13 March 2008

No Cross, No Crown

The latest viral protest thread making the rounds is the campaign to register disapproval at the recent decision to deny tenure to Andrea Smith at the University of Michigan. As the gears of the online posts, remarks, petitions, and even a group on Facebook (!) slowly move forward and gather speed, there is for me one part familiarity and one part curiosity. The familiarity of course consists in the overheated speech one now associates with such actions, the endless outrage, the high-flying yet strangely naïve rhetoric, the easy slippage into épater le bourgeois whilst simultaneously declaring ownership over one of its primary symbols.

This we are used to, and for some of us, form a scrim of white noise so intense that sometimes it is hard to listen to the important beats beneath the screeching. Connected to this mild revulsion at polemic excess, ironically, is the concomitant curiosity, natürlich, which lives, for me at least, in the question of just how and why the Women’s Studies department faculty could have voted against Smith’s candidacy.

For those unfamiliar, relevant journalistic details can be found here and here. Smith is lucky enough to be sufficiently well placed and networked to actually engender a campaign in the first place (not to mention a story in the CHE). As I have observed before, most of us denied the brass ring of tenure or mid-career renewal slink into the shadows: mortified, depressed, and alone. And which lucky institution will snap Smith up still remains to be seen. For all the digital sturm-und-drang, the simple fact of the matter is that, regardless of whatever troubling dimensions of the case, Smith has enough capital to easily move into another position. However devastating or disappointing the outcome of this decision may be for her, and not to undermine the power of these processes on the academic self, I doubt there will be many nights of nail-biting anxiety over future prospects in the profession, unlike the faceless, nameless others whose limbs litter the dreaming spires.

That said, there are elements of the case that seem strange. For someone so accomplished, at least on paper, to not receive tenure begs the question of where the bar is for the rest of us. I suspect, however, that this might be a case of being too brilliant, too fabulous, too accomplished, remembering the egghead axiom— "The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember!" Getting to the bottom of any tenure case, even when you’re inside of it, is folly, of course. Suffice it to say, tenure and decisions surrounding tenure are the academic equivalent of the Immaculate Conception: just one of those mysteries in which one does not question so much as believe. But, if it is true, as La Vicks and Love Buckets recently remarked in a delicious blasphemy, that the cult of Christianity is grounded in a 15-year old Jewess “in trouble” from an illicit liaison with a Roman soldier, than there is always more to the story than meets the eye, in spite of belief, hope, and yes, inspiration.

All of which is to say that in spite of all the efforts to empiricise, measure, and delineate tenure, to “understand” the process, a large part of it will always be mysterious, the final hazing, the culminating movement of neophyte to acolyte. I feel ambivalent about such an interpretation, obviously, only insofar as such belief systems can blind us to the real inequities in tenuring processes. Similar to other rigorous, mystical institutions, like the military, Roman Catholicism, Hollywood, Broadway, and the dark arts of Wall Street and the City, the university also has its blood sacraments, which include ritualistic purging. Part of the problem with tenure being wrapped in mystery, ceremony, and hocus-pocus worthy of a Skull and Bones initiation, is that in the dark all cats are gray, and it becomes hard to discern legitimate concern (and yes, indeed, outrage) from hucksterism and carpet bagger self-aggrandisement. This has led a sizable portion of the profession to shrug their shoulders when tenure scandals emerge, or worse, reach for the easy answer of dismissal (“activist-scholar”).

Of course, there are good reasons why someone, even with Smith’s impressive record, could be denied tenure. This is the snake in the Garden: meritocracy is the usually the least of it. Someone like me, on the margins of the university metropole, knows relatively little of the inside details, other than what I’ve heard on the telephone and read online. But there is enough out there to begin to question the dynamics of the decision at Michigan in important and crucial ways. And I don’t mean via the mechanism of performed outrage, but rather how and why a tenure committee would turn down a Nobel Prize nominee?

Tenure is a bar, but is also very much about a bar, if that makes sense. It is about who really counts in the Business. Aside from the talk of abolishing it, tenure remains important for all of the usual reasons (primarily academic freedom), but for others perhaps more important, especially faculty governance. Without the job security of tenure, the professoriate is reduced to the role of a paid workforce serving at the whim of various bottom lines. More importantly, ending tenure would mean throwing the whole sadistic and ritualistic system into disarray: it means, oddly enough, removing the mystery, and replacing Christ on a Cross with a test tube, or worse, a torn glossy photo of the latest talentless starlet from Vanity Fair. That guild model upon which tenure is based is dead as a doornail, yet we dwell in its ashes, rubbing them on our faces like barbarians, in the mistaken belief that they still connote magic. We still believe in tenure because it is linked to the mysteries of the profession, and like all dead systems, that faith is much more dangerous in decline, like a drowning swimmer.

The most salient aspect of this case, from what I can see, is not whether Smith was a good colleague, whatever that means, or even a pleasant person, but rather the simple fact, as my colleague La Gamine recently observed, that Smith would not be in the unenviable position of denied tenure if not for the very fact that she was a Native American feminist “activist-scholar.” In other words, her socio-corporeal identity and the direction of her work that that identity has influenced are the problem. To paraphrase Geraldine Ferraro, if Smith were a white woman, much less a white man, she would most likely have not been denied tenure.

