Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The sweet spot to be cranky

Erin's most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to ... whatever ... comes ... after ... is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation--of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility--stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.

But I'm struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she's still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you're still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don't protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?

Well.

I don't know. She can't, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can't either: she's Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she's bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.

Who's left, then?

Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I've often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it's less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I'll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak--this responsibility--to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.

I'm in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can't express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.

So. The job falls to the associates now: it's our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We've got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use 'em. We must use 'em.

Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?

I'm in the sweet spot. And I'm willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.


5 comments:

  1. Very well said!
    --Elizabeth

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think it's about time those young, newly(ish) tenured professors speak up and speak out because they can (not to mention those senior professors who are past administrative duties, etc). But if change is ever going to come to higher education, it's from your "generation" of *tenured* professors. What's so unfortunate is that there are so few of you left. Retirements are not being replaced by TT faculty. More and more adjuncts, full-time teaching faculty who have little protection.

    Be cranky. I know I am. More of us who can need to speak out and speak up.

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  3. I am, as of last year, an associate / tenured professor and I agree with your point, Aimée, that it is our responsibility to shoulder the work of trying to repair badly damaged institutions because of the freedoms and security that we enjoy and the fact that we are going to be the ones living with the consequences of the current trends in academia.
    My biggest challenge is finding the best way to direct my energy. Here at the U of A we've been engaged in several months of discussion around these issues -- brought into focus by budget cuts (for context see http://artssquared.wordpress.com/ or http://whithertheuofa.blogspot.com/). And even as I finally begin to understand how the university works (I thought I had it figured out many years ago, but turns out I was wrong!) I see few paths forward. Yes, I can -- when issues around hiring sessionals or creating new positions arise in my Department -- act or speak in ways that make the points that Aimée or Erin raise here. But, not to be too much of a downer, I don't actually see much opportunity for "collegial governance" in my university; when I raise my voice -- it is confined to the essentially powerless space of my department, or to the restricted scope of a committee. Professors (at all levels) at the U of A are trying to make noise, even as our President chided us for "negative advocacy." But how well this noise will turn into change remains to be seen.
    All this to say that I would welcome concrete suggestions as to how others envision associate or any professor or member of the university community, can take action in this regard.

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  4. I agree, Aimee, I really do. In grad school I earned the moniker "Spark Plug" from the grad chair, and since tenure I wouldn't characterize my voice at Dalhousie as either reticent or cautious, particularly given the need to defend a vulnerable program.

    But. There's a distinction between the freedom to speak and the authority to effect change, and in some sense that's the not-so-sweet spot in which we associates are. I can badger, critique, propose alternatives, and as you say, advocate -- but I cannot make those alternatives happen or see those for whom I am advocating succeed without the benediction of a dean or a vice-president. Sometimes I've been successful, but sometimes it's sheer effort with no apparent result. And that's frustrating.

    I will say that demographics on our side. Although most of us associates entered the academy with the now-vaguely-hilarious-and/or-ironic message that the baby-boomers were retiring and the field would be ours for the taking, that rank does constitute a/the? significant majority at Canadian universities, many of whom fall on the younger (and hopefully still idealistic, hopefully increasingly vocal) end of the spectrum.

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  5. I admire you for still having the energy and enthusiasm to speak up. I think by the time I ever reach a comparable position in my career (if ever) I will be too jaded to bother. Hopefully faculty like you can be a good influence though.

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