How Tenure Works (and Doesn’t Work)

There are three broad types of teaching faculty in an American university: tenured, tenure-track, and everyone else. Tenured and tenure-track professors are essentially white-collar workers on multi-year contracts who receive full benefits and are eligible for paid research leave.

“Everyone else” varies from university to university, but the majority of people who aren’t tenured or on the tenure track have short-term contracts and receive no benefits. Although “everyone else” used to be the exception, they now make up roughly 75% of all teaching faculty in higher education in the United States. This is obviously a huge fucking problem, and I’ll return to it later.

Tenured faculty enjoy the full privileges of employment at a university, including the ability to participate in the committees that decide department and university policy. They are also eligible to rise to high-level administrative positions. Tenured faculty also have a bit more power when it comes to “quality of life” issues like being able to schedule their classes at their preferred times and not having to teach large first-year classes. Their salaries are higher, the length of research leave they can take is longer, and they’re more likely to receive institutional funding. Tenured faculty can also teach graduate-level seminars – sometimes exclusively – and take on grad students.

The main privilege that tenured professors enjoy is that, short of sexually assaulting someone, it’s very difficult for the university to fire them (or to force them to retire, which is actually a major issue right now). This means that they can take longer to complete more ambitious projects, and they can start publishing with commercial presses and become public intellectuals if they like. There’s also no need for them to receive high student course evaluations, which gives them the freedom to develop more experimental classes and teaching methods while not having to put up with stupid undergraduate bullshit (like worrying about whether a kid will give your course a low score if you have a class session about race or LGBTQ+ material, for instance). Because they don’t have to worry about teaching and publishing so much anymore, tenured professors also have more time to become active in university service and administration.

A tenure-track professor, usually referred to as an “assistant professor,” has been hired by the university at an entry-level position. In order to be promoted through tenure, an assistant professor has to jump through burning hoops of fire. I know that’s an abstract description, but I don’t how else to put it. Because of the extremely competitive academic job market, the only people who are hired for tenure-track positions tend to be already functioning at the level of a tenured professor when they walk in the door. Regardless, receiving tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion, even at second- and third-tier schools with very few institutional resources and a nonexistent level of faculty support.

Unless a tenure-track professor is a serial molester or a complete academic fuck-up (or both at the same time), it’s actually in a university’s best interests to grant them tenure, usually after they’ve spent four or five years in the position. During this time, this person will have published research with the university’s name on it and otherwise promoted the university’s brand through their work, and they will have established a set of classes they can reliably teach. They will also have grown accustomed to the university’s culture while making connections with other faculty and staff members. In other words, the university has already put a lot of investment into someone by the time they go up for tenure, and that person has already become associated with their university in their broader field. Both as an institution and as a brand, a university wants to show that they have a lot of tenured faculty members, as faculty retention demonstrates not only the university’s wealth but also its prestige.

Still, assistant professors are required to demonstrate professional excellence in order to be granted tenure. The details of how this works differ from school to school; but, generally speaking, applicants are required to submit a portfolio of various materials that often runs more than a thousand pages in length. This portfolio will not only contain letters of support from people within the university but also from leading members of the applicant’s field – none of whom the applicant can choose or otherwise designate.

A tenure-track professor therefore has to publish as much as they can while establishing a strong professional reputation within four years, all while developing new classes, teaching a full course load, and getting high scores on student course evaluations. Although their service to their own university is limited by their rank, tenure-track professors need to “serve the field” by doing things like editing, translation, peer review, public lectures, media appearances, and so on. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we wouldn’t be in the profession in the first place if this sort of thing didn’t give us a sense of satisfaction. This is one of the main reasons why the attrition rate for PhD programs is so high – at some point a lot of people realize that this isn’t what they want to spend their lives doing, which is valid.

In any case, someone going up for tenure first submits their portfolio to a special committee made up of members of their department, as well as one or more members of other departments who are qualified to judge their competence. The committee then makes a recommendation to the applicant’s home department, which takes a vote. The department chair will write a letter of support (or caution) based on that vote, and the applicant’s tenure case will be assigned to a nonpartial liaison who will present the case to the university.

In the end, it’s the university that decides whether or not to grant tenure. Even if the department votes against someone’s case, and even if their department chair hates them, the university can still decide to give them tenure. Because professors have a well-known tendency to be petty and resentful toward each other, it’s often the case that the university will grant tenure to someone a department has voted against. The reverse is also true – a person can be admired and respected by everyone they work with, but the university can still decide not to grant tenure for whatever reason it chooses. A decision against tenure may have nothing to do with the applicant at all; the university may have decided to discontinue funding for that particular tenure line in order to open a tenure line in another department, for example.

It goes without saying – and there is a towering tsunami of evidence that supports this – that the tenure process is biased against women, people of color, and other minorities. Women especially are held to higher standards, and any other minority identity that might apply to them only makes them more vulnerable to being perceived as inadequate and expendable. During the past ten years, I have seen one female colleague after another fail to get tenure, and it’s terrifying. In fact, the person who held my position before I did, a woman of color, apparently felt so alienated by the inherent prejudice of this system that she didn’t even submit her tenure portfolio even though (in my personal opinion) she would have had a strong case and benefited my department immensely in the long run.

