Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The voices of tenure denial

I have been accumulating some links related to tenure denial; see the link to my delicious page on the right side of the blog.  There is plenty of content on the web about cases related to discrimination (real or alleged), political and religious issues, etc.  There is relatively less related to those who were just denied tenure period.  By the way, one thing I have not mentioned is the legal work I did through my tenure denial--maybe that is a long enough story for a whole blog entry--but the conclusion I came to in that research was that civil suits challenging tenure denials that don't have any allegations of systematic class discrimination or political/religious bias probably have an extremely, extremely low chance of succeeding.

Please, if there is anyone out there reading this (and it is far from clear there is) send me anything you have related to this issue.  Notable is Rob Knop's blogging about his tenure denial and what he has done since then. He has been one of the few to come out publicly about what has happened to him.  It is all the more brave since, as I have noted several times before on this blog, one thing you learn about tenure denial is that basically the best thing you can do afterward is to as completely as possible hide or at least cloud what happened.  That's why I started this blog, as a place to voice things that I felt were completely impossible otherwise.  If there are others of you out there, please contact me.  My whole aim is at anonymity here so one can speak candidly about the issues.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Randy Pausch is really dead

So I finally read Randy Pausch's book, The Last Lecture. It was last week, they were working in my office and I got kicked out for the afternoon; I went over the the library, found it on the shelves, went to a study carol amidst the students studying for their finals, put on the headphones and went through it in one sitting. It's not that long. Bottom line: for about the first 15 minutes I was skeptical, but after that I found myself actually feeling better. Obviously maybe just a simple "I'm not dead" kind of thing :) but it seemed more than that. I had not been expecting it.

It has been almost a year and a half since I looked at the "Last Lecture" either the video or the book. It had been very painful to me when I first encountered it. It was spring of 2008, I was in the middle of my appeal. For some reason I Googled the term "last lecture" or something like that. At that time, I was often thinking about my upcoming last lecture. All of that spring is kind of a blur to me, so perhaps it was after I had applied for the job I currently have, because I was definitely thinking that the end of the semester would be the last time I would be in the classroom.

Back then, it was very painful to look at. I was struggling with my own issues, and along comes the Last Lecture phenomena. Here I am brooding over my upcoming last lecture and this guy has it all over me. He's dying (making my pain seem stupid in comparison) and he's fabulously successful in the field in which I'm about to transition out of via failure mode. I didn't watch the whole thing back then, I probably got through about a third of it, just enough to discover what a tremendously successful guy he was and that his Last Lecture concept was completely unrelated to mine. My last lecture symbolized a final defeat. My last participation in the arena that I so desperately strived to succeed. And when it came to that, it was a complete anticlimax. Not that I expected or planned for otherwise. Having gone through the denial process once already, I knew that you have to hide it all, you can't broadcast any of it. I knew I could not attract attention to myself by announcing my last lecure or planning some unusual event. So the lower level class had the usual depressing last minute review for the final. The upper division class was a little better. I had saved a particularly pleasurable problem to work through, so at least I had some final memory of that wonderful experience of being in front of the class and getting to share with them some gem and try to get them into it.

But back to Randy Paush. He was a YouTube superstar, he was all over the net and he was dying. It was just umbearable. So I put it out of my mind.  Now, about a year and a half later, I finally came back to it. So that was partly why I was surprised to actually feel good after reading the book. And it is so sobering to think, he was alive back then, in late spring of 2008. He's dead now. The real dead professor. [For the record, I meant that term--dead professor--to be ironic and humorous. Not dead in the real sense but dead in the sense of no longer a professor. An ex-professor, no longer to ever be again.] If you google "dead professor" you get "Dr. Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon CS professor, Dead at 47" from TechCrunch.

So, finally, what to think about the Last Lecture phenomena?  Well, first, I feel nothing but gratitude for Randy Pausch.  His book, which reads like a kind of a terminal version of "Surely You Must Be Joking" is not only entertaining but of real value.  It certainly helped ME, when I finally read it.  He makes clear--and I would have understood this if I had made it to the end of the YouTube lecture the first time--his main motivation for doing it was for his kids.  And he clearly did not seek the notoriety that came his way.

