On Not Getting Tenure

There have been so many posts about the destructiveness of the tenure system that I would like to say something more about this. I, as people paying close attention to this blog may already know, did not get tenure.

It was not at all traumatic, as I had seen it coming. After my mid tenure review I had an illness and the medical people in charge of it would not believe that my degree of impairment, while not terribly severe, was severe enough that I would not be able to work hard enough to get tenure. Since I could not get support from them to ask the university for a time extension of some sort, I just waited it out and made plans to go back to school when my no vote came.

I was surprised to have a positive vote from my department, and some of those colleagues, at least, were surprised to hear later of a negative decision from the dean. I went to see the dean who, not knowing about my health situation, said, look:  the only problem is that your book is not in page proofs yet. Bring it to me in page proofs in early fall (it was now late spring) and we’ll vote again.

This was a nice offer but I said no because my health situation had not changed and I knew I would not have page proofs by that moment. But you can see already that all of none of this was particularly traumatic at a personal level. It caused many practical problems, yes. It was not terribly embarrassing, however, and it did not ruin my career, although it changed it.

What I liked about it was that it was objective. There was nothing in the written records of the decision that was not true, nothing untoward. It was civil and respectful and I am still friends with the people I was always friends with at that institution. These friends include one of the people who voted me down and no, it is not out of masochism that I maintain this friendship.

It was a very different experience than an earlier one, when I had been truly harrassed and hounded in another job, or the behavior I have had to put up with, and have put up with unnecessarily because I was already so beaten down, after tenure in my current one.


What was difficult about not getting tenure was what so many people I knew transferred onto it. They transferred onto it their own fears and wanted to watch me act them out. I will not cite all instances, but to give you an idea:

1. A close friend who had gotten tenure, on a “worse” record, at another institution with different standards refused to speak to me for a year. As he explained later, it was because he was so embarrassed that he had gotten tenure and I had not. An R-1 is not a SLAC, said I helplessly. Your job description is not the same as mine! But the reason he had finally called was that he had heard I was applying for jobs but also new postgraduate programs. Because I was only in my mid thirties at that time, I was considering using what retirement funds I had to get retrained in something I could feel less personally involved in, and that would be more lucrative. He had heard this and was calling to say don’t do that! it’s dangerous! And when I said look, you didn’t speak to me for a year, you have no right to opine now, he dropped out of sight and has not returned.

2. Another close friend called me up to complain: why had I screwed up? Couldn’t I have just gotten the right combination of drugs and finished that book on time? She had never had a tenure track offer, I had had more than one, and it was my duty to make tenure for the sake of us all, by G-d! She scolded for so long that I wrote her a note saying look, please do not call me again.

3. At the MLA and other major conferences, I was swarmed with people. How are you? What exactly is going on? It was not really sympathy or empathy – it was Schadenfreude, and they wanted to drink every last drop.


The best advice I got about not getting tenure was this: “Look, people will want to talk with you about it. Under the guise of support, they will constantly invite you to coffee, to drinks. You have your own life to take care of, especially now. Accept their invitations only if you really want to, and only on condition that you not be grilled about your feelings on the matter today, your plans as of today. Use the sentence, ‘I find it exhausting to discuss it.'”



Filed under Banes, Da Whiteman, What Is A Scholar?

20 responses to “On Not Getting Tenure

  1. Thank you. I’ve been just taking in all these conversations but I had to let you know that I value this post very much. Will comment more later.

  2. Obliquely (since I am not facing the issue of tenure) one of the cultural (middle class, no doubt) problems that prevents giving another space and respect to work out whatever they are going through is the presumption of there being a stiff and eternal conceptual framework guaranteeing intersubjectivity. I mean, if someone already thinks they can know exactly what you are going through because of something like your subject position, or whatever seems to guarantee to them a similar epistemology objectivity, they are probably going to be at least somewhat too sure of themselves, and deluded.

    Intersubjectivity implies that we all use the same words with about the same emotional weight attached. So, “not getting tenure” means the same thing to everybody, hence the evil busy-body intrigue surrounding it.

