I'm a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.
Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.
Bitches and golden boys needn't work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier -- frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label -- many of our local brood are quite stunning -- for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.
After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.
Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.
There's nothing much surprising about the above -- these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What's surprising is that they're really true. This, despite the fact that we're not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators -- well-nigh the highest administrators -- are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we've left those stereotypes behind.
But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion -- being a good colleague -- gender still gets in the way.
You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they're assistants, golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we're a liberal arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It's like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out -- you can't shake the suspicion that you're being played. And while golden boys make the senior faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.
If you're in this for the long haul, then, it's a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They're married to the institution; they're, well, they're us.
Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees. Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is "who can help?" not "what should we do?" Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.
When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It's the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they've already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?). However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty's workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually, sweatily, receive their medals.
Bitches? We're tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs -- we may not smell Research 1 on this campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early -- unlike golden boys, bitches can't sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren't producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.
As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my students' self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase "buy in," and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn't be contributing.
I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. "It's nice to have you with us," he said, seven long years after my arrival on campus.
Still, it's lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I'm also, suddenly, thrilled. I'm not washed-up, I'm not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn't that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn't all that bad after all.
Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.
In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.
The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?
Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!
For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”
The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.
This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.
In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.
But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.
Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.
But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.
Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.
Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”
A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.
Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.
The abuses placed upon adjunct faculty members by college administrations are legion, long-standing, and not likely to lead to change anytime soon -- despite intermittent committees, activist organizations, and other groups of well-meaning but naïve educated people. Still, hope blooms eternal and the forces of justice press onward. I am not about to add to that fray, but rather, will reflect upon a higher caste of faculty. How much higher, though, is up to debate.
Administrations rationalize their un-evenhanded -- at times underhanded -- treatment of the one or two or three section per term laborer by saying that he or she is probably enmeshed in graduate work, and the adjunct experience is a fine training ground for future full timers. But what of that group designated as non-tenured full-time faculty: Those with the one-year contracts with no promise? They labor on without the dream of a full-time job, for they already have one. In fact, in many cases they are worthy enough to receive a full plate of benefits: A job with a health plan, full-time status, and office space commensurate with that of (can we dare utter its name) an associate professor?
Yes, these are good things. If not an answered prayer for an academic, at least such a position may appear as a sign of one. But the academic fine print and the job market challenges this purported academic coup. For while the adjunct may dream of tenure-track possibilities when the dissertation is done or that refereed journal cherry picks his or her article off the crowded transom, what dreams does the year to year full-time teacher have?
For half a decade the door of my office in the humanities department was located at 45° angles to two others across the hall, forming an invisible equilateral triangle. From this vantage point, I witnessed the injuries of cast and class of this species of scholar. One office was easily visible by a leftward turning glance. It was inhabited by an associate professor; the office further up was apportioned to a full-time non-tenured year-to-year man. While the geometry was ineluctable, the effects upon these two professors -- equally matched in education, competency, and age -- was all too palpable. As the months and years went by, and the mien of the overworked scholar grew wearier, I recalled an essay by Isak Dinesen wherein she lamented the suffering of oxen, who because of the insensitivity of the farmers to notice how poorly designed were the creatures' wooden collars, doomed the poor animals to a lifetime of suffering. On the other hand, the harness designed by the administration in funding the non-tenured position was a sophisticated, bureaucratic one, albeit devoid as well of any empathy to relieve the stress of this educated beast of burden.
The associate professor would jauntily enter the department domain in good cheer, spotlessly attired in a gray suit, well-groomed hair, and freshly shined shoes. While her job duties may not have been those of a managerial professional in the business world, her appearance would pass muster without a thought in the corporate corridors. She differed from her counterparts in business, however, since she needed make her appearance only twice a week. She taught two classes -- both "upper level" -- and dashed about the hallways as if her requisite time at the institution was something of a novelty, even an adventure. Not so the faculty member whose office abutted hers. He walked with a slow slouch. His demeanor reflected the toll of his job was heir to. His face poorly hid the toil of teaching twice the number of sections and grading hundreds of freshman compositions: first drafts and final. On occasion he could summon up a smile or a retort. But it was clear these were temporary anodynes, and even though his contract went from year to year basis to a guaranteed two-year stint, his reward for his labors were as threadbare as were his clothes.
He was friendly to his neighbor of higher status as she was congenial with him, although I could not help but notice a mote of resentment settle in his eye and a subtle gritting of the teeth from time to time as he turned from a brief interchange with his colleague back to his office. Eventually I noticed other subtle signs of unsucessful attempts at hiding his discontent. When new candidates for tenure-track positions were interviewed, he’d often show up and cordially inquire about their views on teaching or ask pertinent questions regarding their experience. However, I had the troubling feeling this was a pose, that beneath his professional stance, there stooped a disheartened soul that cringed at the idea the next academic year would bring in a new faculty member with higher rank than his. Why he did not apply for these positions himself is a mystery. He certainly seemed to have the qualifications. Perhaps after so many year-to-year years, he believed he had been apportioned his lot. Was he a representative of a new millennium academic Uncle Tom?
