No Tenure: Ends, Futures, and Transforming the Academy

Contributed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick Director of Scholarly Communication at Modern Language Association
March 11, 2015
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Looking for Signposts

I sat down to begin drafting this essay three days after my professorship — a position that stretched over 15 years, the entirety of my post-PhD career to that point — had come to a somewhat unceremonious end. (Unceremonious: form message from the dean's office with a checklist of things to be returned to the college by close of business; email account deactivated at the stroke of midnight, with attempts to log in returning an error that read "user unknown.") This end was a long time in coming; I had had two years of unpaid leave to adjust to the notion of life away from the college and off the tenure track, and I am fully committed to the new position — and the new life — for which I've left my old one. And yet that conclusion still brought with it some anxiety, some sorrow, and a lingering need to assure myself that I'd done the right thing.

This need for reassurance comes at least in part from the unthinkable nature of the move: who leaves a tenured full professorship at a very well-heeled, elite small liberal arts college for a life of 12-month, 9-to-5, at-will employment? Such a move is likely to be seen as perverse in the current academic economy, because, let's face it, a professorship like the one I held is the gig for which the phrase "nice work, if you can get it" was invented. Given the ill-conceived and pervasive spread of adjunctification, there are decliningly few such positions out there, and they come with extraordinary benefits: support, autonomy, intellectual stimulation. Why on earth would anyone, or at least anyone worthy of the title "scholar," who achieved such paradise willingly abandon it? And can the experience of someone who walked away from tenure be at all relevant to an academy where even the possibility of tenure is becoming increasingly scarce?

What follows stems from the inescapably personal and anecdotal — my own specific situation, and the circumstances under which I made the decision to give up tenure — but branches out into a larger argument about the future of intellectual labor, one that I hope might help expand our thinking beyond those singulars into a plurality of possible, thinkable, even desirable professions and futures. In other words, rather than focus on the internal circumstances that motivated me, I want to think about the external circumstances under which abandoning the protections of tenure in favor of other kinds of freedom becomes not just thinkable, but of potentially great importance.

My case: I'd been promoted to full professor at the end of spring 2010, just as I headed off to begin a year's sabbatical. I'd spent the previous six years coordinating my interdisciplinary program, shepherding it through an external review and the various hoops required for it to receive and then transition to departmental status (necessary, at my institution, for it to be able to house its own faculty lines). I'd also spent three years on our faculty executive council, which I chaired for two years. I'd spent several years working with Avi Santo and the Institute for the Future of the Book in starting up MediaCommons. I was wrapping up the manuscript for my second book. And I was teaching a full course load — admittedly, the ordinarily very comfortable 2-2 course load that was standard for my institution, but I nonetheless found myself stretched untenably thin, and filled with anxiety, most of which located itself around teaching. I had once been extremely good at teaching. In my early assistant professorship, I even won one of our college teaching awards. But in the intervening years, as other parts of my scholarly life kicked into higher and higher gears, the time I had available to focus on teaching dropped precipitously. I still loved the time in the classroom itself, but the stress I felt in the hours before walking in to face my students, or afterward, facing a mountain of papers that needed grading, escalated.

So in spring 2010, after a somewhat bumpy but ultimately quite positive promotion process, I found myself a full professor, about to embark on a year with no teaching, a year in which my administrative responsibilities would be put aside, a year in which I could wrap up the last revisions on the book and think about the next thing I wanted to write. This was the extraordinary reward that the previous six years had earned. This and my new senior rank, a rank that meant (at least according to the rules of my institution) that I'd never have to undergo such a review again. That I could, within bounds, focus my energies on whatever I wanted, whatever projects, structures, classes I believed were most important. That I was suddenly strangely free.

I was in a position of great privilege, and yet I also felt shockingly isolated. I'd spent the 12 years I'd been at Pomona College trying to enter a set of national conversations and struggling to do so. For all of the benefits a small liberal arts school like Pomona provides its faculty, it cannot give them the thing that R-1 letterhead confers: a kind of instant credibility as a scholar, a recognition that its bearer must be engaged in serious research to be employed by such an institution. That credibility opens one of the doors to inclusion in a range of programs (publishing opportunities, fellowship competitions) and discussions (advisory boards, working groups) that had not yet been opened to me. Not because I was consciously excluded; because I often felt invisible, off everyone's radar screens, in the far corner of the continent, inside the bubble of my utterly idyllic campus.

