Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Off the Tenure Track: Freedom vs Security?

| 4 Comments

In the last #moocmooc Critical Pedagogy hangout, when Jesse Stommel introduced himself, he mentioned how he might never get tenure coz he’d been told to wait until he became tenured to start doing risky things; he being a non-traditional scholar, and a critical pedagogue, I don’t think he’d have been able to stay within whatever “norms” his university or department set anyway… But that’s another story.

So when I came to introduce myself, I said that I was not tenure-track so no one really cared what my scholarship looked like, except it kept being called “research-like” because it was not done in the traditional ways of either large-scale research studies, or published in traditional closed access double-blind peer-reviewed journals (though some of it is, actually, and regretably so).

Kris Shaffer gave a talk y/day on public scholarship (love his slides and the tweeting that happened around them). It is the kind of talk I would love to share with people at my institution and probably will, because it highlight the benefits of public scholarship for anyone, even people who want to do traditional research.

I found myself thinking of something almost obvious… That in order to get tenure, people need to conform to some degree. Those of us who do not conform, or do not HAVE to conform, don’t have the same job security as someone who could eventually get tenure. They don’t have to renew my contract. And therefore I have been threatened by people who have power on campus for some of my dissenting practices that relate to social justice, outside of actual scholarship. They also don’t have to take me, or my scholarship, too seriously; I’m not tenure-track or tenured, so who cares? Most non-tenure faculty don’t even have full-time jobs with medical and social insurance – they are adjuncts. Some people on campus don’t teach or do research and are labeled “staff” and they’re not treated in the same way as faculty. So much hierarchy, so much power play going on.

And this seems like more freedom, not to be tenure track, since those people can focus on their teaching or research they’re interested in, rather than conform. Right? Or they can focus on their families and give less time to academia. But what about financial stability and the hope that one day they will get a tenure-track job? Or the possibility that an adjunct might not have an income next year, or a non-tenured person might not get renewal? I took a non-tenure track job because it made more sense for me at the time, family-wise, not to have to kill myself doing research and compete to get tenure, and I would have had to find a job split between two departments which would have been really difficult to juggle. I almost don’t think of a tenure-track job as something to aspire to in my future… To keep some of my freedom. But it’s not that simple, is it?

4 Comments

  1. Once again you’ve captured what I’m thinking. 🙂 I decided a while ago that I’m definitely not interested in tenure track – partly because the tenure process would take more time away from my family than I’m willing to give, and partly because I want to have the freedom to pursue the types of scholarship I’m interested in, and to do so in ways that I want to. And because many of those interests are around challenging traditional notions of academia (like tenure) it seems almost hypocritical to participate in them.
    I think I’ve surprised people when I’ve told them I have no interest in tenure. I’ve also been told that it’s a bit of a shame, since without tenure what I have to say won’t be taken as seriously. And I think the question I’m playing with around all this is, if we want to change the system, do we necessarily need to do it from the inside (i.e. suck it up, get tenure, then ‘speak out’) or can those of us working ‘outside’ develop enough of a voice to be heard?

    • Well said, Ash! I think some ppl fear that sucking it up too long kills part of ur dissent. Then again i spent 7 years on my dissertation writing formal academic discourse and came out of it a v informal blogger 😉 i’ll ask some others to jump in to respond to u!

  2. I relate. There is a TT position open at my university (a rarity!) and even though it’s not directly my area of specialty, I am qualified enough to at least consider applying and am getting mixed enough messages from my senior faculty/admin that I am being forced to grapple directly with some of these questions…because I really like where I live and chances are good that another TT here won’t open up again for a long time.

    I have found it fascinating to look at the influence and prestige structures of academia, as part of my research, and to come to understand how my own voice ends up being illegible and/or a challenge within and to some of these structures. This last rush towards completion feels as if I’ve almost let that voice go silent, in an effort to be compliant, to be judged fitting, to prioritize as I am implicitly supposed to prioritize. So I feel like you’re right, in the comment above…sucking it up too long does kill part of your dissent. What one does from here is the interesting question, for me…there are roles and jobs within the academy that I would love, and the role of consultant outside is one I already inhabit and am learning to do well. But from where I live, there is no real “job” outside the TT that would allow me to use the skills I’ve developed, and I am in my 40s and maybe should think about having a pension someday. Yet I will never fit entirely within, and I think that’s my advantage, the benefit I’d bring to the academy if there were a job that worked.

    I want the security – or some security – but not the conformity. This is the panel we should put forward to #smsociety15 (or somewhere) btw.

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