Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hiram is Thirsty And Baffled About Tenure

When I started in this bizness, tenure was the goal. All of my cohort focused on that. We wanted to get trained in our specialty, find the RIGHT school, and get tenure. And then we thought the world would be open to us and our giant minds forever.

I find more and more that my younger colleagues - and they are SO young now it seems - aren't concerned with tenure. They seem willing to accept the sea change of academic employment. I had a perfectly wonderful teacher say to me a few days ago say, "If teaching doesn't work out, I'll find something else I can do."

Q: What does tenure mean to you right now? Is it still a goal? Does it still matter? Was it ever the reason you found yourself in our profession?


  1. I didn’t really find myself in my profession. It found me, at age five. The reason I am in my profession is that I get to be an astronomer, and that’s even cooler than being a cowboy. (Sorry, Bubba.)

    My Dad was an intelligent fellow, who was well-loved as a high-school teacher. This was before the 1960s, when teachers were much more respected than now. Teaching was therefore something I simply grew up assuming I would do: it never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a teacher.

    When I got tenure, fourteen years of chronic anxiety from a seemingly perpetual job search finally came to an end. A great weight was lifted off my shoulders---although it took a year for it to sink in, since I was so shell-shocked.

    I’d just been through three postdocs in five years, followed by four years as an assistant professor and two previous years as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, in departments led by Chairs who took anonymous student evaluations of teaching much too seriously. In my first year of teaching, my Chair read every student evaluation and yelled at me for every bad one, while ignoring every good one. Many of the bad evaluations were from lazy, illiterate students who didn’t like how I was given them their educational money’s worth, by insisting on rigor and deadlines. I wanted to yell back, “DIDN’T YOU EVER HAVE KIDS?!?”

    Tenure was essential for my department's recent removal of a lazy, dishonest, incompetent Chair. Every one of the tenured faculty in the department who weren’t on sabbatical signed a vote of no confidence. The Chair tried to fight it, but the Dean accepted it, even though we're not crazy about some things the Dean does---or doesn't do, such as provide resources. I still get yelled at for telling students “Do your own homework,” but yes, tenure has been and continues to be valuable to me.

    Nevertheless, there are two things I dislike about tenure. The first is how it can shield deadwood. This is a problem with our now-former Chair: he became inactive in research years before becoming Chair, and he will continue this. We thought that, as Chair, he’d at least take some of the administrative load off of us. He did not: he didn’t lift a finger to help us, and we’re still in serious trouble thanks to his baleful influence. Worse, he’s occupying a faculty position we need for someone who would be productive.

    The second is how tenure, or the implied promise of it---or at least as much job security as a McDonald’s employee gets after a month on the job---is so often dangled like a carrot by unscrupulous university administrators. They do this to junior faculty, particularly adjuncts they clearly have no intention of putting on the tenure track. My own great love of astronomy made me particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, so I know all too well that this has got to stop.

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  3. I want it for two reasons.
    1. to keep my job for a few more years
    2. for reasons of pride.

    I will be up for tenure when I am almost 60, so I'll be close to retirement. So it's not like I'd be young and wondering how to start over in my 30s if I don't get it. I'll just retire. But, it'd be a painful blow to my pride.

    Getting tenure would also be a nice FU to the snotty prof who told me in grad school that I was wasn't my time, because all I'd ever do is maybe get a job at a 4 year liberal arts college somewhere. yeah, yeah, FU buddy. That's what I wanted to do. (the prof in question divorced his wife and left our state school for an Ivy. He pretty much abandoned his grad students at the original program. What a prince.)

  4. As a recent PhD and current adjunct, I and many other members of my cohort feel this way about tenure because we have to. The chances of us getting a T-T job and tenure still being around in 5-7 years are--or at least feel--miniscule. I love academia and I want a job as a tenured professor. But with higher education being in such a bad place, hanging all of one's hopes there seems short-sighted. It's easier to cultivate an awareness early on that it might not work out, and develop potential other avenues as they come, rather than focus solely on a thing that might not happen and be devastated when it all falls apart.

