Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Again: the voices of tenure denial

Thanks for the input in the last few days.  I appreciate the comments and emails.

I am indebted to Glen McGhee for pointing out the 1952 essay by Erving Goffman, "On Cooling the Mark Out."  I intend to post more in depth about this essay (and the many related essays it spawned) at a later date

I don't intend to just be a firebrand or encourage people to storm the barricades.  I created this blog because I wanted a place for people to be able to TALK about tenure denial, theirs and others. I found it was very hard to find any avenue in my life to do this.  But I'm way past fighting the battle over again at this point.

It is the nature of the Internet that people vie for exposure in a developing story.  I certainly have seen this in the last few days with the UAH shooting story.  Without (I hope) being gratuitous about it I'll admit that I was moved to post my comments, and right away, because I hoped that this blog might get picked up in the overall noise surrounding that story.  That has to some extent happened, which is good as now I know that at least a few people have read some of the posts!

But I repeat my invitation---share your stories.  I want to hear them.  I will gladly post them here.  I'm all about keeping anonymity (to the extent that that is possible nowadays on the Web).  Send me more, either by email or comments.  I'd like to see some multiple perspectives.


  1. As my tenure year approached and as things looked bleak,I seriously feared that I would end up in a mental hospital. When I didn't, I thought I'd survived intact. Angry, but intact. I moved on, taking two non-academic jobs (well, if you count teaching high school as non-academic) over the next five years, before I found another tenure-track job. It seemed the best possible outcome...until, three years in, I faced my "pre-tenure" review. I couldn't fill out the paperwork. I couldn't assemble the documents. I developed 3 consecutive nuisance illnesses (eye infection, back strain, hives), which were clearly stress-induced. About that time, I had to admit that I had sublimated my fears about tenure at the new job. Yeah, some counseling back when I left the first job would have helped, but I don't think I would have taken it from anyone with the remotest connection with the university.
    I got through the process successfully at the new job, but I still can't look closely at the process. I can't read anyone else's dossier, for example. I'm not sure this is a bad impediment to a normal life, but I also know there's still some baggage there. Maybe I'll open it someday, or maybe it'll blow up on me. I hope not.

  2. mmusgrove:

    Thanks so much for the comment! I think I also sublimated all my issues from the first denial in an unhealthy way. My first institution truly had a famously toxic environment which was open acknowledged by all. I kind of knew it was a crapshoot going in, but I had moved so many times before that I just wanted to stick it out and see what happened. To give you some perspective, in my department at that college, the guy before me who went up was denied, the guy who went up AFTER me was denied. In fact, I believe in that department they went just about 18-20 years without tenuring anyone. Not all of that was denials, some left early etc. but still, this was all part of the atmosphere.

    When I started at my second college, I was very careful to test the winds so to speak, to poke around a bit--were there many contentious denials? People there one day and not the next, etc. etc. All looked good. The overwhelming environment there when I arrived was one of exhaustion due to chronic lack of money. I was OK with what I was being paid, I was happy doing my job, my chair was happy, the other tenured member of my department was happy, but that was not enough. One always has to factor in the unexpected. Institutions, even hide-bound, small, seemingly sleepy ones, can change over a short period of time. All the "normal" rules changed in the last two years of my time there.

    I am especially struck by when you say you can't read anyone's dossier. I know exactly how you feel. If I had been granted tenure, I know I would have been very sympathetic to those coming after. Which brings me to a point I have noticed: why is it that the college tenure committee always attracts the assholes? The guys who enjoy (or seem to) the in-your-face denial. The reasonable people always seem to self-select themselves off the tenure committees.