Well, it’s Spring Break, and the letters will soon rain down from Provost Offices everywhere on assistant professors in their sixth year of employment. The lucky duckies who get the news that they’re tenured and promoted. . . are permitted to do the same job next year, in perpetuity, and to change their rank to “Associate Professor” on their CVs as of July 1. The unlucky duckies get heaping doses of shame and humiliation to shovel out of their mental Augean Stables for the rest of their lives.
Inspired by this post at Slaves of Academe, about the apparently outrageous decision to deny Andrea Smith tenure at the University of Michigan, Tenured Radical brilliantly sums up a lot of the rage and frustration that many of us feel about the system we’ve created for ourselves. The Andrea Smith case is especially vexing for us Women’s Studies types, because she is a Native American scholar and activist with a dual appointment in two departments whose tenure case was approved by American Culture but denied by Women’s Studies. (With friends like that. . . who needs History departments?) The Radical One makes the point that unions might serve us better in protecting our right to free speech and the pursuit of scholarship, and several commenters agree. (By the way, don’t miss the Radical One’s This American Life-worthy story about a short but disturbing conversation with a random dog-walker in New York City. You’ll never look at dog butt-sniffing the same way again!) Marc Bousquet has made the point at How the University Works that tenure really isn’t that great of a prize–people in unions get better job protection and benefits than tenured people, without being put through the humiliations that the tenure process dishes out with impunity. As he puts it, “today’s tenured faculty-and their unions-still have a lot to learn from the people who carry their trash, organize their files, teach their children, and put out their fires.”
One of the things about tenure is that most of us are in denial about its costs, even (or especially?) those of us who are casualties of destructive work environments and/or bruising tenure battles. It seems like every woman faculty member I know has been brutalized by the system at some point–if not as a junior faculty member, at the point of tenure and promotion to Associate; if not at that point, then they get it when they go up for their next promotion to Professor. Both institutions that I’ve been affiliated with as a regular faculty member have suddenly and arbitrarily invented higher tenure standards when a generation of women Assistant Professors came up for tenure and promotion. Example: In my former department, there were men promoted to Associate Professor before they were tenured (and then tenured easily as a matter of course), but just a few years later when a handful of women came up for tenure, they were offered the pink-collar designation of tenured Assistant Professor. Nice, huh?
And yet, we don’t talk about this. Although feminist intellectuals who have sophisticated understandings about how power works, we still feel shame about our own experiences. We still see them–to one degree or another–as personal failures, rather than the fault of the system and of the people who interpret and enforce the system’s rules. We don’t want to discourage our graduate students or new junior colleages. After all, who among them wants to hear that “the evil claw of patriarchy will get you too, my pretty!” It’s easier for all of us to assume that the roughed-up or ultimately untenured must have done something to deserve it, because we don’t want to believe that it could happen to us. We’re good girls, we did everything right, we went to conferences and had publications on our CVs when we were graduate students. We’ve won national fellowships. We’re protected. We’re bulletproof.
Maybe we should all get T-shirts, like the “I had an abortion” T-shirts, that read, “I was denied tenure,” or “I had to go up for tenure twice,” or “I was told that I ‘intimidate’ senior faculty members,” or “I sued my department,” or, “I was told to shut up and take it.” That’s frequently the advice that junior faculty get, especially from senior faculty who took it, and “won” the glorious prize of tenure.
Tenure is also on Historiann’s mind because there is apparently a new Hollywood movie in the works called Tenure, starring Luke Wilson, with David Koechner as his goofball Anthropologist sidekick. It will be filmed at Bryn Mawr College (so cleverly renamed in the movie “Grey College.”) Here comes the icky part: the plot is that the character played by Wilson comes up for tenure “and fac[es] off against a female rival who recently arrived” to teach at the same institution. Other media reports suggest that Wilson’s character “competes for tenure with an impressive new female colleague.” Ugh. Just perfect: the tenure drama reduced to a boys-versus-the-girl paranoid masculine fantasy, made all the more disgusting by the fact that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college that hasn’t been terribly progressive in hiring women faculty members in the past twenty years. Maybe Tenure will be a clever comedy, and maybe it will surprise me–but so far, the plot sounds backlashy, or at best a weak “cute meet” setup. For those of us who have been sounding the alarms about the re-masculinization of academia, this movie will be one to watch (like a trainwreck?) Then again, maybe it will just be the faculty version of Old School, which also featured Wilson: stupid, but kinda funny.
I’ve been wondering if the generation of us women faculty who were hired between 1992-2002 will witness the further re-masculinization of our departments over the course of our careers. Like the generations of women faculty who dominated women’s colleges from the 1920s through the 1950s, we could find ourselves patronized and edged out by younger men who will then run our institutions for the next forty years (at least.) There was a story I heard while still a Bryn Mawr undergraduate about one of the last of the grandes dames from that generation of scholars. The faculty vote to tenure one of the first young men hired in the 1950s wasn’t going his way; the grande dame acknowledged that he wasn’t much of a scholar, but urged her colleagues to tenure him nevertheless so that they wouldn’t look like they were prejudiced against men. That was a pretty funny punchline back in the 1980s when I was an undergrad–twenty years later as a faculty member, the best I can offer a rueful grimace.