On the Tenure Track


I had always heard that being on the tenure track was a terrible thing, but I liked it. This is largely because before I got the idea of going to graduate school and discovered I was doing well there, I thought my destiny was to become a Receptionist or a Homemaker. I considered the profession of Homemaker too dangerous. Receptionist was therefore my destiny. College, and then graduate school were interesting and pleasant ways of postponing it. When I found myself on the tenure track instead I could scarcely believe my good luck.

Difficult about the tenure track was not the thing in itself but the things people had told me about it. These included. 1. Never show an interest in teaching, because you will not be taken seriously. 2. Never publish your actual research findings, because they will not be conservative enough. Publish something else, whether you can back it or not. 3. Never voice an opinion. 4. Be paranoid: realize that you will ultimately be judged on something like your shoe style, not by anything of substance. 5. Stifle individuality.

This was very difficult advice to follow, I found, because it seemed that colleagues had in fact hired one for what one could contribute as an individual. It further seemed that they had a number of different styles, themselves. They were constantly asking for opinions and input, they expected one to be excited about teaching, and teaching and service took up so much time that I found it impossible to come up with things I did not believe in to publish. I had to throw caution to the winds and publish my actual research findings.

In my first job, at Stepford College, the stifling of individuality was, however, a serious problem. I had not expected it to be considered a faux pas to spend a Saturday scouring the stacks at the local R-1, as opposed to requesting individual books through interlibrary loan and spending Saturday visibly at home. I had not expected it to be considered unusual to have friends in the area who were not academics, or who were at other local institutions. I had not expected it to be incorrect to prefer a Mexican seafood restaurant in the barrio to a staid Argentine grill in the white part of town. I had not expected an unwritten but very important rule that one should live within three miles of campus. I could not realistically see stifling myself that much. For that I could get married, or borrow a straitjacket to wear daily, or purchase a narrow grave to sleep in, so as to practice death. “I want to live free!” I cried, and was soon gone.

In my next job, at an R-1, problems were minor. One of my chairs liked to put obstructions in the way of women, and got away with it. My favorite one was when he assigned me to create a flyer and do a major mailout, but would not provide paper, mailing labels, or stamps. He also once said – although he could not have enacted this – that since I was publishing faster than the men, I should have a higher service load to be “fair,” so we could all finish at the same time [sic]. And of course I knew that I, in particular, would probably need to produce two, not just one book for tenure.

These were not real problems since I was on a research roll, and I had always known perfectly well I would have to be twice as good as so as not to be considered less than. The university had some useful rules in place. For example, I was once physically attacked by another professor, but I faced him down and scared him to death with my beady eye, knowing the institution would support me if I reported him. I lived far from campus in a gorgeous universe near the Gulf of Mexico, with porpoise jumping.

Things went very well for a long time and I had numerous adventures in the beautiful state of Mississippi, the great state of Louisiana, and the truly stellar city of New Orleans, my always tattered home. All of these places are the most exotic I have visited outside Morocco, and they are deep. Then I met Reeducation, of course, and my inner life deteriorated. Still I had so much life in me that I was difficult to deplete, and many interesting things still happened.

Both of those tenure track jobs were great cultural adventures. Stepford College, although it inhabited the Twilight Zone itself, was in a fascinating city, and it had other advantages. And both jobs were so, so much more fun and interesting than being a Receptionist, and so, so much less scary than being a Homemaker and living under someone else’s power. I did and learned much more than I ever expected to be able to do in life.


After the second job ended I was seriously considering going to go back to school, because one of the main things I learned by becoming an academic was that I could be many things besides a Receptionist. I do not think it was by chance that I had become a scholar, however, and in this weblog I have reconstructed my post-Reeducation self against the background of another tenure track, then tenured job, but more importantly, in life.

The academic world I inhabit now is very different from those I once knew. It has to be seen to be believed and I could never describe it comprehensibly to the people to whose support I owe my continued academic career, and with whom I share less now than I once did. I do not know how to repay their faith except by resurrecting my old self now, the person I was before Reeducation.

Strangely enough the culture of this third tenure track on my record resembles that of Reeducation. This fact intitially re-cemented Reeducation in me, and it was frightening. Now, though, every year I walk backward, shedding another layer of the things I never should have learned. I am a sculpted skull on a stela at Copán. My original text has been lost, but I rewrite it here from memory in enlightened words. So much life, and the tune never fails.


4 thoughts on “On the Tenure Track

  1. life is funny sometimes 🙂 i intended to become an optometrist- but i couldn’t get past the chemistry involved. i turned to psychology instead- and after years of butting my head against a human wall- turned to homemaking 😉 life is a strange adventure.

  2. Nice to see you, betmo! Life, a strange adventure indeed! And, everyone, this is a braver post than the one on not getting tenure, that comes just before it!

  3. I like danger, but the problem with homemaking is that it is too debilitating. I actually need a certain amount of danger and uncomfortableness in order to assimilate and digest new information. Sensory deprivation can actually make me feel physically ill. Similarly with tame and demure cultures. So homemaking would be a recipe for inner sickness — and, if it were violent, then I would reject the dull thud of repetition that did not allow me to grow.

  4. Yes – and there are forms of academia which resemble homemaking, as I discovered too late! 😉

    Everyone – d’ya get my tone here? I am trying to communicate:

    1. It isn’t because I have had a peachy time (even my best job had its horrors) that I defend the tenure system.

    2. Not getting tenure caused me the same problems it would cause anyone – having to move, consider quitting academia, etc., etc., and losing money. BUT I’ve gone through many worse things in academia than that and I do not think they are entirely traceable to the tenure system.

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