Friday, June 5, 2015

Mearcstapa: Boundary Patrollers

When I used to teach Beowulf to undergraduates, I often compared the first parts of the poem to a classic American Western: Grendel and his mother were the outlaws who had harassed and taken over the town, scary liminal figures (OE mearcstapa: boundary-walkers) whose very existence proclaimed that there was something rotten in Denmark. Beowulf himself was also an outsider, like the gun-toting loner who cleans up the Western town, one who can’t really ever fit in. Like the gunfighter riding off into the sunset, he is too much the outsider to be integrated into the community; Beowulf has become too much like the monsters he fights.

I hesitate, in some ways, to begin a “Post-Academic” blog, and to even make the attempt to forge a “post-academic” identity for myself, in part because such an identity positions itself so clearly as just the sort of liminal figure embodied by Beowulf—or Grendel. Which kind of figure I am, after all, may only be a matter of perception or perspective. But Beowulf and Grendel both are symptoms of the rottenness at the heart of Heorot; they are, in a sense, generated by the very structure of the story they find themselves caught up in. I feel a kind of kinship with them both.

And thus perhaps I must speak, or write, precisely because I find myself peculiarly positioned on the borders of academia. Like Beowulf, or Grendel, perhaps I may see more clearly to the heart of matters than do those who live them more from the inside.

Gareth Hinds's Graphic
Novel Adaptation of
So, I have been thinking this week about Wisconsin. Now, I will admit at the start that I have not looked too closely into the specific proposed changes to state law that have recently been affecting the state university system in Wisconsin, but I am intrigued to note that Wisconsin is a Northern border state, and yet placed solidly in the Midwest; the UW system sees itself standing near the heart of the system of American collegiate education, and many of those living in the UW system feel they are under attack from the ravages of a marauding outsider with little understanding of or regard for the culture or traditions of the place. There’s something rotten in Wisconsin.

Or at least this is the impression I get from reading my Facebook feed: there have apparently been huge budget cuts to the university system, as well as implicit or explicit attacks on the system of tenure. And as far as the governor of Wisconsin seems to see himself as a potential or viable presidential candidate, many academics across the country are perhaps reasonably worried that what has come to Wisconsin may soon enough begin its ravaging elsewhere.

One of the strands of discourse that has been spreading out from that center, then, has been a defense of tenure, which has (at least sometimes) taken the form of explanations of why it’s a big deal and why it’s necessary to the intellectual freedom of educators. As a person who has enjoyed the security of tenure, of course, I have a great deal of sympathy for these positions. And yet as someone who taught—after tenure—as an untenured instructor, I cannot help noting that if tenure is good for some educators, it is surely good for all of them.

In short, the normalization, over the last few decades, of using (and increasing the numbers of) adjunct and non-tenure-track instructors, at practically every college and university in the land, has had the effect of suggesting to outside observers—indeed, I’d say it suggests to anyone who thinks clearly about the issues—that collegiate education can be accomplished more cheaply and without tenuring the teachers. It seems important to try to say this without pointing a finger of blame anywhere. Cutting the UW budget and working to limit tenure there are simply obvious extensions of the notion that some teachers do not, in fact, need tenure, and that some teachers can teach for lower salaries. If some, why not all?

In many ways, I no longer have a dog in this fight, since I am now self-employed: I am self-tenured for as long as I can stand myself, I guess. Even so, I would love to see the tenured and tenure-track faculty of the land equally mobilize the logic of “if some, why not all?” If tenure is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? If a living—or even middle class—wage is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? This is a moment where common cause needs to be made between tenure-line and non-tenure-line teachers.

