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September 15, 2002

Good Ol' Tenure

[ed note: the following is a bit dated—written a little while ago for another venue—but it's closely related to the post below about anti-academic vitriol, so.... enjoy!]

So you thought academia was a meritocracy, huh? You thought the smartest people, with the best ideas and abilities, who worked really hard, were the ones who ended up with tenure? Think again: More and more people (especially women) are being denied tenure because they're not nice enough or don't "fit in" with other faculty. In academia, if you play nice with others you're called "collegial," but:

"Historically, collegiality has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm," the statement [from the American Association of University Professors] said. "An absence of collegiality ought never, by itself, to constitute a basis for nonreappointment, denial of tenure or dismissal for cause."


Because tenure reviews are confidential, and based so deeply on personal judgment, it is often difficult to assess precisely what went wrong with a particular candidate.

As if the Humanities job market wasn't bad enough, now you have to be nice, too? :-)

The fact that promotions in academic fields (particularly the Humanities) can so easily become capricious and personal only proves the truth of Noam Chomsky's assertion that American universities are normalizing (read: brainwashing) institutions:

The universities, for example, are not independent institutions. There may be independent people scattered around in them but that is true of the media as well. And it’s generally true of corporations. It’s true of Fascist states, for that matter. But the institution itself is parasitic. It’s dependent on outside sources of support and those sources of support, such as private wealth, big corporations with grants, and the government (which is so closely interlinked with corporate power you can barely distinguish them), they are essentially what the universities are in the middle of. People within them, who don’t adjust to that structure, who don’t accept it and internalize it (you can’t really work with it unless you internalize it, and believe it); people who don’t do that are likely to be weeded out along the way, starting from kindergarten, all the way up. There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience; if you don’t do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society. The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. If you go through a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on.

After nearly 20 years of formal education (gasp!), I still feel like I haven't learned how to think the right thoughts and how to behave like a member of the upper classes. More evidence that I need to find a new gig.

Posted September 15, 2002 06:48 PM | life generally

After nearly 20 years of formal education (gasp!), I still feel like I haven't learned how to think the right thoughts and how to behave like a member of the upper classes. More evidence that I need to find a new gig.

I found that the law school environment can be plenty conformist.

When I began law school, I felt as though I had stepped into the most aggressively conformist atmosphere that I'd been in since high school. Even at the beginning of our 2L year, a classmate of mine commented to me, "I've been having feelings that I thought I'd escaped from when I got out of grade school."

I don't know about the faculty; there, it seemed that one was probably safe as long as one fit in with one of the "camps." 'Hard-core academic' and 'dedicated clinician' (here I attempt to cast both in a good light, as I benefited from the work of both) reposed at the opposite ends of the pedagogical spectrum. That division reportedly fueled the fires of contention for plenty of faculty meetings, especially hiring and tenure meetings. Yes, there were people in between, too.

Some of the pressure to conform that I perceived came from the students, but people loosened up as time went on.

Of course, most of law is not academia. The greater pressure of conformity that I felt came from the pervasive anxiety around the law school about the standards and customs of the practicing legal community. Put in other, simpler words: "How do potential employers want and expect me to act?" Career services was the greatest institutional fuel for this concern. Thou shalt walk the walk. Thou shalt talk the talk. Suddenly, the ability to look and act the part became very important.

I hadn't had to deal with that before, not in that kind of context. I can play the role, doing the actual lawyer's work, but I learned that in the clinic, not from any career services how-to-dress-stand-walk-sit-eat-drink-shake-hands-make-small-talk workshop. But everyone talks about how those skills are the ones that actually get you the job, and they're probably right.

In some ways, I can't fault that. Law practice requires a lot of traits other than reading about, understanding, writing about, and even talking about the law. It makes very good sense that employers are worried about and looking for traits that will inspire their clients' confidence and bring in new business, and they want to make fast judgments about whether a candidate for a job will do that. However, it's challenging to figure out how one can express oneself individually within those parameters.

In a tight job market, these sorts of things generate even more consternation. Maybe I just need to relax a bit.

Posted by: tph at September 15, 2002 10:15 PM

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