Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Joyless on the Tenure Track

In this post, I shall pick up New Kid's mantle, and I shall express my utter irritation at a Chronicle First Person column. Now, I get where David D. Perlmutter is coming from as he concludes, "As academics, we need to think about ways we can make the tenure track, if not less rigorous, at least less downbeat, even (or especially) at the moment of triumph. But a fog of doom and gloom will not help you seize the prize, and might even blind you to the best ways to achieve it."* Yes, thinking positive is a good thing, and being pissed off and down all the time is no good for anybody, or good for anybody's career. BUT. (And you knew there'd be a "but.")

The moment at which I began to question this guy's credibility was when he described his own personal Doom and Gloom during the tenure process. He writes, in the third paragraph, that while he had very pleasant circumstances surrounding his bid for tenure, that it was (boohoo) "without joy." He then goes on to describe those "pleasant circumstances," and concludes with the following:
"Thanks to the efforts of the office staff, my graduate assistant, and my wife, I had to do very little work in assembling my tenure file."
Ok, my first response to this sentence was utterly without value [insert expletives here]. See, he was dejected because, with all of that support and smooth-sailing he "felt no exhilaration" upon being awarded tenure. (One might ask whether he should since he didn't really put his application together, but I'm not going to be that petty.)

Now, I don't know when this guy got tenure, but who does he think he's kidding? Does he really think that his experience above is the norm? Apparently, yes, for he writes toward the end of the column,
"Consider a relatively minor bump on the tenure path: the task of putting together your tenure application. Sure, that can be time-consuming. But an obvious solution is to assemble your materials each year. A little upfront work can spare you lots of last-minute paper shuffling as you try to track down six years' worth of teaching evaluations. Ask for secretarial help from your department." (Italics mine)
On the one hand, he is right. Assembling one's materials once a year does mean that you won't freak out at the end. But on the other, why do I know this? Because my institution requires that we submit them for review each and every fall. Every single tenure-track person must do this, regardless of whether they're going up. And every year the binder goes all the way up the chain of command, and every year you get feedback about how to make your binder (not your application, but your fucking BINDER) more spiffy. Because apparently one needs a Ph.D. in scrap-booking as well as in one's field of specialty in order to get tenure where I work. Since I've been in this job, there have been no fewer than seven people on the tenure-track each year in my department alone. If somebody can explain to me how our two department administrative assistants (who do a fuck of a lot more than secretarial work, incidentally) would be able to "help" with all of those materials, I'd be interested to hear about it. I'd also love to see the looks on their faces if anybody were to be such an entitled, privileged asshole as to burden them with the request. And did I mention that I do not have graduate assistants? And that even if I did, I think it would be wrong to ask them to put together my tenure application? And did I mention that I also don't have a fucking wife, and that if I did (or have a spouse at any rate), I certainly wouldn't expect them to put my tenure shit together for me because GOD ALMIGHTY IT IS THE 21ST CENTURY AND IDEALLY ANY SPOUSE WOULD HAVE THEIR OWN LIFE AND INTERESTS THAT EXTENDED BEYOND MY BID FOR TENURE?

Look, I don't know this dude, nor do I think that he had any sort of a clue how these comments would be perceived by a person at a regional university with little administrative support, a 4/4 teaching load, and ever-increasing demands for service and publication. Nor do I think he possibly could have anticipated that I read his column during a "break" from the final tweaking of the book manuscript, at the end of a grueling semester where, yes, I've got a course release, which means I'm teaching "only" three classes (and three different preps, one of them a new prep, and again, with no teaching assistants or graders), a book that I've managed to see through the revision and publication process with no sabbatical (or possibility for one before tenure). So yes, I'm bringing my own shit to this.

But let's put my own shit aside for a moment. I suspect that the table of "unhappy assistant professors" with which he sat at a faculty reception and which inspired his column probably have their own shit with which they're dealing, shit that does not resemble David D. Perlmutter's own idyllic tenure bid. You know, sometimes people have good reasons for being unhappy, and it's not just that we need to "celebrate" the achievement of tenure with more pomp and circumstance or that people need to adjust their attitudes.

I mean, sure, it would be nice if achieving tenure did feel like more of a, well, achievement. And yes, it would also be nice if the process itself were more transparent, and if the work that we do on the tenure track received more acknowledgment. But come on. Sometimes when people are unhappy with their lot, they've got really legitimate reasons for being unhappy. And putting on a happy face doesn't necessarily constitute a reasonable or good response to a system that is at best difficult and at worst oppressive and exploitative.

So what do I wish? Well, two things. First, I wish that people who received tenure more than 10 years ago would actually talk to their junior colleagues about how their junior colleagues perceive their situations and the process rather than assuming that their junior colleagues' experiences are identical to their own. Second, I wish that the Chronicle of Higher Education would pay attention to the fact that their First Person Columns rarely, if ever, speak to the experience of anybody I know and respect in this profession.

