Monthly Archives: March 2008

Mañanitas de César Chávez

César Chávez ¡Presente! Hoy día cumples 81 años y con nosotros los festejas, aunque no te veamos. Hoy en especial, pero también todos los días, nos da aliento tu luminosa presencia: limpia, sencilla, profunda.

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In memory of César Chávez we direct you to Lumpenprofessoriat, who has found an amazing, inspiring Barack Obama Poetry Slam, and to Momo, who has found some important, related and also illuminating material.

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César Chávez was a pacifist, but legislation has been proposed which would allow us to carry guns on campus. In other news of armaments, Qlipoth points out that missile defense systems are first strike weapons. Read the post, it is important.

Axé.

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A Modest Proposal

It is the weekend, and I am in New Orleans singing with WWOZ. I have been hanging out at an excellent conference wherein smart professors and graduate students spoke. It has been very refreshing. I feel as though I am beginning to right my sails.

While driving back and forth I considered everyone’s posts on tenure and decided what we should do: eliminate the tenure track by tenuring everyone when hired. Then as their careers developed and changed, it could be flexibly determined what their jobs would actually be in a given year – more research, more teaching, more administration, and so on.

I had not thought seriously of this because: what if you make a disastrous hire? But looking back, I have been on more hiring committees than I can count, and we’ve done well. It is quite arguable that all of the less good hires would have been better had it not been for the insidious way they were corroded by the tenure track. This plan has a great advantage: everyone would be free to start the struggle for unionization right away. What do you think? :-)

I also notice, by the way, that those who say the tenure system is fair tend to be men, and I notice that the many problems I have had in academia are traceable not to the tenure system, but to misogyny.

I notice as well that, in the comments threads of the IHE and Chronicle pieces that picked up this discussion, some of those who advocate for long temporary contracts rather than the tenure system do not consider who would do service or anything creative with curriculum and programs.

After I didn’t get tenure, I had a visiting job at an R-2, and once as a vacation from where I am, I had another visiting job at an R-1. In both situations I did not think a whit about issues such as long term program goals. These were not my concern. I would just be there a little while, so all I needed to do was make sure my own classes went well and concentrate on research. This was lovely for me, but my colleagues in these places were putting serious time and effort into program building, for good reason.

This kind of service could, I suppose, be outsourced to para-academics with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but it really takes faculty to do that work effectively. Another alternative would be to have nobody do it. This would have been a poor idea in both the institutions I observed, for reasons having to do inter alia with recruitment and retention of both students and faculty.

Axé.

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Memorandum 3

To all faculty at Harvard, Michigan, Yale, and similar schools: In your book prefaces, please be a little more discreet about the fun you had writing them. We know your smart graduate students read this book in draft – in fact, to do so was their seminar – and made useful comments. We know you have regular sabbaticals and travel funding, that interesting visiting fellows are at your institution every week, that your wives and children cooked lovely meals for you while you wrote and yet stayed out of your way, and that you have many other comforts.

I begrudge you none of this. The phrase I wish you would cease and desist from writing is “…without which this book could never have been written.” I have always found that sentence terribly depressing, as it implies that since I do not have these advantages, I cannot write mine.

Axé.

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Memorandum 2

To all students with cute nicknames: The time to introduce these nicknames to me or to the class is not when you are in a desperate circumstance and need a special favor. The effort to portray yourself as a kitten or puppy by suddenly beginning to sign your e-mails “Mikey” or “‘Becca” is very transparent. Furthermore, it can cause confusion regarding your actual identity. Please use the names I already know.

Axé.

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Memorandum 1

This is the first of seven memoranda to seven groups, ranging loosely from the least irritating to the most. 

To all “non-denominational” “Christian” students: I understand very well that your home-schooling mother and your pastor may have given you to understand that you, like them, are members of a superior species, and that in this life you need only to “minister” to the rest of us unfortunates. For purposes of my class and this university, however, you are still required to do work and learn material. Whining and insisting that you are a good person are not substitutes for these activities. Organizing a prayer group at your church on behalf of my soul is kind of you, but is not required by me. You must really put your schoolwork first.