    But the form of intersubjectivity that produces this conclusion is based on an overestimation of the uniformity of people within the Modernist machine of culture.

    I have often chosen to disappear entirely from the face of this Modernist radar.


  3. This whole tenure thing is fascist. I say fascist because it is anti-intellectual. Of course, I am talking about of my ass so no one needs to tell me this, I just feel that it is fascist. I remember back in Fall 2004 when I was sitting in an upper level European Literature class, first day of school and every student was asked to introduced her/himself and tell the class why they were an English major, an assumption because no one other than English majors would take such a class (not typically anyway). After a bunch of “I don’t know, my parents said I had better get some degree, I could not get into ___________ program, I suck at math, etc,” when it was my turn I perked up and said, I am an English Major because I want to be a professor, I want to have a PhD and teach literature classes, because literature expresses the human condition, I want to talk and read and discuss and analyze and ponder and walk into classes with notes barefoot and free and referring to Woolf and Hurston and Joyce and Poe and Hawthorne and Plath and O’ Connor while bouncing off ideals from Monique Witter and Judith Butler and Bell Hooks and Derrida and Althusser and Marx and so on and so. I quickly learned my true love for Literature was a detriment. It was fool’s play. Amusing to the old salts. As I got further in my studies (a mere undergraduate), I even felt like I was a threat to professors at times. “What made you think about that, have you talked to anyone else about this, exactly how much do you read, how are you able to read all of this……..” Then because I was older I became loosely related friends to some professors and was introduced to the ugly side of academia. After that, I started reading bloggers, ungrateful professors (not you Z of course), and ungrateful privileged jerks. I hated those blimey bastards, here they were blogging about their little trifles (and I’m talking about professors who claimed to have tenure) while I was worrying about my GRE and how I would pay for graduate school if, IF, I was accepted because there is always a possibility that someone somewhere will discover the fraud that I am, the English major who graduated somehow but no one really knows how but they were complaining, “Oh my life is so rough.” Then I started reading all the disappointment from women and poc of colour about tenure issues. It seems now that there is a glut in applicants there is not enough jobs to go around or not tenure jobs. But incidentally tenure jobs seemed to dry up when privilege middle class white men were no longer the only candidates. Suddenly it went from if you get your PhD you can expect to get a good job at a university to let’s play musical colleges and juggle six to eight classes all over the county while just pulling in 2000 or so a month with no insurance and not a chance in hell to ever slow down and write something scholarly. Then I thought about the American mentality that we (women, POC and the poor) have been sold our whole life, which is “your ticket is education” and how disappointing it is when we punch all the holes on the tickets to be met at the door with a sold out sign or no more room or whatever. It makes me want to scream because now I am paralysed, paralysed to the core. Yes my personal life has put my education on hold as far as where we will live depends on where I could accept a PhD program but now I am wondering if I should subject myself to it. Will I go into debt, will I stop the world fighting for this PhD to be met with a Sold out sign. That is something fascist happening I can feel it. Yet what kind of working stiff can I become with a B.A. in English while my thoughts are forever in Fiction? I just want to puke with paralyzed anxiety, but my muscles are too frozen to thrust upward.

  4. Kitty – You should do a PhD because you are interested in it and want to teach, and are a good writer! I think you might be able to do it without going into debt. Then become a professor or not – depending. I like books and I liked graduate school! The politics, I know, but you can see how things shape up as they go along.

  5. It was from my view brave of you, to post something so honest and cathartic.

  6. servetus

    Brave, and really helpful, as mentioned elsewhere, especially the point about not needing to serve the prurient needs of others as one goes through the process of being denied.

  7. Not brave – it was long ago not traumatic and never a secret! What would be brave would be to talk about my father, my SLAC, and my current job. I’m working up to *that* …

  8. Yes, it was very courageous. I’m sorry I veered away from your original post. I now feel like I used a safe professor to complain about the privilege and the system. Please delete my comment.

