The first thing you need to know about the average assistant professor is that she or he spends the year before the Day of Judgment–in which it is decided whether or not she or he gets tenure–in a state of anxiety and paranoia. As a former professor once observed, “Never forget that every paranoid’s discourse contains more than a small grain of truth.” Whether justified or not (and you never know until it is too late to matter but you always know once it is too late to matter), this paranoia is a breeding ground for more paranoia. The assistant professor about to undergo a tenure hearing seems to attract horror stories from well-wishers and sadists alike eager to commiserate or to tell sordid tales of brethren who got the ax.
Just last weekend, as I was innocently trying to choose between Gruyère and cheddar at the local grocery store, I bumped into the shiny face of a tenured colleague from a related department who raced across the aisles to ask me “how I was holding up” and “whether I knew who would vote for or against me” on the Big Day. I replied that I was “holding up” quite well, thank you, and then ran home to lie down for several hours.
And in the past few weeks I have heard about: one tenure decision that ended in litigation; another one that seems likely to; an assistant professor whose tenure case was scuttled by his closest “friend” and “mentor”; and a healthy number of tenure-related narratives detailing the hilarious or catastrophic consequences of misdirected e-mail. (Misdirected e-mail has become its own subgenre of academic nightmare; the nefarious possibilities are infinite. In particular, graduate students are carrier pigeons from hell. They are known to forward anything sent to them to the worst possible recipients. They are particularly adept in the art of making your “helpful advice” seem like an attack on a colleague.)
Let me assure you that I love my job. This is no mean feat given some of the drawbacks of academic life. Academic survival requires that you endure a Darwinian test that selects for a peculiar cocktail of masochism, sadism, perversity, and the ability to withstand large quantities of institutionalized torture over long periods of time with few measurable rewards. Masochism? You spend years and years and years writing a book that will be read by ten people and then remaindered. Sadism? You are on the board of a university press that publishes those sorts of books and have to decide whether to publish one that some other poor professor has spent years and years writing. Perversity? You have to give a glowing introduction to a guest speaker who, you just learned, single-handedly made sure you weren’t hired at his institution. Torture? At some point during the tenure process, a damning letter suddenly appears in your file from a student you thought you treated well–and you don’t find out until it is much too late.
For all this, the pay is lousy and academics get no respect. Being populists, Americans tend to treat higher learning with distrust, disdain, and/or uncomfortable awe. I have a philosopher friend who learned long ago that mentioning his profession was a sure-fire way to stop conversation at a social gathering. And within the university, while there is no fool-proof standard of success, there are many forms of failure–some of which are so baroque that they take years to become, as a doctor might say, “emergent.” At the end of the day, when and if the tenure battle is won, one faces the even more frightening prospect that one could join the ranks of “deadwood,” “dinosaurs,” or any of the other species of Tenured Undead who end their days pickled in the brine of their unwritten books and unfulfilled aspirations.