Axé.

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On the Tenure Track

I

I had always heard that being on the tenure track was a terrible thing, but I liked it. This is largely because before I got the idea of going to graduate school and discovered I was doing well there, I thought my destiny was to become a Receptionist or a Homemaker. I considered the profession of Homemaker too dangerous. Receptionist was therefore my destiny. College, and then graduate school were interesting and pleasant ways of postponing it. When I found myself on the tenure track instead I could scarcely believe my good luck.

Difficult about the tenure track was not the thing in itself but the things people had told me about it. These included. 1. Never show an interest in teaching, because you will not be taken seriously. 2. Never publish your actual research findings, because they will not be conservative enough. Publish something else, whether you can back it or not. 3. Never voice an opinion. 4. Be paranoid: realize that you will ultimately be judged on something like your shoe style, not by anything of substance. 5. Stifle individuality.

This was very difficult advice to follow, I found, because it seemed that colleagues had in fact hired one for what one could contribute as an individual. It further seemed that they had a number of different styles, themselves. They were constantly asking for opinions and input, they expected one to be excited about teaching, and teaching and service took up so much time that I found it impossible to come up with things I did not believe in to publish. I had to throw caution to the winds and publish my actual research findings.

In my first job, at Stepford College, the stifling of individuality was, however, a serious problem. I had not expected it to be considered a faux pas to spend a Saturday scouring the stacks at the local R-1, as opposed to requesting individual books through interlibrary loan and spending Saturday visibly at home. I had not expected it to be considered unusual to have friends in the area who were not academics, or who were at other local institutions. I had not expected it to be incorrect to prefer a Mexican seafood restaurant in the barrio to a staid Argentine grill in the white part of town. I had not expected an unwritten but very important rule that one should live within three miles of campus. I could not realistically see stifling myself that much. For that I could get married, or borrow a straitjacket to wear daily, or purchase a narrow grave to sleep in, so as to practice death. “I want to live free!” I cried, and was soon gone.

In my next job, at an R-1, problems were minor. One of my chairs liked to put obstructions in the way of women, and got away with it. My favorite one was when he assigned me to create a flyer and do a major mailout, but would not provide paper, mailing labels, or stamps. He also once said – although he could not have enacted this – that since I was publishing faster than the men, I should have a higher service load to be “fair,” so we could all finish at the same time [sic]. And of course I knew that I, in particular, would probably need to produce two, not just one book for tenure.

These were not real problems since I was on a research roll, and I had always known perfectly well I would have to be twice as good as so as not to be considered less than. The university had some useful rules in place. For example, I was once physically attacked by another professor, but I faced him down and scared him to death with my beady eye, knowing the institution would support me if I reported him. I lived far from campus in a gorgeous universe near the Gulf of Mexico, with porpoise jumping.

Things went very well for a long time and I had numerous adventures in the beautiful state of Mississippi, the great state of Louisiana, and the truly stellar city of New Orleans, my always tattered home. All of these places are the most exotic I have visited outside Morocco, and they are deep. Then I met Reeducation, of course, and my inner life deteriorated. Still I had so much life in me that I was difficult to deplete, and many interesting things still happened.

Both of those tenure track jobs were great cultural adventures. Stepford College, although it inhabited the Twilight Zone itself, was in a fascinating city, and it had other advantages. And both jobs were so, so much more fun and interesting than being a Receptionist, and so, so much less scary than being a Homemaker and living under someone else’s power. I did and learned much more than I ever expected to be able to do in life.

II

After the second job ended I was seriously considering going to go back to school, because one of the main things I learned by becoming an academic was that I could be many things besides a Receptionist. I do not think it was by chance that I had become a scholar, however, and in this weblog I have reconstructed my post-Reeducation self against the background of another tenure track, then tenured job, but more importantly, in life.

