What is happening in Wisconsin with regards to tenure is disturbing, but I’m more concerned with what the reactions to circumstances in Wisconsin reveal about the expanding discord between individuals on the tenure-track and the vast majority of college-level teachers living off the tenure-track. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of this conflict to be found on Twitter and on article comment sections. Individuals outside of full-time academic work express feelings of “welcome to my world” when hearing responses from those on the tenure-track reacting to changes in tenure proposed for the University of Wisconsin system. Those with precarious employment might look at tenure-track professors in Wisconsin as hypocrites for never voicing concern about the uncertain economic and employment situations facing their colleagues. Others might feel that folks in Wisconsin should just leave; others would be more than willing to take their vacant jobs. From those on the tenure track there is still a level of dismissiveness towards their adjunct peers: You are not like us; our situation is different from yours. Sadly, many people recognize that the responses from those on the lower-rungs of the academic hierarchy are expressing reactions that are only natural after decades of brewing marginalization.
Going forward, if we ever hope to fix the problems facing academia, especially with regards to issues of job security for all, we can’t have this tension and in-fighting existing between involved parties. Regardless of circumstances, we need to advocate for each other.
Regardless of circumstances, we need to watch out for each other.
We need to be like meerkats.
Individuals across the spectrum of academic life could learn a great deal from meerkats. Meerkats live in large matriarchal social groups, known as mobs, consisting of a dominant female, the dominant male and a variety of helpers consisting of offspring and other meerkats that have joined the mob. Meerkats, regardless of their standing within the mob, participate in a variety of roles ranging from babysitting and providing milk for young meerkats, to foraging, grooming, and play.
One of the most important roles within the meerkat mob, and the one they are most famous for, is that of sentinel. Standing erect on their hind legs, meerkat sentinels scan the horizon for threats to members of the mob as they forage, care for their young, or rest and relax. At great risk to themselves, a meerkat on sentinel duty might work from ground-level or an available highpoint, like a dirt mount or even a tall tree, scanning the earth and sky for any sign of danger. During this time on sentinel duty the meerkat forgoes foraging for themselves and exposes themselves to the very dangers they are watching for on land and in the sky. In the event of danger, a sentinel will call out to the rest of the group with a warning for them to return to the safety of their burrow or bolt holes.
At this point, you might be thinking this is a call for academics to be on watch for each other in the face of trying times. Yes, it is call to watch out for each other, but it is a specific call. It is a call to watch out for each other, and like meerkats, to do so regardless of station.
Science knows the practical reasons of why meerkat mobs engage in sentinel behavior, but the reasons are less clear at an individual level. There are several theories as to why meerkats engage in sentinel behavior. One theory contends that it is altruistic behavior. Another theory argues it is a way for individuals to increase their prestige within the mob. A different theory argues that it is not altruistic behavior, but is a way of preserving the mob, which, in turn, secures the preservation of the individual. The fact is: Regardless of station or reason, all meerkats engage in sentinel behavior.
We in academia need to be like meerkat sentinels. Regardless of our station, regardless of the reasons for guard duty, whether altruistic or out of a need for self-preservation, we need to watch.