But let's think about it.  The guy was absolutely fabulously successful.  (As an aside, I think viewing the Last Lecture one should remember just how incredibly competitive faculty positions are, especially at large, well respected universities.  You have to be hitting home runs across the board to succeed in a position like that.)  While I can unequivocally agree that being alive is infinitely better than being dead, he at least had the experience of feeling professionally satisfied before he died.  Is having your career die--and not being able to talk about it to anyone--worse than actual death?  We all are going to die.  What kind of place do we want to get to before we die?  I firmly believe that the old adage:  "No man on his deathbed ever regretted not working at the office more," is NOT true.  Lot's of us pursue careers that are a big chunk of our hopes and dreams, and a lot of us, maybe most of us, don't succeed, or don't get to terms where we feel satisfied with our satisfaction.

I don't know.  The one strong feeling I had after my second denial (after I had a few months to reflect upon it) was that I felt bad that I was not more generous personally to my colleagues.  I knew what it felt like to be in horrible pain emotionally and have no one at your workplace even think to ask how you are doing.  One thing that I have tried to do going forward is to be a better colleague to my coworkers.  Being a science/tech. nerd it is easy to get absorbed into one's own technical problems.  But the real life's problems of those around you (and your family of course) are more important.

So I don't know.  It is horrible that Randy Pausch never got to see his kids grow up, I know that for sure.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's not all whining!

I actually did not start this blog just to whine. Really! I did some googling yesterday and you should see some of the whining blogs that are out there. No, I'm not nearly that bad. And that really was not the main reason I started this blog. Really!

While I continue to maintain that I was completely abandoned by the supposedly supportive and nurturing Christian community I was in at my last college, I will say there are some upsides to what has happened to me. I would not have chosen it this way, but ....

Well, let me stop right there. One of the (kind of) beneficial things about where I am now is that I was forced out. In my mind, I fought as hard and as long as I could and was tossed out. So, I don't have any regrets I did not try harder. And I was forced to completely change what I was doing professionally, which at least in the short term, has had some advantages to it. The first, most obvious one--in retrospect--is that I got to take a break from teaching. Yes, I am massively pissed that the assholes at my last college decided that they had to craft their denial so as to make it in effect impossible for me to teach again at any level, but I will admit that it has been nice to take a break from teaching. I spent 16 years in a row teaching college science full-time. This is what sabbaticals are for. If you don't have a break from students and grading every 7 years of so you go absolutely nuts. To actually not have to grade papers for once has been a tremendously liberating experience. I realized that I was always, except maybe between terms, living with a nagging guilt that I had not finished the grading I should have gotten to earlier.

So that was good. But besides that, I'd say that college professors, especially those with significant teaching pressures, are some of the most over-committed people. I'm working on several different IT/HPC related projects now in my new job but the pressure seems almost non-existent. When people ask me what I'm doing, sometimes I now jokingly just say "nothing.. really nothing...OK well not exactly nothing but a lot less than I used to be." That's not to say that I'm idle in my new job, just that the evening/weekend pressures are much, much less.

Now, beyond that, I can see that there are some people who did get tenure that I would not want to be. And I mean good people too. One good acquaintance of mine who does have tenure at a small private college, he just seems somewhat self-indulgent, intellectually. It's hard to explain what I mean by that, but it has to do with being in a position where you have been there a long time, you know you will be there a long time in the future, and you have very good job security. It does not force you out of your rut very much. That and standing in front of students a few hours a day and they will listen to whatever you say (pretty much), tends you to a certain self-indulgence that is not healthy. You know the type I mean, the older professor who has been doing it for a long time and has certain... quirks.... that can be endearing or infuriating but once you are out of the system you can look at it and go--wow, you could not maintain that kind of approach outside of academia!

So I'm glad I did not go down that road. I was forced out of my rut, and while it was a horrible injustice perpetrated by fundamentally evil people it did have certain upsides to it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why paranoia has not been eliminated by natural selection

When something like this happens to you, you start to realize there is an upside to paranoia, or let's say borderline parnoia. Paranoic thoughts. Not clinical paranoia, that's another thing entirely. Let us just say tendencies to let one's mind dwell in that area.

"I was unjustly attacked by those lesser than me. I was engaged in a noble pursuit that they were too craven to comprehend. I was upholding higher professional standards than they were; they have a false sense of their own worth. They are hacks and they are too stupid to realize it. They conspired against me."