The academic world I inhabit now is very different from those I once knew. It has to be seen to be believed and I could never describe it comprehensibly to the people to whose support I owe my continued academic career, and with whom I share less now than I once did. I do not know how to repay their faith except by resurrecting my old self now, the person I was before Reeducation.

Strangely enough the culture of this third tenure track on my record resembles that of Reeducation. This fact intitially re-cemented Reeducation in me, and it was frightening. Now, though, every year I walk backward, shedding another layer of the things I never should have learned. I am a sculpted skull on a stela at Copán. My original text has been lost, but I rewrite it here from memory in enlightened words. So much life, and the tune never fails.

Axé.

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On Not Getting Tenure

There have been so many posts about the destructiveness of the tenure system that I would like to say something more about this. I, as people paying close attention to this blog may already know, did not get tenure.

It was not at all traumatic, as I had seen it coming. After my mid tenure review I had an illness and the medical people in charge of it would not believe that my degree of impairment, while not terribly severe, was severe enough that I would not be able to work hard enough to get tenure. Since I could not get support from them to ask the university for a time extension of some sort, I just waited it out and made plans to go back to school when my no vote came.

I was surprised to have a positive vote from my department, and some of those colleagues, at least, were surprised to hear later of a negative decision from the dean. I went to see the dean who, not knowing about my health situation, said, look:  the only problem is that your book is not in page proofs yet. Bring it to me in page proofs in early fall (it was now late spring) and we’ll vote again.

This was a nice offer but I said no because my health situation had not changed and I knew I would not have page proofs by that moment. But you can see already that all of none of this was particularly traumatic at a personal level. It caused many practical problems, yes. It was not terribly embarrassing, however, and it did not ruin my career, although it changed it.

What I liked about it was that it was objective. There was nothing in the written records of the decision that was not true, nothing untoward. It was civil and respectful and I am still friends with the people I was always friends with at that institution. These friends include one of the people who voted me down and no, it is not out of masochism that I maintain this friendship.

It was a very different experience than an earlier one, when I had been truly harrassed and hounded in another job, or the behavior I have had to put up with, and have put up with unnecessarily because I was already so beaten down, after tenure in my current one.

II 

What was difficult about not getting tenure was what so many people I knew transferred onto it. They transferred onto it their own fears and wanted to watch me act them out. I will not cite all instances, but to give you an idea:

1. A close friend who had gotten tenure, on a “worse” record, at another institution with different standards refused to speak to me for a year. As he explained later, it was because he was so embarrassed that he had gotten tenure and I had not. An R-1 is not a SLAC, said I helplessly. Your job description is not the same as mine! But the reason he had finally called was that he had heard I was applying for jobs but also new postgraduate programs. Because I was only in my mid thirties at that time, I was considering using what retirement funds I had to get retrained in something I could feel less personally involved in, and that would be more lucrative. He had heard this and was calling to say don’t do that! it’s dangerous! And when I said look, you didn’t speak to me for a year, you have no right to opine now, he dropped out of sight and has not returned.

2. Another close friend called me up to complain: why had I screwed up? Couldn’t I have just gotten the right combination of drugs and finished that book on time? She had never had a tenure track offer, I had had more than one, and it was my duty to make tenure for the sake of us all, by G-d! She scolded for so long that I wrote her a note saying look, please do not call me again.

3. At the MLA and other major conferences, I was swarmed with people. How are you? What exactly is going on? It was not really sympathy or empathy – it was Schadenfreude, and they wanted to drink every last drop.

III 

The best advice I got about not getting tenure was this: “Look, people will want to talk with you about it. Under the guise of support, they will constantly invite you to coffee, to drinks. You have your own life to take care of, especially now. Accept their invitations only if you really want to, and only on condition that you not be grilled about your feelings on the matter today, your plans as of today. Use the sentence, ‘I find it exhausting to discuss it.'”

Axé.

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