    This is also set against a broader background of the erosion of job security in general, and a changing relationship between company and worker. In a lot of fields (such as tech), workers aren't expected to stick around long-term, and I know people who bounce to a new job every couple of years. It's in the air.

  5. I've had tenure a couple of times and left it behind. It was a timing issue with my spouse's career, and I don't have any bitterness or sadness about it.

    I did get into the profession in part because of the AURA of my favorite undergrad proffies. They were all tenured, relaxed, brilliant. They took no shit. Taught fearlessly, and I was half in love with all of them.

    By the time I got through grad school and onto the t-t it all had changed. But that's okay.

    My pals chased it, and many got it early and have stayed happily where they started. I drifted because of my wife and her career. I'd like it again if it meant what it used to, but one cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. (Well, one can, but it's messy as shit.)

  6. To me, tenure is like a vintage motorcycle: you have to use it at least some of the time, or it actually decays more rapidly into something with no function other than as a showpiece.

    To me, "what does tenure mean to me" has two aspects:

    * What does tenure do for me as a person?

    * What do I think tenure does for my, or any, institution?

    If I get some time tomorrow, I'll try to expand.

  7. Having tenure means that I can bust cheaters for cheating, and I can assign students the grades they've actually earned. Adjuncts and people who are still hoping for promotions can't do that. Unfortunately.

    1. Yep.

      Tenure means that I can try out different approaches in the classroom - and fail.

      It means that I can get a bad year of evaluations without wondering whether I will be able to pay the mortgage next year.

      It means that I can insist that, if fractions give you the vapors, you'd better get over it or you won't pass.

      It means I can be a hard-ass when my students need it.

  8. Apparently it doesn't protect you from being fired for using offensive language:

  9. Being put on the tenure track means I feel secure enough to buy a house.

    But I have also just watched a college fail his third-year tenure-progress review so epically that he's been given a deadline for finding a place to succeed elsewhere, so I hope that was the right thing to do. And I'm motivated to not be that that big a screw-up and that politically blind.

  10. For those of us not currently tenured or on the tenure track, I think Brunnhilde describes the only sane approach, because really, the chances of anyone in that position (whether current grad student or long-time contingent faculty member) ending up on the tenure track are, indeed, low enough that it would be less than sane to treat it as the only possible, or even a likely, outcome.

    That said, yes, I'd still like to have tenure, would apply to transition to a tenured teaching track if that option became available at my university, and would (will?) apply for a more research-intensive tenure-track job if I thought I had a realistic chance of accomplishing the requisite amount of research in the time available before tenure review (either because I'd already done most of it -- the most likely scenario -- or because the time line and expectations were reasonable -- a less-likely one). At the same time, I'm aware that there are plenty of tenure-track, and tenured, jobs out there that are worse (for me, and in some cases for anyone) than my present contingent one. I also like certain aspects of my present job (including the geographical location, expensive as the area is), and wouldn't give them up *just* because I had an opportunity for tenure.

    So what does tenure actually mean to me at this point? Well, like MA&M, I'd like to keep my job for (quite) a few more years, and worry about the possibility that the perception that I'm "too old" could overtake the reality that I do a pretty good job of keeping abreast of current trends, experimenting with (but not blindly embracing) new technologies, etc., etc. At the same time, I'd like the freedom to visibly age. Since I'm not interested in dyeing my hair, or otherwise trying to disguise my age (and since a lot of women in my area are/do, which is fine by me, except for the side-effects on me), I'm probably one of those women who's going to look more or less as I do now -- like somebody's youngish grandmother -- for the next 25 years or so (or, in other words, the rest of my career). It's a look that is probably easier to carry off as a newly-minted full professor working on her 3rd book than as a contingent faculty member hoping to work at least until the age of 70. Tenure would mean freedom from worrying about that stuff (although, to echo Brunnhilde, I'm reasonably confident at this point that I could get some sort of work -- maybe not work that suits me as well as my present work, but some sort of work -- to carry me through. My strongest skills are writing and research, and, if the point is to make money, I don't really care whether my name is on the writing or not. Put those together, and you probably have a recipe for employability -- one which relies much more on skill than appearance.)

