Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Post Tenure Blues

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an essay, "Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?" A similar piece was also run by Inside Higher Ed. As someone who has been tenured for a little more than three years the pieces resonated with me. In the last few years I have been making an uneasy transition between junior scholar/colleague to more seasoned (note I did not say senior) or mid-career scholar/colleague. It's a position or feeling I am still trying to get used to, but I feel more and more as I am now a department chair and am continually working with doctoral students who are now the up and comers. Part of the uneasiness of this position lies in the question of what's next. For me, I hope what's next is full professor and a sabbatical. What's next is working with my students to continue to make them competitive and marketable in an increasingly cut throat job market.

Last night as I tried to fall asleep I thought about the things I have learned almost ten years after I graduated from my doctoral program. I suffer from insomnia so I often have a lot of time to think about these things. These are the things I have learned that make this associate professor unhappy. This is not based on any "scientific experience," only on my experiences in the academy. I have written about several of these things in my research already so I'll try not to be too redundant.

1. The generic straight white rhetoric guy wins out nine out of ten times unless a department thinks they can hire you to solve their "diversity problems." Again, this is based on my experience as someone has who has been on the job market off and on for almost ten years . But this really hit home for me recently when I applied for a job at the assistant/associate level that was open to several areas of my expertise. I had an phone interview which I thought went well and was surprised to learn I would not be invited for a campus interview (nor would any other person of color for that matter). I do not expect to get every job I apply for so that's okay. However, when I learned that a certain rhetorician who had beaten me for a job when we were both on the market in 2003, who then didn't get tenure at that job, was invited for an interview it felt like a slap in the face. I'm tenured and have done okay for myself, so it hurt a little. I also know that more often than not, whether we acknowledge it, departments want colleagues that they can feel comfortable with and often comfort comes in the form of sameness (i.e. whiteness or straightness). It could also be that both times I was passed over because I am an ass. It could also be that this individual is just so exceptional and ahead of his time that no one has yet been able to recognize his greatness. That could be a possibility, but I also think we have to at least consider how whiteness and what is valued in terms of research might factor into this.

A second part of this statement is to be wary of departments that are overly enthusiastic about your Otherness. This may be a red flag. Sometimes a department has had a history of problems around race, gender, and sexuality, and they naively think the way to change this is to hire a person of color (as if we magically transform a space with our presences like unicorns) or the university puts the pressure on them to do so. Again, let's not change any ideological or structural inequalities, because your body will heal them all! Unrealistic demands are placed on us and we often end up in toxic environments.

2. A university would rather lose money on faculty turnover than actually deal with a racist, sexist, homophobic faculty. The better bet in their minds to wait for him (yes I said him purposefully because most often it is a him) to retire than deal with tarnishing their public image. This is especially the case for private universities and when the perpetrator is tenured.  It doesn't matter how many years a pattern is established and how many witnesses are brought in. You, as the queer untenured woman of color and/or your white woman colleagues, are expendable. Hopefully, eventually the change you pushed for will happen and someone else can benefit from it. Be prepared. Once you blow the whistle the quality of your life at the university will decrease even more than you thought it could before (as if that was possible), and it is a safe bet you will not want to stay at your university. Colleagues' well meaning comments like, "Well they have to give you tenure now," do little to comfort you. Be prepared for post-traumatic stress when you leave. Be prepared to be constructed as problematic by former colleagues and friends as they attempt to salvage the image of their department.  Very few people will understand your experience and may often think you are whining or place blame on you for the situation.

3. Standpoint critiques, critiques based in intersectionality, or identities are often viewed as passe, politically incorrect, and seen as self-serving by many. These critiques that push hegemonic critical theory further and implicate the critic are read as naive and problematic rather than based in any movement for social justice. The idea that those who have less power have a more accurate view of how power works is not popular. Postracism isn't just a discourse we toss out to talk about what's happening in society. How about we turn an eye inward?

4. The academy can be a lonely place especially for queer and/or people of color. Our presence is small and our allies are fewer. Being an ally means really being there and putting your body on the line as well. I have been blessed to have known some powerful white women allies in  the academy. I was reminded of the importance of allies today when I met with one. These relationships offer renewal, hope, and love. Don't assume that folks who are also Others in the academy will be of like mind, especially when they have male or heterosexual privilege(s) that they refuse to recognize.

5. Building off of number four, you need to set boundaries, otherwise you can get hurt. I have written in the past about the politics of love and vulnerability, but be careful of those who would exploit this vulnerability. A woman of color colleague from another university and I were talking about some problematic interactions with graduate students of color. One of her friends mentioned that a student sought her help, but then did not include her on her committee because she was not "whitely" known. Basically the student had used the woman of color faculty who had invested so much time in him/her and then decided to have a white faculty who was more celebrated in academic circles (by other white academics) on his/her committee. All of this work the woman had done counted toward nothing and was simply the extra service that many of us already do. To add insult to injury is when this happens and the student continues to come to you for help.

I realize that this sounds kind of depressing at this moment, so perhaps it is best to close out this post. Hopefully I haven't depressed you or pissed you off too much. There are plenty of good things in the academy, but once in a while we gotta take stock of where we are. Almost ten years after graduation here's where I am. Chalk this up to the post tenure blues.


  1. Great post, Bernadette. I find this more realistic than depressing. Thank you for being an inspiration.

  2. same here, great post! Most folks don't want to talk about what happens post-tenure, especially for people of color, because we should be grateful we're even in the academy.... I'm on my 12th year post graduation and I'm feeling those blues too...

  3. I, too, appreciate your candid thoughts and experiences on this topic. As someone about to enter tenure-track life, I am open to any and all advice! Though I am sorry to hear of this unsupportive vibe you're feeling (and that others surely share), I am also sad to say that I am not totally shocked by it. Thanks for the bullet-pointed list to think about! =)