And yet, in my experience, tenure-track faculty often seem to work harder to justify their higher position in a two-tier system of instruction than they do to work for the benefit of those caught in the lower (non-tenure-track) tier. It has sometimes felt as if they are concerned to police and patrol that border that separates tenure-track from non-tenure-track with particular diligence. This, of course, is exactly what’s rotten at the heart of academia: the game is already over, if we act as though some teachers (i.e., those on one side of this border) do not need tenure and can be paid but a pittance. If people in tenure-track positions accept the existence or necessity of non-tenure-eligible faculty lines, then they have already accepted that tenure is not really necessary, and they risk reducing the effect of their own arguments to “But tenure is really necessary for me, and for those like me”. Likewise with salary, and with teaching load: “Oh, I’m in a tenure line, I need to teach fewer classes and get paid more because my teaching is linked to my research.” As if some teaching need not be linked to research, as if teaching twice as many courses a term should not be expected to affect the quality of instruction. But if reasonable pay and teaching loads are good for some, why not for all?
First US Edition of Seamus
Heaney's translation

In the end, I worry that every public justification for tenure (or for research components for teaching appointments, or for low teaching loads, or for reasonable salaries) that is not simultaneously a call for the abolishment of the two-tier faculty system is bound to fail upon its own logic. The tacit acceptance of the two-tier faculty system on the part of tenured and tenure-track faculty will only prove the point of the Grendels in the academic Heorot: that some faculty are sheep and some are wolves. The real problem with Grendel, after all, is that he has moved from the borderland into the center and has started eating the warriors: the ones who fancy themselves the wolves, the privileged class. Sure, Hrothgar’s thanes had a difficult and dangerous job, but they had tenure, you know.

[In the interests of clarity and full disclosure: I have friends and colleagues at more than one of UW’s campuses, and none of my comments here are targeted at them. I wish them nothing but the best in dealing with whatever should ultimately happen there. This post may have been prompted by what’s happening in Wisconsin, but it’s not really about those particular events or people, as I hope is clear.]


  1. This would benefit from at least a bit of attention to those pesky details in the new policies legislated in Wisconsin -- not only re tenure for faculty but also re shared governance and the status of for the (far more numerous, many longtime, fulltime) rest of the UW instructional staff. They now will be entirely at-will employees.

    They had the equivalent of tenure, you know. Or, actually, you don't know. So, for those who do wish to know, search for "UW Omnibus Bill" to see its impact on far more than tenured faculty.

    1. Of course, you are right: I don't know, and I didn't make any pretension of knowing those details. Thank you for calling attention to them.

    2. Not sure how Anonymous can claim that longtime, full-time instructional staff had the equivalent of tenure. Certainly on many campuses and in some departments instructional staff had much considerable stability and perhaps even departmental voting rights voting and shared governance stature, but I don't think the case can be made that it has been equivalent to tenure, unfortunately. Perhaps there has really been more of a three tiered system. Excellent post Tom.

    3. There is a status called "indefinite appointment" that is the functional equivalent of tenure when it comes to dismissing an academic or classified staff member (and a few members of both groups have that at my UW System school). There doesn't appear to be much rhyme or reason to who receives this status.

      I can confidently say that many of these folks are among the more bold and outspoken members of both shared governance and university life in general. It is the willingness to lead, to speak, that tenure helps with.

      The question of whether ALL should have tenure and better pay is beside the point; practically, we know that's not going to happen, whether or not we can afford it. Yes, tenured folks probably ought to fight for that more. They should also fight for divestment and for the rain forest and for spaying cats, but it won't happen.

      Of the two choices between having tenure for some or for none, though,the LEAST affordable is a system in which everyone feels the pressure to hold their tongues because of the risk of being dismissed. Being heavily involved in leadership and governance on my campus, I have seen firsthand on a virtually daily basis the consequences of this fear.

      I see, Tom, that you are a book dealer and "perhaps a once-and-future academic." Maybe you already have the economic means to do as you please without fear. Most people don't have that, and most academics are smart enough to see that we are not going in a direction that creates greater opportunities for the average worker, regardless of field. And if you do indeed return to university life, you will find a very different type of work than that which you left.

  2. I am not so economically successful as a bookseller that I can do as I please without fear! I do remain active as a scholar, and I do think of myself, still, as an academic, and I believe I have something to say in that world, though I am not currently employed by a university.

    My point was a simple one: usually defenses of tenure say that academic freedom is a principle that should not be sacrificed. But if we say that universities simply cannot afford to tenure all their teachers, or that practical matters outweigh the principle in the case of some teachers but not others, then the principle has already been compromised, and the defenses may well sound hollow.

  3. An excellent essay that shows how the exception doth become the rule. From Adam Schenck