Friday, November 18, 2005

Abolish the Tenure System

One of the hottest debates this week in academe--at least, academe as defined by Inside Higher Ed-- seems to be about whether or not the tenure system should be abolished. Inside Higher Ed features an article about David Horowitz's campaign to abolish tenure because he fears it discriminates against conservatives, and also links to Critical Mass, which points out that the growing number of adjuncts proves that the tenure system is already being phased out. I started to write a comment on the lively thread at Critical Mass, but it turned into a rant which felt more like a blog entry. So here goes.

I have maintained since the first day I was hired as an Assistant Professor that tenure should be abolished. It appeared to me even then that it was a system designed to weed out individuals who were smart enough and useful enough to hire and exploit for six years, but not "good enough" (i. e. "enough like us") to keep. When I said as much in one of my first faculty meetings in my first tenure-track job, my words were met with horror by a dean who remembered the Vietnam era and claimed that only tenure had allowed professors against the war to keep their jobs. Since the dean was raising the question of the relationship of adjunct professors to the tenure system, I thought I should say what I thought about a system I already had deep misgivings about. Having spent four years on the job market chasing a tenure-track job, it seemed to me then that the entire tenure-track system was unfair, biased, elitist, and ridiculous as a marker of intellectual "excellence." I sensed then that such a system would never tenure me, having barely allowed me in in the first place. I thought then that if the process was opened up to have some adjustment between the pathos of the grossly underpaid adjunct and the terror of the tight-lipped, head down tenure-track junior professor, we might eventually get a system of fair work for a fair wage not premised on the weeding-out processes of hiring and tenure.

The truth is--and my apologies to those adjuncts who feel as if their positions are tenuous--I never felt freer than when I was an adjunct. I knew I could be fired for my opinions, sure, but I also knew there were other jobs out there like the one I had, and that if I was a good teacher, I would either be retained where I was or find work elsewhere. I felt as if I could say what I thought, write or not write as I chose, pick projects that interested me, and lead my life. i would be poor--very poor--but my thoughts would be my own.

Not so in a tenure-track job. One of the first things my chair in my second job said to me was that I would have to write a literary book in the field in which I had been hired in order to be tenured. Immediately my horizons narrowed. I was not free to follow my inclinations, or even the trends in a publishing industry moving away from literature monographs. No, I had an assignment. If I wanted to keep my job, I had better write what they wanted me to write.

On the social front, the real story of tenure is that its process allows departments to blur the boundary between the personal and the professional, as fear of not getting tenure forces nontraditional academics (working-class people, single mothers, people of color, queer people) to desperately try to fit in in order to keep jobs they know are very rare. In smaller departments junior faculty are forced to socialize extensively with their colleagues. Is your family-oriented department going to like you if you are a single lesbian? Is your all-white department going to view you as a minority hire with a chip on their shoulder? Are the old men in your department going to read your feminism as strident if you are a woman, or your effeminacy as threatening if you are a man? Can you come out as transgender? When that one faculty member asks you to cover his classes AGAIN because of his trips to Italy, and "jokes" with you about how he'll be voting on your tenure, do you ever have the freedom to say no?

Now that I don't have a job, I feel my horizons expanding again. I find myself interested in more things, and projects suggest themselves to me all the time. Without the job to support the research, the research may never get done, which is one of the conundrums in this problem of academic freedom and the tenure system that supposedly supports it. I know my situation is far from ideal. But even though I could not be more different from him politically, I feel a certain sympathy with Horowitz on the question of the "star chamber" tenure system. Tenure cloaks the personal preferences of individual faculty members, and allows blatant discimination to go on in the name of, of all things, academic freedom. It's time it was abolished, its secret meetings suspended, its fagging practices dismantled, and all of its biases subject to the clear light of day. Only then, I truly believe, will we have some standard of fairness and something that resembles academic freedom.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

First Snow

Image hosted by

In what seems like only a week the leaves went from sunset orange to afternoon gold and dropped away. Color gradually leeched out of the world, leaving pale tatters on the branches, wet charcoal streets, and dirty skies. I don't write much in my blog these days because I don't really go anywhere or do anything that seems exciting or conversational. Mostly I sit at home day after day and write law school applications, academic job applications, part-time work applications. My friends complain about classes to plan, papers to grade, books to order, and I remember what that feels like, but only from a faraway place. I plan freelance work, and money comes in, but only a trickle. My family writes to ask about Thanksgiving in the northeast, and I tell them maybe Christmas. Maybe. The days drag sluggishly on and nothing seems as if it will ever happen. I need a winter coat but can't decide what kind would do the most all-around work.

Now today the first snow dusting of the season sits on my car, its little bits of styrofoam in that valley between the windshield and the hood where the wipers sit and the leaves and twigs collect. I can see it from the livingroom windows. The wind is blowing hard. Inside is cozy, but also a trap, and I feel overcome with the desire to keep going nowhere, keep staying inside. The windows rattle softly. The midwest has become a land of little golden interiors, little places to gather in the dark afternoons, its windows spilling out onto what's left of the prairie, and I know, finally, that even if tomorrow or the next day happens to be warmer than this, the last surprising days of soft air and warm weather are gone and fled, and when they return, none of us will feel as if we remember them, and they will seem completely new, and deeply strange.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

People Are Nicer Than You Think, or, How a Conference Can Make You Remember That You Are a Human Being

Image hosted by

I admit that I wanted nothing to do this year with the conference I had attended faithfully for the last five years. I did not volunteer to give a paper, even though the conference was coming to my town. I have traveled to England and Canada for this conference, to the northeastern and southwestern U. S., but now that it was on my doorstep, I refused to take part. I wasn't sure how I'd feel having to write a paper if I didn't have a job, or how I'd even pay for the conference. I could imagine standing up in front of people and feeling stupid, like a fraud, and ashamed. I imagined how I'd have to dodge the inevitable questions: "Where are you now? What are you doing? What are you going to do?" I felt tired. I had done enough. I wasn't going.

