If you follow me on Twitter, than you know that I’ve recently started a VAP position. It is renewable for up to three years. That is good, especially after adjuncting for the past year. The pay is better. The benefits are better. The resources are better. The creature comforts are good. However, at the end of the day, it is still a contractual position. Yes, it is for the year and I don’t have to worry about receiving a contract for the spring. I’ll be paid during the summer, too. But things happen way above our pay grades. Multi-year jobs used to come with the sense that they were an assured longer-term position. Short of disasters in the classroom, one could expect to reach that full allotment of the multiple years, but now so much is in flux with higher education. I would never count on anything in higher education anymore.
I’ll be going on the job market for the fall. It has nothing to do with the position that I currently hold. It is all about the system. I can’t afford not to do go on the market again. There is no longer the luxury of taking a year off in a multi-year position and focusing on publications and other professionalization activities. Time is running out and we can’t bank on much in higher education anymore. However, I can bank on getting older. I can bank on my PhD getting stale. I can bank on having only limited opportunities to solve the two-body problem. I can bank on continued economic strain.
The silly season of hiring, though small in numbers, is already here. It has been here since the summer. We don’t have to wait for the MLA Job List to come out. We run by the fiscal year now, not the academic calendar. However, there is an uptick in listings on various sites now that the academic year has started. More will come. That more is, of course, relative since there really aren’t that many jobs to be had. We all know that.
In academic job postings for this week, I saw an advertisement for a tenure-track position in the University of Wisconsin system. I think it is clear based on the reaction of faculty in the University of Wisconsin system and commentators on higher education that tenure in Wisconsin is dead. If not dead, then tenure in Wisconsin is certainly dying. It isn’t just the loss of tenure in Wisconsin that matters. The real danger of Wisconsin is that Scott Walker has provided a model for reducing public universities and tenure than can be adopted in all 50 states.
I can’t read that job ad for the tenure-track position in the University of Wisconsin system and believe it. Even though the ad claims this is a tenure-track position, there is no tenure. If there is no tenure in Wisconsin, then there certainly can be no tenure anywhere. If there is tenure now, then there is no guarantee that it will exist by the time a person is at a 1 or 3 year review, let alone the 6 or so years to come up for tenure. Do you want to bet on any of that happening? I certainly don’t.
Having recently moved, I have no cable or internet in my apartment. I packed lightly and didn’t even take my trusty radio that I bought when I was in high school. I did bring my Xbox. But DRM is a pain without the internet. On a whim, just as I was going to hop in the car, I grabbed my DVD of Band of Brothers. I’ve been watching that as I’ve unpacked and set up my apartment. I was struck by the dialogue between two characters in one of the early episodes, Lieutenant Speirs and Albert Blithe. The conversation between Speirs and Blithe occurs in the days after the D-Day. Speirs is the soldier that is unafraid; Blithe is experiencing the emotional effects of combat and is frightened. The dialogue between the two, I think, has a lot to add to our feelings about tenure, the lack of it, and what can be done about it.
Capt. Ronald Speirs: What’s your name, trooper?
Pvt. Albert Blithe: Blithe, sir. Albert Blithe.
Capt. Ronald Speirs: You know why you hid in that ditch, Blithe?
Pvt. Albert Blithe: I was scared.
Capt. Ronald Speirs: We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function. Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.
For Speirs “accept[ing] that you’re already dead” is tied directly to “function[ing] as a soldier is supposed to function.” Albert Blithe is afraid, just like many early career academics. The argument early on in academia is to put your head down, don’t make any waves and survive until you get tenure. I think what Speirs offers is a viable alternative to that line of thinking. Give up that hope of tenure and one can function not only better, but actually survive. Given the circumstances facing higher education, putting one’s head down to survive is clearly not working and it isn’t going to work. The early career academic thinks there is still hope of tenure. What if there is no hope, specifically of tenure and we operate under the assumption? If we overlay what Speirs has to say about being a functioning soldier on to higher education, then I think we can get somewhere. Instead of hope and death, think about what Speirs says if we swap out those words for tenure.
Of course, it is problematic to make this comparison between tenure and war, especially when Speirs observes that a well-functioning solider does so “without mercy, without compassion, and without remorse.” One of the arguments for the benefits of tenure is that people can than advocate and stick their necks out for other people, for causes, and for ideals. If we act with no hope of tenure, then can’t we, maybe, act now with mercy and compassion to others, our values, and our ideals? And, more importantly, act with the mercy and compassion that our fields and students need right now?
If you aren’t into Band of Brothers, and are troubled by the war metaphor, I think the same line of thinking about acting like there is no tenure can be achieved by thinking that “there is no spoon.” I imagine I could have written about the Matrix, but I’ve never seen it and I’m more familiar with Band of Brothers. What I know about the Matrix and the spoon is largely second-hand from memes and the internet, but it seems the idea could fit, too.
I am still thinking about my “no hope” comparison and one thing in the back of my mind as I parse through these ideas is the issue of publication, especially after reading Megan Kate Nelson’s two recent (and excellent and awesome) posts about leaving academia. I recommend that you read them: here and here. They are honest and sincere and we need those voices that are willing to share such stories. I’m unsure about how to balance my ideas from Band of Brothers with Nelson’s recommendation here:
And fourth, if you are a graduate student or an adjunct, Do Not Publish Too Much. One article, maybe two. If you’ve already written a book, keep the manuscript in your desk drawer until you have a tenure-track job. Then pull it out, polish it, and send it to presses.
Under my Band of Brother’s metaphor this doesn’t matter because we are acting like tenure doesn’t exist and that there is no hope. However, Nelson’s point is about being hired in the first place, let alone getting tenure. As she notes:
I was an adjunct with two books. In the rigid world of academic hiring, I didn’t make sense to any search committee out there. I was too experienced for assistant professorships, and there was no way any dean would approve hiring an adjunct with tenure. I had published too much, and I had made myself unhireable.
Clearly my Band of Brothers comparison only goes so far and needs more fleshing out. Maybe there is an asterisk for the publishing issue that Nelson raises. Clearly, I need to think more about these intersections. However, I think my comparison holds up on a host of other issues related to academia. There is no reason to be fearful and not function as an ally, an advocate, or an innovative teacher or public scholar / intellectual. The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re not getting tenure, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a teacher, scholar, or a public intellectual’s supposed to function: With mercy, with compassion, without regret. All of higher education depends on it.