Beyond Tenurecentrism – Cardozo 1

Karen Cardozo has worked in both academic administration (Harvard, Williams) and on the tenure track (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).  In this post she coins the term “tenurecentrism” for our collectively inability to “see” alternatives to the academic career.  She argues that even terms like “post-ac” further reinforce the harmful idea of a single, linear track through the Ph.D., and suggests the image of the roundabout instead.

(For more on Karen Cardozo and the complete list of her planned posts, see this page.)

Karen Cardozo

As we learned from the postmodern linguistic turn:  language matters.  It is the container that determines the shape and volume of our thoughts, generating particular realities.  In A Postcapitalist Politics (2006), J.K. Gibson-Graham showed how “capitalocentrism” prevents us from acknowledging the existing diversity of economic arrangements and the different identities of economic actors that result.   By analogy, as I argued in “Contemplating Contingency” (Modern Language Studies Summer 2012) tenurecentrism robs us of meaningful ways to acknowledge the diverse lived experiences of the untenured “new Faculty Majority.”  The terms adjunct, contract/sessional, and non-tenure track each have a significant conceptual flaw. To wit:

The meaning of adjunct as supplemental or inessential fails to acknowledge that the untenured masses are the majority without whom Higher Ed could not function.  In emphasizing short-term employment, “contract” obscures the fact that most “adjuncts” work at the same institutions over significant lengths of time up to and including their entire career. It’s the jobs that are temporary, not the people, most of whom are persistent beyond reason and committed to and fully capable of being professional faculty.

“Non-TT” defines a whole group of individuals by what they are not rather than what they are and therein carries all the false assumptions and descriptive limitations of non-fiction, non-White and other such binary terms that betray the privileged standpoint from which one group confers the “non” designation in the first place. Non-men?  It’s nonsensical!

Similarly, in naming and framing the situation of folks who are wondering whether they should continue to pursue an academic career, I question the implied linear sequence in “post-ac” or second-best fallback in “alt-ac.”  These terms belie the new outlook that graduate students and even tenure track faculty need to maintain from the start, knowing what we now know about the uneven lay of the academic land.  The Track is a failed metaphor.

As Marc Bousquet has made clear, the doctoral system’s only interest lies in reproducing the traditional professoriate while ensuring the continual supply of adjunct and graduate student labor that underwrites both the job structures of Real Professors and the larger institutional infrastructure (How the University Works 2008).

Today, the pursuit of an academic career is best engaged within a larger controlling framework whose mantra from the outset is multiplicity (not a track but a “roundabout,” if you will, with many potential points of ingress and egress).  Acquiring the Ph.D. should not be viewed as an entrance ticket to The Big Show, but more like a highway toll (and oh boy, does it take its toll!)  allowing you to ride to any number of destinations and exit points.  In the same way that the literature on mentoring has reframed the dyadic  senior-junior kinship model of “a” mentor into a more functional and diversified team of mentors (including peers) who meet different needs, today’s graduate students and junior faculty members should view their academic pursuits as only ONE potential career path while genuinely and simultaneously exploring others.  Inefficient?  Maybe.  Necessary? Absolutely.

This new mindset requires assiduous participation in a head game that is antithetical to the disciplinary thinking or single-minded focus that is the hallmark of most doctoral programs. Instead, think of your life as a Windows operating system. The ONLY program that was automatically installed when you matriculated into your graduate program was Preparing for Your Academic Career (and as The Professor has amply argued, that is a shoddy program with a lot of bugs and very few updates).

You will need to download and open other applications, such as Keeping Your Options Open, Acquiring Additional Experiences and Skills, and Building a Broader Network (both within and beyond the academy). Indeed, the most fully disciplined among us suffer the most when the sustainable academic career doesn’t materialize.

As a graduate student and even as a faculty member, you need to keep building a broader portfolio of experience, interests, and skills beyond the strictly academic.  Many of you out of financial necessity have already done this by working multiple jobs; as have activists through community engagement, or parents by coaching or volunteering in schools, etc.  The real problem is that you’ve been disciplined by the doctoral system to jettison all that stuff from your C.V. and view it as irrelevant.

I knew something was very wrong with the system when I was once told by a sympathetic member of a faculty search committee for which I was a finalist was that my prior work raised questions about whether I was a “serious” candidate.  What was that prior work?  Not stripping in the red light district or working at Trader Joe’s (an ongoing fantasy of mine—no more “what’s for dinner!”), but the fact that I had held administrative positions.  Not in PLACE of garnering excellent teaching and scholarly credentials, but in ADDITION to having done so.  An academic department that cannot see the value of a scholar who ALSO knows something about how the university works is a unit destined for irrelevancy if not extinction.

My point is:  the academic system is narrow-minded and has no stake in developing you as a person of broader capacities and options.  Only you are the CEO of that corporation.

I can’t prescribe my own offbeat path as one that should be standardized or followed en masse, but its features are instructive in terms of how it made my more open-ended career search possible:

1) I did not go straight from college to a Ph.D. program but worked in career counseling/ administration for several years.

