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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, October 10, 2005


Posted by Sean McCann on 10/10/05 at 02:02 PM

It’s not sex, but it’s one of those words that probably plugs directly into the limbic system.  The news that Daniel Drezner has been denied tenure will no doubt be rocketing around the blogosphere, encouraging sympathy for Drezner and a variety of other emotions--anxiety among those who hope for but haven’t yet obtained the sinecure; contempt for the institution among those whose working lives make the whole concept foreign; and some mixed emotions among those of us who, like me, have been treated well by the academic lottery.  It might be a good occasion too to take up again the question of what tenure is good for and whether it’s still good for it. 

I think there’s little doubt that for political and economic reasons the institution of tenure is slated to come under increasing attack in coming years.  Some probing forays have already been made.  I think we can expect complaints against tenure and efforts to disestablish or get around it only to grow.  But the fact that it is mainly Horowitzians and critics of education spending in general who wish to do away with tenure should be only one factor in considering the prospect of its demise.  One of my colleagues--a political scientist who is extremely intelligent, remarkably thoughtful, and a left-leaning social democrat—thinks tenure is busted and should be replaced by a system of multi-year contracts.  The prospect is worth considering.

What are the (decent) arguments against tenure?

Well, some of them are classics.  That the process itself is non-transparent, arbitrary, and inevitably politicized.  As one poster at Drezner’s sites says, it looks “medieval”--a dark priesthood replicates itself and encourages sycophancy and mediocrity in its candidates.  I think there’s more than a little truth to this view.  But the picture is easily exaggerated, and, of course, the inevitable tendency to focus on exceptional cases like Drezner’s makes it seem especially likely.  In fact, I suspect that the expanding role of litigation means that the tenure system in many places is actually getting less arbitrary.  (Not that this necessarily means that it’s producing better results.)

I think a stronger argument against tenure highlights some of the unfortunate feedback between the demands of the institution and some of the features of the current publishing and academic labor markets.  Here there are two big issues, I think.  One is the point made by Mark Bauerlein.  The basic currency of tenure is published scholarship.  The expansion of higher education and the increasing competition among institutions of higher education encourages a growing emphasis on scholarship and on increasing amounts of scholarship at the expense of other factors—teaching and colleagueship.  The oversupply of academic labor in many fields (along, needless to say, with other factors like the battle for students, dollars, ranking) encourages institutions to place themselves in status competition, so that national standards take precedence over local ones.  Doubtfulness about the fairness, rationality, and effectiveness of tenure feeds back into this dynamic—emphasizing the importance of standards and accomplishment.  Then, too, candidates for tenure feel justifiable anxiety about their prospects--an anxiety that can only be heightened by the inevitable awareness that, the labor market in many fields being what it is, failure to make it through the process is very likely to mean not just inconvenience but a loss of status and income and quite possibly (after a decade or more of training and preparation) a career change. 

The result as Mark notes is a trend toward overproduction and arguably mediocrity.  To this bill of particulars might be added the incentive for increasingly narrow specialization. (Admittedly, the latter might have up as well as down sides.  I think in the literary end of the racket, it’s heavily downside). 

A less obvious issue is the way the existing tenure system may negatively affect diversity and liveliness of academic thought.  To some degree, the charge that tenure is mainly a system of credentialism that rewards the expression of acceptable opinion is an old one.  What’s new in the humanities and many of the social sciences is the vast oversupply of academic labor.  Departments hiring from overstocked pools find it easy to replicate themselves, making it more likely that they’ll grow more intellectually and politically homogeneous over time.  The tenure system potentially worsens this situation.  Tenure battles are notoriously unpleasant and time consuming.  (Indeed, the whole system of review and evaluation diverts considerable resources away from teaching and scholarship.) The condition of the labor market in many fields means that they are unavoidably consequential.  (You’re talking about someone’s life and livelihood.) Any particularly distinctive stance has a likelihood of coming back to bite you in the can.  There is a strong disincentive to disagreement throughout. 

A third point is one that, if I remember right, Invisible Adjunt used to raise.  Administrators and trustees have becoming skillful at working around the constraints of tenure by hiring part-time, unprotected labor.  But, as a guild system, tenure does not encourage solidarity among exploited and cosseted workers.  What we’re left with is a two-tiered employment system, where a bunch of comfy tabbies are rewarded at the expense of many abused laborers. 

I think each of these complaints is quite serious.  Their combined result is that a system designed to encourage freedom, excellence, and fairness quite frequently serves to produce the opposite.

So then what are the arguments in favor of tenure?  I think there are two or three biggies.

