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.

Click on the video for a quick preview of our first app, MakeNice®:

 

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: the Road Most Taken

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Robert Frost came to a fork and then chose the road not taken, although he did confess that both looked to have been worn about the same. Both had been taken, though he would have preferred to think otherwise, because it would have made for a better story.   Frost looked down one road as far as he could before the view was blocked by undergrowth.  He couldn’t see far enough to tell how things would turn out.

So it is with tenure.  If you get it, things don’t necessarily get easier, nor, if you don’t, do they get harder.  They just get different. Either way, the path holds challenges.  Once tenured, you still face the fundamental problem of staying alive and leading a balanced life.

No doubt you’re asking yourself, “What can he possibly mean?  Doesn’t getting tenure mean success?  Doesn’t it mean a job for life along with the freedom, at last, to do what I want, pursue my own work, set my own priorities?  Doesn’t it mean I can finally relax?  After all, I get to belong at last, a permanent and bonafide member of the profession, with an institutional home and community to support my values and work.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Tenure does confer many privileges and opportunities, but with them come a host of challenges and temptations.  To get in and stay in, you have to buy in; that’s the deal.

Now that you are an insider, the club counts on you to keep it going.  You must now uphold the values, administer the organization, master the ceremonies, and keep the secrets.   After seven to ten years of aspiration and struggle, most of us don’t find this so hard to imagine.  But it’s not a one time thing; you have to keep doing it for the next thirty years. I remember a minister friend, a spiritual and balanced person who worked with the homeless and whose wife taught English at the college next door.  She was up for tenure and they had both gone into therapy.  When I asked how it was going, he just rolled his eyes. “The counselor says we have to break out of our workaholic mindset, but the college says she has to work harder to keep her job!”

So the question of balance comes first and foremost.  And the demands don’t stop.  Now the institution expects a return on its thirty year investment, and it starts piling on the committee work.  You dreamed about feeding your spirit, but instead you’re feeding the beast.  Moreover, you’re stuck with the same colleagues, the same students, the same campus, and the same issues.  Sartre was right to declare that “Hell is other people.”  It may not be long before you begin to sense a narrowing of options within the institution, where there is only so much pie to go around.  You have to make agonizing decisions about colleagues who apply for grants, go up for promotion, or stand for admin jobs, which, more often than not, go to outside candidates anyway.

Yet, despite all this bad news about tenure, we can hardly imagine anyone turning it down.  True, occasional reports do drift in from some superstar who has left for more glamorous opportunities, but for most of us that is the stuff of legend.  For most of us, tenure is the road taken, the only route to citizenship in both the institution and the profession.  To be denied tenure is like being banished or struck with a terminal illness.  It feels like receiving a death sentence.

But neither does getting tenure remove the fundamental challenge of staying alive.  Our profession would collapse if thousands of conscientious and devoted colleagues had not grappled with and solved this problem.  Despite the temptations and pitfalls that tenure brings, they seem to be leading a convincing life.  What can we learn from them?

Image source: http://kacabiru.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/the-road-not-taken/

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.