Monday, January 24, 2011

Excellence Without Tenure

(Image Credit: Brian Taylor, via.)

Read this column, published recently in The Chronicle, by the pseudonymous Madeleine Li, who writes of being denied tenure in the same year that her father died -- and then being chosen to deliver the fall commencement address because she had won one of her university's top awards for teaching excellence.

Read it and then come back here and tell us if you agree that a) it's a fine piece of writing and b) its fineness has everything to do with the writer's remarkable lack of self-pity combined with a well-tuned sense of irony.

Li isn't whining about the injustice of her case or the devaluation of teaching relative to research. She gets that her scholarly output was thin for one on the tenure track and that she took a gamble in choosing to try to publish her research as a book rather than chopping up her manuscript and publishing several separate articles. The point of the piece -- and, in our judgment, the source of its considerable power -- is to tell the not often told story of going back to campus and carrying on with work while coping with the figurative death of tenure denial, a loss compounded in Li's case by the actual death of a parent. She writes -- without rancor -- of gobsmackingly insensitive colleagues who compliment her on her weight loss without seeming to consider that she has been too stressed and grief-stricken to eat. She writes of sitting next to the provost on the dais at commencement, knowing that her tenure file was probably in his office by then. She writes -- Oh, hell, kids, we told you to go read it. Do that, come back, and discuss. My typist has been summoned to help fix dinner, on account of both moms will climb back in the teaching saddle tomorrow and have a lot of work to do this evening. Peace out, my more better and always excellenter friends.


  1. Wow. Great essay. I will look forward to the others.

    I was just talking the other day to an assistant professor about the absurdity of the tenure clock. On the one hand, I get it that we need to show productivity and have standards. On the other, where is the wisdom or justice in saying that "the next five years of your career will count immeasurably more than any of the years that follow!" It all just seems like a recipe for anger and burnout.

    I remain convinced that this is all related to the casualization of academic labor, and is an artifact of the scarcity of tenure-track positions. Thanks for letting us know about this, Roxie.

  2. Hey there, cowgirl -- Good to see you. Yes, I'm sure you're right that this is related to casualization and scarcity. As the number of tenure-track positions has declined, standards have crept higher and higher in the past few decades, to the point where some departments basically require TWO books for tenure. It's insane. My typist identifies with Li, being a bit of a tortoise productivity-wise. We look forward to seeing what more she (Li) will have to say, too.

  3. Roxie:

    I had the same response to this essay as you. Li is so impressive in her candor and humility. Glad to have someone else on the web discuss this.


  4. I was just talking the other day to an assistant professor about the absurdity of the tenure clock.

    It makes perfect sense if you understand that it's not for the benefit of individual scholars. Institutions are rolling the dice when they hire someone that they are going to have a particular scholarly trajectory. Why *wouldn't* institutions want to shitcan people whom they perceive as not having achieved that trajectory after a certain period of time so that they can bring in someone at the entry-level and with a subtantially lower salary to roll the dice again?

  5. You're right, CPP -- Excellence Without Tenure is the logic of Excellence Without Money applied to personnel issues.

    Welcome, Lesboprof! Nice to see you as well.

  6. I think the more interesting part (for me) is how so many people writing in the comments section of the article miss the point entirely, instead attacking the writer for various reasons (too naive, too emotional, too much complaining, etc). One wonders if gender or race (her pseudonym is "Asian" and she does mention having to fly overseas to see her dying father) or both play into the commentators lack of sympathy or their startling misreading of the text.

    Or maybe it is a reflection of our collective insecurity as academics. So many of us have bought into the myth of excellence only coming with tenure; any refutation of that value is a personal attack on their belief system, integrity, and their own personal value.

  7. That essay broke my heart a couple of times over. I remember dealing with my mother's death during a post-tenure term -- academic colleagues can sometimes be kind bur often cluelessly cruel.

    And I wonder how strong the correlation is between untenured faculty winning teaching excellence awards to the outcome of said faculty members not getting tenure because I know more than a few who fit that same bill.

    In any case, I agree that here we have an essayist of rare worth. I look forward to her next instalment.

  8. @CPP--I see what you're saying, but I also think from an institutional viewpoint that it can be pennywise and pound-foolish. Sometimes good books take time, and great books usually take a lot of time. $hitcanning someone for failing to press the pellet lever enough times in 5 years means that departments and universities cashier a lot of good people had and would have continued to serve their unis well.

    But, this gets into another whole discussion about the incentives universities set up to reward self-interested behavior on the part of faculty. (I've got nothing against self-interest myself, and I wish my self-interest had taken me farther, career-wise!)

    And, I'll just add: what Janice said.

  9. I also think from an institutional viewpoint that it can be pennywise and pound-foolish.

    Of course it's pennywise and pound-foolish! Pennywise and pound-foolish is the default mode of decisionmaking for most large complex organizations.

    (BTW, I am still awaiting some commentary from the blogger about my impeccable musical taste.)

  10. My first thought on reading the article was that her colleagues post were positively awful and generally unpleasant. I wondered whether that because she hadn’t obtained tenure that they felt that they had to demonstrate that she wasn’t worthy of being treated decently, kindly and with care. I mean ‘hello’....her father had passed away and maybe she was thin because wasn’t eating properly. I couldn’t believe the fact that her colleagues might not realise that she might be mourning the loss off her father. I can only conclude that her colleagues lacked a sense of decency, were probably not very secure about their own sense of self, and were at base not very kind people. My thoughts after reading the comments was that there seems there seems to be a general sense of insecurity amongst those commentators...and the failure of achieving tenure was a personal attack against their own belief system, integral and personal value.


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