Academic freedom is the most obvious and important, and it still seems to me a strong case.  Ward Churchill is a posterboy for the lunatic right, but can it be doubted that if tenure and the expectation of academic freedom didn’t exist that far milder political expression than his and far more substantial scholarship would be under regular political assault?  How many administrators would be able to stand up long to angry donors, threatening politicians, and astroturf outrage?  What likelihood is there that media demagogues could resist the chance to brew up culture war?  What chance is there that, against highly focused activists, stable political support for academic independence and integrity will be found?  (The fight over evolution in public high schools is not exactly encouraging.) For all of its many imperfections, tenure still seems fundamental to maintaining the independence of scholarship and higher education.

Then, too, attacks on tenure are likely not just to be motivated by malign political purposes, but by economic incentives that point in the direction of downsizing, contraction, and labor exploitation.  Tenure is probably a less effective means of resisting those pressures then either political support for higher education or collective organizing (and arguably and importantly it interferes with both), but since tenure has an institutional anchor and can itself be invoked in status competitions, it’s not negligible either.

Relatedly, although there is huge oversupply in much of the academic labor market, it’s quite possible that a whole lot of that would fade away very quickly if tenure were generally abolished.  Among other things, the promise of job security and a decent life helps to encourage talented and ambitious young people to enter the business.  Most of them could pursue far more promising levels of compensation in closely related fields.  Yeah, it’s the life of the mind that we all love.  But that life is a lot more appealing when it doesn’t look like a guarantee of penury and instability.  The tenured are very, very fortunate to have some security along those lines.  I’m not sure things are working quite well at the moment, but tenure still seems an important means of recruiting talent to an important endeavor.  And the alternatives don’t look encouraging.

But then, I’ve got a big incentive to view things that way.


The tenure process certainly can be “non-transparent, arbitrary, and inevitably politicized.” But the renewal of multi-year contracts would be equally problematic.  Departments would enter a state of perpetual civil war.  Sure, every department has some slackers, and it would be nice to fire them.  But if we got rid of tenure, the slackers wouldn’t necessarily be the ones who got the boot.

By on 10/10/05 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that tenure can continue to stand up indefinitely as an incentive once it becomes clear that the system, as currently implemented, can only give something like 25% of people the chance to perhaps maybe get tenure.  (The role of academic blogging, in economic terms, may well be to make it more obvious to people that grad school is no longer anything like a safe bet—making that information more widely available and treating it as more obvious and salient than a given department head might.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/10/05 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know that Drezner’s dilemma raises any particular questions about tenure or the denial of tenure. Academic departments always find ways to do what they want to do. But they do now have another excuse for tossing “undesirables” aside: blogging. Drezner doesn’t exactly admit it, but he pretty clearly seems to believe that his prominence as a blogger did him in. It’s become quite obvious that among the older members of the “tenured generation,” at least, there’s a growing hostility to blogs.

By Dan Green on 10/10/05 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that any meaningful conversations about tenure in America are likely to happen until the system of scholarly publication collapses. Everyone who knows anything about the economics of scholarly publishing says, in a single voice, that the system is untenable and cannot last much longer. Despite occasional solemn missives by institutional authorities (e.g., the statement on the future of scholarly publishing issued by the MLA a few years ago) not a single major university, or academic discipline, is making any meaningful changes in its expectations in light of what is to come—or what is already here, because in the last decade some university presses have closed and almost all of them are far less willing (able) to publish the kind of scholarly monograph that was once their stock in trade. I think Drezner is in the first generation of scholars denied tenure because their universities think they can snag another young scholar who will produce more scholarship (or scholarship with more sweeping significance, or whatever) only to discover, six years down the line, that the new hire has failed to meet expectations, not because the new hire is less skillful than the previous one, but because the economic exigencies of scholarly publishing make it impossible for him or her to do so. The big question for me is, How long will it take the universities to figure this out? That is, how many times will they flush gifted young scholars, without getting anyone more “productive” in return, before they come to understand that the rules of the game really have changed?

(I am assuming here that at a place like the U of C decisions about tenure will almost always be in some way about scholarly productivity, and it will be as a part of that conversation that blogging will come up. No matter how much Drezner publishes, his employers can always say that he could have done a lot more if he hadn’t blogged.)

Only when it is universally, or at least widely, recognized that the traditional machinery of scholarly production has finally and irrevocably seized up will we finally be able to talk seriously about tenure—because once those familiar measures of productivity become unavailable, we will have to ask ourselves what other measures of achievement (if any) are appropriate for determining who deserves permanent employment in a university.

By on 10/10/05 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How would a shift of journals and perhaps also monographs into an online format change the discussion here?  Or is it safe to assume that by the time people start taking that option seriously, it will be too late?

