As I said somewhere below, this is the semester of applications. The latest and most baroque is tenure. Tenure is like the holy grail in academic ideology. Though in point of fact professors are dismissed for political reasons more often than you think (at least in the U.S., I don’t know my Canadian cases well enough), tenure is the place where we hang the cloak of academic freedom. It is supposed to be the excuse for perennially low academic salaries as well — job security for revenue is the trade you’re supposed to make. The job security thing is probably overblown as well (especially in my case, since the real holy grail there is permanent residency, which will be another couple years). Ultimately, the biggest reward of tenure is that you are no longer probationally in the profession. It is the line between “junior” and “senior” in academic chronology, and it signifies, above all else, that you got through and got tenure. Tenure is a thing that is supposed to represent all these other social goods in our world but somehow in the machinations of professional ideology and everday life becomes an “in-itself” (1).
The experience of assistant professorship varies from person to person. Tenure was never the big thing for me — it was getting the book out, finding a place where Carrie and I could both be happy, enjoying my time in the classroom, etc. Tenure was supposed something that would happen as a natural outgrowth of my work as an academic. For others, the tenure track is more like, well, a track where one sprints toward the finish line, or a seething personal hell of anxiety and doubt. But the end is the same no matter how you experience the middle: a massive pile of documents must be assembled into binders. That is what I did for like 7 hours yesterday. For all of the affect attached to tenure, the final step in the process is incredibly banal: “If it’s book 2, tab 17, it must be that report I wrote up for the graduate curriculum committee in 1999.” “Ten copies of everything, please.” When I finished assembling the files, I used a hand truck to get them to the proper offices. I broke the hand truck in the process. The drama tunred out to be that I almost dropped four boxed in a puddle.
Moving papers and separators into binders in the proper order has left me with this bizarre sore feeling in my shoulders. When I described it to Carrie, she said it sounded like bagging groceries: “people in stores get repetitive stress injuries all the time.”(2) I’m not injured, but the remaining stiffness when I lift my arms up above does serve as a reminder that whatever else it is, the work we do is always a form of labor, and perhaps there’s something poetic about actually feeling my final contribution to my own tenure process. At least until later today or tomorrow, when I won’t feel it anymore.
It would be bad form for me to say much about my prospects of a positive outcome, so let me just say that I am optimistic. Most of all, though, is the feeling of relief that whatever I do today, tomorrow, the next day, it does not any longer “count” for tenure(3). The files have been delivered. One of my professors, John Lie (now a sociologist at Berkeley with a very interesting FAQ), told me when I was in grad school that the main challenge in this business is to remember why you got into it in the first place. We spend so much time internalizing the norms of the profession for the dissertation and for the assistant professorship that it’s easy to forget the bigger motivations. I haven’t actually forgotten: I went to graduate school because at the time I really wanted the life of a graduate student. Since that is, strictly speaking, no longer possible or entirely desirable (read books, anguish over ideas, have cool conversations, stay up late, yes please; abuse body, live slightly above limited financial means via debt, participate in weird interpersonal dynamics, personal and professional anxieties, no thank you), I guess it’s time to reflect on what he said. Assuming, of course, a “positive outcome.” More news on that in April . . . or July. And there’s plenty to do in the meantime.
(1) While that may seem odd, it is worth pointing out that the rewards of the profession are, ultimately, the opportunity to do the work. All the talk of tradeoff around salary and freedom or security is just that. Ultimately, this job is worth doing because you love the work (and apparently impossible to do if you hate the work). In a world filled with crappy, alienating jobs, that’s a big thing.
(2) And academics get repetitive stress injuries from working on the keyboard all the time.
(3) Technically I can add to my local file until March, but since maybe one article and maybe a book chapter will come out between now and then, it won’t change the look of the file (as if, say, I had a book coming out during that period). Also, I suppose that if I committed some heinous act to offend upper administration, that might also “count.” I think I’ll try to avoid both kinds of “addenda” to my file.