2) I first completed an M.Ed. in Higher Ed Administration, which gave me an understanding of the larger institutional context and broader job possibilities before

3) I matriculated into my PhD program, which I crafted as increasingly interdisciplinary, widening my capacity to represent myself as potential fodder for jobs in different kinds of departments.

I started my Ph.D. program with a 3-month-old in tow and for the full decade it took me to complete my degree I juggled kids as well as gaining teaching experience on multiple campuses.  As it turns out, what felt like an unwieldy burden at the time was more like a booster shot inoculating me against the worst kinds of disciplinary damage – even while seriously pursuing an academic career, I never fully identified with it as the single or only path for me and thus found it psychologically easier later on to both 1) reject rather than internalize a false or limited academic consciousness and 2) leave the faculty track.

Lest that sounds too glib, I want to assure you that I had many dark nights of the soul.  No one is immune.  The bodysnatchers get in regardless. I doubted myself.  I raged against the dying of the academic light.  But the more I moved around, held different jobs, and got a truly comparative sense of how the academy operates, the more I was able to see the system for what it is.  In the same way that Edward Said has illuminated the valuable standpoint of the intellectual in exile, this access to the Truth of Things is the privilege of institutional exile.  It is a melancholic space, but it is also freeing.

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Beyond Tenurecentrism – Cardozo 1 — 17 Comments

  1. I appreciate your point of view, and the mainstreaming of the plight of non tt jobs and the role it plays in continuing a privileged system.

    That being said. I read the blog askamanager a lot and have learned quite a bit, despite it not being an academic job related blog, and want to respond to your comment re: because you had administrative experience, you were passed over.

    Mainly, that when there are literally hundreds of candidates, there are many people that would be excellent. When you have the finalists – all of them may be great additions to the department (note this does not relate to ‘failed’ academic searches, which is a whole other topic), and it comes down to nuanced particularities. For example, say you were one of two other candidates. All of you have comparable CVs (publications, grants etc) and did well on your job talks. When the committee is offering one person the highly coveted tt job, it seems reasonable from their point of view to see a CV that has many administrative jobs and wonder if that person’s ultimate goal is research or administrative focused. The other two may have jobs related to teaching or research so their pathway so to speak is much more straightforward. The job search process is a guessing game on who will stay in the department, publish rigorously, teach needed courses and hopefully get tenure. I think a lot of how people who have “alternative” pathways (e.g. the administrative jobs. I’m not talking about working for a few years before grad school) can compensate is through their cover letters and how they answer questions. Of course, this comes with many issues – e.g. who are the people who tend to have multiple jobs? Those in programs that don’t offer full funding, people who tend to be women, racial/ethnic minorities, those from lower SES etc.

    The problem, as many point out, is the broader structure of the academic job market and how only a handful of people are interviewed at the even smaller number of tt positions. I just want to highlight the constraints faced by search committees and the problem of the competitive nature of the market, when we are all up against people who have comparable CVs, and comparable “fits” from programs. Many qualified people don’t make it because of the structure of academia and lack of jobs.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Sophia. I agree it’s not unreasonable for committees to seek any working criteria to make the final selection in a competitive market that inevitably leaves many “equally” qualified candidates out in the cold. But let me reiterate: my cover letter and C.V. made clear that I HAD a strong teaching and publishing record already (as it turned out – more than the candidate they hired fresh out of grad school, so a hint of ageism in the story too?); I mentioned my administrative past in closing as a kind of extra value-added, but in no way as a substitute for the requisite academic credentials. Again, I was a finalist, so the credentialing hurdle had already been cleared. Thus raising my administrative background as a red flag IS itself a red flag. How, exactly, was it incompatible with or problematic for a faculty career?

      There are several uncritical assumptions in play here: 1) administrative work is not intellectual or relevant to faculty practice, 2) the decision to pursue a faculty career after having done “other” work suggests a lack of long-term academic commitment (one could argue the opposite – wouldn’t you need to be especially committed to pursue a PhD when already ensconced in secure professional work?!) and 3) demonstrated single-mindedness is the best signifier of who is most worthy of the investment. Again you could argue the opposite – that someone demonstrating multifaceted skills is MORE capable of meeting the range of institutional needs that a faculty member will fulfill over the course of a career (including the obligatory turn as Chair). As you point out, such unwarranted assumptions are precisely what allow tenure track hiring committees to squeeze out – time and time again – the very candidates who are most likely to diversify the academy in a substantive way, not in the strictly identity-based or tokenistic logic of “representation” but because the diversity of their experiences, practices and values changes academic work in ways that benefit and serve a broader population.

