Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 02 May 2001 08:53:01 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Tenure

Nice walk this balmy morning. Not nice thoughts. I was thinking about a brief but sad conversation I had last week with a colleague from another department in front of the library. I haven't been able to get it out of my mind and heart. And, I been hesitant to share my feeling and thoughts for fear it will get me into trouble. Here goes.

"Hey, Louis, are you doing to the festivities?" he asked

"No. Are you?"

"Yes. I have to."

"Have to? Why do you have to? Did someone tell you that you had to?"

"No, but I haven't got tenure like you."

"Someone taking role? Taking off points for absences?"

"No. But, I can't take a chance. I'm a piece of shit around here until I get tenure. I can't just do anything I want. I've got to be seen there."

"Tell me how it goes."

Do you hear it? The swoosh of that mythical Greek sword. Do you hear it? The quiet rush to get the guarantee of a job? Do you hear it? The silent going-about-our business, the hesitancy to rock the boat, the reluctance to disturb the calm, the worry about what others will think, the refusal to be out of step. Do you hear it? The fearful stillness not to jeopardize the prospect of be able to fill out that guarantee card.

If there is any noticeable sound, it is the thud of rubber-stamping that so often stamps out any inclination to take a stand or get involved or speak out.

Conformity. Uniformity. Caged. Tamed. So boxed in that you won't or can't step out of the box. So often treated as and allowing ourselves to be treated as hirelings, you would think the Thirteenth Amendment was repealled. An so many of us thought that such treatment ended when we left graduate school.

Disturb, discomfort, question, endanger, risk, challenge, voice, provoke are not in the vocabulary of most of those in quest of the golden fleece of that union card we call tenure.

So many of us look over their shoulder, strain to hear the slightest noise, see figures lurking in the shadows, are preoccupied with what they imagine others think. Far too many of us academics pride ourselves on being free and independent and professional, and in truth act so sheepishly, jump through perceived hoops at the crack of whips. They are so well-behaved. So immpeccably dressed. Too many place ourselves under imaginary thumbs, hanging on to our excuses rather than hanging them up. We are not honest enough--or maybe strong enough--to reveal ourselves. We hide behind fear of exposure and rejection. We don't allow ourselves to spend our profession our own way.

Alas, most of us academics just aren't Jasons. As a consequence, in the quest of the golden fleece of tenure most of us fleece ourselves or allow ourselves to get fleeced. We fill our hearts and minds with constricting and destructive anxiety, negativity, and worry. We control ourselves, bowing with hat in hand, and let other control us.

"Oh, wait until we get tenure," so many proclaim in their defense, "and then you'll hear from us." That may be reasonable. Each of us has to decide how much we are willing to pay to maintain our integrity. Certainly, the number of plates on the table we have to fill make that decision commensurately more difficult. Play the game to get in the game no matter whomever or whatever has to be compromised or sacrificed. So many of us allow ourselves to be treated as or treat ourselves as anything but as the professionals we are. The problem is that once we're in the habit of living under someone else's thumb, it's hard to give someone the thumb or any other finger. Once you're tamed, it's hard to live on your own. What is unreasonable is that we still don't hear from them. They still go about a business-as-usual. The game playing continues, but they never get in the game. They're still boxed in, still conforming. The silence and invisibility continues with so many, sanctified by a host of other explanations, rationalizations, and excuses: evaluations, pay raises, leaves, course assignments, etc. And, as a consequence too many campuses too often seethe with rest and are deafened by that sad stillness and dangerous, monotonous rhythmic rubber-stamping.

Tenure was never meant to be simply union card it has become. It was never meant to be a commitment to getting a permanent job; it is not dedication to keeping a job. It was never meant to be a weapon in campus politics. Yes, tenure is designed to provide a safe haven, but for what and from whom? Many loudly proclaim that it protects academic freedom. Yet, except for the few undaunted, they usually don't feel free and don't freely exercise that freedom, unless its safe to do so.

Doesn't tenure come with responsibilities? It doesn't seem so for most academics. The number of educators who speak out on even small issues seems so small either because they fear offending someone, they're buried in their own world of research and publication, they still fear for their position, just as when they were pursuing that golden fleece.

To paraphrase a bumper sticker one of my colleagues has on her door: well-behaved faculty don't make history. They don't affect change. They don't leave a legacy. They only reinforce, support, and encourage a submissive, passive, fearful and/or disinterested, controlling culture of going along to get along, of catering to what they think others in and out of academia want and think.

In silence and calm academia is at its worse. It is at its best when it is provocative. Academia is least inspiring when it patronizingly puffs up cushions to make people comfortable. Academia is most inspiring when it makes people shift uncomfortably in their seats. Academia earns least respect when it clothes the emperor. Academia earns most respect, however begrudgingly, when it sheds the emperor of his clothes.

Maybe success in academia should be defined not so much as acquiring tenure as a scorn of tenure as it is presently misused and abused by those seeking it and by those granting it. Then, maybe we will dare to make mistakes and never make the mistake of not daring.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe. Then again, I can. I have tenure.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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