*I should note that many of the things that Perlmutter writes do not entirely enrage me and I even agreed with him at points, but those points of agreement were overshadowed by the things that did enrage me. And so, I really do recommend that you read the whole column, as it's not without value.


Anonymous said...

yeah, no one at my house is going to help me put together a tenure binder. and i wouldn't ask. and as a grad student, It would piss me the hell off if I had to help with that. you know, my adviser is even reluctant to hire me to transfer her slides to a digital format b/c it's so mindless.

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, I can imagine this guy saying, though, that having the grad asst. do this is training them for what they will have to do to put a tenure app. together. Except for the fact that clearly he didn't need to learn how to do this, because he just had others do the legwork for him. I really think that if one has grad students, one should have them doing things that help them with their careers - not with our own.

Lesboprof said...


I left the column after I read it vaguely uneasy with a number of things, especially his tone. You helped put it together for me.

I have put together binders/3rd year tenure-review folders THREE friggin' times at different institutions. It sucks. On the actual tenure bid, which I only did once, I did have a PT work-study student who helped me make the endless copies for the outside readers, but the rest was up to me. And I am WAY too control freakish to hand it off to someone else.

But I agree with you... the basic argument about assistant professors not being "happy" enough struck me as stupid and patronizing.

Lesboprof said...

Damn, the above isn't quite true. I did the tenure bid twice. I blocked out the first (withdrawn) bid. It made the second one much more stressful all the way until the end.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Amen, Crazy, amen! Especially that last line.

I didn't like the column very much but didn't articulate why until I read this. (How did I skip over his WIFE helping him do his tenure file?? I read that to NLLDH and his eyebrows shot up.) I mean, I do get his overall point, but you're so right that if one's own experience has been pleasant, one should consider that other people's experiences are NOT. (Speaking from that side of the table!)

I think I did get some help at Former College on my 3rd year review - I think that the work-study students photocopied my pubs for me. But that was pretty much it. (And fat lot of good it did me!)

rwellor said...

This guy admits to getting help from his wife, GA and secretarial staff and posters here go mad?

Perhaps he is well-liked?

You know.. I mean, in real life....

Dr. Crazy said...

Rwellor, I don't dislike the columnist. I don't even know him. Did I dislike the implication, coming from a person who openly admits that he had kinds of material resources and support that are completely outside the norm of my experience on the tenure track and outside the norm of any of the people whom I know that are currently on the tenure track, that those who are living in "a fog of doom and gloom" just need an attitude adjustment? Yep. I sure did.

I'm sure this person is great and likable and all the rest in real life. He's not unlikable in his column. For me, whether he's well liked is really beside the point. The point for me is that his perspective on how to survive the tenure process bears no relationship to what the majority of people in this profession experience or have the possibility of experiencing. The problem with the Chronicle's first person columns is that they are presented as being *exemplary* slices of academic life. This columnist's perspective just isn't exemplary, and in some places his tone was incredibly pejorative. In spite of his admission about the ease with which he achieved tenure, he didn't seem to recognize that others, regardless of how well they are liked, may *never* have the potential to receive the help that he did and that he advises that we seek.

And so, did I "go mad" at reading this column, like some hysterical shrew who just can't accept the well-meaning advice of others? No. Did I respond with frustration and anger? Yes, I did. And I think that I pretty clearly articulated the reasons why I responded in that way.

Maggie said...

I'm so with you on this Crazy, especially (as NK said) the last line. Where does the CHE *find* these people, I often wonder.

That said, the more I think about it/live with it, the more absurd I think the tenure system is in general. I know that's practically heresy to admit (hi Dean Dad!), but *wow* it produces so much weirdness all around.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Kick ass! This is the service economy at its best. I wonder who the contracted out the making of the pot roast and the grading of the papers to?

adjunct whore said...

dr. crazy right fucking on. and the other dr. c--you never fail to slay me. pot roast, bahhhh!

it is an insulting column on too many levels....on a funnier note: a ph.d. in scrapbooking!!

seriously, man, who the fuck decided to publish the piece on being peppy when turning in your tenure file that your right-hand gal assembled? the editorship should change hands. i think we should all write in to complain about the wankers.

adjunct whore said...

sorry, i didn't mean to swear so much. my potty mouth is out of control lately....

k8 said...

When I first read that column, I almost spit out my diet coke when I got to the part with his wife and the grad student. I really couldn't take him seriously after that.

Artistic Soul said...

"apparently one needs a Ph.D. in scrap-booking as well as in one's field of specialty in order to get tenure"

I am SO happy to hear I am not the only one at an institution where this is the norm. Not only do we have to submit these every year, they are due the second week of classes fall semester -- thus, everyone is chronically behind fall semester because when you should be prepping to teach, you're putting together massive binders of crap.