If you don’t get tenure, you have one year to make an appeal. After that, if the appeal isn’t granted, you have to leave when your contract ends. The appeal process is a nightmare and requires the complete revision and re-submission of a tenure portfolio. Most appeals aren’t granted, even if lawyers get involved, so many people don’t even try. After all, if you’re going to go through all that trouble, it makes more sense to apply to other jobs than to stay at a school that has already made it clear that it doesn’t value the work you’ve done.

Unfortunately, as the number of tenure-track positions that open every year continues to shrink, it’s highly unlikely that someone who is denied tenure will find another tenure-track job. In addition, tenured professors in their seventies and eighties will not retire, thereby denying opportunities for younger people to enter their departments.

This is where we return to the problem of “everyone else” that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Although there are both abstract and tangible benefits to having tenured faculty, many universities have begun to privilege their short-term interests. According to this mindset, why would you pay a tenured professor an actual salary when it’s much more cost-effective to pay an average of $3,000 per class to a short-term worker who often has the exact same (or even better) educational qualifications?

Because of the state of the American economy since around 2008 or so, more people have been completing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, universities are relying more on short-term contracts, which means that there is a horrifying scarcity of tenure-track jobs. My field is one of the fastest growing fields in higher education, yet it’s a very good year when fifteen tenure-track jobs open. University departments tend not to hire across fields – for example, someone who wrote a dissertation about queer literature for a Gender Studies department will probably not be considered as a viable applicant to an English department – which places additional limits on the number of jobs that even highly qualified people can apply to.

Competition is fierce, even for temporary positions that don’t provide benefits or a remotely livable wage, so why should a university have to settle for a tenure-track professor who isn’t perfect? It doesn’t help that both tenure-track job searches and the process of reviewing a tenure case necessitate a staggering amount of unpaid labor from everyone involved. And what department would want to hire someone who already has a tenure-track job but didn’t appreciate it enough to go through the tenure process? I mean, given how much institutional investment goes into an assistant professor, why would a university want to hire someone who’s clearly interested in job hopping? And, if someone went up for tenure but didn’t get it, why would a university want to hire another university’s discarded trash?

What I’m saying is that, because of the tenure system, there is either too much mobility as early-career academics are uprooted from their communities and forced to move to a different university every year (and sometimes every semester) as they apply to tenure-track jobs, or zero mobility for people who actually get a tenure-track job and but can’t leave without effectively ending their career.

I’m not yet sure what solutions I would offer to help restructure the tenure system in American universities, but I think acknowledging that it looks good on paper but has major disadvantages in practice is probably a good start.

Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.

Deep Water

The problem is that Disney has the brand recognition and the deep pockets to freeze out anyone else who tries.
https://earlgraytay.tumblr.com/post/186522860758/moral-autism-earlgraytay-okay-there-are

Any other time anyone does anything with fairy tales (or princesses, or talking cars, or talking fish, or pirates, or…) Disney can make their own version and sell it at a loss, driving their competitors out of business. They have more money than God. They can afford to lose money on one theme park, let alone one toyline or one movie.

The problem with Disney is that it’s a monopoly. And like any other monopoly, Disney can freeze out anyone who tries to compete with them. I think if you trustbusted Disney – left them with their animation studio and maybe their theme park division, but took away Pixar and Marvel and ESPN and all their television outlets and all the other crap they own – they’d have a harder time undercutting everyone else. You’d see more stuff based on folklore and fairy tales, and it’d have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being successful.

One of the reasons I love Tumblr is because it gives me so many windows into subcultures I had no idea existed. Members of these subcultures often have unique insider information about things that most people probably take for granted, and it’s interesting to view the world from these perspectives.

I take everything I read on Tumblr with a grain of salt, but it’s still fascinating to learn about, for instance, how groups of people devoted to doll collecting see Disney as using its enormous amounts of capital to monopolize and then destroy the market for toys targeted at young girls. Whether Disney is actually doing this (as they most certainly are) is immaterial; what’s worth paying attention to is that resistance is coming from a subculture that most people would probably assume would be supportive of Disney.

I routinely encounter posts like this that help me remember that the culture I’m familiar with is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start looking deeper into subcultures, you begin to realize that there are powerful currents underneath the water that shape global mediascapes in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable.

Going onto Tumblr sometimes feels like climbing into a submarine and exploring by the narrow beam of a headlight, and there are any number of odd and unexpected things swimming around below the surface.

Work Work Til You Go Berserk

Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/hyperemployment-or-the-exhausting-work-of-the-technology-user/281149/

It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple overwhelm, we alone suffer for it: the schedules don’t get made, the paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on and on.

