If the idea of tenure denial wasn't stressful enough for junior faculty members, two assistant professors at Western Carolina University have spent the year researching under the shadow of another threat that could be hard to swallow: livermush.
The processed pork product, colloquially known as "poor man's pâté," is a combination of pig liver, head parts, and cornmeal that is rather common in western North Carolina, where the university is located. For Nate Kreuter and Mary Byrnes, it was also the motivation to produce five scholarly works before Memorial Day.
The two threw themselves whole-hog into scholarship in September by striking a bet that they could each produce five articles by summer. Whoever failed to reach the magic number would be forced to eat their words as a side dish to a heaping pile of processed pig parts.
"The bet is not a very serious thing, but the idea behind it -- that we need to keep our noses to the grindstone -- is serious," Kreuter says.
The idea arose when Kreuter, a first-year assistant professor in the English department, and Byrnes, a second-year assistant professor of sociology, were drinking and talking about how much scholarship they needed to get done this year. That talk escalated into a sort of dare. "I threw out the number five as kind of a bluff," Kreuter says. "And she called me on it."
After the two established a finish line, they tried to figure out what the punishment should be. "We kicked around things like indentured servitude, but in the end we wanted something we both thought we would absolutely detest," Byrnes says. "To us, the idea of livermush was just the most horrifying thing."
While the meat has numerous fans, Byrnes and Kreuter are not among them. Neither has ever tried the dish, and both say that while they respect Appalachian culture, they are not fond of organ meat, particularly when it is processed.
They wrote up a contract, got the chairman of the English department to witness it, and set about cooking up papers. Throughout the year they would occasionally send each other small taunts about how they would cook the dish should one of them lose.
"It's nice to have someone shaking their finger at you," Kreuter says. "It gives us some ammo to say, 'You’re not doing what you said you'd do.' "
The bet is designed to combat a piece of advice commonly given to first-year faculty members -- that they should focus on getting settled in their department and familiar with the ins and outs of their jobs before launching into scholarship. Kreuter sees that as a bad plan. "I think you need to be aggressive in showing colleagues that you're a productive scholar," he says.
The bet is serving up results. Byrnes has a paper appearing in the Fall 2011 issue of The Journal of Aging Studies that explores the lives of older people living in public housing projects. Kreuter has several papers under review, so he could not elaborate on their exact topics, but he is also working on a book about how the CIA and other intelligence agencies use rhetoric.
The wager has proven to be less of a competition than a galvanizing factor for the two scholars, since both can technically lose. They have allowed for slight deviations from the rules. Kreuter allowed Byrnes to count a major grant proposal, and she let him count a ready-to-publish chapter of his book. Byrnes says she has enjoyed the taste of motivation that has accompanied the bet and that it keeps her focused on scholarly work. "I would definitely do it every year if I could," she says. "I'm competitive and I like that there's a degree of accountability."
Both can smell the finish line coming. With about four weeks left, Byrnes is in a better position than Kreuter, having only one more paper to finish. Kreuter's plate is a little fuller, with two more articles to write. At the moment he is trying to persuade Byrnes to let him count two revisions as one of his papers.
Kreuter says that five articles, especially for someone in the humanities at a state university, with a 3-3 teaching load, is a tall order. He says he worried that he would be perceived as just cranking out articles instead of focusing on quality scholarship, which is why they stipulated in the contract that the articles had only to be written, not submitted. The goal, he says, is to get ideas on paper.
“It may be perceived as brash to even try to write that much," Kreuter says. "But you’ve to got to write something before you get something good.”
The two have actually caught more flak for choosing livermush, which is quite popular among some of their colleagues, as their punishment. "I'm pretty open when it comes to food," Byrnes says. "But this is one thing I'm going to be bigoted about."
Now that classes are over and they are free to focus on scholarship for a few weeks, both say they think they'll avoid the meaty, salty taste of defeat.