Monday, April 20, 2015

Mobility and the future of the humanities

I suspect I'll have more to say about midcareer mobility in the coming years, but from chatting with some friends and colleagues over the past few weeks, it's clear that it's the fear of no future mobility, of a lack of options, that gets most of us--even if we're not looking; even if we're pretty happy where we are.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one I've been chewing over is the legibility of a new job: in part because mobility is so constricted and jobs are so few, moving between tenure-track jobs is a visible sign of success. (Assuming, of course, that it isn't the result of a tenure denial.) And though no one can make it through graduate school and junior professordom without being internally motivated, our lives up through tenure still involve a lot of external validation.

Getting a job is a big deal. Getting tenure is a big deal. Getting a book published is a big deal. But after that the achievement curve starts to flatten out and there are fewer truly new things to do. As the saying goes, the reward for winning the pie-eating contest is more pie.

Now, I like pie--which is to say, I'm reasonably content with the thought of what lies ahead. I'm immersed in my next book project and looking forward to being able to play a bigger role in certain things at the departmental and college level. But if my career is a narrative, it's entering a pretty boring phase. It'll be years and years before my next book is done, and even when it is, it's not going to be as big of a deal as my first book. Not because it won't be better; I hope it will be better. But it's not going to be a public accomplishment in the same way, something that inspires a flood of congratulatory emails from high school and college friends, distant relatives, and people I sometimes hung out with in grad school.

So I think some of the anxiety about mid-career mobility is about what it would mean not to have much visible change for the rest of your life, and not to have any markers, legible to others, of how well you're doing. If you're already at a top school, well, maybe that's okay: your mom is proud that you teach at Stanford; your peers respect your first book; it's all good.*

But if you have even the least sense that your institutional affiliation doesn't quite signify to others what you're about, it may be a different story. None of us, wherever we teach, is going to get big public accolades for our research; if we're lucky, a few hundred people read what we write (and a few dozen know how to value it). But it's easy to fear, if you're at Middling State U., that even fewer people will pick up your work to begin with. Moreover, if Middling State doesn't particularly reward or recognize research, it may feel like no one knows or cares what you're up to. And at a certain career stage, a new job may feel like the only truly legible sign of success.

(Now sure: you can say that we should all be completely internally motivated; that no one does specialized research for fame and fortune; that even those at prestigious research institutions are speaking, primarily, to a handful of specialists outside their university walls. But it's undeniable that some institutions provide more recognition, and more material compensation, for research than others.)

Personally, I have it pretty good. I can probably do the kind of work I wish to do at either my current or future employer. But the long-term consequences for humanities research, faculty life satisfaction, and even institutional prestige are unclear in an era where virtually everyone teaching at the college level has been trained as a serious researcher but employment prospects and mobility are sharply limited.

One possibility is pure waste: all that work that could have been done doesn't get done, because the scholars who would have done it don't get jobs or don't get jobs that adequately support their research. Another is a radical reassessment of the academic hierarchy: if an increasing number of people making careers at 3/3 and 4/4 institutions (or as adjuncts or independent scholars) produce work that's just as good as that produced by some of their peers at R1s, do we reevaluate what it means to have a "research" job? A third possibility, I guess, is a bunch of frustrated and unhappy people.

Maybe things will become clearer as the next decade or two play themselves out in the life of the academy. But in the meanwhile, a lot of people will be dreaming about their next move.

*I mean, except for the work itself, which may still cause you plenty of anguish, self-doubt, etc. But that's to be expected.


Historiann said...

Mmmmmmm. . . .pie. . .

A scholar in my field at the Huntington told me that something like only 35% of all Ph.D.s in history publish one book, and it's only 6% who publish two. So if you publish 2 books (or more), your competition for senior jobs is pretty small compared to your pool of competitors for junior positions.

Numbers like this give me hope!

One small quibble with your formulation here, though. You write, "moving between tenure-track jobs is a visible sign of success. (Assuming, of course, that it isn't the result of a tenure denial.)" I would say that it's a sign of success ESPECIALLY in the case of a tenure denial! It's vindication as well as success.

We all know or know of terrific scholars and teachers who were denied tenure, and I think their perseverance and determination is especially worthy of our respect. They're survivors!

Flavia said...


Agreed 100% about moving after a tenure denial--in fact, my original parenthetical said exactly that, but then it got too bulky and complicated and was too lengthy of an aside, so I deleted that part! Anyone who can get another tenure-track job, whatever the circumstances and wherever he or she moves to, is obviously doing terrifically well (though of course not getting one isn't a sign that one isn't).

My point was just that the person who was denied tenure doesn't always regard such a move as a visible sign of success to the outside world, even if they (and we) should.

Nik said...

I love these posts lately and have been thinking hard about how difficult it is to move and what it means (or doesn't mean) to be able to. In the past two years, I've been campus-interviewed for two different jobs but each time, I freak out, thinking how hard it will be to uproot my husband (not academic) and kids and what is the point of moving. I live in Arizona. With the budget cuts, that has become the main purpose in leaving, but also prestige and better teaching loads. One job would have required me to give up tenure. Two women I admired, when they heard I was considering it, said, never give up tenure as a woman! What do you think about moving backwards to move ahead?

Flavia said...


Oh man. That's a good question, and maybe deserving of its own post.

My short answer is that I think it always has to be a complex negotiation among competing goods. For a really, REALLY good job (whether that means prestige, more pay, or a dramatically better domestic/geographic situation), I'd be willing to give up more than for a minor step up or a basically lateral move.

