Essay on how to avoid becoming academic roadkill
Stephen Spielberg's "Duel" (1971), one of his first films, is about a truck that keeps coming. You really don't want to be the character, played by Dennis Weaver driving a red Plymouth Valiant, who is being pursued by an actual truck.
1. I often say, in my new book The Scholar's Survival Manual and in everyday discourse: A truck is coming, and you better not say: What truck? Trucks are real and if they are coming, you had better get out of the way. Otherwise you will become academic roadkill.
Publish that book or get that grant or have n papers out and seen. You had better do it. You don't want to say to yourself, "Smith did a half a book and it was in draft, and he got tenure." Your advocates might say this, too. But most others will think to themselves, Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. Then they will get the broom and dustpan to clean up the road.
Maybe Smith had other virtues, maybe he had slept with the president, maybe they made a mistake. But you are likely to be academic roadkill, be splat on the ground, unless you do what you must. You are lucky to have seen the oncoming truck.
2. As in Harry Potter: "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." —Remus Lupin to Harry Potter
Now you may have received incorrect counsel from your mentor, who turns out to be a dementor or tormentor, so to speak. Tormentors (pronounced tor'mentors) are mentors who are destructive under the guise of helping you. In effect, tormentors are "internalizing the aggressor," saying "It (torturing) was good enough for me, so it is good enough for you."
They may have referred to Smith. They may not realize what is really going on at the university level. But if you look around you at others at peer or better institutions, and see what they have done, you are likely to get a good idea. By your second year you should know what you ought to do.
3. Say, for whatever reason, you are not tenured, or appointed. Shenanigans and bias are not so rare, and some colleagues or deans or provosts really are forces of evil. You might appeal internally or launch a national campaign of publicity and letter writing, or begin a legal process. They sometimes work. I know of scholars who have been turned down, then have the decision changed, and who are now at least as published and prominent as their colleagues. They tell me they are still trying to prove to their colleagues that they made a mistake initially, and from what I can see the proof is overwhelming.
Still, in your back pocket you need to have a Plan. During the year in which you are being evaluated for tenure, apply for jobs at other institutions. You can explain to your dean something to the effect that the process has enough uncertainty you want to have alternatives, although you would dearly love to stay at Your U. You should also have a go-bag, in effect a briefcase of the stuff you really need for your work, so that if your office is incinerated, you would be O.K. Obviously, for those in laboratory sciences, you cannot do this. But you want to have all your data and writing on a thumb drive, or in the cloud, probably in several distinct sets of copies -- whatever else that cannot be replaced for a few thousand dollars. Universities only rarely just fire someone and escort them outside the building immediately, unlike many firms. But you don’t want them to control your assets — ever.
You might ask yourself: Do I really want to be a professor -- or a professor at Your U? Often, it is not sour grapes to admit that this job is not for you, but a realization of what you really want. It is hard to say this, since it will seem like an excuse to others. But the most important person is you and your career, and of course your family. So, if you have sold a screenplay already, maybe that is where you belong. Or perhaps your entrepreneurial spirit lies in the direction of business and finance. Or what you need to do is to get a job at another university, and you can do so in the next year after the turndown.
Living well is the best revenge, said the poet George Herbert (1593-1633), but it may well have been in common usage. Actually, revenge is not a good idea, and you are better off looking forward or forgiving. In any case, living well will surely be good for you. In my experience, the places that do not appoint or tenure you, if you go forward with your work, look less and less attractive as time goes on. And if you go forward in a different direction, the appeal of a life of learning as a professor, will lessen as you watch many of your former colleagues atrophy. At some point you may pity those who spend their lives with late adolescents.
Martin H. Krieger is professor of planning at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. His most recent work is The Scholar’s Survival Manual: A Road Map for Students, Faculty, and Administrators (Indiana University Press, 2013).
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