Saturday, June 27, 2009


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?


Anonymous said...

I suspect "older esteemed colleague" was not from your new department? Department cultures vary. It does not have to be very easy to antagonize people. And not everybody is into that "I suffered and now you have to suffer too" routine.
Also, keep in mind that most universities, except the most famous ones, prefer to keep their tenure track faculty and eventually give them tenure.
Do not panic. You will do fine...

Anonymous said...

Oh, flattering the students...
You surely know that yourself, but I still repeat that for you, so you have less doubt it is a universal phenomenon:
Students value teachers who are fair, who do as promised, and who know and enjoy their subject. If these conditions are fulfilled, one can be tough and not unnecessarily flattering at all.
I routinely fail 20% of the class, I do not curve, I call ridiculous excuses ridiculous excuses, but some students seek contact with me in my wife's facebook to get into my class and not into someone else's. Students whom I failed try to take class over with me...

Clarissa said...

"Students value teachers who are fair, who do as promised, and who know and enjoy their subject. If these conditions are fulfilled, one can be tough and not unnecessarily flattering at all."

-That's very true. I'm a very tough grader and the homework is always massive but the students like me anyways. The best way to earn their respect is to know your stuff, that's all they want.

"I suspect "older esteemed colleague" was not from your new department?"

-You are right! At my new department everybody is pretty young. :-)

The entire post is caused by me hearing yet again "Oh, you can''t do that, think of the tenure committee." I don't want to think about them! I want to think about more interestting things. :-)

Anonymous said...

You are right no to be obsessed with tenure. You should keep in mind however that tenure-track is a promise of material security for a coule of years. Tenure-track gives you the material condition to enjoy yourself as a scholar.

When a professor is not on tenure-track, say, a visiting professor or instructor, or lector, or post-doc, I think it is difficult to thrive.

So I guess that I would be happy with a 5-6 years tenure-track process in a university that gives me intellectual freedom. I would not see tenure as the ultimate goal, I don't care that much in fact, but being on that track allows a young professor not to be concerned with the coming academic year in terms of... will I be able to eat.

Clarissa said...

You are so right. It is very comforting to know that at least you have a secure salary now.