A pleasure of being almost fifty is that I get my best ideas for posts from younger scholars. This week it is Horace, over at To Delight and Instruct (see link on right: I am so lazy I haven't yet learned to link within the post. Maybe over spring break.)
One of the big themes in the academic blogosphere (and it's a big theme at Zenith too) is an ongoing discussion about "what counts" for tenure, and "how much" of "what counts" needs to be assembled for a successful tenure case. Even when people are ostensibly blogging about something else, tenure anxiety floats on top like an oil spill. I am thinking about this because Horace threw out a question the other day about whether it was worth while to use his time refereeing journal articles, and a number of responses were posted on the general theme of" "Figure out what's in it for you." Several bloggers suggested that if the journal thought so highly of him, it was within reason that they should pay him back by publishing one of his articles. In the realm of "what's in it for you/me" this is a useful and creative contribution. But the whole discussion reminds me again how tenure anxiety now frames the first seven to ten years of a young person's career, how young scholars' lives are shaped to privilege individualism in an atmosphere of rising tenure expectations, and what toll this phenomenon may be taking on them and the scholarly enterprise as a whole.
My response to Horace's dilemma is mixed, although the comment I posted was a mildly snarky one, for which I apologize if it seemed too critical: that other people spent time refereeing one's own publications for free too, and that reciprocating without getting direct credit is part of the deal. But I also fear that the unspoken reciprocity that bound tenured and untenured scholars into a community of mutual interest may be broken, and that it will stay broken without some larger intervention that addresses tenure directly. As part of this, we need an honest, profession-wide discussion about colleagueship that includes all ranks and types of faculty as equal partners, and that addresses the real injustice of a tenure process that is inevitably mysterious and inaccessible to those who are most affected by it.
Here's my contribution.
I truly wish on some days that I had lived my life with a little more attention to self-interest: I've reviewed far more articles than I have published, although with the glacier pace of academic publishing, this probably isn't surprising. I have an article in press now that took three years to make its way through the process, and probably for 27 months of that time it was sitting on someone's desk waiting to be read and commented upon. I have a second article in press as of this week that only took a year to make its way through the process, but this quick (in the scale of things) turnaround is, I suspect, only because it was solicited for a special issue by two untenured faculty who need to get it out as part of their tenure dossiers.
But when I was hired as an assistant professor, it was made quite clear to me that being part of the peer review process on the journal side of things was both an honor and a responsibility. During my reappointment and tenure reviews, this kind of work and similar scholarly commitments beyond Zenith's walls -- a national program committee, being asked to participate in several public history projects --was favorably commented upon as part of my larger engagement with the profession and the respect that senior colleagues elsewhere had for my work. So while I obviously had to see my work through to publication -- these external obligations did not take the place of the couple articles and the monograph I was expected to have produced -- I did in fact get "credit" for doing this work , since it was seen as evidence of a certain kind of mature collegiality that one wanted to see in a tenured colleague.
By the time I came up for promotion to full professor five -- and then six -- and then an agonizing seven -- years later, this broader engagement (and by this time I had actually co-chaired the program committee of one of the biggest history conferences in the world) was seen as either a negative aspect of my case or irrelevant to evaluating me as a scholarly historian. I had also chaired a program and a major university committee during the time that "standards" had been raised. All of this had taken away from time for scholarship, but the understanding had been when I took on this work that a published book was not necessary for the case. Not only did this change abruptly, but I was then told that service to the profession at large would not be considered at all as part of the case. Collegial scholarly obligations had become regarded, more or less, as the equivalent of housework, as had administrative work at my own university.
As part of duking this situation out with the Evil Empire at Zenith, I simply assumed that this was part of the larger dishonesty I was being forced to deal with in the History department. That was true in a way and, as I know now, not true. Because younger people are onto something: service to the profession and colleagueship in the university is not valued for promotion as it once was.
There is no easy response to this development, but let me note attendant issues that spring from it:
1. The proliferation of post-docs (which are full-time contingent labor in drag, most of them) mean that more untenured people are being hired with a book either finished or in press, and several published articles. This means that people who are actually getting jobs right out of graduate school and have to both write and teach full time are immediately behind the eight ball in a contest for tenure that is being falsely inflated by those coming in at year one off a post-doc. This, I suspect, produces a tendency to treat the first years of a ladder track job as much like a post-doc as possible. And it will, I predict, shortly make a place like Zenith, where the teaching demands are quite heavy in some fields and the faculty insists on running the university in a parallel universe to that inhabited by The Administration, a "two-books for tenure" university.
2. The wail heard across the land: "How *much* do I have to do for tenure?" This is a serious and simultaneously unanswerable question. One wants to say reassuring things about quality and not quantity, but that is demonstrably a non-answer. Furthermore, the only thing untenured people can have any real perspective on is quantity, since who but a minority of egotists really believe that others see their work as they do? Thus, assistant professors both deal with tenure anxiety by quantifying work (a defense against the constant anxiety of not knowing whether you are smart enough to be noticed by others), and asking senior faculty to set a number that they can fix on as a goal so that they can know whether they are on target or behind. Those of us who sit on tenure cases think this is exasperating, and it has the terrible outcome of, when a young person does not get tenure, landing a lot of anxious young folk on your doorstep who say, "But So-and-so had a book out with a good press and five articles! How can this be!" But they have a point -- although raw numbers have nothing to do with why people do or don't get tenure, we senior faculty have done nothing that makes any better sense of the process for our younger colleagues.
Thus, at this point we might as well be passing out tee-shirts and coffee mugs to junior faculty that say "Me first." And it is impossible to argue with this, since we give them no alternative explanation for how tenure works, and we can't. But it also means that the kind of projects that untenured people are often ideally suited to -- curriculum building, speaker's series, refereeing articles -- because they are fresh out of graduate school with much on their minds and on the cutting edge of their fields, well forget it. Those are exactly the things that they don't want to do because it doesn't "count" and can't be "counted." And people who do those things end up looking like Betty Crocker in the T & P meetings, in comparison to the manly men and women who churned....those....articles....out....no....matter....what.