Her public record, from what we can see, is exemplary, by most casual standards at par or indeed above her tenure cohort. Rather, it is apparent that other issues are exerting influence here: personality clashes, professional intimidation and jealousy, slippery and inchoate racism and sexism potentially masquerading under “fit,” questions over politics, intellectual work, and which work "counts." In any event, I certainly hope the legal team at Michigan has instructed their overseers to start saving their pennies.

We will never know the real story, or even an approximation of the "real," although we will get shrill versions. Interestingly, the forces arrayed against Smith are seemingly also not the usual suspects: it was, after all, the Women’s Studies faculty that voted against her candidacy. There are also apparently factions of Native American Studies that find her work anathema. Yet, as much of a critique as might be mustered against Smith or her supporters more broadly, I am troubled by the implications of a decision seemingly grounded, in whole or part, on who one is, what one is, and the denial, not only of tenure, but of picturing that “one,” in whatever valence, within the precincts of the university. Again, this concern is not necessarily for Smith herself, at the centre of the metropole, but for the rest of us in the academic outré-mer, without support committees and networked friends and Facebook group pages, who struggle everyday within the occasionally oxymoronic of the intellectual of color.

Yet, to veer off the distressingly scripted pathway we have been following here, perhaps this oxymoron, like tenure, is itself another one of the mysteries of the profession, and that the martyr is as much an aspect of our rituals as anything else. Therefore, there exists the possibility that the drama unfolding at Michigan is itself part and parcel of the Business, central to its power, a coup de théâtre in which we are all playing our roles, perhaps a little too perfectly.


kiita said...

An important perspective on Smith's position of power. What of the cases that are not so easily clear-cut as Andy's? In which, if we're lucky, there may be students who perhaps shouldn't be in the business of defending tenure?

The Catholic iconography hit home for me. Beautifully written.

adjunct whore said...

wow, i hadn't heard of this before, it is deeply disturbing. her work looks fascinating. this is one of those academic moments the endgender collective disgust and woe.

i'm not sure i understand the gist of your post: is one point to highlight this as an example of the decline of tenure overall? or that denying people of color tenure is a specific notch on that belt? or that it points to the vulnerability, within a dying system, of people of color not buoyed by her groundswell of support?

in anycase, very interesting case.

momo said...

"That guild model upon which tenure is based is dead as a doornail, yet we dwell in its ashes, rubbing them on our faces like barbarians, in the mistaken belief that they still connote magic."
This sentence? Gorgeous, and right on.

GayProf said...

UMICH Women's Studies, from what I can tell, already had a reputation of being unwelcoming to women of color. This seemed to confirm that in an explicit way.

I agree with AW, though, your particular position isn't entirely clear to me.

Cero said...

Indeed - the analogy to mysteries, martyrs and ritual elucidates a great deal.

I am one of these big defenders of tenure because of the governance issue (in addition to academic freedom of course). However I notice that even with tenure governance is increasingly the purview of staff-type employees, consultants, and so on. Do you think professors are turning into white elephants?

Is it possible that universities as such will die and and humanistic learning will migrate to some other type of institution or venue?

kiita said...

I've been thinking about the questions regarding this post, since I linked to it on my blog. I didn't read into a call for institutional change, much less a call against the tenure system. Partly, it seems difficult to articulate clearly what it means to lose faith in tenure or to shift one's belief in it.

Tenured Radical said...

I wish I had written this.


enkerli said...

Any advice for junior faculty, graduate students, and unaffiliated scholars?

Paul Gowder said...

Jesus, the writing... wow.

Oso Raro said...

A known correspondent writes:

"My primary concerns with your representation of the
situation are two-fold [...] Your estimation of
Smith's "capital" overlooks the realities of her race,
gender, and nature of her work, as well as her
reputation institutionally as a "troublemaker," a
profile now only exacerbated by the recent publicity.
To date, there is no "lucky institution" on the
horizon for Smith [...] I'm worried that some readers might
mistakenly find their own distorted attitudes
confirmed by your characterization of Andrea Smith's
supposed luck and capital. I have heard too often to
count--without doubt, as have you--the barely hidden
resentment in the attempts at 'comfort' by white
colleagues: 'YOU won't have any problem finding
another job, [...] You're an Ivy League educated gay
man of color; you can get any job you want; etc...'
We know how wrong this is. This is the fantasy of
white people, completely unsupported by reality. [...] Second, you express a suspicion that 'the drama
unfolding at Michigan is itself part and parcel of the
Business, central to its power, a coup de théâtre in
which we are all playing our roles, perhaps a little
too perfectly.' This is always a concern [...] Which is not to say that the university
won't find some way to contain or even incorporate
their action and their rhetoric, but I want to make
clear that these students [Smith's supporters] are remarkably adept at
interrogating and critically negotiating the academic
industrial complex and the web of complicities in
which we all find ourselves variously entangled.
(Your own response, for instance, acknowledges that
'we are all playing our roles.' My point here is that
you might rethink what role your own rhetoric can be
recruited to serve despite the many ways in which you
have established your oppositionality to the

These are good points. I think the piece was trying to limn the nuances of the Smith case, both in its immediacy but also as an allegory for tenure and the profession. And this was and remains an ambivalent task for me. Adjunct Whore and Gay Prof expressed some confusion regarding my intentions, and there is indeed indeterminacy, in my own betwixt and between regarding tenure and the mystifications of the profession.

