Currently I am engaged in the tenure process, a year long examination of your life to see if you are fit to hold a faculty job in perpetuity. Spoiler alert: nobody is worthy of this. Everyone is forced into the process. And graduate school teaches you that if you don't get a job that involves this process, you are a failure not just professionally, but as a living being. So far the only good thing to come out of this process, which pretends to be serious and formal but whose outcome is already known, is that I have been thinking about and doing a lot of academic-styled writing. Variety is valuable.
In a world where academic presses publish numerous books that don't have a point, let alone a readership, it's no wonder that there are stressed faces and hushed tones around me when I mention that I'm going through the tenure process right now. Everyone knows that nobody is worthy of tenure, by design, and that everyone deserves it, by design. It's such a rigged system it seems comical.
But it's a familiar rigged system, one that is related to the scene where the professor gives an extremely hard exam because he wants to feel good about himself, that he is a hard teacher, that he is playing the role of the professor as seen on many bad films, that many students will fail, and he will have to curve the result. Tenure evaluation comes from this environment where everyone is graded on a curve because nobody can meet the ridiculous standard.
How do you avoid getting the good curve? That's easy: Concentrate on teaching, talk about it a lot, spend a lot of time with students looking at texts both in and out of the classroom. Additionally, engage in a lot of "fake writing" - keep a blog. Write for the paper. Try to get an essay in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. All of these activities will telegraph your irrelevance to the tenure process. Instead, make sure to write a difficult to read essay where arguments are left out because there is no academic citation for them, and send it to an overpriced journal for publication where it will be read by 3 people (perhaps 5 if you have a co-author).
If we changed the tenure standards that would be exposing the open secret, which is the death of the being. The economy that keeps the whole thing going is the impossibility which keeps these publication processes alive, and keeps the fake writing at the forefront.
Real writing as I'm thinking about it is writing that is aimed for a large audience. The academic standards seem irrelevant if nobody is reading the essay except your reviewers and the editor. Seems a shame that we can't reorient the process that way. But this might be the end of tenure.
I'm starting to get interested in the idea of Professors of Practice and the rise of those at the university. Some people think it's a glorified adjunct position, but once you start to look into the history of the university, the rise of the Ph.D. and the research based line, the conflict over this in the land-grant colleges, you get a better sense of how this might be a return to the university as a place for real writing and real engagement - a part of the community instead of a community in itself. Perhaps the battle for change can be quietly waged in the introductory courses under the banner of Academic Service Learning. Scholarship can be solid and be accessible, it's a capitalist trick by the publishing process that makes us believe otherwise.
As for me, I'm certain I'll get tenure. The question is what to do with it. More publicity, harder writing, harder work. Tenure is the protection for the cascading failures that such work will entail.
Tenure should not be thought of as a job for perpetuity but a very rare power that allows you to enter into difficult and dangerous worlds and attempt to stake out an existence for your ideas there. Graduate school should prepare people for this by immersing them in a variety of discordant texts. Once they have been submerged just long enough to feel uncomfortable, then they should be pulled to the surface in order to present their vision of harmony constructed from their reaction to being immersed for so long. Articulating relationships is dangerous and upsetting - and tenure protects you from the fallout. It also allows you, but this is so rarely done, to change your mind about said relationships, backtrack, and dive in again, this time producing another vision.
How and why did we start thinking of such power as a reward?