As for the professor who resided beside him during those years -- the one who kept bankers' hours -- it never seemed she was aware of the irony of being placed so geographically close yet so professionally apart from him. I suspect, however, she was grossly unmoved or unaware of the life on the other side of the thin slab of sheet rock that separated them.
There is an old adage that the three best things about college teaching are June, July, and August. This seemed to be the case for the solidly tenured half of our duo. When the first inklings of summer tinged the end of the academic year with warmth and greenery, she was off to parts unknown to the rest of us. But for her counterpart, these months were filled with summer teaching assignments (as many as could be legally and logistically taken on). Which led to another irony of academic life. Since the year-to-year contract covered only nine months per annum, summer school pay was lowered to an adjunct's compensation. So, as is the case with bureaucracies such as certain local governments, operations that exist outside the law, and corporate whistleblowers, it seems for the non-tenured faculty, no good deed goes unpunished.
Izzy Academic is the psuedonym of a writer and college teacher who resides on the East Coast. His previous column recounted the visit of a famous writer to a college where he taught.
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King this week, we recall his famous wish that Americans be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. How are we doing in fulfilling that dream?
Well, I am amazed at how frequently I will read a news article in which a school district or college will declare that it is essential to hire more teachers of this or that skin color or national origin. The faculty must mirror the student population, we are told, and students of each race and ancestry need “role models.”
Two recent examples: The Indianapolis Star ran an article headlined “Schools intensify hunt for minority teachers,” with the subheadline “Metro-area districts struggle to make faculties mirror growing diversity of student enrollments.”
Likewise, the Leadership Alliance -- which is a coalition of 29 higher-education institutions that was established 13 years ago to bring more minority students into mathematics, science, engineering, and technology -- held a conference in Washington. At the meeting, speakers cited the “need to increase the number of faculty of color who can serve as role models.”
One more example, that came across my desk as this piece was being edited: The Boston Globe ran an article about Randolph, Mass. headlined, “To reflect students, town woos minority teachers.” The school committee chairwoman was quoted: “It’s providing role models for the kids.”
It is understood that, in order to achieve this greater diversity, skin color and ethnicity will be considered in the recruitment and hiring process. And so, inevitably, some candidates will be given preferences, and others disfavored, because of these external characteristics. It cannot be denied: If race is given weight in the search, then you are no longer looking for the best candidate, regardless of race.
I’m amazed at the news stories because the role model justification for hiring preferences is so clearly (a) illegal and (b) bad policy.
And, really, they shouldn’t even need a lawyer to tell them that the role model approach is wrong.
For starters, universities, colleges, and schools should ignore skin color and national origin and simply hire the best professors and teachers they can. Period. It’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics.
Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” As for research and writing, hiring anything less than the best qualified minds will inevitably compromise the school’s or college's academic mission.
Second, it is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire -- one can adopt as a role model -- only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. Does this also mean that men cannot admire women, or a Christians admire a Jew, or the able-bodied admire someone in a wheelchair?
When President Bush was asked who he wanted to grow up to be when he was a boy, he replied without hesitation, “Willie Mays.” And why not?
Third, the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners.
As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.”
And if you have a school district that is all-white, does that mean that it is all right to refuse to hire blacks? If you have a school district that has no Latino children, does that mean you should avoid hiring Hispanic teachers? And if your school district’s students are only 5 percent Asian, should that be your ceiling for Asian teachers?
Likewise, are Idaho universities entitled to avoid hiring African Americans, Maine colleges Latinos, and Nebraska schools Asians -- to ensure that those states’ natives are not taught by someone who may not look like they do? Should Ruth Simmons have been disqualified as president of Brown University, on the grounds that she is an unsuitable role model for the white male students there?
Yes, sex will rear its ugly head, too.
Schoolteachers remain a disproportionately female profession, but students include as many boys as girls. Does that mean that schools ought to be granting a preference to men when they hire faculty?
The truth of the matter is that the “role model” claim is just another made-up excuse to engage in the politically correct discrimination that is so fashionable among so many of our so-called educators.
This discrimination is illegal, unfair, silly, and harmful. Whenever a school is distracted from looking for anyone other than the best possible teacher, it is in the end the students who will pay the price. Hire by content of character, not color of skin.
Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
When I returned to my university the week before the spring semester started, the door across the hallway was closed and locked. As I watched colleagues quickly walking down hallways, I wondered why Dr. R. was not joining us in our last-minute preparations. Our departmental secretary enlightened me, "Oh, he took another position at a university a few hours south of here." Refusing to meet my eyes, she continued, "He was on contract, but I suppose that didn’t mean a thing to him." She waved her hand and walked away.
Later that afternoon, I heard that a sociology professor on the tenure track had also left our campus for greener pastures. With mixed feelings, I silently congratulated my colleagues on furthering their career paths -- and wondered if professors really are as self-centered as administrators think we are. Sitting in my tiny cube office, I pondered. Yes, I am intensely loyal to my academic discipline. But I do invest with the institution that pays my wages.
I worked for six years at a community college that not only declined to interview me for full-time positions, but also never guaranteed me work. In the last four years I worked there, I also worked on committees to shape curriculum and install a college-wide common exam. True, this committee work helped my CV, but I felt guilty working to develop professionally while many adjunct friends simply could not afford the time. For most academics, getting ahead is important. Yet administrators continue to assume that this is always at the expense of the current student population. We soon become defined by our investment -- not our expertise.
David Riesman, the late sociologist best known for The Lonely Crowd, was the first to define this split well. Those who identified with an institution and student population were "locals." Those who were married to their discipline, but not to an institution were "cosmopolitans." Beyond this simple classification, many have studied differences within these groups -- and groups that have been overlooked.
Adjuncts aren’t even in the mix. Everyone understands when an adjunct takes another job: one-year contract, three-year contract, visiting, non-tenured -- anything. At best, adjuncting can be a ticket into an industry overloaded with qualified applicants. At worst, it's a decade (or two) of poor pay and painful schedules with no pay off. Adjuncts often receive no training and absolutely no support. With the constant threat of poor student evaluations and grade reviews, part-timers may feel compelled to water down the curriculum and deliver only the most student-pleasing assignments.
When a tenured instructor’s class does not fill, it is the adjunct who is penalized. Last-minute cancellations and changes create constant worry and chaos for professional adjuncts. Often they are forced to take non-academic positions just to pay the rent or mortgage. More often than not, they do not even receive a courtesy interview from their “home” campus. After investing years (or even a decade) at an institution, they are often forced out when out-of-state applicants take positions that adjuncts themselves are qualified to fill.
One online friend advised me, “Do not begin to identify with your institution. You are hired help. The institution has no loyalty to you.” Because adjuncts suffer the worst circumstances and receive the emptiest promises, no one is surprised when they walk away for a full-time position -- whether it’s a visiting position, a temporary contract, or a tenure-track job in a less-desirable location. The adjunct simply cannot afford to stay.
Contract instructors suffer, too. Working full-time without tenure or hope of tenure can motivate contract employees to take any position that promises more -- whether or not that promise delivers. At a small, private university in the suburbs of Northern California, a business professor gave me the skinny on his situation: “Oh, sure, when I applied for this visiting job, they promised that a tenure-track job would be opening the next year.” Sighing, he continued, “But I found out that was a lot of hooey. They said that to every person who made the cut.” By the time he’d relocated his family 1,600 miles and started his second semester, he’d found out the truth. There was no tenure-track job for him -- or for anyone.
In fact, institutions often make vague promises about funding, salary increases, better benefits and even permanent job status with the hope of hiring more qualified applicants at a lesser wage. The untrustworthy campus or department, of course, is careful that this information never appears on paper or in e-mail -- giving the applicant no recourse when the money (or position) doesn’t appear. Most experienced professors know that if it’s not in a contract or letter of offer, it’s not real. Yet some applicants, enticed by verbal promises during a second interview on campus, may take a position that doesn’t look as good on paper. It’s simply too seductive to refuse.
And then there’s the “sham search.” A faculty member at a university in the Pacific Northwest waited nine years for a tenure-track job to materialize in her scientific field. One year, her teaching garnered an award by the provost. And each year, glowing student and peer evaluations filled her file drawer as she kept reapplying for one- and three- year contracts with the dean. Promises by hiring committee members had her hanging on, year after year, until the unthinkable happened. They did hire for a tenure-track position in her department; but they did not hire her.
Unbeknownst to the contract employee, the department chair had been grooming her own protégé. He had been a former student and fellow graduate school alumnus; in effect, the job had been his all along. My friend, who had served her institution with a loyalty everyone admired, found herself without a job within a semester. Although she has been able to pick up a few courses as an adjunct, she has virtually lost all of her contacts, her colleagues, and her friends. Misused and exploited, she confided that she doesn’t know if she will ever really be able to completely emotionally invest in a campus again -- even if she lands a tenure-track position.