      I’m not saying I “should have” gotten that job. Not at all. What I’m highlighting (which the blog didn’t allow me to get into) are the problematic assumptions about what a serious scholar is, or even what scholarship is. The counterpart to getting beyond tenurecentrism (creating dignified roles for faculty off the tenure track) is the need for genuine diversification and reform of tenure values. Behind much of the unspoken “knowledge” of who’s a “real” scholar and who isn’t (especially in the humanities) is a disdain for applied or practical work of any kind (including teaching), one that has deep roots in a liberal arts tradition of “learning for learning’s sake” that was underwritten by class privilege. I’m a theorist by nature, so far from me to dismiss the value of research and abstract reflection. But when faculty hiring committees presume they know who is going to pan out in the future the unspoken corollary is: “who will produce familiar work in familiar ways” rather than reshape what “counts” as intellectual fodder or scholarship in the first place. Prevailing tenure values privilege a subset of people – those most able to access the means of production to produce “excellent scholarship,” narrowly defined.

      In closing (in a response now possibly longer than the blog itself – sorry!) I actually think this is QUITE connected to your mention of failed searches. It’s worth looking closely at what makes them “fail” — quite often the real problems don’t lie in the pipeline or marketplace, but closer to home, oy!

  2. I agree – a change in terminology is absolutely necessary to get away from the mystical “other” that surrounds post-ac. But what are those new terms?

    I tend to play with my own terminology a lot to describe my expertise outside of academia, so I don’t have a single answer, but I do know that new vocabulary needs to be instantly recognizable and meaningful not just in academia (which would help students envision what those “other” options might look like) but also outside of academia (for potential employers to quickly assess your skills and qualifications and where you might fit into their non-academic org structure).

  3. I couldn’t fool your eagle eyes into noticing that I didn’t exactly offer a linguistic SOLUTION, did I?! How awesome would it be if the Professor’s community could hash this out and come up with and popularize something usable? One common reframe right now is “Independent Scholar” but that doesn’t really help the alt/post transition. I hear you as saying we need language that quickly captures a primary skill set or expertise: teaching, research, marketing, project management. But there is also that discipline-specific aspect where your scholarly area actually MIGHT BE of particular interest and value to a certain job or organization, e.g. a history Ph.D. I know who studied the rise of consumerism and ethnic markets was very attractive to research/marketing departments of the Mad Men type firms.
    In a later post I’m also going to talk about how we need to unbundle and pack a complex activity like “teaching” for the alt/post transition: teaching isn’t one thing, it’s many many different things quite analogous to multitasking roles in non-teaching occupations.

  4. I also want to know why PhDs who want to continue their research while working outside the Ivory Tower ARE NOT allowed to have access to university libraries. I don’t have patience with the “cost” BS argument–it’s about academic protectionism. I’d be less troubled about leaving the academy if I knew I could have access to the required literature, both physical and virtual, to conduct research. Don’t PhD diplomas state we are awarded “rights and privileges”? Which rights and privileges? To do research and speak as knowledgeable folks in our respective fields. Gaining access to a local academic library is impossible–thousands of dollars in costs and ridiculous bureaucratic maneuverings are required. This is another dimension of the post-ac and alt-ac debates I do not see addressed anywhere. I WANT to be a scholar but I’m not allowed the tools to be one unless I’m firmly within the academic labor system.

    • Paula: I don’t know if this aspect of the system is different in the US from Canada, but I requested and was granted the position of Honorary Research Associate at a major university (unpaid). The benefit to the department is publications, while the benefits to me include an academic affiliation, email address, access to libraries and other facilities, etc.

      • Thank you both, Karen and CCF. I’m looking into local u. libraries and hopefully I can figure something out. Still–this procedure shouldn’t be so “touch and go” and subject to individual/institutional whims and temperaments. As Karen said, a broader concept of professional membership should be the norm (even one that allows for variations from university to university).

  5. Excellent point, Paula, and one of the easier concessions “the system” could make if enough pressure were applied. This is a good example of something adjunct associations, faculty unions AND tenure system faculty should get behind – it is ethical and doesn’t really cost anything. Alums typically have library privileges at their degree-granting institution but I think you are (rightly) talking more about a general concept of professional membership that would apply to any PhD anywhere as a kind of ongoing academic exchange. Protectionism is definitely at work, because it would threaten the “meritocracy” if any PhD could contribute our inquiry and insights – not just the presumed “best and brightest” in the current patronage system! I suspect more innovative scholarship might actually emerge from independent scholars raising questions in other contexts: working in “the real world” can certainly vivify a staid research agenda!

  6. Thanks so much for this excellent and thought-provoking post. I wholeheartedly agree with much of what you have written here.
    In related news, I noticed that Nick Kristoff has gotten a lot of flack this week for his criticism of academia and the tenure process in this article:

    Although I don’t agree with all of his points, I’m glad he’s raising this issue- how academics are penalized and marginalized for investing in efforts that are more relevant to the “real world” rather than theorizing in their ivory tower. The comments are also interesting.

    • Thanks for the link Susan – I hadn’t seen it! Overall it is more evidence that a general disinterest in “applied” knowledge plagues academe (weirdly, though, the opposite is also rampant in certain disciplines–extreme valorization of empiricism without any meaningful theoretical framework). Not sure I agree that Republicans are somehow saving the field of economics (!) but I do take the larger point that intellectual diversity sharpens any field.

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