The Tenure Track as Constraint (and minor updates)

Let me start with a few minor updates:

On the plus side, I’ve got some interesting interviews coming up. On the negative/absent side, I still haven’t heard back from many of the folks I’ve contacted about projects related to this blog. On the confusing side, I just joined Facebook, and so will be likely be delving in to this fascinating phenomenon a bit more soon, to see how it might be related to adjuncts and writing.

Now, on to the core idea, which is a thought experiment grounded in reality. Consider the following: any goal is, among other things, a constraint. Setting tenure as your goal binds you to doing things that will achieve tenure. At most schools, this means focusing your writing on areas you were hired for. At even more schools, this means doing work which is recognized as scholarly.

If that’s the sort of work you want to do, so far, so good. I have known many scholars who seem born to devote their lives to X (American literature, Latin poetry, etc.), and others who seem at great ease tracking down every last reference on a topic. I have long envied the first their certainty, and the second their sense of appropriate process. Completeness is a good thing.

However, what if this is not the sort of work you want to do? What if you are exploratory? What if your values lead you outside of established forms and topics? What if you simply change? In those cases, the pursuit of tenure becomes a kind of constraint. Again, I’m not railing against constraint per se—Jane Austen would have my head—but simply put, there are times when it is better to pursue the new path than walk the one that no longer calls you. At that point, the tenure path becomes too much of a constraint…and being an adjunct who writes may emerge as a form of freedom.

This is not a freedom born of abandon. I’m not suggesting that if you don’t pursue tenure, you will do slipshod work. I’m suggesting that releasing that goal may allow one to explore new media. It may allow one’s writing to appear immediately online and begin a multiplying influence that will come slowly, if ever, to those publishing in academic venues. Writing on new topics may allow one to be first, simply because the new media democratizing publishing allows one to share freely without the ponderous process of peer review.

And it isn’t that tenured faculty can’t do these things. They can…but they are anchored into an existing system. They’ve been rewarded for working known fields. They are invested, even as they are protected.

In some ways, writing without tenure allows the return of the intrinsic reward. One no longer has to seek conference presentations or journal acceptance. One can simply write.

The flip side of reward is freedom. (Now, we still have to pay the bills…but that’s another question. Academic writing was never going to pay the bills anyway.)

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