Although administrators often accuse academics of moving solely for increased salary, funding, research opportunities or location, there are other qualities that make a position livable. One tenure-track instructor at a large community college on the East Coast confided, “They would dump me in a nanosecond if it became convenient to the institution’s goals.” She told me that it was not just the lack of funding and inner-circle favoritism that has forced her to start applying to positions out of her area -- in fact, it was her campus’ poor treatment of adjuncts and contract instructors that left her cautious. Even with her protected status, she believes that her campus will not support her. Worse, budgets had been cut again; departments had been collapsed and combined with horrific results. She has started looking for another tenure-track position, “I really hate feeling like a commodity that falls to the highest bidder but to be honest, until I find a campus that is worth my investment, I will be looking.”
A colleague in the Mid-Atlantic has told his tenure-track protégé, “Even if you get tenure, don’t stop thinking of yourself as a potential candidate. Channel that energy into publishing, mentoring, developing new classes, and getting funding. It’s a Darwinian system; the most productive will be most rewarded.” And this physical science professor is right. With an industry moving more and more into a “student as consumer” mode, postsecondary instructors need to work smart. In the past, we may have had to learn to adapt to unlivable situations. Now we find that we need to continue to develop professionally -- not just to benefit our student population and campus, but to also keep ourselves marketable. Just in case.
Yet, many instructors I’ve observed are not only invested in their own careers. Untenured professors often invest heavily in their own campus. A contract colleague of mine in speech holds a dozen office hours a week and extends his availability when students can’t make those times. Every other Saturday, he e-mails his students to let them know he’ll be at a local café for two hours -- and often stays three hours to accommodate the panicked freshman crowd.
Two adjuncts I know sit in on committee meetings at a local community college and work to develop curriculum. One offers suggestions on her area of expertise. After developing an elective for the campus, she has copied her notes and handouts for full-time professors who are often asked to teach the course. “I could be bitter and hold out,” she tells me, “but the students would be the ones to lose out.” Every two years she is allowed to teach this specialized course -- and she relishes the experience.
A veteran contract instructor at my current university proctors exams for minimal pay. She is often called in at the last minute when tenured professors can’t make the specified date and time to give an exam. Smiling, the contract instructor told me that she found the time with students “surprisingly relaxing.” Her serene influence touches the exam-takers; they often seek her out and take her courses the following semester.
An adjunct I know at a technical college in the Pacific Northwest sat in on several grueling sessions with tenured professors to assess students’ writing. I suspected he was simply networking during these “norming” and grading sessions. I was wrong. The greatest value, he said, was in actually being able to see exactly how senior professors were grading students. Adjusting his assessment tools (and expectations) has helped him feel much more confident teaching. He has since helped refine the rubric used to assess writing -- and applied this knowledge to his own courses. Although I can’t assume a cause and effect relationship, he e-mailed me this week to tell me that he has been invited to interview for a full-time position at his campus.
I know that investment is good. It’s good for professors, for students, for administrators, for research, and for the campus climate. In her paper, “The Humanist on Campus,” presented to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1998, Judith Shapiro claims that transient academics weaken the campus system. Although their local counterparts may be idealistic and occasionally intellectually stilted, the campus needs both. Bringing together the best of the local and the cosmopolitan is ideal. This not only requires a tremendous investment on the part of faculty, but on administrators as well. Accountability on both sides may help shape a campus that invites investment from both students and faculty -- and offers the stability necessary to breed original thinking and research.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
Submitted by Jeff Rice on February 20, 2006 - 4:00am
In several online educational columns, various blog posts, department meetings, and graduate education advice, we repeatedly hear the dangers of blogging. Blogging will ruin your career! Blogging will prevent you from getting a job! Blogging will ... fill in the blank. In a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education column that received widespread attention from online readers, blogging critic "Ivan Tribble" argued that openly sharing one's views or one's life with the world can only have detrimental consequences for aspiring educators. Tribble wrote: "The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses."
Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously. Technorati, the blog search engine, lists 264 weblogs linking to (and one assumes commenting on as well) the initial Tribble column. It's not a trivial number considering the small amount of academic bloggers writing and the even smaller number of humanities-academic bloggers on the Web. The latter was the focus of Tribble's diatribe. Tribble's intense reading is not alone nor the anomaly. Most notable among other warnings regarding blogging is Forbes magazine's October 2005 cover story "Attack of the Blogs." Written by Daniel Lyons, the essay transformed blogging into an economic heavyweight whose influence far exceeds normal market and political forces. Beware of the blogs, Lyons cautioned. They will destroy your business!
More worrisome than this trepidation over blogging (i.e. whether these warnings are accurate or not), however, is the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing. By "seriousness," I don't mean the investments and concern we place in our work; instead I note the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing. That heaviness can be overbearing. It turns online writing into either an obligation or a burden; either way, writers act as if they are trapped in this medium they have chosen to work in. The two brief examples I just alluded to are not the only attributes of the seriousness weblogging evokes. A quick glance at Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" section reveals a majority of blogs linked to whose writers are identifiable only by pseudonyms: Wanna Be Ph.D, Angry Professor, Anonymous Professor, La Lecturess.
