Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's A Poor Sort Of Memory That Only Works Backwards; Or, New (Old) Thoughts About Tenure

Alice Ad-dressing the White Queen.

`You're wrong there, at any rate,' said the Queen: `were you ever punished?'

`Only for faults,' said Alice.

`And you were all the better for it, I know!' the Queen said triumphantly.

`Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,' said Alice: `that makes all the difference.'

`But if you hadn't done them,' the Queen said, `that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!' Her voice went higher with each `better,' till it got quite to a squeak at last.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And What Alice Found There) (1871)

Paul Caron over at Tax Prof Blog reports that a new study "conducted under the auspices of the American Bar Foundation with additional funding from the Law School Admission Council" finds that "the perceptions of female tenured faculty members and tenured faculty of color" about the granting of tenure in law schools "differ significantly" from the perceptions "of their white male counterparts. Both female professors and professors of color perceived the tenure process as less fair and more difficult than did male or white professors. Female professors of color had the most negative perceptions [.]" 
  
Quelle surprise.  Try doing this study in the humanities and social sciences, why don't you?

It is interesting how we can know these things and then continue on as if we did not know these things.  I have to wonder whether any empirical study is capable of altering the ingrained practices that produce the "perceptions" described above (many of us would substitute the word "reality" here, but never mind.)  For different reasons, depending on our position in the hierarchy of academic bodies, like Alice's White Queen, we who are tenured have become adept at managing impossible information.  While one commenter on Caron's post is amazed that you would survey a group of people who have succeeded in a gate keeping process about the fairness of the gate keeping, I would argue that part of what is interesting about the study is that people who have succeeded don't always see their own success at achieving tenure as an unqualified vote of confidence for their intellectual work.  Indeed, the difficulty of evaluation and promotion, the rude inquiries that are often made about women and scholars of color during tenure procedures and the public undermining of the intellectual authority of these scholars even in successful promotion cases, is often stunning.  It is equally stunning to me how eager one's colleagues are to relieve white men from the burdens of such scrutiny.  A variety of what might be considered flaws and procedural bloopers that require lengthy revisiting for women and scholars of color are simply dismissed as irrelevant for white men.  Connections of the candidate to prominent people in hir field that are serving as tenure referees are seen as proof of a white man's prestige (correct).  But in the case of (wo)men of color, such referees are often dismissed because they are perceived as lacking objectivity (they are often perceived as lacking status in the field as well), and new ones must be found, even if those new referees are further from the field of specialization. And scholars in queer studies?  Fugedaboudit.

Here's another piece of unofficial data for you:  the number of women, and people of color who, denied tenure in one place, go on to a better job elsewhere.  Not always true, but boy, would I like to see the numbers on it.  A common assumption about failed promotion cases is that the person's career as a scholar is brought to an abrupt end by denial, and that is true in too many cases.  However, very often it is not true, and that is where follow up of failed tenure cases might be worthy of investigation. At one prestigious SLAC I know well, two tenure cases involving individuals in the group under scrutiny were differently fumbled in the not so recent past, and both individuals almost immediately went on to tenured positions at prestigious R-I universities.  You would think that would count as some kind of data, wouldn't you? Or that it might trigger some kind of public recognition at the tenure-denying institution that what is being smugly articulated as high standards could be, just perhaps, something else.

`That accounts for the bleeding, you see,' [the White Queen] said to Alice with a smile. `Now you understand the way things happen here.'

`But why don't you scream now?' Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

`Why, I've done all the screaming already,' said the Queen. `What would be the good of having it all over again?'

19 comments:

Catherine said...

I'm not sure how intimately related to this exact post this comment is, but it's certainly related to 'the tenure process.'

As an advanced PhD student, I not unnaturally have quite a bit of anxiety. Some of it's about me personally--do I really have the ability to prove what I said I was going to prove in my dissertation proposal, etc--and some of it's about things that are totally uncontrollable--will there be jobs in my field available to compete for the year that I'm on the market, etc.

But a few days ago I realized that I could name and define some of my anxiety in a very specific way: it's that I don't feel that I have any margin for error on the projects I say I'm going to do. That is, I don't feel that I have the freedom to propose a project, start it, and then conclude partway through that there really isn't anything there after all. What if, when I got to that point, I'd 'wasted' a month, six months, or a year of inquiry for something that isn't publishable?

Rationally, I know that this is just part of the intellectual life. You think "what if?" and sometimes it just turns out not to be so. But the enormous cost of 'wasting' all that time really discourages me from going down paths that could potentially be quite interesting. Worse, I'm afraid that it makes me prone to push arguments that I'm not really sure about, just to get *something* out there.

That feeling that you just cannot, cannot be wrong about a hunch, or you won't be able to produce enough articles given the limited quantity of time involved, is pretty rotten.

Didion said...