    It also means the things that Frankie and Introvert mention (though, so far, I'm lucky enough to have those freedoms as a contingent professor on a multi-year contract. But that security is a bit too dependent on the fact that I teach a required course that needs to be taught, preferably with minimal complaints/trouble to the department, in dozens of sections every semester, and that takes a while to master teaching, especially in the context of a 4/4 load. If that course went away, so would my job). More importantly, it means, at least as things are currently structured at my school, a real chance to participate in governance (including curriculum development), and at least the chance to say "no; that will undermine the quality of teaching" when some administrator proposes some new supposedly money-saving scheme (to be fair, I currently have that freedom, and don't think I'd be fired it I exercised it, and am not sure my tenure-track colleagues have much more chance of being heard than I do, but I'd feel even more secure in making such pronouncements if I had tenure).

    1. Mostly, I think tenure would provide some protection from the rules being changed, and changed again, unpredictably and without warning, and nobody batting an eyelash, because, you know, that's supposed to be expected when you're in a contingent position (of course, it's increasingly happening to people in tenured positions, in Wisconsin, and in other places where "restructuring" ends up eliminating whole programs and departments, so I'm not sure it really means that any more; like Cal, I'm seeing a lot of people realizing that tenure isn't quite what they thought it would be, maybe partially because of unrealistic expectations, but to a great extent also because there have been real changes).

      So I don't know. I'm ambivalent at best at this point. On the on the one hand, tenure represents a lot of the things that first attracted me to academia: being part of a community (one that rewards loyalty for loyalty), having a voice in how things work, a degree of stability and security. On the other hand, I'm not sure it really means many of those things any more (if it ever did). And I'm convinced that the greatest threat to the tenure system is not the sort of dismantling from without that has been proposed, or is actually happening, in several states, but the quiet but steady erosion from within in which tenure-track faculty participate every time they hire another contingent faculty member (but what are they going to do? not hire at all? I realize this isn't really a choice in many cases). At the rate things are going, I'm pretty sure that we'll either have no tenure at all within an academic generation, or a vestigial form of tenure that benefits only a few research superstars and a small administrative class. That hardly seems worth fighting for. A reinvigorated tenured faculty -- which probably, at least at universities, means a teaching tenure track -- does. I'm just not sure whether there's any chance of getting there, or whether any attempt to preserve tenure at this point just distracts us from the larger issues that both TT and contingent faculty members have in common. I am pretty sure that somebody else’s tenure can’t, despite their best intentions, protect me and my contingent colleagues. It’s just not that powerful anymore (if it ever was).

    2. I like the idea of teaching-intensive tenure track. The methodology of teaching is itself research that can benefit at least one's colleagues.

      In the 3-dimensional mix of teaching, service, and research, there is no one recipe that is optimal for all professors. Yet tenure is important to each of those job functions, and as the university benefits from them all, tenure should be available to those who do any or all of them.

  11. Tenure allows me to focus on what the students need, and not what they want.

  12. Tenure means:

    * I don't have to worry whether my students "like" me. Interestingly enough, when I got tenure and began to focus on what students need (per EC1, above) their outcomes and my satisfaction improved, and my evaluations didn't decline.

    * I have an obligation to speak truth to power when enacting their misinformed directives would unnecessarily run against the mission of the university or threatens its long-term stability.

    * I have an obligation to model effective behaviour to my junior colleagues and mentor them more directly when needed, such that they may sooner achieve tenure themselves.

    Tenure does NOT mean:

    * I get to be an asshole to co-workers or students.

    * I can "just say no" to every project that comes along, such that my colleagues are left with an inequitable burden of service or teaching.

    1. I like these lists. They match responsibility with privilege.

    2. My list looks a lot like OPHs. with one addition: I can research the material I think has the most scholarly value (as per my obligations as a scholar), not the work that is going to give some funding committee a boner.