  9. Really delete it? But I like it! I will if you insist, but *I* find it valuable, like everything else you say.

  10. Really interesting post, and a valuable one.

  11. I didn’t get tenure, and now people talk about me in the third person, in front of me. It is like I have died.

  12. Mommyprof – How rude your institution is, and how insecure your colleagues are! I’m sorry you didn’t get tenure, and I’m sorry they are behaving in this immature way. I really wish academics could stop acting like catty junior high school girls.

    Or boys. A while ago I voted against someone’s tenure. I am not demanding but one article in five years is not a very good record, and with the kind of complaints we were already getting I was afraid that he might become a real liability. He came to my office, got in my face, and called me a “fucker.”

  13. Pingback: Anger I Sing « Professor Zero

  14. Gracias Undine. I’ve seen these things handled really badly, too. And seen other things handled really badly.

    People call this post brave and cathartic but not getting tenure simply wasn’t the worst experience I’ve had in academia – far from it – I have been *so* much worse treated, on *so* many other occasions, that it is very difficult to fault the tenure system for the problems I have had. There would be a way to make that argument but it would be sort of like treating a secondary infection without recognizing the primary one(s).

    Mommyprof – I just realized, talking about like you as though you weren’t there, that’s what my parents always did. It was why it was so nice to be at school and then moved out, because other people would actually look at me and talk to me when I was the person in question.

    I have a question. You have all of these scruples about keeping your department up to date on your plans for next year. But they talk about you as though you weren’t there. This is nosy but is the reason you have these scruples actually because you’re trying to remind them you are still a person? If that is the case, and I’m not saying it is, but if it is I would recommend telling *yourself* you are real and not depending on their sense of reality, or unreality, at all.

    That is what I am trying to tell myself in a current situation. It works to an extent (except that I disagree with the common idea that if one makes oneself happy one can be happy, i.e. the idea that the external world does not exist at all and/or that one can protect oneself from it completely).

  15. RichardW

    Well, that brings back a few bad memories. After 4 years of unemployment (think social science PhDs are of particular use?) I got on a tenure track position at a small state school in the upper Midwest. It was a terrible match–I’m an ex-New Yorker, outspoken liberal from a Jewish background, the school was one step removed from a Christian institution, the chair was sleeping with students and the dept. power was an ex-Marine macho man who liked Nixon and thought apartheid was okay. Also, I couldn’t teach worth a damn. I lasted 2 years and then had 7 more at minimum/no wages.

    And yet in some ways things worked out okay. I followed my wife to a decent city, she got an MBA and opened a good business, and our kids had a better life than they would have had in the (literal) backwoods. I eventually started teaching at a “college” (national vo-tech, not academic regional accreditation). It’s not much–terrible pay, with a few exceptions the students are mediocre at best, and the academic atmosphere is non-existent. But there are no dept. politics (hell, no tenure or publications either), and for 15 years they’ve let me become a decent teacher in this glorified high school. I don’t know if all this is positive or negative, but the point is there can be life after non-tenure, and sometimes it can be better, or at least adequate.

  16. Yes – well, I’d have liked to quit academia. When I didn’t get tenure I had essentially already quit, for other reasons. That’s why I didn’t get tenure. Nobody understood this and I got heavy pressure to stay in academia so I have. It’s not bad but I would rather have graduated already – since I didn’t get a job I really liked in the first place – I was ready to quit from the first week.

    Not because I don’t like scholarly work, I love it. I just don’t like the social atmosphere – I taught in a place like your backwood college at first, never really got over the shock, and I teach in a similar place now – and all the poor teaching one is supposed to do. At least that is my q-d perspective.

    Mostly what I dislike is that people are like my father, a condescending and self important professor. I want to get away from him and that is why I want to leave academia.

    Actually I associate it with both of my parents with whom I am very angry, and this is why I want to go. (Actually just typing this I am realizing how true it is, and it is creeping me out. I am going to have to do an anti parent ritual.)

