The way I thought academic life worked was the following: first, you suffer a little as an undergrad, then you go through real suffering as a graduate student, then you get your PhD, find a job, become a real professor, and do anything you want and enjoy yourself for the rest of your life. People might call this vision of academia naive. I prefer to think of it as idealistic.
Now, however, I'm discovering that my long-expected "now-I-can-finally-do-whatever-the-hell-I-please" moment is not supposed to start right now. Or even for a very long time. Or maybe never.
Since I have found a tenure-track job, people are going out of their way to enumerate for me all of the ways I will have to punish myself for six years more to get tenure.
An older, esteemed colleague went on for 30 minutes describing, with a passionate glow of a fellow-martyr in his eyes, all of the humiliations and all of the struggle I will have to undergo on my way to tenure. "And then I will be able to just enjoy myself?" I asked hopefully. "No!" he responded with an ecstatic expression that reminded me of Bernini's St.Theresa. "Then you will want to get the title of Full Professor. And that's really painful."
I didn't ask my kind colleague what is the next coveted goal after that. Simply because even the first two don't convince me. The reason why I chose this profession is because it can give me a lot of free time to think, read, generate ideas, and disseminate them. That's really all I ever wanted to do. "Tenure" and "Full Professor", these words sound nice. But the good thing about academia (maybe the only good thing about it at this point) is that you can avoid the life of somebody who sits boxed in in her cubicle 8 hours a day 5 days a week 50 weeks a year. You can have space and time to grow intellectually at the pace that suits you best. You can have access to that commodity which is most difficult to acquire: leisure.
And now I am being told thatI have to waste that precious time trying to meet "the right people" and getting them to like me, creating technologically sophisticated presentations with Powerpoint or some such shit, when I know that the best things I can bring into the classroom and to a conference are my knowledge and my personality, and doing a myriad of silly little things to impress some people "on the tenure committee" that I don't know and most definitely don't care to know. I might have just decided to work selling insurance and saved myself all this trouble.
What bothers me, I guess, is that people automatically assume that wanting tenure is the next big goal. Why should it be, though? Maybe a scholar's goal is to make a significant contribution to her field, create her own theory, come up with a new way of teaching literary theory that will make the students love it. I worry that, for some reason, I never get to discuss these things with my colleagues. We talk about serving on committees, what the dean likes or doesn't like, how to please the chair, how to avoid antagonizing the secretary, where to get travel money, what will impress the tenure committee, like these things matter. But do they?