These "names" do not reflect the general tendency in digital culture to adopt alter-egos (as in hip hop culture) nor do they reflect the altering of one's name for easier and more likable recognition (as in Hollywood screen names) nor the postmodern play of identity (as in Philip Roth's novels). Instead, these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously. Our thoughts about students, grades, internal policy and even our private lives and interests can never be revealed to our colleagues or future colleagues or we risk losing all we have worked so hard for! As one anonymous writer states about her decision to stop blogging: "The only reason I'm in this predicament is because I've been terrified of people knowing who I am. As much as I've dealt with my 'real' identity being revealed to a few people, I've also been really afraid of the consequences of being a 'real' person in the blogosphere. And so, I thought, maybe the solution is to come out -- to just write under my "real" name, to tell people in my real life that I blog. As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that to write under that name is no solution, ultimately, because it would limit my writing here in the opposite direction."
I don't want to rehash the pro/con argument regarding blog pseudonyms or anonymous blogging in general. Instead, I draw attention to how serious both the critics and supporters of this kind of writing take its activities. Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers: ability to create discourse in widely accessed, public venues, ease of online publishing, ability to write daily to a networked space, ability to archive one's writing, ability to interlink writing spaces, ability to respond to other writers quickly, etc. That over a million people of various ages and writing proficiencies have taken up blogging so quickly speaks to its attractiveness and novel nature. Indeed, all new genres of writing spurred on by technological innovation create new opportunities for expression. Always there exist doubters, but seldom do the adopters themselves express as much seriousness and trepidation of the very medium they use as their opponents do.
The consequences of this seriousness can be quite problematic, more problematic than whether or not a reader will take offense (or even retribution) at one's postings. The consequence of this seriousness is stagnation. When we become too serious about novel ideas too quickly, we deny ourselves the ability to experiment with and develop the very innovations in communication we are attracted to in the first place. In turn, we replicate processes already in circulation; i.e., we maintain a status quo and fail to explore possibilities raised by the new medium. One hears that stagnation in the repeated refrains of "fear" pseudonymous bloggers express or the tropes of general complaining many pseudonymous weblogs turn out. One hears that stagnation in Tribble's own cliché reading of the job market or what digital writing entails. On hears that stagnation in Forbes' model of economic competition.
If we have too much seriousness, nothing new occurs. One might imagine what would have happened to the future of the essay if Rousseau had contemplated and feared negative public response to his love of self-pleasure and resisted exploring his emotions in such a way (i.e., if he doubted whether self love would be a "serious" topic). Or what if Cervantes took the "novel" form of the novel so serious that he could not mock his own novel's origins and purpose, as Don Quixote does in its beginning pages? Would this medium be the same as it is today?
To break this sense of seriousness, academic bloggers would benefit by engaging with the potentials this medium offers writers and by allowing themselves the opportunity to experiment. In a professional environment like ours, where experimentation is typically admired elsewhere (poetry, fiction) and downplayed in our own practices (exams, dissertation writing, outcomes statements, academic publishing), finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.
Some of the most provocative and exciting weblogs are, in fact, those that experiment with content and form: Boing Boing's daily juxtapositions of Internet oddities and current events, Warren Ellis' s explorations of fetish, comic book culture, sci-fi, and related topics, Oliver Wang's Soul-Sides, an archival replay of forgotten soul tracks (and which incorporates music into the blogging experience), dETROITfUNK's photographic exploration of Detroit's ruins, forgotten sites, and surprising charms, Wonderland's mixture of game related and consumer items, and Drawn's highly visual, daily updates of cartoon and graphic art developments are but a few blogs functioning in a fairly experimental manner. By experimentation, and not by seriousness, they explore how blogging may change or enhance their interests. That they are not academic is worth noting if only for the lack of seriousness they apply to their existence and their willingness to break conventions. We, in academia, might learn from them. We might learn how to simultaneously be serious about our work (i.e., to be invested) while not allowing that seriousness (heaviness) to be overbearing.
My own blog, Yellow Dog, attempts to engage with the experimentation blogging affords as well as to produce a lighter sense of seriousness. In my writing, I mix personal narratives, imaginative encounters, academic work, critical commentary, humor, Photoshop imagery, multiple personalities, and other items in an effort to generate a space which is both professional and playful. I am serious about what I do; but I am not overpowered by seriousness. Yellow Dog is not a model, but one effort to think about a new medium while actively working with that medium. What Yellow Dog does not do, and what my overall point of this short piece is trying to convey, is resort to a sense of super-hyped seriousness; a stagnation that fails to move our ideas, work, and sense of experimentation anywhere. I can name other academics who have also chosen to place "seriousness" aside in favor of play and experimentation: Jenny Edbauer, Derek Mueller and Collin Brooke are but three. Serious bloggers might take heed of such writing and think about how their own sense of seriousness limits their interaction with the new medium of weblogging. As Roland Barthes famously noted, there is a pleasure of the text. To that we might add the pleasure of online activities in general, engagements which do not always have to be placed in the realm of super-seriousness.