By Adam Kotsko on 10/10/05 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if there are two separate effects here:

(a) Attitudes towards funding education have changed. Administrators now demand a quantitative means of assessing employees. (You see this effect in UK secondary school teaching too - I don’t know about the US). Journals have been pressed into service as a means of assessing academics, and this puts a severe strain on the publishing system. “Publish or perish” means that a huge number of extremely bad papers are submitted for publication. (Some of them even make it into print).

(b) The Internet is killing traditional print publishing. On-line publishing has very different economics from print, and is even less suitable as a means for deciding which academics to promote. Print publishers had a strong incentive to only accept articles that someone wanted to read, because they needed to recover their printing costs. The marginal cost of putting another paper on a web site is near zero, so the fact that a publisher accepts an article no longer implies that they think it is any good.

By on 10/11/05 at 05:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’re right, Matt.  I don’t really see a plausible alternative to tenure that wouldn’t mean a surrender of faculty self-governance. That said, I don’t think slackers are the essential problem so much as the dangers of orthodoxy, mediocrity, and, possibly, the diversion of increasing amounts of time and effort to administration--all of which can be consistent with beaverish industry and still be not very good for higher education. 

I agree, too, with Alan and Susan that scholarly publishing is in or near to crisis and that, so far, the result has been perverse feedback.  Oversupply of labor and overproduction of print has led everyone to demand more productivity.  The analogy is imperfect in lots of ways, but the situation isn’t completely unlike responding to an inflationary economy by expanding money supply.  I’m not sure I agree with your point “b,” though, Susan.  The significant constraints on print publication have been library purchases, I believe, and that was arguably allowing overproduction of articles and venues before internet publishing became important.  Here again, I think you see something like a vicious cycle.  One response to the various problems of academic publishing (oversupply of material, overspecialization, lack of common standards, etc.) had been to start up new journals.  It would be interesting to count how many new journals in the humanities and social sciences have been created in the last two decades.

By on 10/11/05 at 06:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Would that you were right about blogging spreading the news about grad school, Adam.  So far, at least so far as I can tell, the signalling has been very, very weak.  I’d say something worse than not a safe bet, though.  More like buying a lottery ticket with six years of your life.

By on 10/11/05 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"On-line publishing has very different economics from print, and is even less suitable as a means for deciding which academics to promote.”

Putting aside whether “publishing” in the humanities ought to be about “deciding which academics to promote” (which puts putative scholars in the position of grovelling for recognition), online publication (print publication as well) could serve as a perfectly good means of distinguishing good work from bad if those charged with making such distinctions were to actually read and judge what’s published on its own merits. Instead it’s just a counting game.

By Dan Green on 10/11/05 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan gets the bullseye.

By gzombie on 10/11/05 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For a long time jazz and pop musicians have distinguished between music, which is what they love, and the music biz, which is how they make their living. The latter involves things like Muzak, top 40 cover bands, nostalgia bands, background music for commercials, paying off hoodlums, giving blowjobs to promoters, etc.

The contradictions are not as evident as this in the scholarly world, but they do seem to be sharpening.

By John Emerson, first poster on 10/12/05 at 07:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have some reflections (in part) on this post in the context of The Valve’s claim to emulate the function of “little magazines” at http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/2005/10/little-magazines-and-big-fantasies-its.html

Would Lionel Trilling write something this namby-pamby?

By John Bruce on 10/13/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I recommend that you click and keep clicking on John Bruce’s work and then form an opinion of his ordinality.

By Jonathan on 10/13/05 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very lame, John Bruce.  The “on the one hand”, “on the other hand” tactic you criticize in McCann’s post is called making a nuanced argument, something that Trilling was also attracted to.  You should try it some time.

By on 10/13/05 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have some “serialized blog novels” in which characters named “John Bruce” parade around being better than everybody else.  They are of the highest literary quality.  In them I write the words I long to hear, like “You’re the first one to come in here who’s even beginning to understand what it involves” or “‘You’re my man, John,’ he said. ‘You knew their problems, you showed them how they could really use the product.’” I think your audience would be interested in my sad attempt to write into existence the world I believe I deserve to live in.  Sure, my “novels” are transparent, repetitive, and in the end I’m always proven smarter and more personable than “the chain of fools” I encounter; but people enjoy reading endless drivel by and about self-involved men with little talent but gigantic egos!

By John Bruce on 10/13/05 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, I should add, my writing is improved by the fact that everyone I have encountered throughout life has been sadly lacking.  All of my bosses have been Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss.  My professors, from when I was in graduate school, taught me but could not conceal their pathetic lack of brilliance.  And they are always plotting against me, excluding me.  Since I can’t think of any other common factor that would explain this life-long coincidence, I have decided that it must be due to institutional factors.

By John Bruce (the second) on 10/13/05 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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