But the deluge doesn’t stop with email, and hyperemployment extends even to the unemployed, thanks to our tacit agreement to work for so many Silicon Valley technology companies. Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands.

Where is the lie, honestly.

I’m actually a narcissistic little dopamine gremlin who loves getting notifications that people like me, but I can sometimes get to a point (usually toward the end of the spring semester) where every email I receive physically hurts me.

Yesterday I wrote a long post about Patreon that began as a set of notes on how I might be able to use Patreon support my book review blog, Contemporary Japanese Literature. I’m still considering it, but the truth is that I already feel as though I’m working four or five separate jobs. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to take on another job without sacrificing something, and I don’t think spending more time on yet another social media platform is really worth it.

Reasons I Don’t Like Patreon

(1) Fandom has always been a relatively noncommercial space, and I hate the feeling that it’s starting to become filled with advertisements and corporate-style messaging. It always makes me cringe when fandom accounts on Tumblr or Twitter affix messages such as “subscribe to my Patreon for bonus content” to all of their posts on social media; it feels sort of like I’m watching an infomercial.

(2) I hate feeling like I’m constantly bombarded with messages that I should be spending more money, and I hate feeling guilty for not supporting artists. Monthly Patreon payments can add up, especially if you follow several dozen (or several hundred) artists. It’s not a big deal to give one person a few dollars every month, but even small expenditures can add up quickly, and I hate having to choose between equally deserving people.

(3) I hate feeling as though fandom should cost money and that, as a result, people without money are barred from accessing certain parts of fandom. This is especially true of Patreon-only Discord servers and locked communities on public servers. Putting up a paywall around access to community spaces feels really gross to me. I also don’t like it when creators use Patreon to restrict access to process videos, guides, tutorials, and other instructional materials that would be especially beneficial to younger artists and other members of the community who lack access to traditional resources.

(4) Your friendship with someone shouldn’t be dependent on how much you pay them each month. Loaning money to friends is almost never a good idea, nor is sending them a monthly paycheck. This has the potential to create awkward situations both with people you know in real life and with people you know through fandom. For example, what if Friend A finds out that you’re donating to Friend B’s Patreon but not to theirs? Will a fandom artist you support on Patreon still be friendly with you if you cancel your monthly pledge?

(5) There’s no way to filter content on Patreon, either for subscribers or creators. Let’s say, for example, that there’s someone who’s into a certain fetish that many people might not be comfortable with, such as explicit age gaps in sexual relationships, and that this person makes repeated requests to the artists they’re supporting on Patreon to draw content of their fetish. I’m a firm believer in “don’t like, don’t read,” and I stand behind the idea that everyone’s fantasies involving fictional characters are valid, but I also don’t particularly want to see an impish ten-year-old cartoon character being happily molested by a forty-year-old if I can help it, nor do I want to see a soft version of the same concept while knowing why that specific person requested it. I feel bad for the creators who rely on Patreon for financial support and have to deal with these types of requests. For example, how comfortable would they be turning down a request for fetish porn if it meant possibly losing a long-term supporter?

All that being said, I like when people use Patreon as a tip jar.

Some of the most talented and prolific webcomic artists and indie game developers I know do this. All of their content is free and open to everyone, and they use Patreon as a development blog. Some creators – especially people who run popular podcasts and YouTube channels – still make thousands of dollars a month through Patreon despite the fact that all of their content is unlocked.

Although I understand that Patreon creators who make a decent monthly salary are exceptions, the fact that they can be so successful despite not creating paywalls makes me wonder if limiting access to content on Patreon is really all that effective. Even though a creator may get a bit of extra revenue in this way, I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off in terms of integrity and goodwill. To put it bluntly, using reward tiers to incentivize the people who want to support you into giving you a few extra dollars each month is repellent capitalist bullshit. For me personally, it also makes scrolling through my feed on Patreon distinctly unpleasant, like, YOU AREN’T RICH ENOUGH TO SEE THIS POST LOL.

What I’m trying to explain is that, although I think Patreon can be a great platform to help people finance their creative work, the incursion of profit-driven language, practices, and ideologies into a space built on support, communication, and goodwill is troubling and offensive.

Basically, I hate capitalism. It’s not that I think independent creators don’t deserve support; rather, I think it’s disgusting how Patreon normalizes using exploitative methods to extract as much money as possible from people who want to support their friends and other independent creators. I also dislike how Patreon encourages creators to rely on these methods, thereby steering them into a mindset in which they treat their engagement with Patreon like an actual job and their friends like clients. This type of engagement has a clear potential to become uncomfortable and unsustainable, especially for people in economically precarious positions.

I’m not trying to say that Patreon is inherently bad, or that people shouldn’t use Patreon. I’ve actually supported a decent number of creative people on Patreon for years, and it makes me happy to do so. What I’m trying to figure out is how Patreon can be used in a way that doesn’t mirror the emotional violence and sheer obnoxiousness of capitalism. I also want to push back against the trend of every interaction on social media becoming a microtransaction, because it’s exhausting.