Jeff Rice is assistant professor of English at Wayne State University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and new media.
Submitted by Dean Dad on February 21, 2006 - 4:00am
OK, a thought experiment.
Although tenure is still around, it seems clear to me that it’s on its way out. Higher ed hasn’t really had an open, honest discussion about that yet -- denial is one of our talents -- but it’s hard not to notice. Right now we honor tenure in the breach, by saying all good things about it while simply replacing retiring full-timers with adjuncts. It seems to me that this strategy has a natural limit. We need full-time faculty, but do we need tenured faculty?
In the corporate world, “at will” employment is the normal default mode. Under “at will,” employees can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason, with a few legally defined exceptions (racial discrimination, say, or absence due to jury duty). “At will” is a pretty good description of the bottom of the occupational ladder, but in the credentialed ranks, there’s usually a brief probationary period followed by a system of graduated warnings. If you do something badly wrong, first you get an informal spoken warning, then a written warning, then some sort of sanction, then termination. (Layoffs are another matter, since they’re about reducing headcount rather than addressing individual performance.)
“At will” strikes me as inappropriate for professors. The subject matter expertise required of faculty is usually quite specialized, and no rational actor would undertake such narrow specialization without some reasonable expectation of still having a job next week. Given the realities of course scheduling and the nature of semesters, it’s just not realistic to assume that people can be fired on Wednesday for looking slovenly on Tuesday. Nor would it be any way to run a college.
Tenure certainly meets the needs for security and predictability, but it does so by granting impunity and saddling a college with immovable costs for the life of the employee. (It used to expire at 70, which struck me as more than fair, but now it expires at death.) As any academic manager can tell you, once people have tenure, they’re almost completely unaccountable for their actions. Give large numbers of people absolute immunity for decades on end, sheltered from economic reality, stuck with the same peers for 30 years, and some very weird behaviors come to the fore.
(For a while, my family lived in Ann Arbor. One of our favorite games when we went downtown was pointing to badly disheveled men and asking “homeless or faculty?” Sometimes the only way to tell was to see if the shiny aluminum thing they carried was solid or foil. Even then, you couldn’t really be sure.)
Worse, locking a group in for decades on end has the unintended side effect of locking new hires out. In my academic field, for example, my current college’s last hire occurred during the Nixon administration. He’s still here. I’d venture to say that the field has moved forward since then, but you wouldn’t know it here.
When I’ve tried to engage faculty friends in this conversation, they’ve uniformly reacted with horror. “I’ve killed myself for years to get tenure! Don’t take it away now!”
Well, exactly. I don’t think tenure is the solution to abuse. It’s a root cause.
The labor surplus in academe is not new. Why does it persist? Why do smart people keep crowding into a field with relatively few jobs, shockingly low pay relative to its training period, and absolutely no idea where it’s going? Sure, teaching is fun, but lots of things are fun.
I think the siren call of tenure is the culprit.
Tenure creates a do-or-die moment 15 years into a career. What other profession has anything even vaguely like that? At least in law firms, if you don’t make partner, you have the option of putting out a shingle and starting your own practice. Most of us can’t afford to start our own colleges. After years of extended graduate training, some post-grad-school bouncing around, and more years of tenure-track teaching and writing, you are either set for life or summarily fired. No wonder people are edgy!
Colleges have responded to increased cost pressures and a huge and enduring labor surplus by raising the bar for tenure for the lucky few on the tenure track. To my mind, this pretty much guarantees increased burnout. People who’ve lived monastically for 15 years and finally get tenure often effectively retire on the spot. They start paying back the other parts of their lives, which makes individual sense, but no institutional sense.
There’s an obvious alternative out there. Every administrator I know, when pressed, admits that the alternative is better. A surprising number of tenured faculty, when pressed, admit the same.
Long-term renewable contracts.
Hire full-time faculty to 3-to-5 year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews. (I could imagine the initial hire being for 3 years, with subsequent renewals for 4 or 5.) It’s far more secure than anything in the corporate setting, and it allows for predictability of scheduling, in-depth course preparation, and the like. But it doesn’t allow for someone to throw in the towel at 40, and self-righteously suckle at the teat of the college for another 35 years. It would give faculty some sort of stake in the success of their programs, since contract renewal times would be natural times to make adjustments reflecting changes in enrollments. It would allow for more turnover than we have now, which means more hiring of new people.
