Sunday, June 12, 2005

And now we wait . . .

Mr. Geeky turned in his tenure packet. Now we wait until December/January to find out the results.

It's odd how there are so many benefits to academic life--the freedom, the semi-flexible schedule, the "life of the mind"--but the cost at which those benefits come is so high. How many hoops must one jump through just to keep a job? And Mr. Geeky is lucky. How many academics have a job made possible in part by the underpaid part-timers who teach the classes considered too "elementary" for senior or now, even junior, faculty? And let's not even talk about the cost to families and spouses. I've given up two careers already for Mr. Geeky's and I doubt I'll have to give up my current one, but the toll is exacting and in some couples we know, too much for their relationship to withstand. How many times can you uproot a spouse or family before they start to resent you?

Mr. Geeky and I were discussing how difficult this whole process had been and how much more difficult it would have been if both of us were going through it. There were lots of reasons for my not finishing and pursuing an academic career. First, I just didn't enjoy it, not just the writing of the disseration, which no one really enjoys, but the whole hierarchical way the system works, from internal hierarchies of adjunct to full professor to external hierarchies based on US News rankings. Value gets placed on the wrong things. Second, I didn't see any good job prospects out there that required a Ph.D. Thanks to the hierarchy, I wasn't qualified for a job at a "good" school with a decent workload. I was only qualified to teach at "lesser" schools with a heavy workload, something I knew wouldn't work given my family life and my husband's workload. Though I could see myself teaching, I could not see myself teaching 4 classes a semester (or 5 in some cases). Maybe now I could, but I do like having a life.

Frankly, I think the whole tenure system is messed up in most places. It encourages conservatism in a lot of ways. Innovation isn't rewarded; having the right number of articles in the right places is. And the old guard often decides what those "right" places are. Trying out new teaching methods is likely to backfire since it will result in bad student evaluations. Using student evaluations exclusively is problematic in and of itself. And the system creates this weird situation where younger/newer faculty are afraid to speak their minds for fear of retribution when it comes time to review their work for tenure. So curriculums don't change; policies and procedures don't change; things stagnate. And the expectations for tenure keep creeping up and are often not articulated clearly. Many things are not in writing. Under publications, the guidelines might say, "sufficient." What is sufficient? 3 articles, 5? a book? two books? Smaller institutions start imitating resource-rich ivy leagues in their tenure requirements, leaving faculty to compete for grants and publications with faculty who have legions of support behind them.

Don't get me wrong, I think tenure can be a great thing. Academic freedom is important, but aren't there ways of ensuring that without this arcane system? Isn't it crazy to think that after all this effort and work and contribution to a field of study that Mr. Geeky will not just be denied a raise (which is what might happen in a corporate environment) but will be fired? Six years of good faith effort, of real work--teaching, research, service--might end in a pink slip.