If You Write It, They Will Come

It’s been just over a year since my first blog post, and a dozen or so posts later, I’ve managed to relay the basics of how I was denied tenure. It’s been quite the journey. I didn’t have much of a plan, which is probably obvious to anyone who’s read the whole thing. In retrospect, I’d do a couple of things differently. But every time I thought about developing an overall writing strategy, I thought I’d puke. There’s nothing quite like being fired -- and in a such a disparaging way -- to unleash torrents of professional and personal self-doubt. Even after so much time had passed, and even though I’ve landed on my feet, I just couldn’t bring myself to systematically think about how to proceed. The best I could do was to take it chronologically, and that’s what I’ve done. There’s one decision that I made at the outset though, one from which I didn’t deviate and wouldn’t change. This is MY story, and I’ve told it as I experienced it. Not how others may or may not have experienced the same events, but how I experienced them. I posted all of the original documents to provide context and maybe lend some legitimacy to the telling, but my purpose was not to analytically dissect the end of my career from some objective perch. I figured there was plenty of time for that. And, as it turns out, there are plenty of other people who have been more than happy to dissect it for me. But more on that later.

Instead, I made a point of being fully subjective. I didn’t see any other way of starting a dialogue about a difficult topic without being as honest -- and as vulnerable -- as I could be about my version of the truth. I don’t need or want anyone’s approval or validation; I don’t need or want anyone to agree with my version of events. I just wanted to tell it like I saw it, and to begin a conversation about failure in the academy.

And, there’s been a lot of conversation! Most of it hasn’t taken the form I thought it would, though.

I’d hoped that readers would comment on the blog, see it as a space to share their own stories about tenure or other issues in academia, and get feedback from others also interested in the conversation. But it’s not surprising that most people with negative experiences aren’t keen on baring their souls on a stranger’s website for the world to see. And even if some were inclined to share in such a public setting, legal proceedings often prohibit them from doing so.

So, much of the dialogue has been through personal correspondence. I’ve had the privilege of meeting truly remarkable scholar teachers, from many disciplines including political science, who have confronted obstacles to their academic success in one form or another. Like me, most have complex stories to tell, combinations of institutional and individual failure. Some have moved on from the academy to find professional fulfillment and happiness elsewhere. A few have more tragic stories that haven’t ended as well. All of them would benefit from knowing the others, and perhaps some day they will.

Many have connected through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned that friends and colleagues whom I’ve known for years have their own stories to tell. Many hold positions of influence in and out of the academy and it’s been gratifying to hear about their insights, reflections, and efforts to address institutional challenges.

And there is, as one might expect in the age of the Internet, an impressive online community of PhDs and former academics who provide much-needed professional and personal support. These folks are remarkable in their resilience, empathy, and ingenuity in developing solutions to many of the problems faced by former academics and those who pursue alt-ac careers. I count myself lucky to know a few of them.

I fully expect that there are many among these folks who question my version of events. I know of at least a handful, a couple of whom are close friends. It has always been the case--and it will always be--that there’s disagreement about whether the failure was more mine than the institution’s. And that’s fine with me. In fact, it’s good with me. The academy is a complex place, and much of my future writing will explore in greater depth--and greater objectivity--the nature of individual and institutional failure.

Actually, I have a lot of catching up to do on that front. As I discovered soon after I started writing the blog, the “exploration” of my failure is well underway.

It turns out that the most frequent conversation about my blog hasn’t engaged me directly at all. Instead, it occurs in a different space under a cloak of anonymity. It came to my attention a couple weeks after my first post; I wouldn’t have known about it at all except that I got a notification from my site that the hits were off the charts. Turns out Wordpress collects all kinds of stats, including the number of views and visitors, likes and comments, and their countries of origin. Who knew?

It also tells you what links visitors use to visit your website.

I remember PoliSciRumors (PSR) as PoliSciJobRumors from my grad school days. It was, and is, a (largely) anonymous, online resource for information and gossip about the job market in political science. It’s been a long time, but I don’t recall quite the range of topics as appear on PSR today.

As I write, a quick look at the homepage reveals threads about the market and hires at various universities, climate change and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, anti-Semitism, Alex Jones, Eminem, boredom, spousal hires, and how to list various degrees on one’s CV. I haven’t done a careful analysis of the table of contents, but it appears that most threads have fewer than 20 posts, a few have a hundred or so. Some span years, others are brief, others new. It’s abundantly clear that some are more obviously related to professional development than others.

If you do a search for “tenure,” you're likely to find at the top of the list a link to a thread called, “Tenure denial blog.”

Yep. That one’s about me.

Sooo, from the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” view, my blog is an enormous success! For someone interested in creating dialogue about tenure denial, I couldn’t have asked for more. Over 400 posts, more than 64,000 views! Twenty-two pages! And every time I post, there’s a flurry of activity on my blog as the number of viewers surge; even between posts, and after more than a year, there are almost daily referrals from PSR to my blog. Way to go, Jen!

Yeah, well, not quite.

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t reflect a particularly deep professional or intellectual conversation.

This is not to say there aren’t posts that contribute in meaningful ways to the discussion about tenure and other issues. There are several posts that tell personal stories about both positive and negative academic experiences, and others that provide supportive responses. There are many posts that provide useful insights about the academy and institutional processes, more generally, in an effort to unpack the complexity of professional requirements and administrative decision making. And some posts provide some constructive criticism about my interpretation of events. I wish they’d engaged me directly rather than posting anonymously on PSR, but at least they engaged each other.

