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Safety Nets and Planning for Tenure

safety netTalking about planning for tenure seems very much like the ultimate Old Academe Stanley trait, since the vast majority of college and university faculty today are contingent. And to make matters worse, having recently given it up, I have probably ceded a certain amount of turf in talking about tenure. Still, I’ve been bugged by something for a few weeks.

Last month, on episode 43 of the CMD+Space podcast, Myke Hurley and Merlin Mann (who we love) briefly mentioned what they characterized as the flaws or irrelevance of tenure in a modern world. It’s outdated, it distracts from teaching, and so on. It was mostly rooted in a pretty tenuous anecdote from Merlin’s undergrad days, about a teacher who in effect seemed to be threatening to hold her department hostage by refusing to teach intro classes. I’m not going to beat up on the anecdote too much, because he admits he didn’t really have all the facts. But Myke and Merlin were in agreement that tenure’s a weird, irrelevant thing, and professors should basically give it up and just teach.

Not five days later, on episode 120 of his regular Back to Work podcast with Dan Benjamin, Merlin took up the topic of “safety nets,” asking listeners to imagine how their lives might change (or not) if they came into enough money to set themselves up for life. Curiously–and although he plugged his appearance on CMD+Space, Merlin did *not* return to the topic of tenure, which is arguably the ultimate safety net.

Part of the problem is that people (unfairly) imagine tenure as a hammock rather than a safety net. I think people lose track of it because the amount of money involved is so trivial relative to, say, winning Powerball or having Yahoo buy a startup you were instrumental in helping to launch. But tenure does imply a certain kind of job security that ought to be similarly freeing.

But it’s not. Lots of people report securing tenure as somewhat anticlimactic. To an extent, this is a consequence of the fact that you can usually–not always, but usually–figure out how the decision is going to go fairly early on in the process. But that’s only part of it. There’s another part that also thinks, “is this all there is?”

It turns out that this has everything to do with safety nets. Merlin’s point on the show is that people usually imagine that their lives will be utterly transformed–but only in good ways. (Our record deal hits, and we’ll be bigger than Elvis!) Not only do you get a whole host of new problems that you probably never considered, but you’ll also get to bring all the baggage that you had before your safety net arrived. To cite an example on the show, after Elvis became the King, he was still just a mama’s boy from Tupelo, Mississippi.

In the Back to Work episode, Merlin argues that we think about transformation all wrong. Instead of thinking, “well, I work like this now, but when I get my movie check, I’ll be totally different,” we need to plan and act now to prepare for the as-yet-unarrived happy event. It’s unlikely, he points out, that you’re likely to go from having a normal job to, say, painting or writing all day, and to have that be a rewarding experience, unless you already are the sort of person who paints or writes.

There’s a similar problem about tenure. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, I’ll do this for now, but when I get tenure, *then* I’ll do something awesome.” One problem with that is, as a noted philosopher has observed, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Spending six years as an assistant professor working one way, and then expecting things to be a different way, is a recipe for unhappiness.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote about one aspect of this a couple of years ago:

That kind of mentoring is our duty, but one that too few of us are fulfilling. Too many young digital humanists find themselves cautioned away from the very work that got them hired by well-meaning senior colleagues, who now tell them that wacky digital projects are fine on the side, or once the work necessary for tenure is complete.

In giving that advice, we run the risk of breaking the innovative spirit that we’ve hoped to bring to our departments. And where that spirit isn’t broken, untenured digital scholars run the risk of burnout from having to produce twice as much—traditional scholarship and digital projects—as their counterparts do.

You can’t count on becoming later the academic you want to be. You need to start laying the groundwork now, so that when you have tenure you are poised naturally to build on your success and to pay forward the mentoring debts you incurred along the way. It’s probably true that some projects are of such a scale that it’s hard to imagine undertaking them as a grad student, postdoc, or assistant professor–but even there you can always start now. Ambition needs to be exercised regularly.

And while I’ve framed this in terms of research, the same holds true for teaching. Junior faculty are often advised to teach just well enough to be promoted, but no better. This is defensible advice, certainly, but it also makes it harder than you’d think to improve your teaching post-tenure. Not only does it require fresh effort, but it requires you to unlearn everything you’ve spent six years telling yourself about your institution’s priorities. So not only are you out of practice at improving your teaching, but at some level you’re probably also convinced–quite possibly correctly–that your university doesn’t care.

The less said about service & governance the better. If you are largely screened from service work as a junior faculty member, then you are likely to assume it’s not important or to resent it as an imposition after tenure.

Having a tenure-track job is a position of remarkable privilege in the modern university, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Using some of that privilege to bring the future into existence *now*, rather than waiting for it to be arrive on its own, can be a forceful way to turn that privilege to good account. As always, Merlin has some helpful strategies for thinking through these issues, though they’re not really in an academic context, so give the episode a listen.

Photo “safety net” by Flickr user iamchad / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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