Two nights ago we had a Tenure Party.
Tenure parties can be a lot like weddings, actually – all the younger folk were yucking it up and celebrating; a few undergrads were there, thrilled to be drinking with the faculty; and the older folk made witty toasts, smiled benignly, and huddled in the corners reminiscing about tenure parties past, noting that suddenly they had become the Senior People in the Room -- and when did that happen? This party was a double whammy of reminiscing for me, since it was held in the house of a colleague who was for many years really famous for the parties she held – sometimes one or two a month – and it was at her house that I met most of my friends in my first few years at Zenith. She hasn’t lost her touch, and we fell back into old habits easily. I served as sub-host, which I often did in the past because N was living in Big City so I was temporarily uncoupled, and my friend is single so she doesn't have a partner to help so that she can enjoy her own parties. Every once in a while I policed dirty dishes, refilled empty bowls of olives, and circulated to make sure people didn’t get stuck with someone they didn’t want to talk to all evening. This also allowed me to get out of conversations: "Oh yes -- hold that thought, will you? We seem to need more crostini!" And as she always had in the past, the hostess muttered sotto voce as I entered, “The good stuff is in the freezer,” meaning a really fine bottle of ice-cold vodka was stashed away from the madding crowd for our exclusive use.
One of the best-remembered parties was for a colleague in the history department: another untenured person threw it with me. We had everyone bring a bottle of champagne – the theory being that this provides enough champagne for everyone, and there is No Mixing (Remember the Albee lines from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf": Martha -- “Never mix, never worry!” George -- “Rubbing alcohol for you, Martha?”) At any rate, the party was just starting to wind down around 11 when our newly promoted colleague’s fabulous new boyfriend showed up from Big City with – a case of Moet White Star! Needless to say, the party acquired new life, and everyone untenured was skulking around campus the next day mainlining H20 and aspirin, looking as though they had been run over by trucks.
December used to be the season of tenure parties, and it no longer is for several reasons that my friend and I speculated about as we sipped vodka on the porch and she "snuck" a cigarette. Tenure cases seem to take longer than they used to – our T&P committee has morphed into this weird Spanish Inquisition, which means that you now send in a perfectly good case that ought to zip through and they start getting stuck on all kinds of things that are tangential and unimportant. Better you should send in a plagiarized manuscript and hope it will fool everyone than to have one or two students write in their teaching evaluations, "I sometimes felt my opinions were not important enough to the professor." Nowadays no case is complete until the committee is done requisitioning documents, asking endless questions that have to be answered in writing in 48 hours or less, asking for new letters, and so on. So this means that very often when you have a great case what used to be a sort of gathering celebration of the younger colleague that culminated in a party is now a grinding struggle fraught with anxiety and unpleasant, unnecessary conflict, and you are just mighty glad that sie wasn't burned at the stake instead.
This is Zenith’s version of No Child Left Behind: that if you pummel the bejesus out of a candidate, and sie stills look good at the end of it, then you have assured yourself of excellence.
What this also means is that, as far as I can tell, the untenured faculty have distanced themselves from an admittedly vile process as much as possible, to the point of also detaching emotionally from colleagues who are up for tenure. As my friend pointed out, these parties used to be hosted by the candidate's friends, and the senior people came by invitation – a kind of Mardi Gras-like moment in which the bottom rails got on top and everyone had an evening of being “out of rank” because of course only the senior people who were liked and trusted were invited. Now the parties are held by the senior folk (the parents!) when they are held at all, and I was shocked to see that a lot of untenured colleagues we expected to see there didn't come. The only explanation we could imagine is that they are up for tenure too and going to someone else’s tenure party was incompatible with however they are managing their own anxiety about their own process. And that they didn't want to see senior people, much less eat and drink with them. And none even called their friend to say “I would like to come, but I just can’t bear it – can I take you out to lunch?”
But things change, don’t they? When they put me in charge of the world, perhaps we can return to a saner time when we don’t terrorize untenured people so completely and unnecessarily, and tenure seems like an accomplishment again rather than the end of a marathon that you have barely survived. Those who came to the party all had a wonderful time, and everyone got sloshed as in the old days – your Dr. Radical almost never drinks anymore, and was quite under the weather yesterday. And no, I will not be posting pictures of our newly tenured colleague in the tiara and scepter.