Mostly, though, the “dialogue” is what you’d expect from a social media forum in which anyone can participate and do so behind a wall of anonymity. Not surprisingly, it’s exceptionally judgmental, and gratuitously cruel at times.

Most of the comments are openly hostile to my concerns about the process that led to my denial. It’s interesting that all the recommendations to deny tenure are taken at face value, that the denial is seen as a given that requires little examination. The instinct is to see failure as the individual’s rather than the institution’s. It fits perfectly with the view that academic accomplishment is appropriately measured in terms of numbers (of journal articles, of new teaching preps, of summer money), with little attention to the myriad ways that we contribute through our scholarship, teaching and service. One can critique my CV while also seeing institutional flaws, but nuance is not a strength of many of these commenters.

It’s worth noting that there’s much consternation about my apparent unwillingness to accept any responsibility for my denial. More than a few posts refer to me as “delusional.” And many are annoyed that I’m “bitter” and feel “betrayed” about something they see as so obviously my fault.

I admit to being caught off guard initially by these responses. But it’s clear that these folks think I was naive (even “stupid”) to expect verbal and written standards to be meaningful and consistently applied, and to believe what I was told by mentors and administrators. They see decisions to change jobs to live with my partner, to have children, and to care for a sick parent as choices that are not conducive to being a successful academic. From this--wrong-minded, in my view--perspective, it’s no wonder they think I’m a whiny, unreflective, and entitled person who failed spectacularly.

And not just a person. A woman. The thread is littered with sexism, much of it aimed at me, but also directed at other contributors to the thread and academia more generally. Most remarks are subtly discriminatory--the kind that is often excused as simply the rules of the game or women being overly sensitive. I suspect that the same comments wouldn’t be made about similarly situated men, but I’m just a female snowflake, so what do I know?

Several posts are more blatant, and of the cruder variety that one expects to see among trolls--although perhaps not in a (semi?) professional space that is presumably a resource for so many of our graduate students.

I’ve pulled a few of my favorites:

  • Women are usually very good at this game: look at me, I am a innocent little victim who just had a child and ugly white men don’t want to tenure me for my vajey and kids. It turns out, she is a total psychopath.
  • Few made the case that tenure was appropriate, but no one wanted to deny a female given history and department politics. [Made in response to my tenure case at Kentucky. It seems everyone’s an expert.]
  • Jesus, she just won’t stop. The ‘institutional failure” was the typical kind for a low-end University -- that is, the faculty are wusses and didn’t tell a garbagewoman that she was on track to be kicked out sooner than they did.
  • This woman is insane. Now she’s basically blaming her sh**tty CV on her kids?
  • Not sure why she didn’t play the gender card.
  • She wanted to be treated like the good ole boys (even though she’s against such a system), but in her case the I’m-a-woman so just go ahead and give me tenure system.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t read this stuff. But it’s just such a train wreck--it’s impossible for me to ignore. It’s lurking out there, taunting me. Literally.

More importantly, I’ve found it necessary to monitor the thread to protect myself, my family, and a few of my friends and colleagues from some of the more vile posts. Thankfully, there are some rules of engagement at PSR and moderators who are responsive to concerns about slanderous and threatening comments.

In general, though, these people--whoever they are--have the right to express themselves. And if they have some deep-seated need to do it at my expense, then so be it.

BUT! All is not lost.

There’s a ton of material in this PSR thread. Beyond the (sometimes frightening) insights into how some in our discipline understand the inner workings of academia, the posts provide some compelling writing prompts. There’s plenty to go around, so perhaps you’ll continue to join me in future posts as I think and write more about success and failure in the academy.

A Light in the Dark

I’m guessing most people who are denied tenure will confirm how extremely lonely and isolating the process is. If colleagues know about what’s going on (and many of them don’t), they are reluctant to engage with someone facing a negative decision. The disregard by the people involved in the process, while understandable, is particularly awkward and even humiliating. One day you’re friendly and supportive colleagues, the next day they’re evaluating you, and then abruptly you are invisible. I did not see or speak again to many of my colleagues, even though I spent almost another year in the department.

But after I submitted my response to the Dean’s letter, a few of my senior colleagues in the department asked if they could add a letter to my file in support of promotion and tenure (in the Library).

The collegiality they offered by their request was priceless.

And the significance of their letter was beyond measure as it shined a light on the opaque process of the department’s senior faculty meeting about my candidacy (see my post Feckless. Utterly Feckless.).

There are a number of take-aways from the letter, but perhaps the most fundamental insight is that tenure decisions are not necessarily – or at least not completely – merit based.  In my case, the decision may not have been fully informed by my record since it seems that many of the faculty didn’t have access to my file, including the external letters.

At the very least, it’s clear that issues that should not have been related to the merits of my case were raised in the meeting, including my exercise of parental leave, the personal relationships of some in the room to my mentors, and a recent hire in the department. I opposed the hire, a senior person who I believe participated in the meeting.

We suspected that nothing would change as a result of their letter to the Dean of Academic Affairs, and we were mostly right. By this time, it was clear that the decision to deny tenure had long been made, and probably initiated from on high.

But I am forever thankful for the effort of these colleagues, not just on my behalf but for the larger principles that they defended. They renewed my energy to continue the challenge, which became less about the particulars of my file and more about the fundamentals of the tenure process generally, as my dossier moved from the School to the University committees and administrators.