I would say that a lot of the reasons why untenured folks are unhappy where I work is related to the insane amount of service work required prior to tenure. That's the stuff that sucks up time from research.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Just a quick (second) comment inspired by rwellor - there is a long and ignoble tradition of male academics being "helped" by their wives, often to such an extent that the wives (who often had advanced degrees of their own) really should have had co-authorship or at least some kind of credit beyond the "thank you to my rod and staff" in the acknowledgments (long = looking back to 19th/early 20th c. academia here, esp. in Britain). I am by NO means accusing Perlmutter of doing such a thing; all I'm saying is that his reference to his wife's help in this situation has a cultural resonance that he seems unaware of and which isn't very attractive.

That, and what Crazy said - it's all very well to ask for help with the mechanics of the tenure bid, but there are plenty of departments where such help just doesn't exist. Such a suggestion comes across sounding a little bit like the apocryphal "let them eat cake."

historyprof0 said...

Browsing the Chronicle is like flipping through an issue of SkyMall -- interesting to look at and laugh over, but nothing that I can use and probably not aimed at me.

Sisyphus said...

Nice Skymall reference, historyprof0!

I had trouble figuring out what actually was his point in this article --- it jumps around. It seems to be saying that... what? we need to celebrate successful tenure cases more? (don't they do this at other institutions ---- I remember tenured radical talking about throwing a great party for a colleague) or that profs often feel a lack of joy when they achieve tenure (sounds like post-paartum depression and seems totally understandable, I've heard it happen for people who finish a diss or publish a book too). Or is it that profs should feel guilty that they are not feeling enough joy when they successfully make tenure? way to tighten the screws there.

So yeah, I couldn't really tell what his point was in writing his article. Except to rub in the fact that he had a much easier time of it than everyone else.

MommyProf said...

Having just this morning completed my scrapbook/> dossier, I couldn't agree more. I have spent more than $100 on things like a label maker, binders, file pockets and more. At least if I don't get tenure, I can have a career as an instructor at Hobby Lobby!

~profgrrrrl~ said...

My overwhelming thoughts while reading the piece were:

wife? really? that's above and beyond unless she's an academic with time on her hands. My ex would have helped if I had a real bind but he would have needed so much direction that it would be pointless.

Grad student? Really? Maybe I'm a control freak, but when I had a student help I found I had to redo a lot myself. Why does no one else understand the need for clean, straight copies? As with the case of the spouse: requires much direction, may as well do it myself.

Admins? Ha! If this guy had secretaries who could do it, I hope he gives them wonderful holiday gifts every year for the rest of his career. Ours can barely be trusted to make a photocopy. Last year my software order was sent to parking services and no one was surprised. My last set of reimbursement receipts were lost 3 times before I got paid back (always keep copies). And so on.

One section of my dossier was done for me by an admin in the dean's office and I just let it be as is. Guess what happened? It got kicked back to me because the admin did it wrong (yes, should have checked).

I can't really trust someone else to double check all of the articles in the box against my vita, ensuring they're all there, in order, labeled, etc. No one else knows why one set of course evals are missing (not my fault). Etc.

I feel like I have many achievements, but I'm not sure that tenure will feel like one unless I push myself to think of it as some true marker of all that I've done. My articles, my teaching evals, the success of my students --> these are greater indicators of my achievements, IMHO, than tenure. Tenure is just a marker, not an achievement. And the dossier -- vita and statements aside -- is a project that took away from my ability to achieve with no real benefits other than, well, getting tenure for complying with the requirements. Yes! I can follow directions, make photocopies, print labels, download reports ... and dice, chop, and julienne.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

There are also--or should be--confidentiality issues in having someone else work on your tenure documents. Course evaluations, for instance, should not be available to grad students; they are for the instructor and the appropriate personnel committees/administrative hierarchy. Annual evaluations are confidential documents; I suppose if the person going up for tenure chooses to share them with a student assistant, that's hir business, but it does put them out of hir control and potentially available to a wider pool of people than should have access to them.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Nice post! Had his wife help with the packet? Seriously?

When The Boss came up for tenure, a handful of us senior grad students assisted, but it was still a hellish experience for The Boss. There was certainly plenty of work to go around!

Belle said...

Okay, can I just say our AA is so overwhelmed that she can't even consider doing this kind of stuff? And BTW, it's not her job?

Now, I've often thought I wanted a 'wife' who could do the laundry, read the proofs, make copies, take the critters to the vet, the clothes to the cleaners, make the pharmacy/grocery runs... and most of my friends do too! The reality is that portfolios are supposed to serve two functions, and having somebody else do the work serves neither.


Oso Raro said...

Yick. But for its retro value, it's priceless (and telling- everything we suspect about our male hetero colleagues may be, disappointingly, true). And it's so true what you imply about CHE. The relentless drumbeat of optimism in the face of real crisis resembles, at times, Fox News. Buck up, girlie men! But, then again, I'm not really in the mood for this kind of shit nowadays (Joining AW in her fabulous potty-mouthitude).

Psycgirl said...

Thank you. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. You see, I thought I had the worst graduate assistantship ever, but now I see how horrible it truly could be. Doing Dr. Smooth's tenure binder *Shudder*