Musings about tenure

I was just thinking about an interesting post by Hope Jahren about what it means to have tenure. I agree with her in that I think that the point of tenure is not really to enable academic freedom in the classical sense (I mean really, how many of us have academic ideas SO controversial that we risk being shut down by the university?), but rather to enable us academics to do things that we normally wouldn’t and to function as agents for real change. That is, since having tenure I’ve definitely felt encouraged to get involved in all sorts of different new directions and participate in aspects of the university which I wouldn’t have before. But here I think is my key divergence with her, in that I never felt I couldn’t participate in these new endeavors because I felt they wouldn’t be valued by my peers, or that I’d be negatively judged for this, but rather I simply didn’t have the time. When I started my faculty job I was given very clear expectations of what I needed to accomplish by a given time frame in order to get tenure. Add to this having two kids and a major illness, there really wasn’t time for much else if I were to meet these milestones. So I passed up these opportunities. But I never felt silenced, like I couldn’t speak my mind or call bullshit when I saw it. And I often did and still do. Maybe once I kept silent when I should have said something, even if me saying it would’ve been pointless anyway. But maybe I happen to have a fairly congenial department and very supportive chair, I don’t know, this probably makes a big difference.

In any case, tenure doesn’t really take away the pressure to perform. I still need to publish and get grants if I want to keep my lab running and my peeps employed. But on the other hand, we have gone in riskier new directions with our research and I’ve been encouraging my peeps to really stretch into new directions with higher payoff. There’s still the risk these things won’t pay off, but somehow not having tenure hanging over your head makes these risks a little more palatable. As I’ve said, having a little breathing room has also allowed me to experiment more with my teaching and to become involved with parts of the university that I had never had contact with for causes that are important to me. Maybe I’ll write more about these efforts some day. So am I working less hard? No way! I’m working more. Am I less stressed? Definitely, and I’m having a lot more fun.

Finally, I diverge with Hope Jahren in one more important thing. Getting tenure IS a big deal, and is a result of a lot of hard work and if you get it, you should be damn proud. WHen I found out I got tenure, damn right I told everyone, if they wanted to diminish this or weren’t impressed, that’s their problem, not mine. Had I not been so sick at the time, I’d have thrown a huge party, because, why the fuck not.

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