Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Confession II

Tenure… My life has been punctuated with a series of academic milestones. College, graduate school, more graduate school, tenure-track job. All occurred in rapid sequence. No time off, no breaks, no extra year here or there. I knew all of this would happen, because I decided that all of this would happen long ago when I took “Introduction to My Field” as a stoned undergraduate. The decision was not based on arrogance, simply the realization that I could excel in this field if I really wanted to. So, I did. My young stoned-self foresaw a clear life trajectory. As I approach tenure, which I will receive in a few months (that is not arrogance either, my record is more than sufficient), I should be happy. I am not. I have seen colleagues with egregious publication records, truly pathetic teaching skills, and the kind of collegiality that forces one to start a blog such as this one sail through the tenure process. I am realistic. I can admit that I am not a superstar of my field. But, if all of us in my field could be projected into a blank night sky, you could see my star without a telescope. It may not be the brightest, but it could be identified. I think that is all tenure takes really, a presence among a constellation of others that doesn’t require too much squinting and effort to see. But when I receive tenure you are placing me in a class of stars that I cannot be grateful to join— most are the types of stars that you can have named for a loved one for a small fee, a blurry little image capturable only by the most sophisticated of telescopes or your average computer user with access to Photoshop. I know, that sounds really lousy of me. But I’ve been working very hard, and I was hoping for a greater sense of accomplishment as I meet this milestone. It just seems like a starrified pile of bullshit, I say what you want me to, you vote how the Dean and the Tenure Committee wants you to, they vote how the BOT wants them to…and all of you want this to be a nice smooth sail. No lawsuits, no pissed off university factions, no future job search. But in following this course you are doing me no favor. With your past tenure decisions you are implying that my tenure is derived from your goodwill. This is not necessary. I actually published meaningful things, put effort into my classes, and consistently got my work done (on time I might add). Now here I am and none of this seems to matter.

It’s the equivalent of grade inflation, a topic we are all more than willing to discuss. Tenure inflation however, appears to be our most taboo subject. I am feeling twinges of guilt as I type. All academic milestones are letdowns, no degree earned or grant funded provides nearly the emotional high one hopes for. But these accomplishments do come with piece of mind, the comfort of knowing one’s efforts were recognized. But even this has been taken away through tenure. It simply doesn’t matter. Had I written half as much, blown my grant money on candy, and canceled all of my classes you would simply “explain” away my behavior at each successive review phase. My young self did not know this.


  1. But did you really get into this job so that you could get tenure? So what if you could have done less and still gotten it?

  2. No, of course I didn't get into this job for tenure and I would not have done any less if given the choice. But considering the amount of time I, my colleagues, the Deans office, the Tenure committe, and the outside reviewers have to spend on tenure decisions it seems like it should mean something...why else make it such a "big deal"? I just feel a little robbed by the experience.

  3. I agree with you Dr. No.
    I don't think anyone goes into the profession FOR tenure but tenure is an important milestone that people strive for. The job stability that it affords ones career direction can be quite liberating. It's a greater degree of freedom in what scientific pursuits you choose and how you choose to do so. Moreover, how many people stay at their institution after getting rejected by the Tenure committee? Exactly.
    It's not why people go into academics, but it is a big deal and an important milestone.

  4. Dr. No,
    I couldn't agree more. At my institution, tenure has become so watered down that it is largely a meaningless achievement. Those of us who work our asses off in the spirit of earning tenure are treated no differently than those whose lackadaisical attitudes and records are inflated by colleagues who just want to move them through the process by the path of least resistances. It takes away any personal significance of the earning of the Associate title and provides zero incentive to continue busting our asses in our jobs.

  5. Hmm. I'm a graduate student at a snooty Ivy and it seems like no one here EVER gets tenure. All the tenured folks are hired from without. That's changing a bit, but the vibe here is that tenure is for geniuses & celebrities, period.

    Those of us who are on the market or who are about to go on the market are wondering if we'll even be able to find adjunct work. So I'm not sure I have sympathy for you on this gray January afternoon. Maybe if you'd gotten at job in my department you could have had the satisfaction of being turned down, or at least of watching dozens of your peers get turned down. Does that sound any better? I know, I know, there ought to be a happy medium. But I gotta say, the more academic blogs I read, the less and less I want to stick around in this profession. I always assumed that grad students are largely miserable, but faculty, too? Why do we bother? Sheesh.

    Bitter ABD

  6. ABD-

    I started this blog to complain. I have been very open about that. I have many positive feelings about my job- but these "good" feelings are best expressed elsewhere (e.g., to my students when they exceed my expectations, to my colleagues when they accomplish notable things, etc...). Blogs are great for bitching, posting family photos, and unfortunately, scrapbooking enthusiasts. Ask your professors, they will be happy to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly (which I largely blog about) sides of academia. It is no different than any other job.

    As for tenure, there are a few institutions notorious for NOT granting tenure. But we all know who they are, so profs in such places know exactly what they are getting in (still not an acceptable situation). For the rest of us, tenure is attainable- perhaps too easily...that's all I'm saying.

  7. Hmm. Well, that's actually quite encouraging to hear, that tenure is attainable. I'm at one of those notorious institutions, I'm afraid, so I guess it has me convinced that every department is rather evil. Thus my low tolerance for gloom & doom -- but I completely understand the need to vent. I suppose every job provokes such things, but I spent several years working in "business" and I hated that even more. The thing about academia is that it feels like it *matters* more, so the bullshit is all that more maddening. I didn't really expect much from marketing CEO's and the like... but in a discipline I care about, bullshit is excruciating.

    Anyway, keep up the blog.


    p.s. my professors don't tell me anything.