February 28, 2014

On Reaching the Clearing at the End of the Tenure Track

Attention conservation notice: Navel-gazing by a middle-aged academic.

I got tenure a few weeks ago. (Technically it takes effect in July.) The feedback from the department and university which accompanied the decision was gratifyingly positive, and I'm pleased that blogging didn't hurt me at all, and perhaps even helped. I got here with the help of a lot of mentors, colleagues, and friends (not a few of whom I met through this blog), and I feel some vindication on their behalf. For myself, I feel — relieved, even pleased.

Relieved and pleased, but not triumphant. I benefited from a huge number of lucky breaks. I know too many people who would be at least as good in this sort of job as I am, and would like such a job, but instead have ones which are far less good for them. If a few job applications, grant decisions, or choices about what to work on when had turned out a bit different, I could have been just as knowledgeable, had ideas just as good, worked on them as obsessively, etc., and still been in their positions, at best. Since my tenure decision came through, I've had two papers and a grant proposal rejected, and another paper idea I've been working on for more than a year scooped. A month like that at the wrong point earlier on might well have sunk my academic career. You don't get tenure at a major university without being a productive scholar (not for the most part anyway), but you also don't get it without being crazily lucky, and I can't feel triumphant about luck.

It's also hard for me to feel triumph because, by the time I get tenure, I will have been at CMU for nine years and change. Doing anything for that long marks you, or at least it marks me, and I'm not sure I like the marks. The point of tenure is security, and I hope to broaden my work, to follow some interests which are more speculative and risky and seem like they will take longer to pay off, if they ever do. But I have acquired habits and made commitments which will be very hard to shift. One of those habits is to think of my future in terms of what sort of scholarly work I'm going to be doing, and presuming that I will be working all the time, with only weak separation between work and the rest of life. I even have some fear that this has deformed my character, making some ordinary kinds of happiness insanely difficult. But maybe "deformed" is the wrong word; maybe I stuck with this job because I was already that kind of person. I can't bring myself to wish I wasn't so academic in my interests, or that I hadn't pursued the career I have, or that I had been less lucky in it. But I worry about what I have given up for it, and how those choices will look in another nine years, or twenty-nine.

Sometime in the future, I may write about what I think about tenure as an institution. But today is a beautiful winter's day here in Pittsburgh, cold but clear, the sky is a brilliant pale blue right now. It's my 40th birthday. I'm going outside to take a walk — and then probably going back to work.


Posted at February 28, 2014 15:52 | permanent link

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