Friday, March 28, 2008

Thoughts on Tenure from the Tenure-Track

Lots of people are (and have been) talking about tenure, and so I figured, "what the heck? I might as well put in my two cents!"

I've actually been thinking a lot about tenure lately, and what tenure will mean to me when I (knock wood, cross fingers, etc.) get it. On the one hand, I really don't think I view tenure as some sort of brass ring that's going to be my crowning achievement within the profession. I have a friend who did see it that way, and this friend is still recovering from the let-down of tenure in reality. Indeed, tenure doesn't really change one's day-to-day life much. Most people I know don't have wildly different research agendas after tenure, nor do they make much more money, nor do they spend their free time much differently, nor do they all of a sudden become different people. So in one respect, I think that tenure's not going to make that big of a difference in my day-to-day world.

And yet, recently, I've started really looking forward to getting tenure. Why?

Tenure will mean the freedom not to worry about how what I do service-wise appears.
One of the reasons that I've been ambivalent (at best) about service over the past five years is because I've often felt like there was a mandate to serve in ways that had nothing to do with what I'm good at, what I care about, or what is interesting to me. But knowing that I needed to demonstrate performance across certain areas (regardless if it just meant sitting sullenly and silently in meetings and contributing nothing - all that mattered was the line on the cv, and a line indicating x kind of service was more important than a line that replicated y kind of service, if that makes sense), I often felt like I often sort of sucked at service things I took on, and I felt like I wasn't really engaged in the service that I took on. With tenure, I won't need to pay attention to those sorts of categories anymore. Now, that's not to say that I won't have to do crap that is annoying or frustrating, but I'll have the freedom to choose which annoying and frustrating things I do based on my own inclination as opposed to some weird chart where one has to fill in boxes for different kinds of service.

Tenure will mean that I can take a more active role in shaping the university.
Now, I've never been one to keep my mouth shut, and I have not conducted my time on the tenure track as a silent, inoffensive shadow who smiles pleasantly and keeps her opinions to herself. I know that's the advice that a lot of people get about how to conduct themselves on the tenure track, but my feeling was always that they hired me and not some wallflower, and well, if they didn't like that I speak up then maybe this wasn't the job for me. And my colleagues have been very supportive of my tendency to speak up and of my active engagement with issues of the day in our department. That said, I'm not insane. One does need to be strategic and to protect oneself while on the tenure track, and that means it's best not to serve on certain university-wide committees before tenure, and it's best not to take a leadership role in certain initiatives or programs, and it's best not to agitate for certain kinds of change. It's one thing to have a voice in my department and to do behind-the-scenes stuff with tenured colleagues on the front lines. But it will be nice to be confident that I can step out front and center and be more visible across the university without worrying that I could jeopardize my job. I want to be on the front lines. I want to be involved in the changes that will take place in the coming years at my institution in a visible and concrete way. And I'm looking forward to that opportunity and to the challenge of that kind of work. I'm looking forward to a situation in which covering my own ass isn't quite so central to the roles that I play.

Tenure will mean (I think) a certain confidence boost.
One of the most palpable things that I noticed upon starting on the tenure-track was how much more centered I felt about my abilities than I did as a graduate student because the tenure-track job "authorized" me - both in my own estimation and in the eyes of others. I suspect that something similar will happen with tenure and promotion. And yes, this is sort of a vague feeling that I've got, and I don't know that there's anything concrete to back it up, but it is a sense that I have about how I'll feel once tenure is achieved. I could be wrong.

Tenure will mean (overall) that my investment in this place will grow because I will be in a position where it makes sense to invest more.
I realize that's kind of a circular claim, but I think that this has been a primary thing with which I've struggled over the past five years. On the one hand, I'm the sort of person who likes to invest her energy in a social context, for lack of a better way of putting it. But during this time on the tenure track, I felt like it made sense to invest most not in what surrounded me but in the "me" that might not stay here. What investments I did make here were about my personal professional development, and I didn't really invest freely because I wasn't sure that this was where I'd be in any sort of long-term way. This had personal repercussions as well as professional, positive and negative. I'm looking forward to investing without thinking quite so much about whether it's personally advantageous to do so.

You'll notice in this list of thoughts that I've not once discussed "academic freedom" or the usual things that come up in discussions of tenure. Well, here's the thing: I do believe that tenure secures academic freedom, but not in a simple cause and effect sort of way. I do not see the majority of scholars running out after tenure and setting the world on fire with their controversial course offerings or their dangerous new areas of research. Also, I already feel like I have academic freedom where I work, and I don't have tenure. So if those two things are true, what does tenure have to do with academic freedom? Well, look at the list of things I'm excited about related to getting tenure. All of those things are about participating fully in shared governance, in developing the curriculum of our university, in having a stake in the values and goals of the university, and in helping to shape the kind of institution at which I work. And so let's say that all tenured faculty (to different extents, obviously) take on this sort of a role when they get tenure. They then are in a position to foster a culture of academic freedom at an institution and that culture affects everybody connected with the university - tenured and untenured, students, administrators, staff, adjuncts, you name it. Now, no university is perfect, and sure, there are hierarchies that put limits on freedom, but without a core of employees invested in the future of the institution - because that future of the institution is intimately bound to their own future - fostering a culture of academic freedom takes a backseat to looking out for one's own interests and to putting the bottom line ahead of more abstract concerns like, say, "freedom." The fact of the matter is that no multiyear contract would inspire me in the way that tenure does to want to invest myself in this institution. How do I know? Because that's what I've got now, and for the past five years, my own self-interest has driven all of my decisions about my professional life. With tenure, it's not like my self-interest flies out the window, but my self-interest will become bound to the university in a way that it currently isn't.