    3. I should have thought of the research. It is a testament to how much my own research has taken a dump in the last couple years that it apparently fled my brain.

      My joint just heaps the service and teaching on till the camel breaks. Even so, the provost had an annoying habit of "stopping by" to tell us about the shiny new research topic that he read about in some press release or other. He'd finish up with "have you guys ever thought about working on that?"

      I'd want to answer "if you'd ever applied for, much less attained a grant, you'd understand that it's not enough that you like the idea. The reviewers have to like the idea, but more importantly, they have to believe that you can do it. I have no training or track record in that field, and they'd just laugh at me asking for money to do that work and give it to someone who's more proven."

      Instead, I'd say "hey, that's neat; we'll definitely look into it."

    4. I, too, like your list. That sounds to me like what tenure *should* be, and what I hope I'd make of it if I had the chance.

      Commiserations on your provost's obliviousness to the way research works. I try to teach my students that it's a *good* thing if no one else has done research exactly on their topic, since that means there's an opportunity to contribute t

  13. My other thoughts on what tenure means are offered in comments on other posts, such as here and here. It has now come to my attention that I have answered only one of the four questions in the prompt, and that I should finish the others.

    Is it still a goal?

    Not for me just now, because I happen to have it. If I go to another institution, I'll want it. I believe it should remain a goal for all in the professoriate, for reasons that I hope are clear from my answers to "what does tenure mean to you?"

    Does it still matter?

    Yes it does, because it still means things that I've tried to explain in my answers to questions 1 and 2.

    Was it ever the reason you found yourself in our profession?

    It was definitely not. When, while I was an undergrad, my work-study advisor got tenure, I did not understand the implications. I gave it no thought till I was already on the track myself.

    I had never intended to go into the education "business": my sights were set on industry and/or entrepreneurship. A series of happy accidents dangled in front of me at critical junctures in my life a slot in grad school, some post-doc positions, and then a TT assistant professorship, all of which the candidates of choice had backed out of. I applied for those positions because doing so seemed like less work than the "normal" route, and fortunately, I landed them. The subject of a biography I once read, a businessman, was quoted as saying, "I pay people twice what they're worth, and then I make them earn it." In a similar vein, I found myself in positions for which I was not worthy, and then I had to earn my right to remain in them.

    Because of the "up or out" system, my getting tenure was such a huge fucking relief that it wasn't till I'd had it for a while that my thoughts strayed beyond "I'm not out!" and I allowed myself to explore other reasons why I needed tenure. One mitigating factor could be that soon after I got it, I saw a tenured colleague carrying a box of personal effects from the building, flanked by two armed security guards. But a bit later that year, in a faculty governance meeting, I faced down a senior colleague who was trying to bully me and the committee I chaired. And then other colleagues began coming to me to fix things for them, and I realized I had somehow found myself right where I was supposed to be.

    Students lacking knowledge in something? I can fix that. Curricular reform hitting roadblocks? I can fix that. Administration has a big thorn in its paw? I can fix that, too. But sometimes, a thorn has a barb that won't allow it to come straight out. Instead, it must be driven through the flesh and out the other side, and it fucking hurts. Tenure is that armour which keeps me from being flayed by the lion's other paw whilst I do what has to be done in the best interest of my institution and everybody in it.

    And that, dear Miserians, is more than I'd expected to reveal about me, the person. But I had a bad woking Friday and I'm drinking more than I should today. Don't worry, I can fix it.

    Damn good Thirsty, Hiram. Thanks.

    1. Sometimes, I think, the people who didn't set out to fill a particular kind of position (tenured professor, elective office of some sort, sometimes even some family roles) make at least as good a job of it as those who aimed for it all along, precisely because they tend to stop and think about what the position entails, and where the possibilities and pitfalls lie.

      It sounds like you're making good use of it, OPH, and that's good to hear. Hope things are looking up after a bit of weekend.

    2. It may be more than you planned to reveal, OPH, but I'm glad you did. I get so much from your writing.

      More than that, I hope your situation is getting better.


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