I don't want to underplay that idyll: it really was paradise, but paradise often comes at a price. In my case, the cost was a certain slowness to achieve visibility for the work I was doing. Theoretically, this would have been fine, except that what I was hoping to do, through projects like MediaCommons and Planned Obsolescence, was to help reshape the ways that scholars communicate with one another, to alter the substrate on which scholarly life was built. No matter: it took me a little longer than it might have to find my way into those conversations, but by spring 2010 I had finally begun to do so. And my sabbatical was focused on pushing those conversations further — on the next phase of development for MediaCommons and the next round of argument after Planned Obsolescence. I wasn't looking for a chance to leave paradise — in fact, when an opportunity first presented itself, I almost dismissed it as too crazy to consider. But the possibility of stepping back for a while from the pressure I felt about my teaching, and the chance to scale up the projects I'd been working on from the local to the national, demanded serious consideration.

The opportunity, as my byline reveals, was to become the first Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association, where I would be able to work with the membership, the Executive Council, and the staff to build on the strengths of the association's publishing program. Together, we are exploring how our traditional publications might best develop and circulate in digital form, as well as the new platforms and services and policies that we might develop in order to support and facilitate new ways of working among our members. This new position, in other words, offered me the opportunity to extend the work I was already doing in some crucial ways, while building on the strengths that I had developed in my life as a professor. It would enable me to develop some crucial new leadership skills, and it had the potential, at least, to improve some aspects of the ways that scholars work.

As Bethany Nowviskie notes in "Two Tramps in Mud Time", scholars who are "driven to set things in motion in the academic environment, and to set things right," those who lean toward "building systems," are often drawn to life off the tenure track. This statement captures a crucial aspect of the things that had long mattered to me in my work (even in my writing: a member of my former department once referred to my mode of literary criticism as "systems building"). From the policy changes that we had deliberated on the faculty executive council, through the structures that I helped build as my interdisciplinary program took on departmental status, to the platform that MediaCommons hoped to provide for new kinds of scholarship in media studies, the projects that had long captured my energy and enthusiasm were those that had a systemic emphasis, that focused on creating better ways of working not just for me but for a department, an institution, a field. If the opportunity to do this kind of systems-building on a large scale required me to consider giving up tenure — well, I wish I could say that I said “so be it!” and bravely charged out onto the tightrope, but I’ll admit that it was frightening, even with the safety net provided by a leave of absence.

However, as I wrote in my blog post about leaving tenure behind, a friend whose advice I'd sought listened carefully as I detailed the pros and cons, and when I asked her how I should even begin thinking about a choice like this one, shrugged and said, "I don't know. Do you want to change the world?" Something in that moment drew me up short, making clear that the choice was, given what I wanted to do, obvious. I attempted, in recounting the moment on my blog, to indicate that I believed that it was possible to change the world from inside the protections provided by tenure, and I still hold to that. Transformative interaction with the culture by which the academy is surrounded may be significantly supported by the critical freedoms that tenure is meant to provide. But I also increasingly think it likely that transformative interaction within the academy itself may require a willingness not just to face but to embrace a future outside of the protections of tenure.

Tenure has long been a vital institution in the U.S. academy, meant to provide job security for those engaged in a peculiarly risky form of work. The act of educating involves changing the ways that our students look at and interact with the world, and in pushing back against a cultural status quo, such work can often venture into fraught territory. As a result, the protections of tenure create the conditions for the academic freedom under which individual faculty members are able to make potentially unpopular scholarly arguments without fear of reprisal from administrators, trustees, politicians, and so forth. These protections have, however, been too frequently undermined in recent years, most notably through the creation of entire ranks of the academic community who are not entitled to them.

Given the importance of tenure, then, and my concerns about the ways in which it is being eroded, why would I suggest that we embrace an apparently less-secure future? There are, of course, some well-known issues with tenure as it is currently administered. Because faculty members are not only involved in the business of educating students, but also of governing the very system under which that education takes place — because, in other words, of the extraordinary ability of those faculty to reproduce themselves, and to select their successors on the basis of such reproduction — the status quo that exerts the most pressure on the day-to-day of faculty work is generated not externally but from within the academy itself. Building systems that might transform the ways we work today, and remain transformative tomorrow, avoiding calcification into a new status quo against which future generations of scholars will be required to rebel, may in fact require a form of agility for which tenure as we currently know it simply does not, and perhaps cannot, select.

However, embracing the possibility of a future apart from tenure does not mean embracing the erosion of tenure, nor does it mean associating agility with the inherent replaceability of per-course faculty or at-will staff. It instead implies a recognition that tenure’s great benefit is not meant to be stasis, but instead what Willard McCarty characterizes as "intellectual autonomy." I take this term to mean something more than mere academic freedom: not simply the ability to allow one's work to challenge accepted truths, but the willingness to do so. Tenure serves to protect its beneficiaries from certain forms of retribution, but it does not in and of itself guarantee intellectual autonomy, since it risks simultaneously imposing a kind of systemic rigidity within the faculty, including the development of markers of "quality" in scholarly work that cannot conceivably change without threatening the entire edifice. Tenure provides access to an important form of job security, but it does not solve the problem of what one is supposed to do with that security. It does not automatically create the conditions for thought, and where it comes to stand in for that thought — where tenure becomes the goal — it has the potential to stand in its way. Tenure may, as McCarty points out, be desirable in disciplinary innovation, but tenure as it is currently practiced very precisely establishes discipline, fixes it as a normative force, often working to ensure one specific future while inadvertently eliminating the possibility of ongoing transformation.

