Kathleen Lowrey, a recently tenured prof at the University of Alberta, got in touch with thoughts on the contradictions of the tenured subject position, inspired by my post on Tenured Privilege. I asked her to consider contributing a guest post, and she has. A candid view from tenure, this post explains one of the key reasons that tenured faculty cannot easily reduce graduate admissions*–not from a lack of sympathy to the plight of unemployed Ph.D.s, but from structural pressures on them to maintain a stable of Ph.D. advisees for their own promotion to Full. Everything she writes reflects my own experience as a tenured prof. in two different R1 departments. You absolutely lost status and standing, and promotability if you did not actively recruit and maintain a set of Ph.D. advisees.
Thank you, Professor Lowrey, for contributing this honest examination of your own subject position, and especially for contributing it under your own name.
Many thanks to Karen for the invitation to guest post about this, something I’d like to be discussing with colleagues somewhere but would find difficult to do with my immediate colleagues, for reasons that will become clear in the course of the post.
I’m a relatively recently tenured faculty member at an R1 university. After finishing the PhD I had a couple of years crying in the wilderness – a year as a sabbatical replacement, a semester in a postdoc, another semester as a sabbatical replacement, during which I got the TT offer from my present institution (almost a decade ago now). I put out a lot of job applications during those two years (and in a previous year, when I was still ABD) and went through several conference interviews and campus interviews such that I emerged with a clear sense of just how scarifying the process of looking for an academic job can be. I started reading the relevant literature– I found Marc Bousquet’s book particularly apt and enlightening and Karen Kelsky’s internet contributions here and elsewhere uniquely sharp and unsentimental – and have tried in my own department to be a voice for fighting for TT faculty lines, for hiring junior rather than senior people, and for behaving decently during job searches: not asking for a lot of material in the first round of searching, not scheduling conference interviews at all. I’ve mostly lost in those discussions, I think because for a while I was the only person in the department with a recent sense of what it’s like out there. All of those conversations, however, were relatively easy to have (if difficult to prevail in) because they were about one-off decisions and not embedded commitments.
Now that I’ve crossed the line and become a tenured faculty member, I’m faced with the prospect of a much more uncomfortable kind of conversation, one that I must admit I have not yet had the courage to broach. I suspect, though, I am not the only faculty member out there quietly wrestling with it. In fact I’m pretty sure the factors that keep me quiet also explain why I haven’t come across much relevant discussion elsewhere even when I’ve gone looking (though I’d be glad to be directed to sources I’ve missed).
While I was an untenured faculty member, I was protected from pressure to supervise grad students. What I did then (supervise MAs, serve on committees of students of colleagues, or in other departments) was good enough at that level. Since earning tenure, however, the feedback has become pretty relentless. I have to bring in grad students, and in particular, if I hope to advance to a full professorship someday, I have to produce some PhDs.
I haven’t had tenure for long, but I have started to think about what it will mean to hold the line down the road. There are my own career prospects, of course. There are also social dimensions. As it stands, to be a professor who doesn’t “attract” grad students is to be held in mild disdain by colleagues (and their students) who have more departmental presence and thus set the departmental culture.
To speak out as being against the recruitment of grad students would necessitate specifying my reasons. This would more or less amount to an attack on the ethics (or at least the alertness-to-current-
So do I keep my head down for now, eventually succumb, and end by throwing a few grad student shrimps on the doctoral barbie? There are not a lot of academic jobs out there, so this is the little world in which I live and am likely to continue living for years and years. My colleagues are nice people, though possibly not reading as much about the collapse of faculty jobs as they might. My department’s students are nice people, too, though often more naive than might be ideal. Do I want to make them all hate me? Alternatively, am I of a sufficiently self-abnegating character to lump along as an associate professor forever, not minding the aspersions cast along the way on poor old Professor L who attracts no acolytes?
I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m a tenured professor. Asking for sympathy would be obscene. I am, however, suggesting that from my vantage point, I can see why it is that tenured profs are not leading the charge to change graduate education as we know it. I’m still figuring out what I ought to do about it.
[Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. She has carried out fieldwork in Guaraní speaking communities in the South American Chaco since 1997.]
*I am aware that many people do not believe reducing graduate admissions is an appropriate response to the job market crisis. I believe it is imperative.