What Tenure Feels Like

Brian Taylor

May 26, 2009

One of my colleagues recently asked, "What does it feel like to have tenure?" I paused, then answered, "It feels better than not having tenure."

It was an honest answer, but I regret its glibness. He'll be up for tenure in a few years and I think he sincerely wanted to know. After the official announcement of my promotion, I had received any number of congratulations, and my response had consistently been "Thanks," and then, "The problem with getting tenure is it feels hard to celebrate. It just feels like something I was supposed to do. The only way this would be a big deal would be if I hadn't gotten tenure." In fact, it reminded me of when I graduated from high school and my family gave me gifts to celebrate the success that it had long been assumed I would achieve, and that I would have been slaughtered for failing to achieve.

But my colleague's question deserves a more honest answer. And after some thought I've decided that what I feel is a sensation I've been awaiting for quite a few years: I feel like an adult.

That new sense of adulthood has less to do with the liberation of being able to suck at my job and not get fired (a myth anyway) than with the fact that I will soon be earning more money than I need. To be clear, I work at a state university in Florida, I don't earn much, and so receiving the 9-percent raise that comes with tenure and promotion means that I will earn a little bit more than not much. But I don't need much.

At any other time, some extra cash might have sent me, wallet flapping as I ran, to the bookstore, to iTunes, to that hallowed hall of all things targeted right at my taste, Anthropologie. But in a year in which my colleagues are receiving only a 1-percent raise (and that after a long union battle), when my friends are being laid off, when people much worse off than my friends are losing their homes, their health insurance, and their very sense of themselves, my relative economic ease makes me feel responsible, even guilty. I have job security and a reasonable salary. I have no dependents. I have summers off if I want them. And incredibly, joyously, I have a job that I love. I would hate me if I weren't me.

So how does it feel to have tenure? It feels lucky. It feels a little like maybe I don't deserve it. It feels like I ought to do something to deserve it.

Those pretenure years are ones of self-absorption to the point at which many of us reject any responsibilities not immediately applicable to our CV's. "Say no to everything that interferes with your research," we are told as junior faculty members. "You want a bulletproof vitae," an associate dean told me in my first year. You want "deep tenure" (an application so good it cannot be denied), she added.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't know what normal is when given an instruction so vague. Back in elementary school I won a tiny plastic beagle for brainstorming the most uses of a spoon —I had listed 25 while most of the kids had about four (top three answers: "eating ice cream," "digging dirt," and "hitting my brother"). But the truth is I could have kept making that list forever. When told to fill an infinite list, I go at it until I run out of time.

So being told to fill a bulletproof vitae, to reach deep tenure, meant I kept my head down, list-making, for five years. Having tenure feels like being released from list-making. It feels like I'm suddenly a little bit more me and a little bit less who other people want me to be.

I'm a fiction writer, and one of the honest worries I have about being an artist in academe is that often what's most readily publishable is work in the vein of what has come before. In fiction, what's most readily publishable is often short, has a strong voice, and is easily understood. And when you are list-making for your CV, you might feel inclined to produce such work, mightn't you?

Getting tenure feels like I can take a year to write a short story —a really weird short story with an ambiguous ending. It feels like I can try to write something better than what I've written before because I can risk failing. It feels like I can ask, Does the world really need another short story that doesn't risk failing?

Actually, I started producing what I think is better writing (although that hasn't been tested against the weight of other people's opinions yet) even before I got tenure. All it took was turning in my tenure application. When time was called and my list-making had to stop, my work felt more my own. I have a strange suspicion that this past academic year has been the freest of my career. I didn't have the added service responsibilities of a senior faculty member, but I also didn't have the publication pressures of a junior faculty member.

I imagine next year I will feel responsible for two worlds —proving myself anew to my senior colleagues and advocating for my junior ones. I know I'll be asked to serve as a mentor for at least one of our new hires; I suspect I'll be expected to teach, write, and publish just as I did before tenure. And I know I'll start thinking about the list that must be filled before I can reach full professor. But for this year, I am appreciative of the ritualistic stocktaking that I was forced to endure in tabulating, annotating, and explaining my past five professional years.

The feel-good nature of having to present myself in the best possible light and having my department, college, and university receive me in that light was a pleasant enough ego boost. But, perhaps oddly, I equally appreciate what felt like one of the most discouraging moments of the whole year, when I received a letter from an outside evaluator that marked me as not much more than just OK. Tenure applications don't have a lot of room for less-than-glowing evaluations —everyone involved in the process recognizes that even a hint of criticism can leave room for denial. But all that enthusiastic support can cause complacency in its immediate aftermath. I'm grateful to have received that one (and thankfully only) reminder not to believe the hype. It pushes me to keep striving.

I don't know how tenure will feel five years from now, or 20. But right now, it feels like I have come out of the self-imposed prison of my self-absorption. It feels —in the immortal words of flight attendants everywhere —like I have secured my oxygen mask, and it is time to offer assistance to those around me.

Perhaps what I ought to feel is a deeper level of responsibility to the institution that is offering me sanctuary, or to the students who also make their home here. But I have always felt responsible to my institution and my students. I have always offered my time and what intelligence I have to support them. What I really keep thinking about is that extra money.

In a timely coincidence, I recently read Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, which espouses pledging a percentage of your earnings to global aid. And what I've found, now that I give a small (really, it's small, I'm no saint) piece of each of my paychecks away, is that I feel more invested in the way that I earn my money, and maybe a little more deserving of it.

I still buy books, CD's, jewelry, and, recently, a pretty big TV, but I'm increasingly conscious of the value of doing something for myself versus the value of doing something for someone else. Having tenure means I can do more for myself, and it means I can do more for others. Isn't that why we want tenure? So that, in addition to resting easy in old age, we can teach, write, and serve our fields with integrity and without fear? Isn't the point of all that early self-absorption so that, ultimately, we can give more —not just earn more?

And quite honestly, being able to choose a charity to spend money on every two weeks feels a lot like shopping and is just as much fun. Maybe I'm not such an adult after all.

In August, A. Papatya Bucak will become an associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.