons; learning and growing; choosing work you love; investing in the self; 2) the warrior phase (creating Place, in the tenure stream, outside tenure stream, administration, nonacademic; looking to colonize structures and spaces; diversifying options; keeping moving; 3) the settler and householder phase (inhabiting places, or degrees of permanence; thinking within and beyond institution; learning and growing with students; cultivating a beginner’s mind); and 4) the eldering phase (sharing experience, story, wisdom; modeling health, growth, vitality; giving back to the community though mentoring).

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The stories we shared in Victoria corresponded well to what we believe are seven virtues for living a fulfilling life in academics: centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity; imagination; and collaboration. Do you have a story to share?

The Value of Professional Mentoring

The Modern Language Associations’ Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession has just published “Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession” (Web publication, 27 April 2009). The MLA report, as the authors put it, “suggests that the story of women’s professional lives is a complex one and that no one cause can explain women’s status in the profession.” While it would be interesting to discuss what the authors of the report call an “accumulation of microdifferences” that may add up to the substantial difference in time between women and men in attaining the rank of professor (and I hope someone will post a comment on this subject here to incite further discussion on this thread), a preliminary reading of the report has me highlighting the places in the discussion that call for creating a culture of professional mentoring and that document the disincentives that keep us from doing it.

The MLA report can help us to see the institutional and professional and personal conventions that devalue working together to create sustainable professional lives. For the report describes the professional structures that we perpetuate every day and that devalue the day-to-day collaborations that can improve the quality and effectiveness of our professional lives as teachers and scholars:

Moreover, a faculty member’s conscious retreat from undervalued or devalued forms of professional activity—including the creation of new courses and other kinds of teaching and mentoring that are often at the heart of institutional mission statements (activities from which, the survey shows, respondents drew substantial professional satisfaction)—is certainly not likely to enhance the quality of instruction and the general educational experience we provide our students. Rather than consider these activities as impediments to professional progress, institutions should encourage an appreciation of these contributions for the significant value they add to the intellectual worth of the institution. In short, standards for promotion should be brought directly into line with the numerous, essential, and vitalizing activities that sustain day to-day life in colleges and universities. Similarly, standards for promotion should explicitly recognize many of the activities, grouped under the catchall term “service,” that are necessary to further our professions or enhance partnerships between academic institutions and community organizations. The term “service,” now used to cover a huge spectrum of activities, often does not begin to capture the myriad possible contributions of faculty members, and thoughtful attention should be given to making distinctions among different kinds of service contributions, such as leadership to the profession and community engagement.

The authors have it exactly right, too, that the results of the survey of associate professors should be read in relationship to the Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion as well as the recent report from the American Association of University Professors on contingent academic labor. The call to calibrate standards for promotion in relation to the values of the people who help to define the mission and values of institutions can lead to positive, incremental changes. For instance, we should be working in our local contexts to allow our work that aligns with our mission and values to be recognized as such. And we should be talking more in fora like this one to better understand the relationship between the work that we do and the work that we wish we were doing.

Where We Are Coming From

Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the protagonist coming to himself in a dark wood, astray from the right path, lost and depressed. He feels abandoned and alone; he can’t think straight; he’s easily intimidated by phantoms.  Fear clouds his reason and rules his imagination.  The poem tells us that he’s at the middle of the life journey, ripe for crisis.  Fortunately, he finds a guide in Virgil, who combines reason with imagination to show him the way out.  Virgil begins by telling his own story, then guides him through Hell with a combination of story and interpretation.  In the process, Dante the pilgrim gathers the experience and wisdom he needs to become a story teller himself, and eventually, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory and ascending through the heavenly spheres, he is able to write the Comedy—not for angels or saints, but for people like us.

We identify with the Dante of the dark wood.  How many times in the course of our careers have we felt confused, challenged by phantoms, betrayed by our colleagues or even by our own naiveté.  And at the same time, how often have we been helped unexpectedly, buoyed by the generosity or wisdom of friends and colleagues, gifted with moments of healing insight, supported by the unaffected love of our spouses and children, or inspired—yet again—by the excitement of our students after a good class.

We are both at advanced stages of rather unusual careers.  Mark put off college for more than a decade while he worked as a professional skier and mountaineer in the High Sierra.  Then he married and went all the way through for a PhD in English, eventually landing at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he achieved tenure and became chair of the English Department. Now, with two preteen-aged kids, he strives to balance work and family with professional ventures such as the ASLE mentoring program.  John spent ten years as a regular professor before going over to the “dark side” as a dean and then resuming teaching as a mentor to adult learners in a nontraditional university, which eventually laid off its best faculty in response to a fiscal crisis.  He has run a doctoral program but never held tenure, published books and articles but had only one sabbatical, and seen ecocriticism evolve from a dubious venture to a mainstream field of study.

Along the way both of us have learned the importance of community, family, networking, and balancing.  Wisdom is as important as knowledge, even though the latter is mostly rewarded.  Relationships count for as much as productivity, though they don’t pay as well.  Balance fosters mental and emotional health, although institutions seldom factor it into their planning.  In the end, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, which should not be confused with success.  Mark’s and John’s complimentary but somewhat divergent histories will, we hope, give this blog a stereoscopic view of academic life.

And, if all goes well, our views will be deepened and enriched by yours.  In the end, we all aspire to journey, as Dante did, from suffering through learning toward felicity.  We all aspire, and need, to become story tellers.  As Barry Lopez reminds us, sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.