I expected the first day of graduate school to be like any other school day, since I was beginning the Ph.D. program in the same department from which I had just graduated. But as I entered the building to go teach my class – this having been my first act in graduate school – I realized it was not the same. I was a member of the establishment now.
I do not remember which of bell hooks’ essays discusses her depression upon making tenure. This is something which happens to many people. I always thought it was because they could let themselves feel their exhaustion now, and more fundamentally because getting tenure can mean you are stuck where you are: this is your life.
I did not have that last feeling upon making tenure because I experienced my own horrifying “this is your life” moment when I apprehended the values, beliefs and goals of my colleagues at my first academic job. Tenure entrenches you in the establishment, but I liked that because people suddenly started listening seriously to what I said because I was saying it. This was very novel, and fun.
There is, however, something I stopped doing when I got tenure, which I am going to begin doing again: protecting myself against the environment. For years I went to work with a sort of mask on, and a kind of invisible body armor. I dropped this after tenure and in retrospect, it may have been a poor idea.
Dropping body armor meant, among other things, no longer safeguarding a demon-free space. This year I will have light body armor again, a diaphanous screen, a white light.