I gave my partner input as she wrote her paper, listened to various versions, and helped track down images for her presentation, all with serene detachment. I had moved beyond this now. I was professionally dead and I had to let go, move towards the light, and not look back.

Then the conference came to town. My ex had brought an entourage of graduate students and wanted me to meet her for dinner (sans my current partner, who she has yet to forgive for taking up with me). A scholar I admired was giving a plenary. My partner was viewing and reviewing the program on line.

She noticed that some of my old colleagues were all in the same reading group together on Sunday night, and wondered aloud why they would want to clique up at a conference instead of just talk in the hall at school. I wondered if I would see them at the conference, and shuddered inwardly.

I decided I would sneak in for my partner's evening presentation, and sneak out. I would sit in the back and no one would see me. I could remain removed, yet benignly share in my partner's triumph. Let the young and enthusiastic partake as I passively passed the torch.

The train in to the city was quiet on a Friday evening. That was good because my heart hurt. I had ridden the train for so many mornings to work. I had listened to homeless people quote Bible verses and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in return for donations to their paper cups. I had watched the city unfold and fold up again like a beautiful diorama as I sped by its storefronts and bedroom windows.

I walked in the hotel and sailed by the conference registration desk, badgeless. Upstairs there was a reception. I lurked behind a column and waited for my partner, sullenly watching people I recognized plunge through a doorway into the sea of voices beyond. My partner saw me and trotted over, all smiles and conference excitement. She stopped twice on her way across the room as people she knew collared her for conversation. One of my ex's graduate students came over to talk to me. Then two more of them came over. My partner brought her friends over. Eventually we were all a small group in the middle of the room. I excused myself and fled into the reception I had been avoiding, thirsty for a drink. No sooner did I have a bourbon in hand than my partner found two nice lesbians for us to hang out with. I recognized one of them from previous conferences. They were nice, funny, rueful, and sarcastic without being bitter. One of them had just gotten a tenure-track job after years of commuting 90 minutes each way to an adjunct job. They knew what life was like for academics, for women on the market, for lesbians, for junior faculty trying to get tenure and keep their relationships from unraveling in the face of commuting and distance and job loss and homophobia and low pay, and they were still cheerful. Jolly and optimistic, even. I suddenly felt much, much better.

They asked me what I was doing and I told them, but they only nodded, shrugged, and congratulated me for keeping my options open. Nobody edged away, or changed the topic, or abruptly began talking to someone more promising, the way my graduate professors had at MLA cocktail parties when I or someone I knew had expressed doubts about an interview, or the job market, or the sanity of hanging on year after year hoping for that elusive tenure-track job. Instead, these people I had just met knew what the profession was like. They knew that success was a crapshoot, a turn of the wheel, often coming down to being in the right specialty at the right moment. It didn't mean you were brilliant or worthless. It didn't brand you forever as a star, or a loser. Too often, success or failure wasn't about you.

They seemed like some of the sanest people I had met in a long time.

The whole evening was like that. The whole weekend, really. My partner's paper was fabulous, the audience was enthusiastic, and people I had known from grad school were in the audience. We all were genuinely happy to see each other. They had carved lives out for themselves. Some of them had families and had made career compromises for their children's schools or their spouse's jobs. All of them were really, really happy to hear papers, talk about ideas, and catch up. All of them were encouraging, and kind. How was it that we hadn't been better friends when we were young? They seemed so balanced, so mature, so wise.

A few of us went out to a pub and drank beer. We talked for hours and told stories. We analyzed politics. By the end of the evening, I felt so happy. I realized I hadn't seen my ex colleagues, the ones who were convening on Sunday night, anywhere, because they weren't going to actually attend the conference. They were going to duck in and duck out, only going so long as to discuss their own work among themselves. Maybe they thought they were too busy. Maybe they thought they couldn't get anything from the people around them. I realized that even though I was no longer one of them, I had wanted to insulate myself from contact with other people in the same way. I realized that I was really glad I had stuck it out today, instead, with the ones who tried to go to other people's papers, who still believed in attending panels on writers and topics that interested them. I think I got, for the first time in a long time, that being part of an audience is a huge gesture of generosity and good will, and that that kind of energy is worth magnifying and setting loose in the world, to everyone's benefit.

I don't know if I will attend another academic conference or not. This time next year I could have another job, getting ready to write a paper for next year's gathering, or I could be on my way towards something else entirely. But one thing I learned from this conference, this meeting that I was dragged to kicking and screaming, where I took away so much cameraderie and good will. What I learned is that despite the bad meetings and bitter differences and pompous self-presentations and ideological splits of many departments, despite the hirings and firings and anxieties, despite the therapists and xanax prescriptions, the public hunger for fame and the private sniping for power, and the tendency to isolate one's self from one's colleagues, most people in academia are not fancy, or elite, or talking heads, or snobby, or judgemental. They don't think they're smarter or better educated than their colleagues. They don't necessarily look down on you, or me. They are trying to stretch low paychecks, keep gas in the car, have a lover, stay informed and enthusiastic, get tenure, write something, make a difference, raise kids. They are, most of them, really, really nice people who just want to remember why they got into this business in the first place, which is to go to papers, schmooze, drink beer, and swap theories. They still believe in a community of ideas, which is why they schlep across the country to these conferences in the first place, sitting at panels hour after hour, sometimes deep into the evening, taking notes, squinting hard trying to think up questions to help the presenters and their audiences take a thought, a beautiful idea, further, further, further.

They--and the conferences they loyally attend, year after year-- are, actually, really, really important, and really, awesomely nice.