On The Conservatizing Effect Of The Tenure-Track

Reverse Tenure

Over the summer, I met with a colleague who works at our university’s Center for Civic Engagement.  We talked about recent and upcoming vacations, life in the city, and finding community on campus.  Eventually, she shifted the conversation to asking how she could better support me as a faculty member, in particular, in helping me to actually utilize the Center’s resources.  Since we first met, back when I interviewed for my current position, she has known that I am activist at heart, and wish to engage the campus and local communities in my research and teaching.  But, now starting my third year at the university, I give the same excuse for not doing so: fear remains a part of my everyday reality as a tenure-track professor.  She understood because I’ve emphasized that I would be slow to adopt community engagement in my work; but, she also asked what, if anything, can we do to change the culture that steers junior faculty away from relevant, accessible, and creative work.

I will acknowledge that my fear and anxiety are on the extreme side relative to the average tenure-track professor.  I readily respond to reassuring statements such as, “you’re doing fine,” pointing out, “but, I’m a Black queer tenure-track professor who blogs critically about the academy.”  My identities and my politics were known to my department and university upon interviewing and ultimately hiring me.  I will admit to a modest amount of paranoia, but I ask that we also be honest that racist and homophobic biases play out in unexpected and subtle ways.  (That is, my paranoia isn’t so unreasonable considering there are interpersonal and institutional factors that actually disadvantage me professionally and personally.)

More generally, I bear the burden of fear and doubt because the institution itself does not explicitly reward activism, advocacy, and community engagement.  I appreciate informally being told teaching a community-based learning class looks good, or that open access research is the way of the future for scholars.  And, at a minimum, there is little sense that such efforts would hurt one professionally (though I remain skeptical when such claims are made regarding activism).  But, formally, these initiatives are not valued; they are not explicitly mentioned in the tenure expectations outlined in our faculty handbook, nor is there a longstanding tradition of favorably evaluating community engagement and advocacy.  As I told my colleague, it’s great that the Center offers so much to faculty who engage the community in their work — even offering a small stipend to those who go through training on community-based teaching; but, short of the institutions explicit valuing of such efforts (i.e., counting it toward tenure), only a few brave souls will venture into them.

Beyond my frustration with the inconsistency between formal values and informal values, I am annoyed at the obvious contradiction between the university’s claims to promote diversity, accessibility, and community engagement and its actual practices.  Like many colleges and universities, my institution has made clear that it wants to change and improve the world; doing so has required changing itself, its mission and values, and its practices.  I certainly applaud the university for the changes it has made, especially within the past five years.

But, short of explicitly supporting junior faculty who aim to engage the community, and promote diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, it facilitates a conservatizing effect of the tenure track.  Absent of messages to the contrary, the traditional expectations are echoed loudly: “keep your head down”; “don’t rock the boat”; “publish or perish”; “avoid service until after tenure”; “be quiet“; “know your place.”  And, besides being apolitical, seen-but-not-heard, publishing machines, junior faculty are pressured to conform to the tried-and-true approach to get tenure.  Thus, on one hand, while touting change and all of their efforts to promote it, universities are also producing cohort after cohort of junior scholars who may avoid making change.  For many of us, this comes after years of “playing it safe” in graduate school.  And, I fear, for many of us, we become so accustomed to conforming and suppressing anything deemed too radical that we simply keep doing so beyond tenure.  I’m not entirely optimistic that radical professors “come out of the closet” the day they receive the good news.

I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into the trap of fearful conformity.  I came in like a lion, roaring that I would only do the tenure-track my way. But, right on cue, I became a meek lamb, obsessing over self-presentation, avoiding certain forms of service and advocacy that I deemed too political or radical, and fighting so hard to stay visible and relevant to my discipline.  Recently, I’ve even grown tired of hearing myself verbalize fear that I’d be denied tenure over what I write on this blog.  (And, really, the joke is on me because everyone seems to know who I am and what I value, but the university keeps inviting me back each fall.)  But, the conservatizing effect will remain for new faculty until universities explicitly value community service, social justice, and advocacy.  Perhaps universities would change a lot faster if they didn’t implicitly pressure faculty to conform and avoid change-making.

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