By Beth U.

For those of you outside of the US academy—yes, nearly the entire world, it’s open hunting season in the wilds of the Ivory Tower. Most of the annual conferences for each discipline happen at this time of year. During these conferences, search committees interview applicants for tenure track positions (as well as some temporary positions disguised as tenure track). Every week I listen to former colleagues and friends who are dodging arrows in the open glade. Some applicants have been wounded already: no conference interviews and thus little chance for a tenure track position until this time next year. Others await news: will a search committee extend a campus interview invitation after they successfully navigated a conference interview? The holiday season is a perfect time to obsessively check an academic job wiki while drinking champagne and crying.

Ah, yes, the academic job wiki. Part torture device, part Have-a-heart trap: come inside, little creature, we will not kill you but we will take you far, far from home. The academic job wiki is where an applicant can see if other applicants have heard back from a search committee. Here, an applicant will discover whether other applicants have received invitations to campus interviews. Most applicants read that they did not get an interview or a job here first, before the university sends out their rejection emails. An applicant can apply for a job in September or October and not hear a single word from a search committee until the search has concluded, say in March. The applicant can use time benchmarks (Damn! I know that I didn’t get a conference interview because the conference is happening right now and I don’t have an interview!) and the wiki to know where they stand in a search.

In part because of this drawn-out application process, and the years that lead up to it, the tenure-track job is fetishized—its symbolic worth matters as much as its material worth. To anthropologists, a fetish is not just an inanimate object imbued with magical significance, but a course of action to which one is excessively dedicated. In this instance, excessive dedication happens as a result of academic socialization, extreme specialization in a field of study, or the sheer tenacity it takes to survive years of constant evaluation and scrutiny. These factors may dovetail with sincere love of research and/or teaching.

However, fetishization may also result from the fear that a tenure track job is the only viable employment option after 7-10 years of grad school immersion. Karen Cardozo calls this “tenurecentrism,” or our collective inability to see beyond the tenure carrot. Tenurecentrism ignores the blaring fact that more than 75% of academically employed persons—“the New Faculty Majority”—are in contingent, part-time, or contractual positions. Tenurecentrism, and this is subject of another post, also disregards the fact that many people arrive at the Ph.D. via a circuitous route, with plenty of stops, starts, and detours. Tenurecentrism, as many post- and alt-academics will tell you, is a failure of the imagination to envision and thus make real the many opportunities available outside of academia for Ph.D.-trained folks.  It’s also a failure of graduate programs–and this is perhaps changing at some schools–that do not prepare their students for non-academic career choices.

Tenurecentrism may also blind us to the fact that the tenure track position is no walk in the park. Professional expectations have skyrocketed even as the myth of the lofty professorship sticks like tar. Tenure was predicated on the assumption that the scholar had a helpmate, or many helpmates, at home to wash and press clothes, clean, cook, shop, tend children, run errands, and provide structure, organization, and unequivocal emotional stability.

In the past, professorships also assumed a person at the academy to type, organize, send correspondence, and take dictation.  Far from separate domains, the scholarly pursuit of the mind (for a long time assumed to be exclusively and then predominantly white and male) has largely depended on the labor of the body (most often white women as wives and secretaries, and working class and people of color in myriad positions of largely invisible support and labor).  This foundational labor freed the scholar to attend to the more “important” tasks of thinking and writing.

Nowadays, very few academically employed people live with these presumed “perks”—either at home or at work. Further, similar if not identical expectations are now placed on contingent faculty without the benefit of working toward tenure. And much like the labor of body that makes the labor of the mind possible, the work of contingent faculty is both erased and taken as given.

Critics of academic structure point out that at some universities, contingent faculty take on more work (more students and more classes) so that their tenure track and tenured brethren can dedicate time to writing and publishing.[i] This certainly was true for me in my last visiting position. For example, in some tenure track positions, faculty are given “time protection” in order to write and publish, including a reduction in courses and preps. This time is necessary for any scholar to be productive, but as an adjunct, visiting, or non-tenure track faculty, you will be given none of these protections. In fact, you will likely teach very classes that the tenured or tenure track faculty has removed from their schedule.

For many academics, committee work, student enrollment, course loads, publishing, and funding expectations have all increased along with student assumptions of around-the-clock availability including email, online course websites, grading, and constant feedback. This is not new information, nor is it to say that all academic jobs are inherently terrible, or that all academics hate their jobs. But we need honest discussion about the realities of academic teaching positions, especially for graduate students steeped in tenure’s mystique.

Academic jobs demand more and more administrative accountability from teachers.  Scholars must wade through all of these embodied responsibilities to squeeze out some time for the mind (never separate from the body) often while battling feelings of futility or failure. Which is why some academics walk away after obtaining that tenure track position, or even tenure itself. While tenured and tenure-track positions work well for some, they are not available to the majority. We need to continue to talk about tenure, its realities as well as its myriad alternatives, as part of graduate training and beyond.

It’s time to bury the fetish.

[i] See, for example, Marc Bousquet (2008) How the University Works. New York: New York University Press.

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