ETA: I shouldn't malign the Chronicle, because they actually have a column (from the end of March last spring - sorry to have missed it at the time) that expresses a different take on tenure, one that encompasses many of the objections that people have made to the column discussed below.
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"It" is a First Person column in the Chronicle, by "George Farmer," on "The Treadmill of Tenure." He compares working towards tenure to exercise - it's something that you probably don't enjoy but you need to do on a day to day basis in order to reap the benefits. In short, the "no pain, no gain" philosophy. This was how he lost 70 pounds, despite not enjoying his time on the treadmill at all, and this is how he's confident that he's going to get tenure (which he comes up for this fall).
That's all very well and good, but the tone of this piece makes me crazy. Because to make his point, Farmer points to the cases of people he's seen go through the review process. For instance, there's his friend Mark, who just went through a rough third-year review:
He thinks that he can turn things around with a few superficial changes. Mark believes that if he just keeps his door open a bit more and shows up to one or two more campus activities, the administration will believe he is plugged in to campus life, which is terribly important at our college.
Mark does not understand that he has to make deep changes in the way he feels about students here. He seems to see them now as an inconvenience, preventing him from spending time on his writing, and it shows. That's not good in a teaching institution like ours.
Similarly, there's Doug, who was just denied tenure:
Doug, too, was unwilling to make deep changes in his job performance in order to reap the long-term benefits of tenure. He was told that he needed to increase his involvement with students. Instead, he did the bare minimum. He was unwilling to make the investment required for the few years until he came up for tenure, which, had he earned it, would have resulted in another 20 or more years of full-time employment.
Now, Farmer's absolutely correct that at a teaching institution, it's necessary to see the students as central, and not to treat them as an inconvenience. Similarly, if someone tells you to up your enrollments, yeah, you want to work on that.
But the superiority in Farmer's tone is somewhat galling. He has it all figured out, and these silly people around him who haven't succeeded, well, they were just lazy - unwilling to put in the daily "exercise" to achieve the "fitness" of tenure.
Unsurprisingly, I can envision other versions of these scenarios. For instance, if Mark seems to prioritize writing over students, it may be he's feeling the pressure to publish to get tenure, and has to make choices about how he's going to spend his time. I'm presuming that like most schools, the "small university in the South" at which these people work requires publications of some kind for tenure. It's true that not looking devoted to students doesn't fly at a teaching university, but it's also likely equally true that if he has no publications when he goes up for tenure, Mark won't succeed either. (Now, it's possible that this institution has extremely low publication requirements for tenure, or that Mark has already met whatever requirements there are, but Farmer doesn't tell us these things.) Mark may even be trying to write his way out of this job and move elsewhere. In any case, especially given academia's broader emphasis on the importantance of research over teaching (I mean, c'mon, which one wins you big fellowships and widespread acclaim?), it's not incredible that Mark may feel the pressure to publish is stronger than the need to feel a certain way about his students.
I'm not saying that Mark is correct in feeling this way, or that he's judging his situation accurately. But I would suggest that there may be reasons why he hasn't done what Farmer thinks he should have done other than his unwillingness to put in the time - in short, Mark's probably not just lazy.
Similarly, Doug did "the bare minimum" to increase his involvement with students. What was that bare minimum? What support did he have from his department in this endeavor? What else does Doug have going on in his life - for instance, does he have small children and a working spouse, an aging parent, responsibilities that take up his time? Does he live far from campus, and if so, is that because he just doesn't like being on campus or for other reasons? Again, I'm not saying that Farmer is wrong in his overall assessment - Doug didn't increase his involvement with students enough. But I doubt Doug did so because he was too lazy to take the time.
Farmer compares these two to "a guy I know who does not like to exercise because it's not 'fun,' but who believes that if he walks 30 minutes every other day or so, then he will see dramatic changes in his health." Their problem is not that they made questionable choices about where to focus their time and energy, but that they only want to do things that are "fun." (And Farmer also assumes that these two have received clear, consistent messages about their progress and where they should focus their time. They very well may have, but that's not always the case. People who do not succeed in their institution's reviews are not just lazy.)
In contrast, he lauds Mary:
Mary does not do anything flashy on the campus. She is not a superstar by any measure. However, she puts in the time doing work that is necessary, but not glamorous, for her department and the university. Mary takes on jobs whose accomplishment only a few people ever observe. But those people are the ones who need to see her work....She's like the runner who is out on the road at 6 a.m. while everyone else is still asleep.
In short, Mary's not lazy like the other two. (Gotta love the rhetoric of "early to bed, early to rise" - those of us night owls who get up late but work late must be SOL.)
What especially concerns me about Farmer's description of Mary is that it plays into insidious gender expectations at work in the academy. Women, especially young women, are especially vulnerable to the service trap, being asked to do all kinds of scut work because they are the "good girls" and will do it (and probably do it well). Again, this probably is serving Mary well. But I'd propose that at some point it would benefit Mary to do something a little "flashier." Moreover, Farmer puts the interests of the university firmly above Mary's interests - she is successful because she puts their interests above hers. Granted, in this situation it seems that serving the university is serving Mary's interests. But call me cynical, but I'm uncomfortable with the general message that the interests of the university trump everything else, and should be served, without considering how that might conflict with one's own interests. I'd just suggest that Farmer's interpretation is, again, not the only perspective to take on these events.
In fact, there is a disturbing elevation of suffering throughout Farmer's column, summed up in his reference to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy (which he cites explicitly). He states:
We suffer in the short term (though it does not seem all that short) for a long-term gain,
I am amazed by the number of people I know who simply don't have the ability to suffer now in order to thrive later on.
The assumption here, of course, is that the tenure track requires suffering. And that this is just fine. That of course one should be willing to suffer to get tenure, because the ability to suffer sets the strong apart from the weak, and after all, only the strong survive.
Perhaps I am just lazy (and perhaps it's not a coincidence that I don't like to exercise either). But I don't subscribe to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy of fitness (sports injuries, anyone?) and I don't think it's a useful philosophy for getting tenure. In short, I'm not sure how much I am, or should be, willing to suffer to get tenure. (Well, in theory - it's moot for me at the moment.) Is any level of suffering acceptable? And who gets to determine how much suffering is required? Obviously in practice, the tenure-granting institution gets to decide. But what if the candidate doesn't want to do what that institution requires? Does that really mean they're lazy, or might it be that they have different priorities? If they don't like trudging on a treadmill day in and day out, at what point does continuing to do so become ridiculous?
Farmer himself says,
I feel chained to [the treadmill]; I work out because I have to, in order to stay in good shape, not because it's particularly enjoyable. Realistically, what is enjoyable about walking on a treadmill for an hour, even if there is a TV available? And I've yet to understand why people like lifting weights.
To be honest, I have to question whether this is the best attitude. Why spend a good percentage of your life doing something you don't like? Isn't it possible that there are other physical activities that Farmer would like better? Taking tennis lessons, joining a soccer league, hiking in the beautiful outdoors - there are lots of ways to stay in shape. Because Farmer's chosen a means that he doesn't enjoy, why should everyone else have to do so? Because for him the payoff is worth the misery, does that mean everyone else should feel the same way?
And really, why should the tenure track be a life of suffering and pain? What benefit does that serve the academy (because it really doesn't serve the individual)? Doesn't it seem designed purely to break the will of junior faculty, and likely to perpetuate an attitude that says, "Because I had to suffer through this, you do too" - in fact, a hazing mentality?
I'm not suggesting that untenured faculty should be coddled, fanned by pretty slave boys and fed peeled grapes one by one. I'm certainly not suggesting that untenured faculty do not need to work! Nor do I mean to suggest that Farmer is doing anything wrong - what he does, regarding exercise and tenure, certainly works for him, and I'm sure he has very good reasons for sticking with the treadmill and weights he dislikes. There are doubtless many factors at play that make his use of the treadmill the best use of his time.
But that's kind of my point. There are equally many factors at play in Mark's, Doug's, and Mary's experiences with institutional review, and I don't think Farmer's explanation for what's going on recognizes those many factors. Mark and Doug undeniably erred, Doug more fatally than Mark, but they erred in a specific context that they misjudged, due to their own assessment of their best interests - not due to the character flaw of being unwilling to exercise because it's not fun.
You readers out there are entitled to take this all with a grain of salt, of course, because at the post title says, I have a hard time being objective about this issue. Perhaps you'll forgive me for being cynical if I resist Farmer's underlying belief that the tenure system is based solely on merit, and that therefore those who founder along the way deserve to do so. I'm sure such a belief is comforting to him at the stressful time of going up for tenure.