On the subject of people being denied tenure but finding better, tenured jobs elsewhere: it's a great reality for some, but consider the ways that concept functions on the level of meritocratic fantasy (like so many other things in academia). Ultimately it says, "if your work is good enough, the market will take care of things; all tenure-process wrongs will be righted in the end. The cream will rise to the top." People denied tenure thus face the doubled pressure of not just needing to find a job, but feeling as if the job they ultimately land is a measure of their worth in academia. Thus I too would be interested to know how many people denied tenure remained in academia and where they landed, but that is no gauge of the serious and biased errors of the tenure process. (Nor does it measure the number of people so emotionally fried by the process that they don't want to remain in academia, much less at an R-1 school.)

northern barbarian said...

Another question for further study in social sciences and humanities is the long-term impact of a more difficult tenure process on women and faculty of color. In my case (white lesbian), I suffered through a huge delay because a conservative male had questions about my teaching (a great way to block people at a SLAC) and the dean wanted to do everything possible to get a unanimous vote out of my department. I succeeded, (and am now a full prof), but the bitterness lingers.

Tenured Radical said...

Catherine: you put this dilemma beautifully, and I think it also has a lot to do with why talented people develop severe writer's block.

Didion: Couldn't agree with your point more -- but the thrust of my post is different. It's not that the "cream rises to the top" but that people who vote down worthy tenure cases can believe that, see their own judgment contradicted by the individual's success at an equivalent or more rigorous institution; *and* continue to believe in the superiority and justice of their own biased standards.

Anonymous said...

The people who come up for tenure have survived the highest hurdle: the search committee. This is where so many fantastic people are removed consideration for being the wrong gender and/or color. I've seen it happen over and over again. If a woman or person of color manages to get through often it is because he/she resembles the conservative male committee members and then votes with them every time and wins tenure.

jim said...

Think of the tenuring process as akin to hazing. It's to instil in the newcomers the proper attitudes to the institution. In-group members get hazed more lightly, because they're already assumed to have the proper attitude. It's the out-group members -- women, people of color -- who experience the strongest hazing: their commitment is in doubt and must be properly challenged.

Growlier said...

White men have no idea that their career is on a completely different track, and they are never subject to the kind of hurdles that women and non-white people are. It's why I chose a numbers based field. They have a very hard time suppressing results.

I will agree with a previous writer, the resentment lingers.

You can bet that white men, even unable to shut up with sexist jokes, and sexist behavior in the workplace without big lawsuits shutting them up are never going to get this. Students need to keep the pressure on.

Hic Mulier said...

Great post, TR. I loved your points esp. about the damage done even in cases where the tenure candidate prevails, as well as your comments about how T&P committees are eager to inflate the credentials of white men while casting aspersions on the equivalent credentials of women and/or POC faculty. I've seen and heard it all myself, in fact, at the departmental level and in the Dean's and Provost's offices.

I'm posting anonymously today because it would be otherwise indiscreet to discuss the following: 1. The white male tenure candidate who has only published co-written articles with his advisor, who was praised for this by referee after referee. They never questioned his ability to initiate a single independent research project or article, but rather cited his co-authorship as evidence of what a big deal he must be to have impressed his advisor so much. 2) The two women who had preliminary (but not final) book contracts whose tenure cases were delayed because of this. Their books with good university presses appeared on time the following year and they were tenured. But the previous year a white man with a "final" contract took 5 years to publish his book--NOT with the press who originally offered him the "final" contract, and only as an e-book! 3) The woman who had two and a half times the required number of publications who was asked to withdraw her tenure case because her book (under "final" contract) hadn't yet appeared in print--a standard found nowhere in her department's tenure requirements.

Contrary to "anonymous" above, who apparently thinks that the evaluation process ends (rather than begins) with a successful hire, it's clear that many of us are never free from evaluation, even if we win tenure in the end.

(OK, this is funny: my verification word is "legries," as in Legree, Simon Legree? Now that's a bit of an exaggeration, surely!)

Anonymous said...

Great post as usual, wonderfully thoughtful comments, also as usual. The thing that often gets lost in all, this, though, is that quality and timely publishing just don't stack up against the "seeing my young self in you."

That requires not only being male and white, but being married with kids in local schools, which you chose after consultation with those senior colleagues at some of the many dinner parties where you and your wife fit well at the table (was senior colleague's daughter babysitting for you too?).

Tenure where there is any deviation from this pattern requires your senior colleagues to actually think about your scholarship, though too often by measuring it against a dream of perfection that none of them achieved at your age -- and may still not have achieved.

They may vote yes anyway, cowed by your inescapable brilliance, but they will punish you for putting them in that position. For many years.

Anonymous said...

Ain't white guys awful? The solution seems obvious, though -- get rid of tenure. The real injustice is not against those who got tenure but are still scoffed at -- the real injustice is the done to the huge number of people, white and black, male and female, who are expected to teach without tenure for subsistence wages. What is the old slogan from the sixties-- equal pay for equal work?

JackDanielsBlack

Perpetua said...

