November 05, 2003

"Like an 800-Pound Gorilla in the Corner"

Chad Orzel identifies one of the ironies of the tenure review process:

There's a sort of black irony here, because tenure is intended to be a means of protecting academic freedom. The job security provided by the tenure system is supposed to allow faculty to speak freely, without fear of reprisals. And yet, in the pre-tenure process, the threat of failing a tenure review is so gigantic that it actually stifles discourse by younger faculty. I haven't worked as a contract employee, so I have no real basis for comparison, but I almost think that the emphasis placed on tenure magnifies these issues to the point where the effect on my behavior is actually greater than it might be if I were worried about losing my job immediately. Which is absolutely insane.

There's no question that a tenure-track faculty member has more to lose. Still, I tend to doubt that the fears of a tenure-track faculty member have a greater effect on behavior than the fears of a contingent faculty member who can be fired at will. But to say this not to discount his main point about the "stifling effect" of the tenure review process (as an "anonymous tt faculty member" put it in a comment which admitteldy might not bear the weight of the strictest possible scrutiny but which won the "Weekly IA Award" anyway, "It's hard to get tenure unless you have already demonstrated that you have nothing of consequence to say").

Though Orzel notes that he asks "How will this affect my tenure prospects?" with respect to other issues (eg., involvement in local politics), much of his post focuses on teaching and, more specifically, on the fear of negative student evaluations. I think Timothy Burke makes a good point when he suggests (comments to "Academic Freedom Versus Professional Standards") that "it's actually striking how few students use anonymous evaluations to punish professors, rather than how many do so." But while the fears of the pre-tenured and the untenurable may be exaggerated, I believe the very possiblity that a student might punish a professor can, and often does, exert a subtle pressure toward the kind of caution that Orzel speaks of in his post.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 5, 2003 04:06 PM

For some reason, when I saw the question "How will this affect my tenure prospects?", I immediately thought of the infamous "Will this be on the exam?" question that we all dread hearing from students. We dread it because it suggests that they're worrying about how they'll be evaluated instead of appreciating the subjects to which we're introducing them. (I actually don't hear it very often, but that's probably because I teach writing courses in which there are papers instead of exams.) But "will this be on the test?" also indicates that the student recognizes that his or her GPA matters as part of the "credentialling" about which IA posted a few days ago. Even if the student would like to spend more time thinking about Shakespeare or physics or anthropology and less about final grades.

The tenure review issue is starting to look remarkably similar: before (or instead of) writing something innovative, or trying out new teaching methods, or expressing any kind of controversial idea, or even having a personal life that requires extra time commitments, one has to ask "will this come up at my tenure review?" Will I be tested on this? Will this affect my grade in the class? Which, all told, is a damn shame.

Posted by: Amanda at November 5, 2003 04:51 PM

If the above post were downshifted to the level of hiring, then I think one would get a very good picture of the gate-keeper function of the hiring process. And to add to this, a former professor of mine in grad. school once said that the academy is never more conservative than at the points of hiring, and granting tenure.

Posted by: Chris at November 5, 2003 07:18 PM

I have often felt that the tenure system encourages conformity rather than innovation in research and teaching. Genuine innovation in research calls old ideas into question, but to challenge the scholars of these old ideas is also to challenge the gatekeepers who hold the key to the kingdom.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at November 6, 2003 11:01 AM

It would be entertaining if tenure was granted or denied by the corresponding department in other universities, then. Sort of like Florentine tax assessments based on the neighbors' estimate of your wealth, and I can't even remember how that gamed out.

Posted by: clew at November 6, 2003 03:18 PM

There's a fascinating book called "The Camel and the Wheel" by Bulliett which was just reissued. It discussed the fact that during the great age of Islamic civilization, wheeled transport and roads were unimportant compared to pack animals and see transport.

The relevance to the thread is that when it was published, one of the author's friends suggested that it might be "a career-ending book" because it was so far outside the mainstream problematic of history at that time.

I think that attempts to professionaize and methodologize the hiumanities have made the problem much worse. "Choose a paradigm and enforce it" is Rorty's paraphrase. When this is done at a national (the famous "anything-goes" MLA conference of 19??) it makes things still worse.

Glad I'm out of it. i've known a lot of people who've tried to "play the game", and I think that it may have worked for some of them, but not most, and it wouldn't work for me.

To me, at every level the "credentialing vs. real scholarship/education" dillema is there. I read a lot of stuff from early modern Europe (ca. 1600: Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, etc.) The dominant academic institution then was the Sorbonne, and almost all the scholars and writers of that time whom are still read bitterly hated the Sorbonne.

Posted by: zizka at November 6, 2003 04:33 PM


"There's a fascinating book called "The Camel and the Wheel" by Bulliett which was just reissued. . . when it was published, one of the author's friends suggested that it might be "a career-ending book"

Was it? Did the fellow have tenure when he published it?

Posted by: at November 6, 2003 11:55 PM

What are examples of career-ending books (aside from fraudulent books, that is)? I know that one of my father's close friends, the classicist Sarah Pomeroy, almost destroyed her career when she published Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, but the book nevertheless became standard and the end result was a career boost.

Posted by: Miriam at November 7, 2003 10:40 AM

As I understand, he had tenure but wanted to move up in the world, and not be "that oddball guy we can't fire but won't promote whom no one else will ever hire".

Posted by: zizka at November 7, 2003 11:33 AM

In my old department at Yale, the tenure track faculty definitely felt that they had to watch what they said in front of the tenured profs. The odds against an entering asst prof getting tenure were generally considered to be 10:1 or worse, depending on the number of slots that the Dean had available to spread around the year that you came up for tenure. So, there was a general fear that anything, anything at all, might screw things up.

You could see this in action as faculty meetings. The yet to be tenured junior faculty sat in chairs at the back of the room while the tenured profs sat around a large table in the front. The chair would go around the room asking each person in turn their opinion on whatever question was at hand. The junior faculty always worried that they would be ask for an opinion before they knew which way the wind was blowing. Fortunately, the old boys (and few girls) around the big table usually went first. By the time they got to the kids at the back, they knew what was acceptable and would say: I have nothing to add. I agree with ....."

(The real irony was that our chair would never bring up a topic at a meeting that included junior faculty unless the outcome was a foregone conclusion.)

Posted by: Platypus at November 11, 2003 11:18 PM