As is customary pretty much everywhere, when I was up for tenure at my university, my students were invited to participate in the process by completing a survey about their experiences with me as a teacher and advisor. Unsurprisingly, I found myself fielding a lot of questions about the process. My sense is that, for better or worse, the intricacies of academic hierarchy are opaque to most undergrads, and I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. I huff and grumble privately when a student addresses me by my first name or, worse yet, as “Mrs. Adelman” but never reprimand them directly. I wager that exactly zero of them noticed when I changed the signature line of my email from “Assistant” to “Associate Professor.” Again: totally fine.
Nonetheless, the most interesting question anyone has ever asked me about the tenure process came from one of my students who asked, simply: “Why?” While it was still early days in my review process, the subject-formation mechanisms had been grinding away on me for years, and so I gave a brief procedural answer and then turned to things like “intellectual freedom” and commitment to the profession. The soundwaves from this exultation (delivered even while I was imagining how satisfying it would be to change my email signature, how many people would totally notice) had barely hit the back wall of the room, when she shook her head and waved her hand like a fly was bothering her. “No,” she said. “That’s not what I meant. Why do you have to go up for tenure? Why can’t you just stay an Assistant Professor forever if you want?”
I had never even considered the possibility. Of course, there are practical reasons to not stay an Assistant Professor forever (though I am still awaiting the landing of the heavenly chorus that I thought would surely sing once my tenure was official). And of course, I knew what would happen — institutionally, if not psychically — if I were denied tenure. And I knew that I had no choice but to go up. But it had never occurred to me to question the requirement itself, and when I’ve shared this anecdote with other professors, they’ve all expressed the same never-thought-of-that incredulity.
It’s an interesting question because it queries the value of the security and recognition that tenure afford. My hunch is that the student didn’t understand the implications of being tenure-less or the practical and professional reasons why one might desire it. But even bracketing this, her question is worth pausing over. Of course, I’m glad I have tenure, and I’m not forgetting for a minute that I’m super privileged to have the certainty and stability it affords. But as I fumbled with my student’s question, I realized that I had never really considered why I was going/putting myself through the tenure process, any more than I had wondered why I get older every year.
In the academic universe, we tend to conceptualize movement toward tenure as (ideally) ineluctable, which also envisions scholarly careers as linear and progressive. Even as many of us eschew the narrative of History-as-progress on a larger scale, I’d wager that most of us imagine our careers along such an inevitably upward-turning arc. But I’d also wager that few of them actually play out that way. For a variety of reasons, we might go months or even years without making much in the way of forward progress; we might choose to slow down or be compelled to. Priorities shift. Projects stall, collaborations fall apart, proposals get rejected, we are compelled to revise, resubmit, and wait. These things happen to everybody, but nonetheless, we instantiate constant and quantifiable progress as both norm and ideal of academic work. Indeed, even the prevailing metaphor of the tenure “clock” (stoppable only in the most extreme circumstances) replicates this logic.
My student’s question was therefore truly inconceivable, even apart from the institutional requirement, as a condition of my hire and employment, that I go up for tenure by a certain year. In effect, she was proposing a refusal of institutional mandates and expectations, or imagining a refusal of this compulsory pursuit of security. It’s an imperfect comparison, to be sure, but imagine how clear the answer would have seemed if the student had proposed opting out of other coveted and widely-valued forms of security or legitimacy like … marriage.
As mechanisms for subject-formation, institutions work by conditioning our assumptions and expectations, offering recognition and security in exchange for alignment with preferred forms of each. My student, howsoever unintentionally, hinted at an alternative to this arrangement, in which ‘progress’ or ‘success’ might be measured by a different metric, or maybe recognized differently, as chimeras after all.