Some might argue that post-tenure review already accomplishes this goal. It doesn’t, and it can’t. At my college, tenured faculty are reviewed on a multi-year cycle. As one of them (correctly) put it to me, I can write that they feast on the entrails of the innocent and it wouldn’t make any difference; they still have tenure, and raises are contractual and across-the-board. Other than hurt feelings, they’re bulletproof.
(Before I get barraged with “easy-for-you-to-say” comments, I’ll disclose that my job is on one-year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews, and without tenure. I don’t even have a faculty position at my current school, despite having a Ph.D. in an academic field and having reached the associate professor rank elsewhere. So I’m not proposing anything I wouldn’t gladly accept myself.)
Most faculty, I would predict, would get renewed easily. (That’s what happens at Duke University, which uses a system like this for its "professors of the practice.") But those awful 10 percent at the bottom (the ones who use two sick days a week, or who just go AWOL without even calling in, or who last bothered updating their courses sometime around the bicentennial) could be dispatched and replaced by people who really want the job. They couldn’t just hang around and spread bitterness for decades on end.
Good new people would actually have a chance to break in, students would be spared the worst of the worst, and colleges could actually start to focus on performance. With the siren call of tenure muted, the rush to graduate school (and the resultant labor surplus) would gradually subside, bringing us closer to market equilibrium (and forcing better salaries).
English Department, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Assistant Professor in Renaissance literature. Ph.D. required. 3/3 load. Salary $40,000. Duties include teaching composition, gym, and specialty every fifth year. Send CV and letter to Hiring Committee Chair. Deadline Oct. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Please ignore previous ad. Visiting Assistant Professor in Renaissance studies, Ph.D. required. 4/4 load. Salary starts at $35,000. Perks include semi-private office and access to faculty get-togethers. Send CV, letter, transcript, teaching philosophy, dossier, and writing sample to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Oct. 25.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Never mind previous ads. Visiting Instructor to teach five sections of composition per semester, as well as acting as English tutor for our student athletes. Ph.D. required. Salary laughable. Send CV, letter, and evidence of sanity to Dr. R. Murgatroyd, Chair, Search Committee. Deadline Nov. 30.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Soliciting any warm body to teach at a school in the sticks without any charm; workload incommensurate with anything you’ve done before. Need ability to tolerate mind-numbingly dull students, an administration in love with itself, and a faculty simply waiting to retire. Evidence of experience welcomed. Salary debatable. Just arrive in person, and we’ll put you in front of a classroom. Deadline: 21st of Never. Ha ha....
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Full professor to fill our prestigious new Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. This job, occasioned by the untimely death of Professor Reginald Murgatroyd and heavily endowed by a long-lost cousin, carries a 2/1 load. Applicants should have a substantial body of published scholarship, an international reputation, and many influential friends. Send CV and letter to Professor Myra Blowenthorpe, Chair Pro-tem. Deadline Jan. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search extended: Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. Responsibilities include directing the new R. M. Renaissance Center and getting along with a chancellor who doesn’t respect the liberal arts. Send CV and cautious, diplomatic letter to Professor X. R. Clancy, Interim Chair. Deadline Feb. 15.
English, Box 8765A, U of All People, Centerville, KR 58767 (www.uallp.edu/english). Search postponed indefinitely for Murgatroyd Memorial Chair in Renaissance Studies. We could say that no candidates fit the bill or that our funds for the position were suspended, but instead we’ll let you guess as to just what administrative mess occasioned this screw-up. Send no CVs or letters, please, until next year, when we’ll probably try again.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).
When I arrived to my new academic post almost two years ago I was faced with a daunting task. The office I had been assigned was still inhabited by the possessions of my predecessor, a beloved professor called Bart Lewis who had suddenly and unexpectedly died five months before. The door was decorated with a mural of student signatures and messages on brown paper and the inside of the office still contained thousands of pieces of paper, some personal photographs and a library that had been picked over by the university librarians first, and then by faculty members and graduate students.
There were many books that remained on the shelves, but the space they took up was smaller than the empty gaps between their incomplete and uneven rows. The office, like those shelves, was like a bruised mouth with missing teeth. Bart’s answering machine contained a message from an unsuspecting friend or contact from Argentina who did not know he was dead. The message did not make any sense and the man did not leave a phone number for a call-back.
As I tentatively began to move in to the office during the summer, I was interrupted from time to time by visitors who did not seem to quite know how to react to my presence in their friend’s office. In their faces I saw sadness, surprise and friendly concern for my comfort in this sacred and alien space. I was frequently asked if I had met my predecessor, to which I responded that I had, during my job interview at the Modern Language Association meeting.
