So, of course everybody was linking to this Slate essay a few weeks back, and then Karen Kelsky responded, and I also read this response that I thought was really excellent, and now Karen Kelsky has another response up by a guest blogger.
This post isn’t so much about responding to any of the above, except for that I wouldn’t be writing it if this conversation weren’t happening through all of these pieces. It just occurred to me, as I read the latest installment, that people who earn tenure don’t actually talk very much about what that’s like. I know when I was on the tenure-track, I was all, “I must speak the truth of what this is like!” and I was like that because I felt like Nobody Ever Talked About That To Me!!! (In hindsight: people did talk about that to me, but I never saw people talking publicly about it, and it’s one thing to read something and it’s another to have one off-the-cuff conversation with a mentor. So.)
I think something similar motivates the pieces that appear, with some regularity, about the horrors of the job market. I don’t think it’s really that everybody was ignorant until it happened to them, but rather that there is something important about seeing such things discussed in a more formal way. (Aside: I think something similar motivates “Mommy” blogging. It’s not that nobody talks about what it’s like to be a mother, or what it’s like to parent, but it can feel like one is alone because those things don’t make it into public discourse in a consistent and thoughtful way (consistently thoughtful way? maybe).)
But so what happens after you earn tenure? (Assuming you got a tenure-track position in the first place, assuming that you didn’t get denied tenure, obviously. This is not a post about denying the reality of the horrible job market, nor is it about denying the fact that getting the tenure-track job isn’t the end of the road. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about what having tenure is like, because some people do end up in that position.)
First, the necessary caveats: I am in a mid-sized metropolitan area in a geographical region that doesn’t suck for me (the majority of my family is within an afternoon’s drive, I actually like living here). The cost of living is reasonable, and while I left graduate school with debt (around 20K in credit card debt, around 70K in student loan debt), I was able to eliminate the credit card debt while on the tenure track, and I have a VERY low interest rate on my loans, and I can afford to pay more than the minimum every month. Oh, and also, I am one of the rare people who got my job offer ABD, so I don’t have years of job search plus moving for postdocs or temporary positions expenses on top of the grad school debt. In other words, my situation is unique, not bad at all, and ultimately, better than the situation of many people. Even with my tenured job at a not-so-great institution with a 4-4 load. Oh, and let’s not forget: I don’t have kids, or a spouse, to support.
But so what is my life like after I earned tenure?
- During the academic year, I work about 40-60 hours a week, on average, when all is said and done. In April? Yeah, it’s like 60 hours a week. But at the start of the semester it’s not that. I’ve developed my assignments, I know how to manage my service commitments, and I am no longer (most semesters, though this one was an exception because I made some decisions about incorporating new texts) teaching material I’ve never taught before. Yes, I did work those 70-80 hour weeks during the academic year before tenure, but that was because I was inventing everything from scratch. Now, I’m not. And I’m not a professor who phones it in and teaches from yellow notes. But there is a difference in one’s workload when one has got some things down pat. And there is a difference in the administrative parts of the job when one knows all the ins and outs versus when one is trying to figure everything out.
- I am not worried about money. This is not to say I’m out of debt. I’m not. I’ve got a mortgage, and I’ve got student loan payments. But the bump that came with tenure and promotion meant that I don’t need to be as careful about money as I used to have to be.
- While I no longer have pressure to perform individually that I felt prior to earning tenure, I now feel a lot more collective political pressure, in my department, college, and university as a whole. On the one I feel pressure to contribute, and on the other hand I feel the pressure that comes from contributing and then getting blamed for the contributions that I make. (If your dream of academic life is that you won’t need to work collaboratively with others, or that you won’t need to meet demands from some administrative higher power, then please do understand that academia does not afford you those things.)
- The thing that initially drew me to a career as a professor was the research that I could do, the ideas that I could have and disseminate. The further I get from graduate school and from my pre-tenure days, the more I have to fight to do those things that drew me to the profession, to carve out time for them in spite of other more pressing demands. I used to judge people whom I perceived as “dead wood.” Now I understand how they got there.
- I feel a lot more pressure now to seek outside funding. Even in a humanities field where that isn’t the norm, the reality in these budgetary times is that what money there for new ideas goes, and should go, to people pre-tenure. In order not to become dead wood (see the last bullet point), I need to find a way to support my ideas that doesn’t depend on my institution or department. That is very clear to me. It’s challenging, exciting, and exhausting.
- Whereas before I felt pressure to jump through hoops, now I feel pressure to sustain myself. This sounds easy, but it’s hard to be motivated to keep on keeping on. Now that there are very few hoops left, it’s hard to write, to think, to innovate as a teacher. This is it. Is this all it is? Probably. And it takes energy to make that new again for oneself, and to be excited. And if you’re going to do your job well, you’ve got to find a way to do that. If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So, yeah, that’s my professional life these days. And I am in a position of incredible and total privilege, and I get that. I am not, actually, whining in this post. I have a pretty ridiculously good life, in spite of the challenges. But, for me, this is what tenure is like. It’s not some nirvana wherein I don’t have to worry about doing a good job, and it has not granted me total freedom to pursue my bliss, and it doesn’t make me all that different from my colleagues who are grad students or pre-tenure or off the tenure track. What’s good about it is that I don’t have to worry about paying my bills. I don’t discount how good that is: that shit is good, and it’s a privilege. But once you get tenure, well, maybe that is the brass ring, but it doesn’t mean you get some kind of get out of jail free card, or a get out of work card. In fact, even though I work fewer hours now, I would say that I do more – and more different kinds – of work now. I’m happy that I am in a position to do that work, because I’m a workaholic. But it is still work. And I don’t love a lot of it. Short version: Tenure doesn’t make your life perfect. No, none of us thinks it will. Except for we all kind of do.
So should students go to grad school? Maybe. Should grad students seek academic employment? Maybe. But at the end of the day, all of these choices are about choosing a life, just like choosing any educational path is, just like choosing any career is. What I advise my students is that they have to choose lives that they want. And they have to know what they will give up depending on the choice. And there are no free lunches. Not even in academia.