Ultimately, this is the allure of tenure for me, and it's what I think is most positive about the way I see tenure working at my institution. This is not to say that the tenure process at some institutions isn't screwed up, or that even at my own institution that the tenure process plays out this way for all people. Tenure can mean that people check out entirely, or it can mean that people spread their poisonous negativity around because they no longer fear retribution or negative personal consequences. Tenure can mean that a university is filled with dead wood faculty who no longer give a shit about their own professional lives or about the university. Sure, all of that is true. But ultimately I believe in the tenure process because I see tenured colleagues who have not checked out, who are deeply invested not only in their own professional achievements but in our university and the surrounding community, and who do a lot of hard and often invisible work to continue to make our university better. It's tenured faculty members at my university who've fought for partner benefits, who've fought for benefits for adjuncts, who've fought for greater transparency in the tenure process. It's tenured faculty who make sure that things other than the bottom line go into administrative decision-making.

Would faculty have a similar investment if they were all on multiyear contracts that stipulated provisions for "academic freedom"? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Would unionization provide the same sort of protections that tenure provides? Perhaps, but a) laws in my state stipulate that the state doesn't have to negotiate with unions, so that certainly wouldn't work here and b) it also wouldn't provide the inspiration that tenure can provide to give back to the institution. Would there be problems with the pay scale in academia if the tenure system were not in place, particularly in historically low-paying disciplines like mine? There sure would be, because the only saving grace for me with the coming recession is the job security that tenure will (fingers crossed, salt thrown over the shoulder, a quick Hail Mary) bring. There would also be problems with the national and highly specialized job market in academic fields, as if your contract wasn't renewed, it isn't like you could just get the same job down the road, which is how it works in other professions, and which also would be a huge problem in times of economic downturn, as the easiest way to deal with budget cuts would be to eliminate some of the people on multiyear contracts, and it could actually amplify the adjunct problem because ultimately, why not just have ONLY adjuncts and get rid of multiyear contracts altogether?

Maybe I'm just not seeing the big picture here. Or maybe I've been brainwashed by a system that has to this point been pretty good for me personally. Or maybe it's just that the tenure process at my university is really pretty good. Or maybe I'm just a weirdo. Hard to say. That said, I suppose I wanted to speak on behalf of tenure from the perspective of somebody who's nearing the end of the process and who doesn't feel brutalized by it.


Renaissance Girl said...

Hey Cr. C--Delurking after long lurking. I'm preparing my own tenure file now, which is due this fall. Of all your meditations on what tenure will mean to you, the first resonates most powerfully with me, but I'd extend the list from "service-wise" to include all aspects of my professional life. It's terrible to do something good--publish something, mentor a student into publically-recognized success--and think, before any other response, "This will look great on my CV." I'd like to think that I'll find some way to appreciate successes for themselves, to celebrate them as ends rather than as means to some externally-defined end. (That may take some learning on my part....)

helenesch said...

I'm not sure if this is the place for my own post-tenure reflections, but since I don't have a blog and this relates, I figured I'd share....

I got tenure two years ago, and a couple of things have changed, or shifted, for me in a way that I hadn't quite anticipated: First, I'm doing a lot more service work. While it's true that I'm freer to say 'no'--and that I'm actually very interested in and committed to the service things I'd doing--it's also the case that I've been asked to do *a lot* more than before. So while it's easier to say 'no', there're a lot more occassions where that's become necessary!

So I'm not any less busy than I was pre-tenure, but it's somewhat harder to make the space I need to do my own research (since the entire department prioritized that before--they, too, wanted me to publish so I could get tenure).

The other major change is that I've been freer to think about what it is I want (and don't want) out of my non-academic life. The questions about "work-life" balance, as well as questions about my having/not having a "social life" outside the university are ones I think about more now, since I'm now free of the worry that I will be denied tenure. In some ways this is good, but it's also brought with it a certain amount of questioning... what am I doing with my life? why am I working so much (given that I don't *have* to), will I ever find a partner in this little university town, etc...

Again, nothing all that surprising, but I figured I'd share.

And thanks for another thoughtful and insightful post! It sounds like things are going very well for you.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, Doc C, nice post! Just a quick note that Craig Smith of AFT and I have been debating the wisdom of rethinking and extending tenure to the currently nontenurable at FACE Talk and CitizenSE since January. Of course, Tenured Radical and Lumpenprofessoriat have been talking about this for much longer on their blogs....

And a quick clarification that my proposed cease fire puts in black and white exactly the consequence of giving up tenure--the loss of collegiality, commitment to changing an institution, and all the other good things about the tenure system you identify. It's not exactly a reductio, but if my compromise is repellent at all, there must be something more to tenure than what its critics claim.

Belle said...

Crazy, I think this is a very good post and a good attitude on tenure. I thought that it would be different, somehow. Never has been. But I'm glad I got it, and damned grateful my SLAC still has such an arcane thing.

MommyProf said...

Freedom to take risks like research projects that might not pan out is what I was looking forward to most.

Rent Party said...

Good post!

Second Line said...

Speaking from the adjunct perspective, tenure and the tenure system seems to me to create an extreme disjunction between those who've got it (and will fight to the death for it) and those who don't have it and never will. It's an odd sort of utilitarian logic that says 'achieve the greatest good for the greatest number', except the number for whom that good can be achieved is forever diminishing. I really do see a day in the not-too-distant future in which there will be a few people of your generation with tenure in any given department surrounded by a sea of adjuncts. What then?

I'd prefer it if we were to strive for a moderate good for more people -- come what may -- than hold out for the greatest good for a select, and forever diminishing few.

All of your reactions to the prospect of tenure are good and noble and decent. But in the end, the one that is most important is what you say about how you will be insulated (at least financially) from the ravages of the presetn and future economy. To me this is the essence of tenure. The rest that you discuss is being a good citizen.