Lifetime Appointment: An Eight-Point Plan for Using and Abusing the Tenure System

  Last weekend, in a cubicle in an overheated converted office in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, I took the GRE, the standardized test of verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing ability that purports to predict a student's performance in graduate school. … Read More

By / November 14, 2007


Last weekend, in a cubicle in an overheated converted office in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, I took the GRE, the standardized test of verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing ability that purports to predict a student's performance in graduate school. Because I find public boasting repugnant, I won't tell you what score I got. The point is that I'm holding a ticket to a doctoral program in my undergraduate major, philosophy — which, especially considering its six-plus year time horizon, is possibly the least practical degree-granting program on earth — and with grad school application deadlines swiftly approaching, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the concrete benefits of such an undertaking.

There are exactly two. One is that you don't have to pay for a Ph.D, and this is more a mercy than a perk, since remunerative positions in commercial metaphysics research are rather thin on the ground, and tend to be accompanied by coin jars and cardboard signs featuring messages like "Will Distinguish Mad Pain and Martian Pain for food" scribbled in crayon. The other, barely a wish in the dream of an assistant professor, let alone a prospective grad student, is tenure, the quasi-medieval system of lifetime job security that exists in theory to preserve academic freedom and in practice to create a disincentive to teaching undergraduates, either before a tenure decision is made, when a candidate will publish or perish, to coin a serviceable phrase, or afterward, when a successful candidate, having obtained a sinecure, becomes accountable to nothing and nobody, and an unsuccessful candidate in (say) philosophy reverts to distinguishing mad pain and Martian pain for food.

Sometime in 2021, or the Year 12 Anno Giuliani as I expect it will be called, a lucky university will be making a decision on whether to award me with tenure. While I don't yet know what research will catapult me to the front of the tenure track, I've devoted some time to pondering what I'll do the day after I get tenure. Here are my conclusions:

#1: Get a neck tattoo. This just about speaks for itself, no? Obviously, not just any tat will do. Anything in color is right out-color tattoos are to tattoos roughly what Manischewitz is to wine-and the design would have to be sufficiently, shall we say, thug, to enable me to disrupt at least of few weeks of faculty meetings without having to say a word or get up from my seat. Were I possessed of very different dispositions, I would consider an ornate cross, or "God is Love," "Jesus Saves," and "John 3:16" (the latter three in Fraktur typeface, naturally) to be excellent candidates, but sadly, I'm against capital punishment, ruling out the first, and happen to know that God is not Love (or anything else), that Jesus does not save, and that the entire Gospel of John is virtually unreadably bad pseudo-Platonistic gobbledygook. So my options are somewhat restricted. At the moment, I'm leaning towards James Frey's wonderfully ironic F.T.B.S.I.T.T.T.D. – fuck the bullshit, it's time to throw down, the irony being that Frey was complete and utter bullshit -translated into Latin and spelled out in full. (Merdam bubulae pedicet, pugnare tempus est, incidentally.) Clearly, that would require some very fine needle-work, but I'm sanguine about the prospect.

#2: Release a spoken word country music album. Perhaps this is cheating, as it would take well more than a day to produce an album (though not necessarily much more if I'm not overly concerned with quality, and I am not). I would be following in a venerable academic tradition of setting aside anything resembling scholarship to pursue pointless, vainglorious, onanistic exercises in self-glorification. My subject matter would be all of world and American history, as I would seek to demonstrate through song (or at least words over a musical ambience dominated by pennywhistles) that everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will happen is simply a reverberation of the worn-out cultural and political fights of the 60s. Somewhere between recording and post-production I'll be ordained as a Baptist minister, and with any luck, engage in a pissing contest with my university's president. Which reminds me that I had better….

#3: Organize a faculty campaign to have Lawrence Summers fired from whatever job he's doing at the moment. (For now, he's a manager at D.E. Shaw.)  Wherever Summers treads, there I shall find, and hound him. Why? Because no amount of time can heal the wounds Summers inflicted in his unprovoked assault on MIT professor Nancy Hopkins. I'll let the victim explain: "When [Summers] started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill." If there's one lesson that the academy has an obligation to teach all those who pass through it, it's that airing testable hypotheses can turn out to be a form of violent coercion, so watch what you say. And in my newfound status as a senior faculty member, that obligation would fall squarely on my shoulders. Watch out Larry Summers, I'm on to you and I've got grievances.  

