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.)
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.