A story in the online Chronicle of Higher of Education (July 3, 2011) got me thinking because the story echoed some of my own experiences with absurdity in academia. The following quote about a woman whose husband was denied tenure struck me:
“After all, most people in most jobs don’t get fired without really having messed up. Most people don’t have their employment decisions made by a group that consists of the majority of their colleagues, so that everyone knows exactly what went down except for themselves and a few other people. And, of course, most people don’t have employment decisions that come down to the two extremes of “Well, we’re either going to can you or give you employment for life.” Even lawyers going through the partnership process think tenure is nuts.”
This quote comes from the wife of a very accomplished academic who was denied tenure (luckily he went on to get a better job at a better school, an outcome he admits is far from the norm). This man had published four books and had established himself as one of the top scholars in his field.
His wife seems to think his blog was a major reason for his tenure denial. The alleged ‘logic’ here would be that the blog supposedly takes away from more serious academic endeavours such as publishing in scholarly venues (peer reviewed, etc.).
So here I am, an enthusiastic blogger looking for a job in academia. Could this be the reason for my own failure (so far) to find a job? Is ‘finding the right fit’ a matter of finding an employer sympathetic to the fact that some academics remain ‘renaissance men’ rather than narrow specialists? I am talking only about myself here (not the man referred to above), and what I mean by this is that I have a very broad range of interests that I will make the time to cultivate because they make me who I am: classical guitar, poetry, cooking, and blogging and many other activities keep me sane and happy.
The irony would be, then, that the grad students on this very blog, that by their taking initiative and by their being brave about sharing their experiences and by extension allowing our readers to perhaps avoid making the mistakes that we have made, are we not, by this logic, diminishing our chances of success?
Are we anything less than serious academics? I suspect academia’s hestation around blogging comes from the same place as the denigration of teaching in academia. We bloggers are attempting to challenge assumptions and by doing so, we are attempting to impart a lesson. This is seen (like teaching) as taking away from the purity and confidence that comes from sticking to ‘research.’ It is seen as challenging the authority and hierarchy, the power relations and the petty competitions, that are the glue that holds many departments together.
I, for one, want no part of such dysfunction, and I will search high and low until I find that rare department that can stand to have me: I know I am generous, good at listening, non-competitive, sincere and a good teacher. If that is not your cup of tea then don’t hire me. My strategy relies on the idea that someone out there finds this product irresistable (well, I have actually had gainful employment in academia in the past, so this is not just theory).
If you are a grad student, then the idea of working in academia has probably passed through your mind. Consider what it means to value teaching and perhaps consider adjusting your sights accordingly. For what it is worth, that is my advice.