#4: Write, direct, and star in an adaptation of Finnegans Wake for the stage. Again, this might take more than a day. On the other hand, the most meticulously scripted adaptation of Finnegans Wake might not make a jot more sense than something haphazardly cribbed from the book, so perhaps not. The point, as with #2, would be to test just how many university resources I could siphon into a personal vanity project, as well as to extend my vacation from genuine scholarship as long as possible. Typical rehearsals would consist in me berating put-upon drama students for not adequately capturing the emotional dynamics I was hoping to convey in nigh-on impenetrable Joycean dialogue – "Have you even practiced your lines? It reads ‘O here here how hoth sprowled met the duskt the father of fornicationists but, (O my shining stars and body!) how hath fanespanned most high heaven the skysign of soft advertisement!' Don't you know melodrama when you see it, idiot?" – after which I'd storm out in a huff.  The entire process would do wonders for inflating my sense of self-importance, and if I were to receive a critical panning, which seems eminently likely, I would be liberated to seal myself off from criticism entirely, dwelling the rest of my days in an ever thickening conceptual cocoon whence I need never fear encountering a stray challenge to my own worldview.

#5: Impress a rotating covey of grad students to ghostwrite what will be remembered as my oeuvre. Granted, this is a process that will take years, but it will begin the moment the tenure review committee is done with me. In my case, outsourcing any and all scholarship produced in my name will be a particularly difficult knot to untangle. A suitably disposed historian, for example, could think up a thesis, spend a weekend writing an introductory chapter, and spend the next four months collecting seashells while his advisees fill out three or four hundred pages of research and analysis and let their own dissertations lie dormant. If the thesis turns out to reiterate or bolster the consensus view on a historical question, the book takes its place in the canon. If it departs from the consensus view, presto, the historian is a boundary-pushing revisionist (just make sure not to take this approach in writing about the Holocaust, you don't want to wind up on the wrong side of that). For a philosopher, the same general approach to scholarship would take a great deal more subtlety to put into effect, since conjuring up a thesis and putting it into writing is essentially the whole game, so there wouldn't be much work left to farm out to grad students. I might instead just disparage any good ideas they raise in seminar — usefully stroking my own ego by destroying the self-esteem of others — and steal those ideas for my own writing. Time will tell.

#6: Find out just how far I can go without technically committing sexual harassment. This goes hand in hand with #5 under the general heading of using grad students as means rather than ends. Sad to say, not every Ph.D. candidate is cut out to be a scholar, but I'll make it my mission, as an educator, to find some useful purpose for the rest of them. Like other great scholars who became aware in their own lifetimes of their world-historical importance, I will have to contend with the fact that a base corporeality keeps me tethered to the mundane world and unable to sublimate into a pure empyreal substance, and I had better find a coping strategy to pass the time. A note to climbing future grad students who bring trunks full of Freudian baggage to school with them: You have the aura of election upon you.

#7: Get visiting lectureships on an informal permanent basis everywhere but with my primary employer. Ideally, post-tenure, I wouldn't spend another day at my home institution. Instead, I would live out my years as a visiting professor of this, distinguished lecturer of that, never staying in any one place for more than a semester and ensuring that any students I'd come into contact with could not become long-term advising or mentoring responsibilities of mine, all the while, naturally, drawing the base salary of a tenured professor back at my home base. Where would I want to go? I think I'd start with a crawl up the California coast — there are lots of colleges and universities there, and many of them are close to the beach. After that, who knows, perhaps there's a decent philosophy department in the Dutch Antilles.

#8: Become a star in the popular press and on the op-ed/talk show circuit. Now we come to the real heart and soul of tenure. Freed from serious scholarly responsibility, I'd break out into the world of punditry with a fancy endowed university chair and letterhead, throwing together by the yard pulp polemics on every political controversy of the day. Chris Matthews and Charlie Rose, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, might well be dead or retired by the time I get tenure, but others will fill their shoes, and you can expect to find them sucking up to me night after night. My byline will adorn newspapers and magazines along both coasts, while my face will be inescapable on all the TV shows that suitably cultivated people watch; next to me, Paul Krugman will look like a cloistered hermit. Not only will I have a lot of fun, I'll also turn obscene profits, and here is how I know: At any given time, some seismic political or cultural issue is due to erupt from under the surface of popular discourse, ready for some sufficiently entrepreneurial intellectual to grab hold of, put into print, and enjoy the windfall. (Today it's atheism, tomorrow anyone's guess.) By churning out century upon century of pages on every conceivable issue, I'm bound to hit on a cultural nerve eventually, translate that scoring strike into dollars (or more likely, by this point Euros or Yuan), and repeat the process da capo.  Those of my books that don't set off a reaction will be forgotten, while those that do will make me appear to have a preternatural prescience in surveying the cultural landscape, securing for me a surfeit of attention and fawning praise, and just as importantly, an early retirement.

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