Thursday, March 15, 2007

Warning: Web-Surfing Can Be Dangerous to One's Job Excitement or Rambles on Professionalization and Tenure

Apparently I'm feeling positively eighteenth century in my choice of titles.

I'm still sick and not getting on a plane, so I've been websurfing. I was over at Flavia's, reading about book reviews, which sent me over to Horace's, and then I found myself in this discussion about tenure over at Tenured Radical's and Lumpenprofessoriat's and suddenly I found myself thinking about tenure. As in me getting tenure. Now I realize that I should be worrying about my dissertation -- hell, I should be working on my dissertation -- but I'm sick and it's Spring Break Woops and damn it all to hell anyway. (I was reading academic blogs to get me in the mood actually.) But then I found myself over at Professor Zero's, reading about professionalization. And that's when it all sort of crystalized for me why I'm worried about tenure and how professionalization fits into that.

At Grad City U, those who are funded teach 2/2 as instructor of record. Which means that making significant academic progress can be hard. Most TAs are just struggling to get everything done. In fact, many TAs I know have (too often subconsciously) had to choose between being the good teachers they want to be or being the productive publishing scholars they want to be. (Others think there is something wrong with them that they cannot balance it all, but that is another story that has to do with how people go crazy in my department because they think that actually saying that the expectation to do it all is unreasonable would mark a personal failing. There's some lingering sense of appropriate professional hazing that makes grad students accept crazy-making expectations there.) This means that graduates do not often come out of Grad City U with stellar publication records. Making graduates more attractive to teaching schools. Which is fine, as long as everyone is honest about that from the outset.

One thing that has happened in recent years is that the number of fundable TA years has dropped. So people need to get through the program more quickly. I have no idea about the background of that decision. But what's happened is that a number of us in more or less traditional fields have ended up not really being ready to go on the market with the dissertation more or less done by our last year of funding. (People warned me that I wasn't "really ready" to go on the market, that I was going out "early," that I should try it just to check it out. Well, what the hell choice did I have in my last year of funding? Is adjunct work going to pay back my student loans?) Some really devoted and wonderful faculty at Grad City U are trying to address this readiness-for-the-job-market issue by increasing the amount of professionalization that occurs early in the program. And this is what's got me worried, I think. If we focus early on the kinds of things that will get grad students hired -- publications, especially -- then we might be inflicting that "me first" attitude that Tenured Radical was talking about fostering among pre-tenured faculty on grad students. Certainly, early professionalization in a grad program can thwart the kind of intellectual exploration that led someone like me to move from one field to another (a big switch that affected my program at every level -- if I had stayed in my first field, my dissertation would've been done by now, but it wouldn't have been half as interesting). And there are so many kinds of professional activities that I never heard about in those Intro to the Profession courses (even PFF!) but that I have learned a lot more about in the Blogosphere, such as book reviews and peer review and editing.

So what does this have to do with me worrying about tenure? If we do as AAUP and Lumpenprofessoriat advise and include all post-PhD years as time to tenure, then I have six years to professionalize up! (Not that I haven't been working as a professional all this time. In fact, my service record is a little heady. It's publications I need to focus on.) Which means I should think not just about accessing Adventure U's resources in the most interesting ways (to me) possible, but I should always think about what I'm going to get out of it and whether I'll be tenurable elsewhere. As an interdisciplinary scholar, thinking about tenurability of my research projects worries me a little. My research ranges a bit. But I should just assume that I will never choose to be at a place that doesn't value my research and see it as tenurable. But all of this does kind of take away from the fun I was having earlier of looking on Adventure U's website and saying: in the fall, I'll be there!


Anonymous said...

Great post.

Yes, funding cuts make programs shorter, and makes universities also decide to up the TA reaching load. That way they have study and exploration reduced in two ways. This of course makes them less solid, so they have to also be sure to have lots of publications and presentations instead. It is absurd. And then, because of the job situation, people are trying to decide on research projects that will 'sell' as opposed to research projects they think are important and are interesting. In this way the simulacrum of the university takes over what might be nostalgically called the real university. So the huge problem is the economy, funding, budget cuts.

Interdisciplinary fields and research - yes. It makes it harder but I still love being interdisciplinary. I will think about this & say more when I am less tired.

LumpenProf said...

Sorry if I was a buzz kill. I don't mean to be. You SHOULD be excited about the new job. Congratulations! I'm really not trying to encourage early professionalization. I would be happy to postpone that indefinitely. My hope is to help make the process work the way it is supposed to -- as a demonstration of potential, not the realization of some research agenda. 6 years of teaching, service, and some sample publications to whet your appetite for more great things to come -- THAT should be plenty for tenure.

Earnest English said...

LP - I love your idea about "sample publications," about showing scholarly promise as a requirement for tenure. Consider me on board for that! But I'm afraid that "scholarly promise" is what will get me hired, not tenured. I hope I'm wrong.

LumpenProf said...

Sadly, I think you're right. Scholarly promise too often is not enough for tenure. That's really a shame. The scholarly promise of a grad student and the scholarly promise of a newly tenured associate professor are not so hard to distinguish. But trying to require the peak of one's scholarly work either by the time of graduation or tenure strikes me as a mistake. In both cases, the bulk of a scholar's career still lies ahead. If we forget this, we run the very real risk of crippling that future work before it even begins. That's a loss for everyone.