Decisions, decisions, part 2: tenure and what else?

This as the second of two posts, written in 2010 and published at Speculative Diction blog. Link to the original post from September 6, 2010: Decisions, decisions, part 2: Tenure and what else?

As I discussed in my last post, the “vanishing tenure” problem is partly a simple matter of numbers, but it is also something more. There are now (not coincidentally) many, many more graduate students than there ever were in the past–both in terms of gross enrolments and also by proportion. In Ontario this is by design, as is evident from recent government policy. But does the government intent to expand graduate programs in order to create more tenured professors? No. Their primary goal is to develop self-sustaining “human capital” and to boost the provincial (and ultimately, national) capacity for constructing a competitive “knowledge economy”.

So according to that logic, most of us should be looking to build careers in other, “knowledge-intensive” fields. But how many of us currently in grad school (especially on the PhD track) know what those fields are, and how to access them? Can professors (our supervisors) help or not? How can we find appropriate mentorship for this kind of transition? What is this alternate path we’re expected to take, and where does it lead? Was this what we were encouraged to expect when we applied to graduate school?

Here we hit upon a cultural snag that is not being addressed by government policy: in many PhD programs, there is a perpetual assumption (or implication) made that non-academic jobs are inherently less desirable and somehow not “pure” or good, since in the academic system, designed to replicate itself, graduate education has historically been a process of “socialisation” to the professoriate. This ethic is still being inculcated in graduate school, and it’s one that goes directly against the exhortations of government policymakers and professional pundits alike. This is why there are so many articles and blog posts dedicated to the subject of “escaping” academe, and why graduate school has been characterised as a “ponzi scheme” and even a cult.

As I mentioned in my last post, this socialisation/enculturation model worked well in the past, when very few students went on to complete PhDs and then filled the professorial positions available. But it is directly at odds with the form of systemic expansion we’re now experiencing. In another previous post I discussed a breakdown of graduate mentorship; now not only are mentors becoming scarce, they may not possess the knowledge, social capital, or indeed even the motivation to help graduate students find non-academic work. What’s worse is that after years of graduate study, many students remain in denial even when faced with the reality of the academic job market.

For current graduate students, I think the important question to ask in the face of all this is not “why did you really go to graduate school?” but more fundamentally, “will you make a decision about why you’re there?” rather than continuing to assume that your PhD will (and should) lead to a job as a tenured professor. In suggesting these kinds of questions, I don’t mean to imply that we should take an entirely instrumental view of graduate education or discount the joy of serendipity. But we do need to learn to think twice before counting on that desirable academic position waiting somewhere down the line (or thinking that once we obtain such a position everything will be fine).

And this isn’t a negative thing. We do have options: the choice is not between “tenure-track professordom” and “failure”. The choice is not between an endless cycle of job applications and contract positions while waiting for that elusive permanent academic position to appear–and “giving up”; it is not a choice between intellectual martyrdom and “selling out”. And while the question of “alternative” careers is addressed more or less and differently across disciplines and programs, there is still a strong culture of replication in PhD education, one that is bolstered by increased competition for scarce resources.

As graduate students or prospective grad students we need to think about why we’re being encouraged to go to graduate school and what will become of our lives because of it. I don’t believe that we should accept the sacrifice of balanced and healthy lives in order to realise the Academic Dream. Nor should we feel that achieving this Dream is the only form of sanctioned success.

Among those who have made the decision to follow the academic trajectory, there will have to be more consideration and awareness (in all disciplines) of the fact that while the traditional tenure arrangement worked in the past, the current system–stressed with undergraduate and now graduate expansion, limping by with proportionally less government funding than ever, and increasingly reliant on exploited contingent faculty and rising tuition fees–cannot be what it was even 50 years ago, and what it is in so many people’s minds still.

This is not a matter of ideological positioning, but one of recognition: universities have changed, for good or ill. But while we face certain contextual realities, our actions in the present and our choices for the future will reflect principals and values, and it’s those choices to which we now need to look, and to those principles we’ll have to rally.

Our systems can no longer afford to bear those who in the past sought tenure for its security and financial rewards – nor those who seek to contain their knowledge within the mythical Ivory Tower. In my opinion we need to resist the purely bottom-line oriented, economic model of governance that frequently predominates, the one that treats knowledge as an object and education as a commodity; but resistance will be a matter of principle as well. And in order to have other, better options we’ll need to be ready to participate and collaborate, to help think of new solutions for sustaining this oldest of institutions, to contribute to its re-invigoration with all that our fertile brains have to offer.

The inculcative ethos of the academic PhD sets up the question – should we “abandon” the academy, or is it more ethical to tough it out and fight for the old ways? I think the answer to these questions is both yes and no. Tenure as we know it is not the solution to the need for more teachers at universities. But neither is the exploitation of thousands of young (potential) scholars who have the desire to build fully-rounded academic careers. On the other hand, the features of tenure – academic freedom and job security, fostering long-term commitment to the institution and to students – still have a definite purpose and should be incorporated into/cultivated by whatever model we create. Academic freedom is now more important than ever and still under threat, as somerecent cases in the United States show.

A related point: just as the academic career shouldn’t be a sacrifice, teaching shouldn’t have to be a labour of love. We need to come up with a way to change the distribution of work in universities such that those who are happy to teach and good at it are offered long-term stability and rewards , just as tenured, research-oriented faculty are now. And we should strive to allow for more movement between academic work and other kinds of engagement and research, with recognition of that “other” activity in the promotions process. These kinds of changes will help to overcome the problems with inequity and faculty diversity, as well as opening up more options for students, allowing them to develop the necessary social capital to move to positions outside the university. This could also help to dispel the misconceptions and negative stereotypes that abound in public discourse about university education and professors specifically.

And of course, all this will entail a different understanding and practice of graduate education, one that can encompass preparation for academic careers but also for other applications of graduate-level skills and expertise.

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good guidance on my own journey. I have role models who work or have worked both within academe and outside it (often simultaneously), so I have something to look to when it comes to “imagining” a different kind of career or even a different “way of being” as a professor. These people have helped me to acquire the explicit and tacit knowledge I needed to understand and participate in academic life, and they’ve provided invaluable support and encouragement.

But they’ve also taught me to consider other possibilities, to think reasonably about my goals and how best to achieve them. Now I’m asking not only “is there a tenure-track job for me?” but also “would I do a really good job as a professor? Would I be happy?”. For me this is important, partly because I want a mantra of feet-on-the-ground guidance in my attempt navigate the murky bog of dissertation-writing, “professional development”, fellowship applications and the post-grad-school job search. I’m hoping the combination of keeping informed, building social capital and cultivating self-awareness will be enough to keep me afloat through all this chaos. I’ve learned to plan and prepare, and to make decisions in stages.

Perhaps, after all, these are the skills we should cultivate in our graduate programs: self-knowledge, adaptability, independence, creativity, and the ability to question our own assumptions, as well as the resilience to deal with the outcomes of that questioning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *