I don’t know if any of my readers are also fans of the show Big Bang Theory (but I would imagine that there would be some overlap there), but the episode from Thursday April 4 caused a bit of a firestorm on Twitter, or at least academic Twitter. The premise of the show is that a group of geeks (who are all employed by CalTech and almost all have PhDs) have to try and behave like real human beings, which is a HUGE challenge because not only are they academics, they are physicists of various types.
It’s a funny show. The show also features a group of very smart girls who have their stuff together, so that’s great, too (mind you, they are defined in large part by their relationship with the main male characters). Anyway, last week, an old (tenured) professor died in his office (and no one noticed for two weeks). This sets off a flurry of activity because now...there was a tenured position available. This caused the three to try to maneuver themselves around a member of the tenure-committee. They begin sucking up to members of the tenure committee, the only one that we see, however, is from HR.
There are so many problems with this portrayal of what it’s like to try and get tenure. This isn’t the first sitcom to get the world of academic employment so very very wrong; Ted on How I Met Your Mother simply got his job teaching Architecture at a prestigious New York school through nepotism (his ex-girlfriend’s husband’s mother sits on the board and donates a lot of money to the school), and Ross on Friends somehow parlays a temporary teaching gig in Archeology (or is it Anthropology; he studies dinosaurs) into a permanent position that appears to be tenured. At least Ross had a PhD. Then again, Ted (in the show’s universe) became the youngest architect to design a skyscraper in New York.
Actually, never mind. There isn’t much wrong with these portrayals of how to get a tenured gig in higher education. If you’re a white male with connections (and I know Raj on Big Bang Theory is Indian but part of the joke on the show is that he is the most economically privileged out of the bunch), then getting a job is relatively easy (note, of course, that none of these men are English or History professors, either). On Big Bang Theory, the guys (despite their impressive research records) feel the need to suck up to the members of the tenure committee, which would seem to indicate that tenure isn’t about merit at all; it’s a popularity contest that you need to win. Having a hot (Penny) or super-smart (Amy) significant other certainly helps matters as well.
My knee-jerk reaction to the Big Bang Theory’s depiction of the tenure process was to completely dissect and discredit it. But, in that dissection, I came to realize that it got a lot more right (unfortunately) than we’d like to believe. I mean, isn’t that what so many of us believed when we started grad school, that the Baby Boomer professors would retire or (in the show’s case) die off, leaving lots of positions open for the rest of us? And while the BBT’s universe has so many highly qualified people competing for one little opening that just chanced to open up get a deeper truth that is plaguing us in higher education?
Or, really, maybe I’m just reading too much into this. It’s been a long semester. The tenure storyline is “To Be Continued” with all of them having made it to the next round. Certainly, exaggerated hijinks will ensue. Let’s just see if the ridiculously masks an undercurrent of reality.