Although my tenure and promotion was secured back in May, today is the day that I am officially a tenured Associate Professor. As today is also the first day of classes (although I do not teach until Wednesday), it is a little bit hard to stop, breathe, and appreciate this milestone.
When one of my colleagues got tenure a few years back, he told me that one of his supervisors had given him what he called the “Spiderman speech”: with great power comes great responsibility. There has been no such charge coming from any of my colleagues at Pratt, so I suppose that I should provide myself with a charge appropriate to this moment.
What does it mean to have achieved academic security, especially in an economic and political climate in which intellectual security is such a rare commodity? Truly I must first recognize the incredible privilege I have achieved: I have managed to secure a job as a thinker and teacher in higher education, earning a salary that allows me to live an economically sustainable lifestyle. That in of itself is a bit hard for me to wrap my head around. I have so many friends whose academic lives are contingent: working on soft money grants, taking adjunct work where and when it is offered, and striving for some form of stable intellectual venture.
My own work has been guided for the last thirteen years by the quest to get beyond contingency. I have been lucky to gain more and more security along the way, and to have endured only a couple of moments where I was not sure that everything would work out, but I have been nonetheless consistently contingent. A beginning master’s student. A transfer doctoral student. A graduate student on fellowship. A doctoral candidate. All but dissertation. A job candidate. A tenure-track Assistant Professor. All along the way, the very existence of my future has been contingent on jumping over that next hurdle. Suddenly that is no longer the case, and that is weird.
Question #1: What should I do with that anxiety that has for so many years driven me?
By definition my contingent status has meant pleasing others. What will get me a good grade in this course? What project will receive funding support? What project will receive the support of my committee? What kind of work should I be producing if I want to compete for a job in academia? What kind of work will get me reappointed to my faculty position? What kind of work is required to achieve tenure? Suddenly, it barely matters. Sure, I might want to be promoted to Full Professor some day. Sure, I might want to be qualified for another job some day. But these are possibilities, not necessities. To be sustainably established as an intellectual, I needed to get tenure, and to get tenure I needed to please others. Suddenly, pleasing others is no longer a necessity.
Question #2: So what will please me?
I can spend the rest of my life answering these two questions that becoming tenured has provoked. I expect my answer to these questions will evolve over time. But what are my answers for today?
More than anything, I am happy to be free of anxiety. I still feel drive, but the nature of that drive has shifted. I no longer have to worry about what other people think of my priorities. I have to shift from being driven by the anxiety of what happens if I do not please others to being self-driven, and that is going to take some time. I think that I am going to need some period of months to really unshackle myself from the instinct to worry about other-expectations and find within myself self-expectations. I want to let go of that anxiety and replace it with my own inspiration.
So I am breathing a sigh of relief, taking a big exhale as I realize that I no longer have a lot to worry about. But I am also taking a deep breath in, gathering strength for what is to come. I no longer need to live within the boundaries of what is considered “appropriate scholarship” or “worthwhile pedagogy”. I am slowly disentangling myself from what others want of me and beginning to have a better sense of what I want. I can chart my own course.
It is really important for me to continue to grow as a teacher. I have been teaching for a really long time — since I was twenty-one years old, and as a full time job for fifteen of the last twenty-two years — but I still feel as though I have a lot of growing to do. I want to be more dynamic in the classroom, to provide students with better challenges, and to improve my ability to distill the core concepts out of the subjects I teach. When I consider that I might have thirty to forty more years as a professor, it sometimes feels like it is not enough time to develop my teaching. Since leaving Pomona College‘s “they only are loyal” gates I have taken very seriously the idea of sharing my educational privilege with others, and teaching is a clear way to bear my “added riches in trust for mankind“.
I want to expand my ability to communicate the scientific ideas that I find compelling to the general public. It is great to teach undergraduate students and to be part of the intellectual dialogues taking place in my fields of interest, but I also feel the need to reach beyond these narrow academic pastures. Being able to get everyday people excited about science, to view the world through different eyes, seems to me to have greater transformative potential than anything I might do within the walls of the academy. Is it writing popular science books? Is it giving more public outreach lectures? Or is it something wackier? I do not know, but I am going to try to find out what works for me soon.
I also want to have more fun with my intellectual passions. I have not given up on traditional academic publishing, but it feels profoundly dry, boring, and therefore ineffectual to me. I want to stretch out and expand where my ideas can go. Performance? Media?
I also want to begin to re-emerge as an activist. I cannot say that my activism has completely died, but it has been in near-hibernation over the past decade. It will not come back immediately, as work and family still impose major time and space constraints on my ability to stand up for the causes that matter to me. But I can now afford to spend a little more time doing activist work, and I no longer need to worry about whether it bothers my superiors. This is one of the most profound privileges of being tenured, and I intend to take this privilege seriously. Our current faculty union President Kye Carbone is famous for saying that “no one grows balls upon achieving tenure”, and while I am inclined to agree with his general skepticism about whether tenuring really can convert the meek to bold, I do think that the bold can emerge bolder upon tenuring. At Pratt there are a number of issues — the way we treat contingent faculty, the general dis-empowerment of students, and the campus’ pathetic lack of sustainable practices and infrastructure — that I am hoping to more aggressively attack now that I have tenure. And as the years go by and I get a little more room to breathe, I want to want to roar beyond the gates of Pratt.
And while I am taking very seriously the privilege — and attendant responsibility — of being a tenured faculty member, I am also taking it easy for awhile. Striving for tenure has been hard. It has been hard on me, and it has been hard on my family. The kind of demand and stress and fatigue that chasing tenure produces is not compatible with being a thoughtful educator or innovative thinker, and I am trying to breathe my way back to a space where I can do my best work.A Major Post, Higher Education, Pratt Institute