Brow Beat

Why All of Hollywood’s Depictions of Professor Tenure Are Ridiculous

The “Tenure Turbulence” episode of The Big Bang Theory, an otherwise completely realistic entertainment.

Michael Yarish/Warner Bros. Television

A few weeks ago on Fox’s guilty-pleasure time-travel comedy Making History, Chris (Yassir Lester), the uptight history professor who reluctantly accompanies protagonist Dan (Adam Pally) on his escapades through the past—is sitting in the faculty steam room (as you do) with his mentor, Dr. Cobell, whereupon he learns with great excitement that his “name is being bandied around for tenure,” so he’d better be on best behavior.

It was at that moment that I pffft-ed my coffee and snorted: “That would never happen!” Because, I mean, come on. Time travel via giant duffel bag is something I can imagine, but this conversation would never occur at any moment in history. And I’m not even talking about the faculty steam room. Even that I’d give a pass before the idea that Chris’ tenure case is supposed to be a surprise.

Making History is part of a very large club. On the rare occasions someone decides it’s a good idea to depict the tenure process in TV or movies (hint: it is not a good idea), whatever they come up with is always ridiculous. But here’s the thing: I get why screenwriters do this. I get it. And not just because nothing—law, medicine, pregnancy, any religious or ethnic group besides WASPs (and also some WASPs)—is ever portrayed accurately on the television. I get it because the actual process of professor tenure is so exquisitely boring that there is no way an accurate depiction would be anything anyone, anywhere, would watch on purpose:



CHRIS, ostensibly working on his “research” but actually playing computer chess, sees the figure of DR. COBELL, his supposed “mentor” (with whom he has actually had three conversations in four years, two of them passive-aggressive), as Cobell passes wordlessly by the space where Chris has left his door open a crack, so that everyone can see him “working.” Chris knows that Cobell, along with seven of his other colleagues, is currently in the process of reviewing the 300-page tenure dossier—his publications, his teaching evaluations, his record of “service to the university”—Chris submitted four months prior and that the committee will vote on his case three months from now. Nobody is allowed to talk about it. This episode contains no dialogue.

*sound of 15 million channels changing*

The only way to get tenure is a story that makes terrible television: You get hired onto the tenure track as a “tenure-track assistant professor”—or sometimes “assistant professor (tenure-track)”—and then wait six or so years, submit a big, boring portfolio, and wait some more. There is no “surprise tenure.”

There is also no “competing” for tenure, as the gang on The Big Bang Theory do in that show’s sixth season, when a Caltech professor expires in his office and his “tenured” position comes up for “grabs.” But again, I get it. Even with the world’s most aggressive laugh track and David from Roseanne, there is no salvageable way to make amusing what would actually happen in that situation, which is that first the department at Caltech would beg the administration not to kill the tenure line altogether (a process that would take two years and encompass 500,000 words of email chains); then, on the rare possibility the department got to keep the tenure line, it’d spend two years fighting over the wording of the advertisement for a new beginning assistant professor; then, it’d spend another four years searching for and interviewing candidates for that assistant professorship—and then it’d cancel that search, after going “nuclear” on each other’s candidates for arcane reasons, as a way to act out decades-old petty vendettas on each other. (*sound of 30 million televisions being turned off*)

Nor does one get informed of tenure denial in person, as in the case of Dr. Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) on Timeless (on NBC; also about a history professor who travels through time, but sans duffel bag). Preston learns of her denial in casual conversation from a colleague and then erupts in a huff because her mother “built this department.” Alas, tenure decisions are conveyed by formal (usually paper) letter; departments aren’t “built” like businesses, and even the most nepotistic ones don’t have parents hiring their own children. But, yes, sure, I get it.

And I also get why the Coen brothers might think that anonymous letters from randos who are not scholars in the tenure candidate’s field—such as those from Sy (Fred Melamed), the romantic rival and attempted tenure-saboteur of A Serious Man’s protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)—would have any say whatsoever in a tenure case. Because, again, that is at least kind of interesting, whereas the actual reasons that actual professors get denied for tenure are very much not: Their publications contain too many English-language sources and not enough French sources; the quality of the citations of other people who cite their work is of insufficient rigor; they work at Harvard (burn).

Yes, there is a good reason that even a 2009 Luke Wilson film actually called Tenure—whose entire ostensible plot centers upon the institution and attainment thereof—does not even attempt to depict anything resembling the actual manner in which someone attains that particular institution. (Wilson, like Sheldon and the gang, “competes,” in this case against a surprise assistant professor hire played by Gretchen Mol, which is also a thing that you now know would never happen, unless you passed out in a pile of your own drool during my explanation a few paragraphs above.)

I mean, sure, I guess if someone were being pedantic (and academics are nothing if not pedantic), that pedant could argue, pedantically, that the gleeful misrepresentation of tenure attainment in popular entertainment then perpetuates the gleeful popular misperception of what tenure actually is. I mean, if Sheldon, who is a TV genius, says that tenured professors are lazy and complacent and tenure should be replaced by a chip that makes your head explode if you say something stupid, who’s going to bat an eye when, for example, the state of Wisconsin dismantles the whole damn shebang—and then, in a few years, everyone has to submit their syllabi to the Uber/Monsanto deans of synergy for pre-approval?

That tenured professors don’t, actually, have a “job for life,” and can, actually, be fired is well-known, and so is the process of tenure-getting far from secret. It’s not even particularly complex. It’s just kinda dull, so it makes terrible television, just as the correctly depicted life of an actual tenured professor (90 percent grading, 10 percent self-loathing about missed deadlines) would be a viewership black hole. So, yes, from a person-who-enjoys-TV perspective, I get it. But as a person who would like to see our country nurture more thinking, feeling individuals, so as to potentially resist (or even avoid) a descent into full-blown fascist idiocracy? I guess, at long last, I’d like to see some more realistic conversation take place in the faculty steam room.