It's pretty common for hiring departments not to hire with tenure, unless the search is specifically for a senior position. At that point, whether or not I was willing to move without tenure would depend partly on the above (how good the job was), and partly on what I knew about the department's tenure processes. Could I go up immediately? (And could I go up again in a year or two if I failed?) What do their T&P documents look like? What's the full departmental and institutional process and timeline? What kind of track record does the place have with tenuring (anyone, but especially women, minorities, etc.). Would I have to give up rank as well as tenure? Had I already met the standards for tenure? Could I get adequate research support/course releases if I wasn't already a shoo-in for tenure? Etc.

So I'm not against giving up tenure to get ahead, especially given that there are far, far more jobs listed at the entry level than there are once you have tenure. (I applied, post-tenure, for three jobs listed at the assistant level in the same geographic region as my spouse. Under no circumstances would I have started my tenure clock totally over, and I was privately uncertain whether I'd take any of them without tenure. . . but I decided to push all those worries to the back of my mind and see what they might offer, if I even got far enough in the process to find out.) But whether it's the right decision depends on a whole host of factors that are hard to predict until there's an offer on the table and/or you're in a position to investigate the department and institution's policies.

Nik said...

I did think the blanket "Do not give up tenure" advice was a little extreme. It's good to hear you at least applied to a few assistant-prof positions. I'm not alone in at least considering them! Like I said, Arizona's just a particularly bad place right now, but there are so many factors to consider in moving that I'm reluctant to go on the market again to face them. But I might! Thanks again for this conversation. It has helped a lot.

heu mihi said...

Good post, and a good topic. Definitely the feeling of...motionlessness, no more visible markers of success, not so much to strive for--those are a part of the restlessness.

Another side of it, though, is that it seems like The End. At least in my case, given that I don't love my location, tenure has left me feeling like I'm going to be where I am literally until I die, and that is not what I want. I know that I could change careers, but I like my career, and there's always the hope that another job will come along.... At what point do I give up that hope and see my life as a) stay where I am, doing what I'm doing, or b) try to find a 9-5 job that I'm remotely qualified for and interested in? And not too old to start out in?

In fact, your post inspired me to formulate one of my own about these same questions:

Contingent Cassandra said...

Another is a radical reassessment of the academic hierarchy: if an increasing number of people making careers at 3/3 and 4/4 institutions (or as adjuncts or independent scholars) produce work that's just as good as that produced by some of their peers at R1s, do we reevaluate what it means to have a "research" job?

This strikes me as a very interesting possibility, and perhaps the best hope for humanities research. As someone with a 4/4/usually 2 in the summer to make ends meet load and a non-tenure-track job, I find myself looking to tenure-track faculty at teaching-oriented colleges, where research standards for tenure are modest (usually a few articles, accompanied, of course, by strong teaching and service), and books tend to come later in careers (perhaps one way, but not the only way, to qualify for full) as role models. I don't dare say this in front of my tenure-track colleagues, who teach 2/2 (but/and are so overwhelmed, if they're at all conscientious, with service, partly because there's so much service to do, including hiring, supervising, evaluating, etc. non-TT faculty, and so few people to do it, that I'm not sure the additional course reduction really much helps their research), but I suspect my department was stonger in many ways (and not all that much less productive in research) when the majority of the faculty were on 3/3 loads, with lighter research expectations. Given how hard people fought for the 2/2, and the university's explicit goal to become an R1, I can see institutional as well as personal reasons for them to hold on to the 2/2 and everything it signifies. But I'm not at all sure it's the best thing for the department, or for most of the stakeholders in the university -- at least not if a 3/3 and a higher overall proportion of tenure-track faculty were an option.

I'd really like to see my institution, and others like it, try thinking outside the Carnegie-classification box about how teaching, and teaching faculty, fit into a research-oriented university (or even what a "research-oriented" university could and should mean). But nobody seems eager to think outside that particular box.

undine said...

If you're financially secure without a job and okay about not getting tenure if that happens, I'd say go for it. But if your livelihood depends on your job, maybe not.

I can't tell if it's just that I'm unusually risk-averse (years of adjuncting will do that to you) or less restless or just have liked the jobs I've had.

undine said...

In response to Flavia's idea about going up for tenure right away and then again if you don't get it: at any place I've ever worked, you get to gamble on tenure once, and if you don't get it the first time, you're done and have to move on.

Flavia said...


Often those who are hired with a certain number of years on the tenure clock can go up at any point in their first (let's say) three years, so going up "early" isn't penalized. I know of several such situations. That's why it's important to know the particulars at the hiring institution.

Flavia said...

Heu Mihi:

Thanks! And I don't think I've commented at your blog since you've been back, but I'm really glad you're blogging again. (Perhaps something else to keep the energy & enthusiasm up?)


That's really interesting, and an important perspective to have. We all know that research expectations are going up at non-research institutions, but I hadn't thought about the costs that accompany that even when those raised expectations come along with a lighter courseload.

As I suggested in an earlier post, my sense is that, among research-active faculty there are outliers who produce an insane amount of work--the Joyce Carol Oateses of the research world--and then there are people working hard and steadily, but more or less in proportion to the carrots and the sticks at their particular institution. Some people at R1s would really benefit from having less pressure to produce; some people at teaching schools would benefit from having more of a fire lit under them.

I think it's generally good that more faculty are research-active and are trained both to value and produce research--except if a) there's no outlet for that energy, or b) the demands for research are ever higher, and disproportionate to the time and opportunities. Even a talented scholar can burn out or be made miserable if the expectations don't suit her job or work style.

undine said...

Thanks, Flavia, for responding. I've only known places where if you move to them go up early, you have to abide by the decision up or out, although good mentoring by the department and chair ought to tell you whether it's best to go up or to wait.