In the first instance of the quoted correspondence, I agree that typically the benefits of racial and gendered identities on successful job placements are overstated, to put it politely. In my experience, it actually puts a candidate at a disadvantage, as they get pigeon holed into categories of appropriate areas that are determined and reinforced by their racialised/sexualised/gendered identity. And the simple fact of the matter is that universities prefer white faculty teaching race, mostly because of the lingering effects of white supremacist culture on our minds: white colleagues don’t offend by their very presence, and white colleagues are considered “safe” in a way no one, not even the biggest “sell-out,” will ever be.

By way of example, shortly after I was fired from Sadistic College, I went to wedding party for a white junior faculty member who also taught race, where one of the older (white) faculty grey beards announced to all present that the faculty member was “one of us” [literal quote]. Such naked displays of racial preference and the tangible effects of white supremacy are not hard to find if you’re paying attention. He went on to earn tenure, of course, and accolades for his emotional performance of tears in the classroom whilst discussing black literature, which turned on the heiresses, as you can imagine. Much nicer than actually having to look into the eyes of real, live Black person, and feel, well, feel all sorts of uncomfortable things. This is not true all the time, of course, about white faculty, but in my experience, is more true than not.

The second point is harder to mine, only because it may speak to differential understandings of socio-cultural politics in the profession and amongst the professoriate of colour. My ambivalence towards tenure and, in this instance, the Smith case, is measured by an understanding of the uses of discourse by the institution. But suffice it to say that my primary concern is not for the cases that receive publicity and renown (or infamy), for they have their own energy and power, but for the invisible cases that occur every year like clockwork, in silence, like mine, or indeed, like my known correspondent, who went through a very similar experience.

While my own rhetorical stances may circulate and travel in ways far from their intended purposes, I don't think, perhaps naively so, that the larger ambivalencies that the entry tries to trace out are of better use to reactionary power centres in the university than the bald-faced, open skepticism and opposition of those with much larger public personae, not to mention salaries, than myself, which apparently in this instance includes a majority of the faculty in one of Smith's home departments.

No man is an island, of course, and the entry reflects some of the conversations I have had with interlocutors across the profession, on feeling torn between recognising a professional wrong, yet also sensing somehow a bread-and-circus effect to the way in which the case has unfolded beyond the precincts of the University of Michigan. This is not due to Smith herself, but the way in which we (students, faculty, what have you) organise our outrage, which is to say, largely impotently, because for as much as we may express our unhappiness at the state of things in the profession, we are also part of it too, and want success, or job security, within the very apparatus that also demeans and wounds us. We are, indeed, slaves to academe, biting the hands that feeds us and loving it.

All of which is to say that perhaps, yes, I am playing some sort of strange, Linda Chavez-esque scripted role, whether conscious or unconscious, although I would like to think not, obviously. At the very least, I have better sartorial sensibility than Chavez, in her bows and sensible wool knits. No kitten heels there.

I guess the point, for me at least, was revealing that there was a script in the first place, and a fundamental ambivalence over the roles which we/I play in the heavily costumed period piece of the university.

Cero said...

"He went on to earn tenure, of course, and accolades for his emotional performance of tears in the classroom whilst discussing black literature, which turned on the heiresses, as you can imagine."

SO like my SLAC. !!!

And yes, I know that it is harder to get tenure if you're not one of the white guys. Much harder. It's just that I come from the days when it was hard to even get a job not being a white guy. In those days one knew one had to be twice as good and everything, but it was a recent improvement to be allowed to compete at all. And to get tenure as a non-white guy meant that all the tenured ones would no longer be white. And so it seems premature to give it up and go back to the bad old days just because the tenure system is still so unfair.

I don't mean this to be inflammatory but the analogy that comes to mind is actually Roe v. Wade. Just because it has been eroded and so on, or there are problems with it, I don't want to dump it, because the bad old days were definitely worse and I remember them and saw what happened.

adjunct whore said...

interesting elaboration and discussion. as a white woman who does indeed "teach" race, sexuality, and class stratification (though i confess, i've never cried while doing so)--and by teach, i mean make the various forms of ongoing oppression, subtle and obvious, psychologically hurtful and bodily hurtful (among a host of other things), a central, visible, important part of all aspects in my classes (syllabus, discussion, history, performance), in short, i work to make students aware of the white supremicist ideology and privelege shaping our collective existence; i would like to make a distinction between black/white as a rhetorical strategy and an unpacked monolithic category.

obviously, or perhaps not so obviously, my position as a female professor of any color compromises my own academic personae, career, reception, access to power.

this is not meant as a self-righteous stab at relative oppression based on identity politics; but as a gentle push to eliminate claims that lump all us white people together except as a rhetorical strategy, not as evidence based on a lot of stupid white men.