Opening the Tenure Discussion = Opening a Wound?

I’ve avoided opening the discussion about how adjuncts can earn tenure because opening the tenure discussion often seems like opening a wound that never heals. It is actually easier to ask adjunct faculty members about what they earn and get straight answers than it is to open the discussion of who gets tenure and why without having it dissolve into bitter commentary, even flame wars. (To get a taste of these, visit The Chronicle‘s forums on tenure track topics.) Nevertheless, since institutions depend so heavily on academic publications when making decisions for hiring and tenure, the discussion has to be opened and returned to. This week, I’m not going to be able to do much more than open the discussion, frame the issue, and sketch out some of the key talking points.

Start, then, with the premise and the issue: traditionally, academic publications have been the coin of the realm in academia. To obtain a tenure-track position, one must publish. Primarily, one must publish in accepted scholarly journals of appropriate prestige and focus for your school and discipline. To facilitate those acts of scholarship, tenured faculty at research institutions receive time off from teaching, travel funds, etc.

The tenure process at schools emphasizing teaching is different; teaching and community service receive considerable weight for tenure decisions. However— and here’s the issue— the academic labor market has shifted. Increasingly, positions are filled by adjuncts who are paid far less than tenure-track faculty. Most adjuncts are not eligible for course release or institutional fellowships, and so have less time for scholarship. Those who would prefer to teach at a small liberal arts school and focus on teaching find such positions tougher to land. A shift in academic hiring processes means that even these schools use adjuncts more frequently, and a crowded labor market means more applicants for those few positions. Academic writing becomes valued more highly at those schools as well, even if it is just as a way to sort the initial applicants.

Adjuncts who want to become tenured faculty members therefore find themselves square in the middle of several dilemmas. They have less time to write than tenure-track faculty, but must compete with them for shrinking resources. They get less money for research, but…see above. A third dilemma external to academia is that publishing in general is mutating ferociously, even, to borrow a term from Calvin and Hobbes, transmogrifying.

Add to that several factors. First, outdated attitudes about academics persist. For example, when I mentioned a concern about the job market to one of my graduate school advisors, she waved a hand and said, “Cream will rise.” Perhaps—if it doesn’t spoil due to improper handling. (A useful webpage on obtaining tenure contains a cartoon summing up common attitudes towards the distinction made between tenured and non-tenured. It’s nice because of the “The Lady or the Tiger” blindness with which academic choices must be made.) Another of these persistent attitudes, one that’s less insulting but perhaps as dangerous, is treating the tenure track as a pipeline. As the metaphor suggests, content (faculty) enter at one end (when hired) and leave from the other end (when tenured). Those who leave the pipeline disrupt the system. As “Dispelling the Pipeline Myth,” by Wolfinger, Mason, and Goulden shows, women are more likely to leave the pipeline due to having or caring for children, and so the system is gender-biased.

Second, many schools won’t hire their adjuncts to the tenure-track. Third, what counts for tenure, and what is considered enough to earn tenure, varies from department to department, discipline to discipline, and school to school. When these factors are combined, the issue becomes complex indeed. I assume that people will be staying in the same disciplines as they attempt to move from adjunct to tenured faculty, but since they won’t be staying the same school or department, that means essentially trying to guess at standards from a distance. Yes, all applicants have to do this initially, but given the fractured attention of the adjunct, it seems markedly harder. How can you track the institutional culture at a new school for the signs that it’s the right place to seek tenure when you’re trying to track cultures at three schools already to see if you’ll be able to pay rent next month?

I suspect that our contextual pressures puts all sorts of pressures on adjuncts as writers. For example, I suspect we write shorter pieces rather than longer, and pursue short-term research rather than long-term, precisely because of the organizational challenges involved and simply not knowing if we’ll be in the same place next semester or not. However, those are areas that can be followed up on through research. For now, I want to close by pointing readers to a few online conversations about who get tenure (found here, here, and here), and then to some tools for those seeking tenure.

Getting Tenure collects a number of useful tools for those seeking tenure (and it’s nice to see this coming out of Geoscience.)

This page collects a number of documents offering advice.

Adventures in Ethics and Science shares thoughts on (and pictures of) a tenure dossier.

And we’ll definitely return to this painful point in the future.

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