Then, the passersby usually told me an anecdote about Bart’s warmth, friendship and vibrancy, or their feelings for him. As you might imagine, all of this was a little bit unsettling, but I was determined to take command of this office. In those weeks of intermittent cleaning-up and moving-in, with our door closed, I spoke to Bart out loud on more than one ocassion. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt like his presence deserved acknowledgement. I probably said things like “Hey Bart, I’m here now and I’m sorry you’re not around.” “Hey Bart, how are you doing?” Or “Damn this is a good book, I can’t believe no one took it.” Mostly, however, I thought intensely about Bart as I explored filing cabinets, drawers and bookshelves.
I found barbells in a filing cabinet. Slides from Spain. Lecture notes. Meeting notes. Old binders from other universities. Old and stained copies of some his articles. Newspapers and magazines from South America and a famous New York Times Magazine issue with the writers of the Latin American Boom colorfully pictured on the cover. Most poignant, however, was a photograph of a younger Bart in another country, with his arm around a friend. As I looked into his eyes and kind face and noticed how the very curve of his shoulders seemed to communicate a receptive, humble nature, I could not help but think of my own mortality, and the day that some poor soul like me might have to go through the remnants of my professional life, and not really know who I was. I thought of the fragility of memory and remembering, and how quickly, relatively speaking, we all fade into the good night of forgetfulness.
I could not keep all of the books that remained, so I packed up the rest for a local second-hand bookstore that gave me practically nothing in return. I was glad for it too, because I didn’t want to make money off of Bart’s books. I stuffed vast reams of papers, old tests, exams and meeting notes and such, into plastic baskets that eventually made their way to my department chair. However, I was careful to save some of the syllabi and lecture notes: I did not want to banish those papers from my presence because I hoped that they might provide some kind continuity with my own teaching in the future. I also saved his articles, the separata and the journal issues, which I put on one of the bookshelves, where they sit now.
Throughout the process of cleaning the office, I felt myself having strange conversations with myself about the contingency and intimacy of the papers that academics produce in their professional lives. As fascinating as Bart’s lecture notes were to me, they were also quite opaque and mysterious. What was missing was his animating presence to give voice to what was between those bullet points and arrow points. I thought about the papers of my own that I was moving into our office and wondered if it would not be better for me to toss them in the trash and be over with it. Why subject someone else to the uncanny experience of looking through things that lose life when the hands that created them cease to move? Sometimes, in our office, I felt that I was surrounded by the bureaucracy of death. The illegible print of yesterday, waiting to claim all of my paraphernalia in some -- hopefully distant -- future.
My most dramatic act of possession took place when my partner and I moved all the furniture around. We changed the layout of everything. Then I put some of Bart’s books on the shelves, mixed in with mine, kept his articles out on the shelf, framed the New York Times Magazine cover on my wall, and put some of his lecture notes in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet for future reference, under his barbells. I reprogrammed his answering machine with my own voice and decisively deleted that last, cryptic message that Bart could only respond to from eternity. It was almost my office now. In time, I would grow into it more and more, and come to be associated with it. Some day in the future, people might think it had been my office forever. But I’m just passing through, like my departed friend and colleague.
Cleaning Bart’s office made me feel close to him, and I’ve always felt comfortable in his old office. But I think I learned some things about academe and the lifestyle that I had begun to seek on my own before arriving at my new post. One of the reasons I had left my previous job at Brown University for a tenured position in Texas was to lead a more settled down life with my partner. After years in a commuting relationship, we found jobs together and ended our financially devastating and melodramatic airport farewells. As I drove across the country in a rented Cadillac with most of my possessions in the back seat and the trunk, I felt the personal and professional pressures of the last few years fall away from my life. I resolved to worry less about work and be happier.
Now, Bart’s papers and his sad, plundered library, with its uncertain, dispersed futures, challenged my attachment to work by making me aware of my own paper ephemera. I realized how unimportant my professional possessions were, not because they meant little to me (on the contrary, they still mean a lot to me), but because outside of the context of my work habits and thoughts, all of my papers cannot mean much to anyone else. They are truly mine and some day, truly no one’s.
Thanks to these thoughts it became a lot easier to recycle paper and worry less about my stuff. I want to live less on paper and more on life. If I’m lucky, my office will be bare by the time I’m gone, everything in it consumed by lived experience, gone with my spirit and my body. And if not, if I leave a bunch of stuff for someone else to get rid of after I’m gone, I want that person to know that it’s OK to move my stuff out. Welcome to your new office. Just erase my outgoing greeting and delete any messages that remain on Bart’s old answering machine. We’re all in this together.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and coordinator of the Spanish program at the University of Texas at Arlington.
This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!
In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.
In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.
As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.
This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?
Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:
It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.
To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.
While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.
As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.
And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:
Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.
Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?
The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!
Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.