Lee Edelman, at the opening of No Future, challenges his readers to recognize the "reproductive futurism" at the heart of heteronormative western culture by asking us to think the unthinkable: if children have come to represent all that we can imagine of the future, what "would it signify not to be fighting for the children?" (3). What I want to ask here is related: what it would mean not to be fighting for tenure? Is it possible that, in defending the importance of tenure as tenure — rather than the security and autonomy that tenure is supposed to ensure — we within the academy have fallen prey to a version of reproductive futurism? Have we replaced real intellectual autonomy with a symbolic representation thereof, one that creates an invidious distinction between those who are valued enough to be granted job security and those who are not? Tenure is meant to ensure a future for scholarship, but it at present only ensures one kind of scholarly future; the reproductive futurity at the heart of the quest for, and granting of, tenure locates not just autonomous thought but the thinkable itself in one particular kind of job within the academy.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for the elimination of tenure. Insofar as creating the grounds for real intellectual autonomy presents a problem, tenure, as McCarty notes, is not the cause of that problem. But it is also not the remedy to the problem. Instead, I want to argue that we must be willing to think it possible to step away from tenure, to see the potential for thought, for a future, to occur outside of its bounds. Of course only the tenured, or those with the possibility of obtaining it, can truly step away from it, and the way that tenure is being eroded at most institutions — through the replacement of full-time, secure faculty lines with part-time, underpaid adjunct positions — is not at all to be supported. In fact, it’s the opposite of what I’m arguing for. What I want us to see is whether we can imagine a future in which the things that are good about tenure-track jobs can be found in all academic jobs: intellectual engagement, security, respect, autonomy. “No tenure” does not mean doing away with tenure; rather, it means fighting for the benefits that come with tenure — and fighting for them for everyone — rather than fighting for the peculiar, invidious thing that has come to stand in for those benefits. And it means recognizing that enacting the multiplicitous possibilities of other kinds of future for the intellectual work of the academy may require a range of freedoms that tenure as we currently practice it cannot provide.

Alternative academic positions of the kind under discussion in #Alt-Academy, positions that exist outside tenure's normative protections, have the potential to provide access to a range of possibilities that tenure runs the risk of inhibiting: the possibility of letting one's thought take the form that it will, rather than the forms prescribed by a review process; the possibility of changing directions, seeking new opportunities, developing new relationships, building entirely new ways of working. Tenure per se does not preclude these possibilities, but tenure as it is actually practiced — tenure as goal in itself; tenure as the process of obtaining tenure — may inhibit their expression. Among those possibilities may be the freedom to build the entirely new sorts of systems imagined by people like Nowviskie, the freedom to set things in motion, to set things right. But the more important point is not just that changing the ways that scholarly work itself gets done and changing the systems through which value is attributed to such work requires a willingness to step outside of tenure's safe enclosure; instead, it's that the academy needs to embrace that broader range of possible futures for itself. We must develop a range of more flexible forms of academic jobs and job security, as well as new means of valuing the academic and intellectual work that takes place both within and without the strictures of tenure.

Perhaps being willing to embrace the possibility that at-will employment can provide benefits that challenge those provided by tenure is the first step toward such a multiplicitous future. Perhaps the agility required of the alt-ac employee — above all, the willingness to negotiate change — enables new possibilities for thought and its expression. Perhaps giving up tenure is not just a giving up, but a desire for something more.

As I worked through my own decision to leave my safely tenured position behind, I was struck by one clear contrast. From the vantage point of my tenured professorship, I had no doubts about what the future held: I had a clear vision of retiring from that same job, or one much like it, some number of years on, and I knew to a certainty what I'd have done in the interim. With a few possible forks along the way, the path ahead was evident. In the other direction lay a path along which I could only see a short distance. I had no real sense of where it might turn next, of what I might do beyond. Such an unknown future presents a terrifying prospect, when one has been accustomed to untrammeled clarity. But it may be that only in the unknown does real possibility lie.

Image found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmedrabea/246570462/ / CC-BY-SA

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

McCarty, Willard. "Working Digitally." #Alt-Academy. MediaCommons, 26 January 2011.

Nowviskie, Bethany. "Two Tramps in Mud Time." #Alt-Academy. MediaCommons, 1 June 2011.