    The reason I can’t quit, though, is that I don’t make enough to create the savings to quit on, and I owe too much money from subsidizing my job. So, I am a slave of academe. !!! Anyway: earlier commentators thought the post was cathartic, thought the not getting tenure must have been awful, but really it wasn’t and this is my point: what was awful was realizing what professordom was like, and the way I internalized what the family said about my reaction. Writing *this comment* IS cathartic so thanks for the opportunity. Again: the problems are not about not getting tenure, they’re about working in the kind of place you did on the tenure track.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying life now!!!

  17. I thought a lot about your comment that you were ready to quit from week 1. I just started a T-T job at a prestigious school and feel the same way. The reality of this is not what I expected- prime dona grad students who don’t appreciate my time getting THEM funding and undergraduates who whine incessantly about the grades THEY earned.

    I’ve been here 4.5 months and feel like a complete failure despite the fact that I’m healthy as a horse. Maybe it is all in my head, but I get the distinct feeling that my colleagues are utterly disappointed in me… they all seemed excited when I first arrived and now I am lucky to get a hello from many of them.

    My “friends” from grad-school really aren’t my “friends” at all. I get the sense that they would truly love to see me fall from grace… haha if grace is where I am!

    How do you escape before it is too late? I feel like not getting tenure would ensure that I would wear the scarlet letter for the rest of my career. Perhaps the fear is worse than the reality.

    • Bev

      I know this reply is coming much later than the original post, but I am out here because I didn’t get tenure but I kept my job at the same university, redefined as a “lecturer” with one more course each semester (3/4 now instead of 2/3) plus I get a title: Director of Undergraduate Education. I loved the interacting with undergraduate students part of my job from the very beginning. Listening to them, sharing what little I knew about the world, offering assistance in writing and thinking — all of these things made me come alive and reminded me why, at the age of 46, I had gone back to school to get my PhD in the first place. I wasn’t at a research I school, I was (and still am) at an “emerging research” university. It has pretensions of grandeur. At this late date it’s trying to turn itself into an “Arizona State” type miracle. Now, just as the money’s drying up, and even STEM funding is getting scarcer and scarcer. I say all that to say, there is life after research I graduate education and/or tenure track jobs.

      Think about what you love, and hold onto that. Your colleagues are busy, they don’t hate you, they just don’t have time for you. If you love your teaching, hold on to that, and try to find perhaps a place where teaching is more valued. You are not a failure. It is the world outside that is trying to make you one. I am betting you are a woman and that you are experiencing a kind of impostor syndrome. Oh, I know it so well.

  18. I’m glad I’m not the only traitor who had that feeling!

    Colleagues – they’re not disappointed. It is that fall is the most stressful term and from October on nobody can think straight. It’s not about you.

    Friends from grad school – correct, at least in the case of most of them. Therefore do not listen to their advice.

    That feeling that you’re in the wrong place – go on the market. I’ve heard that the first job is the one you get by chance, and the second is where you should be. I don’t know if it’s true (it was in the second job I didn’t get tenure, and it wasn’t because of the university that that happened), but I chose a lot better the second time and knew much better what I was doing.

    Not getting tenure – it doesn’t necessarily ensure the scarlet letter but it can hurt your career. My analysis of my situation was that it meant it was time to quit, but that isn’t true for everyone. Fear of not getting tenure – you have nothing to fear, it isn’t scary. (At least not for me – I went to huge schools from freshman year on, you knew the university was not your kind friend or anything like that, and I have never taken personally anything a university has done.) The key really, really is not to take things personally.

    How to escape before it is too late: make a considered plan that you like. I should have gone ahead with mine, perhaps earlier than I even started on it. I would say, go on the academic market, and on other markets, sooner rather than later, and/but don’t take another job until you get an offer you actually want to take. You have 6.5 years in which to consider this matter and experiment in a leisurely manner … you don’t have to use all 6.5 years, but you have them … you can still publish and teach and everything while also looking out for your escape hatch! !!! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s