Here's what scares me at my own institution - no only does the tenure process seem pretty arbitrary to me, but the Dean and the Department have been making a huge hoopla out of "raising" tenure standards, because apparently "too many tenure cases are successful." I have no idea what this means. I can't imagine being a recently-tenured faculty member listening to that - are they implying that people are getting through on no merit? I can't think of anyone in my department that fits that bill. There's nothing wrong with tenuring at 100% if 100% of your t-t faculty meet tenure requirements! It seems to me that all this talk about "raising standards" is code language for "finding arbitrary reasons to refuse tenure to anyone we don't like." People are refused tenure because the department doesn't "like" their work all the time, which of course is often code for "you work on women/POC/queer theory etc etc."

@ Anon 11:04 I agree with you on the looking like everyone else, in terms of being married, having kids, etc. But the caveat to that is if you're a woman. Women who have children (especially more than one child) pre-tenure often put themselves in a serious disadvantage. Because they can't possibly be serious about their careers, the dears! And there was an interesting piece in the Chronicle a couple of years ago about the specific penalties of daring to have more than 2 children. Apparently two is the absolute limit a woman can produce and be taken seriously as an academic (I'm sorry I can't find the link!).

Eugene Debs said...

Not to sound too much like a Michael Douglas character here, but let's be careful about assuming the ease with which "white men" assimilate into academic culture.

"Class" remains a huge hurdle. Speaking as one who grew up in poverty, and whose extended family remains in that condition, I find it quite challenging to negotiate all that is expected of me as a faculty member in this status-conscious world.

I *try* to understand better how concerns about gender, sexuality, and ethnicity come into play in hiring and tenuring. But, I do confess that I find it hard to buy the idea that, for example, queer scholars coming from privilege really have it as hard as non-queer scholars coming out of (and still associating with family in) poverty and/or a culture completely alien to most academics.

Don't read too much into this comment, but please do be aware that "white male" shouldn't be used as a convenient solvent or foil.

bigfuckingape said...

RE: Eugene Debbs

I had an entertaining moment this semester, in a discussion in a seminar in which someone else had written a paper on historical sports-related violence- fighting or rioting because your team won/lost/was insulted/was insufficiently praised/etc. The four other students and the professor were apparently mystified at the motives of these hooligans.

At this point, I said something like "Well, for me it always starts with beer..." and went on to give a short exposition on my experience in sports-related bar fights and larger scale disturbances.

Normally I keep these things to myself (I just couldn't help myself in that case, the look on their faces was priceless) because otherwise it reminds my colleagues of how different I am from them, culturally- working-class background, rural upbringing, live in a neighborhood most of them would never visit with bodyguards, etc. Suppressing large portions of my personality is the most painful part of being in graduate school, and the reason I don't socialize with anyone in my department.

So, class does factor in, yes. BUT, having a lightish-colored penis helps enormously, because as long as I keep my colorful anecdotes to myself, they're not reminded of my differences, y'know, every single time they look at or think about me. AND I don't have to suppress expressions of my sexuality, so if we're measuring how much of my personality I have to suppress (and how stressful it is), I'd rate it a 6 or a 7, compared to a 9 or a 10 for someone who's queer and has to keep that under wraps.

So class factors in, but it's much less of a problem because it's easy to hide.

Anonymous said...

Anybody want to comment on the elephant in the room here--these days, some folks get tenured because they are female/black/gay or all of the above. A lot of the loss of respect is due to the fact that the librul arts just ain't what they once were. In place of the ever-elusive search for beauty and truth, we get gay/womens/etc. studies. As the great Ezra Pound once said (I'm paraphrasing) when they talk about the artist instead of the art, bullshit arises. This is true whether we are interpreting Shakespeare in terms of psychoanalysis (old style) or in terms of wimmins studies (new style).

JackDanielsBlack

Tenured Radical said...

Anybody want to comment on the elephant in the room here--these days, some folks get tenured because they are female/black/gay or all of the above.

Data here? I mean, at least the story I am writing about has data. This strikes me as the kind of thing that is bruited about, that everyone accepts as true, but for which there is no evidence.

Anonymous said...

Er, TR, how'd you get your current job again???

Anonymous said...

TR, maybe in your version of history Alice in Wonderland is really data, but not in mine--perhaps your history is part of the problem??

JackDanielsBlack

calugg said...

From a N of 1, my tenure process was akin to fracturing my femur. I was one of the very first out queer and untenured profs in my specialty. I knew this was a risk at tenure, but my senior colleagues were sure I'd be fine (I had 2 solo books, oodles of refereed chapters and journal articles). But I was initially done in by a homophobic external letter that the upper university acted on (this came out in the grievance process).

I also had the great "fortune" to have my case entangled in the entire collective bargaining process. So, although I did win my case and won tenure....it took 2 years of my life to unravel.

From the point that I was first denied tenure and moving forward I see the tenure process as largely arbitrary and capricious, mired in the isms that run US society. While being a white, non-queer, upper class male doesn't guarantee tenure, it sure helps.

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