Getting Tenure

I’ve been thinking a lot about tenure lately.*

Tenure is a mysterious thing to non-academics, the most oft-debated bit of folklore about life in a college or university.  Wikipedia tells us that tenure is all about academic freedom, but I’ve never read a candidate’s statement that pleads for it on those terms. A seemingly lifelong appointment, it includes a permission slip to dress down every day, to grow a beard or wear jeans and sneakers, a release to become more opinionated, more strident, on campus, in the classroom, and in print.  And, in the eyes of many critics, it seems to encourage laziness.  In a research university, all one has to do, the rumor goes, is write a book.  And then, with a wiggle of the nose, one can be transformed into a tenured radical, permanently wrapped in the mantle of academic freedom, and do nothing but bloviate all day long.

I won’t dally here and discuss that folklore.  It is obscene.  Yes, you can be fired if you have tenure.  “For cause,” which means if you do something illegal or unprofessional or harmful.  Or for financial exigency.  Not everyone gets tenure, either.  Universities take it very seriously.  The entire process takes a year, involves people from around the world, and is a real drain on staff.  Tenure and promotion consume roughly 75% of (my) administrative time.  And, once tenured, most faculty work harder at everything.  If they dress down, it is because they need comfortable shoes – or even sneakers – for all the running between meetings and advising sessions.

Back to the book, though.

The book-for-tenure myth is enduring.  It applies, generally, to a subset of academe.  Scientists and Social Scientists write papers – sometimes with multiple authors.  Performing Arts and creative types, architects and engineers, all have a very different metrics.  The common shorthand in the Humanities, however, is to assume, that at the very least, one must write a book. Or perhaps “a-book-and-a-couple-of-articles.” Or “a-book-and-signs-of-progress-towards-a-second-book.”  Or even “two-books-for-tenure.”

As an ideal, “the book” is a rite-of-passage – a public sign of the intensively private labor of a single author, once deep in the wild archive, now emergent with his/her mastery on display.  “Focus on the book,” we tell our junior faculty.

This is wrong.  In its own way, this single-minded emphasis is as useless as a broad-spectrum gesture to “fabulousness.”

Tenure, of course, is not a reward for past accomplishments.  (Nor, really, for fabulousness).  One doesn’t actually get tenure for writing a book, because there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a checklist of things that need to be complete. Instead, tenure should be an acknowledgement of future potential, a recognition that better things are yet to come, that a person is capable of making a substantial contribution to the broader scholarly conversation, or taking a leadership role in debates in a significant field.  The book – any book, really – is just a suggestion of the future, like a shadow that precedes a figure walking around a corner.

A fairly standard notion.  One can find it expressed here and here and here.

Assessing the future is really, really hard, and so we create outsized, prosaic monuments – The Book – to make it easier.  This is a very helpful shorthand, of course, because it gives new faculty members a single, simple task to focus their efforts.  Simply telling someone to earn “a position of leadership in a substantial field” isn’t very helpful.  But we’ve fallen in love with that shorthand.  We stress the book, and we emphasize enumeration (“a book plus…”) rather than influence over the work of others.  We mentor junior faculty to be cautious, not bold, to “get the book done,” because the sheer weight of that accomplishment is meant to look and feel impressive.  Calling attention to a single monument as a symbol, we’ve forgotten the bigger something that lurks behind it.

When junior faculty (and sometimes senior faculty) come to me, they only know the shorthand.  We all need to work harder to better understand – and explain – what tenure is, and what it isn’t.

In theory, it shouldn’t take a book to demonstrate leadership or significance.  After all, an essay or a series of essays can move the scholarly conversation, or change the direction of research.  I’m not referring here to those workmanlike essays that are really “chapters,” sent off to create the illusion of national reputation – what Perry Miller once called “pieces.”  But to essays engaged in creative reflection or speculative work, essays that attempt to stand on their own as intellectual provocations.  And, of course, to those pieces that actually do, in the end, change the conversation.

In practice, though, and especially in the humanities, it is the book that move fields, that demonstrates scholarly merit, that serves – at the moment of tenure – as proof of concept.

There are other reasons to think about that something bigger behind the book.  These days, it is tougher and tougher to write a monograph.  Academic presses – the main venue for the proverbial scholarly monograph – are pinched financially.  Readership in general has been transformed by new technologies, changing tastes, and the emergence of new gatekeepers as different as Amazon (“if you liked….”) and Oprah (“I loved this book”).  Scholarly writing is now so closely aimed at academic conversations, that it often fails to capture significant public attention.  And our public, too, seems disenchanted with troublesome questions and intellectual complexities.

Maybe we have a reason to think about tenure – not anew, but as it is already.

A substantial contribution to a significant field. A book can do that. Or an essay. Or an exhibit. Many things can do it.

_______________

* A reminder: I do not ever write about my own shop.

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