Thursday, March 08, 2007

More Reasons to Abolish Tenure: It Warps the Young

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.

18 comments:

Clio Bluestocking said...

Just on a practical note as I begin reading the post, to link within a post, use the "Compose" view of the "Create a New Post" page. Highlight the text you want to link, then go to the tool bar (the one that looks like a Word toolbar) and choose the icon with the chain. A window will pop up with a line where you can put in the address that you want to link to.

You can also make an html tag by putting [a href="ADDRESS OF SITE"] at the beginning of the text and [x] at the end. Only use the little < > signs in place of the square brackets.

Hope this helps you.

Lesboprof said...

GREAT post. As one who is biting my nails and anxiously awaiting news of tenure, and who has done more service than anyone with good sense should, I concur with everything you say.

Lesboprof said...

And yes, your response to Horace did seem a little harsh, but I get the sentiment. We do this work because *someone* needs to. But it is also important to remember that the someone does always have to be you.

From someone who rarely says no...

Bardiac said...

I value colleagiality way more than I ever thought I would. Colleagues who contribute in all sorts of ways make a huge difference in the life of a school and community, way more, in the long term, perhaps, than a monograph that's going to be read a few times and then remaindered.

Sfrajett said...

At my ex-school they didn't care a fig for service. You are absolutely right about the "me first" stuff. Tenure should be abolished because it trains people to be selfish and isolated, and because it actually eliminates free speech at the lower levels. That said, one of the things that makes it bearable for me to be with a partner who is still in academia is that her school has its priorities straight about what it wants for tenure. They demand too much teaching and too much service (which makes it hard for people to get research done) but they count all her teaching and service towards tenure. Not a little--a lot. Which is at least consistent.
Cheers!

The Combat Philosopher said...

TR,
A fabulous post as ever. Although I was initially sceptical about your views on tenure, you are beginning to win me over. Not all the way yet, but slowly. In my latest post, I have continued the conversation.

The Combat Philosopher

LP said...

Thank you for another very thoughtful and thought provoking post. You write, "Even when people are ostensibly blogging about something else, tenure anxiety floats on top like an oil spill." Since my own blog is already an an academic environmental hazard area, I've written a longer response here: http://lumpenprofessoriat.blogspot.com/2007/03/wages-of-academe.html

Horace said...

Hey, if I can actually be your pal, the snark mattered not a whit. And I want to emphasize that what I was asking was not so much why to say yes to these profession-sustaining tasks, but when to say no (which I never do).

Incidentally, tenure requirements at my R1 institution are remarkably humane--in my second year here, I already have no substantive worries about getting tenure. But I have been told that I am doing way too much service, and that I should concentrate on developing a national profile, and activities like blind-reviewing essays strike me as perching precariously on that divide.

Ultimately, I agree with you entirely, and part of the reason I have no real tenure worries is that I got the running start toward tenure than a contract position offered, which I think is totally part of the problem. And I agree wit you that collegiality is way undervalued (Donald E. Hall had a controversial series of columns in IHE last year that reflected much of your (and my) position on the matter. Anyway, I'm rambling...

But "the young?" Ouch!

LP said...

Horace, I'm glad to hear things are going well for you at your job. I like hearing happy stories. Not to be a pessimist, but if you're just in your second year of a tenure-track job, I'm afraid it may be too early to let down your guard. Let us know in 5 years if the process was really as humane as you think now.

Horace said...

Well, yes, assuming the river don't rise, but no one's ever been denied tenure in this department, and I already have the minimum publication requirements. But really, it's about the department's general friendliness, not my astounding achievement...at many other institutions, I'd be just as nervous as everyone else.

The Constructivist said...

OK, so why wouldn't abolishing tenure extend the anxiety everywhere, give administrators and right-wing politicians more power, end academic freedom, and promote more me-first careerism?

And by the way you need a [/a] to close the [a href="http://...."]. Remember back when you had to code italics in the TRS-80? Think of HTML code as opening and closing quotation marks or parentheses if that image doesn't work.

Tim Lacy said...

Great but depressing post. I wish there was a publication out there that graded the "tenure fairness" of all the disciplines at every school. Wow. - TL

anthony grafton said...

As always, a great post, and I'm sorry I was on the road and come late to the feast. I agree with pretty much everything you say, most strongly of all with the point that at many, probably most, schools, opaqueness reigns about tenure requirements, and "tenure standards," as we laughingly call them, are being racheted higher and higher.

But--to renew a query from an earlier thread--can we give up tenure and keep any commitment to long-term, no-practical-payoff projects (like historical monographs)? I know, our collective commitment--to say nothing of our administrators' commitment--to these enterprises isn't what it should be unless we ourselves are writing them. But really: how do we build a non-tenure system that will allow young people to put in the time that a good book--or indeed a good article--demands?

medieval woman said...

If I could chime in here for a sec - I thought this was a great post, TR. And the kind of codification and quantifying of the tenure process that a lot of untenured academics seek reminds me of how the job market is becoming (having just come off it myself, finally). There's a lot of interest in finding out what the minimum requirements are for a t-t job - how many publications? How many conferences? If the person who seems to have set the bar (at a specific institution or in a specific field) is unsuccessful, it throws everyone else's equation off. I was completely engaged in this as well and will likely be looking for the "golden tenure equation" in the coming years. Sigh...

Cutting Edge said...

For those who love research and writing and who want to be TRULY RADICAL and on the CUTTING EDGE, I suggest that you give up your tenured positions and become independent scholars.

I've been a freelance historian since 2005, and in that brief four-year stint, I've published 5 scholarly books and 12 scholarly articles--more than most tenured people in a lifetime.

Tenure is dying and will be history in a few years--read the writing on the wall! Freelance historians are the wave of the future, and those of you with cushy tenured jobs should get with it!

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