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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

We Could All Use a Little Tenure
September 3, 2014 - 9:12pm

If I had tenure, I’d be doing something else right now.

I’ve got a couple of writing projects I’m dying to do and tenure would help me do them.

People outside academia resent tenure. In fact, it’s so terrible, Campbell Brown wants to get rid of it for K-12 teachers as well.

But at its core, it seems to me that tenure is a necessary  protection from the whims of the marketplace. Tenure allows academics to do work that could (but might not) turn out to be important.

It’s a little bit of slack that allows for exploration.

With tenure, a 20-30% increase in school-related work (committees, advising, etc…) would come with a 50-60% increase in salary. I could drop some of my outside work[1].

As tenured faculty, I would also be eligible for sabbatical. As I’m starting my fifteenth year of teaching, had I taken a more traditional path, I’d likely have that time off right around the corner.

Under my current situation, I can only take the time if I know I’m going to get paid for it.

Tenure would remove that constraint.

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One of the books I want to write is a narrative biography of my great uncle, Allan Seager, who was a very successful writer in his day – once called the next Hemingway, by the guy who discovered Hemingway, E.J. O’Brien – but is now largely forgotten.

Over the years I’ve managed to periodically resurrect some parts of his story and get it in print, like this essay about one of my great uncle’s short stories that became one of the most bowdlerized tales in history.

Uncle Allan had a fascinating life, and I have copies of thousands of pages of his notes and diaries. The Bancroft Library at Cal Berkeley holds additional goodies. To do this book properly, I would need to engage in extensive research, the kind of thing a sabbatical is perfect for.

I’ve periodically tried to pitch this book to agents and publishers in search of an advance, but it’s a tough sell. I am not known as a literary biographer, and the story of someone no one remembers is hardly a marketing slam dunk.

I think it could be a great book, but I’ll probably never write it. When I don’t write it, the person who inspired James Dickey to write poetry (true story) will surely disappear.

The other book is based on the writing I do here, when I question the influence and, dare I say, invasion of technology and algorithmic “thinking” in higher education.

To do this book well, I would need to read a crapload more than I already do. I would need to seek out and interview people who know a lot more about this stuff than me. I would need to go observe some of the things I’m so skeptical about – algorithmic grading and advising, adaptive software, MOOCs, – and see how they work (or don’t) for those that use them.

I floated some ideas about this kind of book to my literary agent to see if maybe I could write a proposal, secure even a modest advance. The success of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep demonstrates at least some broader hunger for books about higher ed.

But my agent doesn’t see it. Inside Higher Ed isn’t a sufficient launching pad, I’m told. I need to be aiming for Salon, Slate, The New Republic, the places where I could offer proof of concept that such a book could draw a broader audience.

The marketplace has judged my desires as unworthy of support.

I can’t say that any of this is “unfair,” because I don’t know what that really means in this context.

I know I feel thwarted, frustrated, as anyone would who knows they have more to give.

I know if I had tenure, I would just pick one project and get going. Tenure would provide the necessary freedom to work harder[2].

Of course, there is an argument that if the book isn’t one that the marketplace deems promising, then perhaps it does not need to written.

Enabling the production of scholarship that garners very little audience is one of the subsidies lots of people outside higher education would like to see removed from the system.

They argue, if no one wants to read it badly enough to pay for it, maybe it shouldn’t be written. We treat this marketplace as though it is a state of nature, even though there is nothing “natural” about it.

I guess one of the reasons there is so much ire hurled at higher education is because those outside it would like to see academics treated as poorly as those fully subject to the marketplace.

It is similar to the declining support for labor unions – Why should someone else have something I don’t? – even though the existence of unions tends to be a good thing for anyone who works for a wage.

I am not resentful of my tenured colleagues, but I am envious. I’d like more of that kind of shelter for myself.

No one really needs these books I’d like to write, but isn’t it possible that if they were written, we’d find out some people want them?

Personally, I wouldn’t mind a system that offers everyone a little more protection from the whims of the marketplace, regardless of the work they do. The limited margin for error and experimentation we’re allowed in the 21st century economy doesn’t seem like a healthy thing to me. Look at what we're doing to entire generations of potentially promising scholars by subjecting them to the adjunct grist mill.

Couldn’t we all use a little bit of tenure?

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Twitter doesn't give tenure, but if you're important enough, you can be "verified."

 

 


[1] I’m hugely appreciative of the opportunity Inside Higher Ed affords me to write about things that matter to me, and to get paid to do it to boot. This work, along with a weekly column I write for the Chicago Tribune book supplement, Printers Row Journal, and my teaching salary adds up to an unspectacular, but reasonable, income. But a TT job would allow me to cut back without sacrificing the money I use to live.

[2] I do not and probably never will know tenure from the inside, and while I’ve seen my share of dead wood roaming the halls, I’ve known far more TT faculty that used the position as a springboard to do the best work of their lives, utilizing that freedom as much as possible to do good an interesting work, including reducing their academic output and concentrating on teaching.

 

 

 

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