And so on. The strange thing is that when something like this happens to you, going down the paranoia road, at least a little bit, almost seems mentally healthy in a way. I mean, what's the alternative? You're going to wallow in your faults? After all they've just been laid out to you, chapter and verse, in detail and quantified to boot. In fact the unhealthy thought train seems to go down THAT one. You don't want to go there, because then what?

Trying to be more serious for a minute--I have seen this, and I don't think it is a delusion: tenure and promotion committees have to make binary decisions, at least when it is about tenure and it is up-or-out time. For whatever reason, once they get on the wrong side of that, then the rationalization sets in. They want this to be a clear-cut decision, so they can have no qualms of their own consciences. So they convince themselves that you really were profoundly incompetent. It was a no-brainer. They did the college a service keeping you out. Lost in this is how they could have lived, worked and socialized with a profoundly incompetent person for six years and only now come to realize it.

It goes even further than that. When I pursued my appeal, and finally, after several months, was able to force a face to face meeting with the appeal committee and a the chair of the P&T committee, their attitude was one of petulance. As if they were offended that I would have the temerity to try to work my hardest to save a career I had invested over half my life in. Such a profoundly incompetent professor and he has the gall to waste our time with these proceedings! There was one person on the appeal committee that acted humanly, thank God. But the other three representatives, the chair of the appeal committee, the chair of the P&T committee and the dean, were all just as if they had tasted something bad in their mouth. Not just that I was dead (as a professor) but that I had the horrible ungentlemanliness to actually try to defend my career.

Actually, I have to correct what I said: the dean was not petulant, he was just goofy. He sat there with a goofy grin on his face as he did everything. Yes, what's worse than having Darth Vader as a dean, it's a weak dean. Then the faculty rush to leap into the power void. And all that resentment of being pushed around for all those years, they finally get to wield some power.

If anyone in fact does ever read this, I will need to eventually get out some of the details and that last paragraph leads to one important fact of the most recent denial. In the year and a half leading up to my consideration our small college acquired a new president, dean, and college chair. The president was (is) a businessman, not even posessing of a Ph.D., completely unacquinted with academia. I don't fault the college for taking him--at the time they were on their last legs financially--but the result of taking him on was that he naturally absented himself from all important academic decisions like P&T. At least I assume so. If I were in that situation that is certainly what I would do. So that had been in place for about a year, while we searched for a new dean too. Everbody sort of wondered how that would shake out. They acquired the dean at the beginning of my final academic year. And he turned out to be a wishy-washy empty suit. A sort of goofy guy with a goofy grin on his face all the time.

As the fact of the new dean slowly dawned on the faculty, they (as I had described above) slowly reached out to grab whatever power they could in this vacuum. And all those old resentments then have a time to come to the surface. Now it's payback time!

Oh and finally the college chair. Let's just call him "Mr. Meticulous" for now. That was a blindside. I did not know what an utter asshole he was until this all happened. This is my fault, I should have seen that coming. But he is one of those kind who while wielding knives behind closed doors is overly friendly and nice in public.

Ok, enough for now. Like I said, sometimes a little paranoia is actually just a matter of self-preservation!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Twice Denied

This blog is a place to put stuff that I think about a lot but basically nobody wants to hear.

The title is derived from an 2004 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Dead Professor Walking" by Maria Annunziata (a pseudonym) about her terminal year after being denied tenure at a midwestern research university (http://chronicle.com/article/Dead-Professor-Walking/44596/).

I've been there, done that. In fact, done it twice. Well, the second time I wised up and I decided not to take the terminal year, as something else came along. All in all with both positions included we're talking 13 years of full-time, assistant professorness, ending in bouncing completely out of academia at the end of that.

One thing I have learned about being denied tenure, and I've had a chance to learn it twice now, is that as much as you can stand it, you DON'T want to talk about it with other people afterward, not at all. As much as you want to scream to the heavens about the injustices which have been wrongly put down upon you, it only makes your situation worse. In terms of moving on with your career, whether in or out of academia, you want to have that be known as little as possible. Especially if you are continuing on in academia, or trying to.

But I can go into that in more detail later.

I have no high hopes for anyone reading this, but it will be helpful to at least have a place to get it out. One thing I DO wonder about, and this came to me immediately when it happened, was this: do you suppose there is anyone out there who has gone down this road *three* times? Is there a Guiness Book of Records for such things? Even if you are only twice denied, like me, or once denied, I'd be interested in hearing from you.