The Day When Professors Go Extinct
Every department has that one professor. The dinosaur. The Luddite. The one who spills wine on their students’ papers. Shows YouTube videos the entire class. Starts fights at faculty meetings.
Somehow that one professor became the symbol, not the exception.
People used to look up to professors. You know, back in the 90s. When I saw the first Jurassic Park, Professor Ian Malcolm stole my heart. He was so cool. So smart. So witty.
He could explain chaos theory, while making you just a little wet. I used to fantasize about that moment in the jeep. He’s holding my hand. Dribbling water on my knuckles. Now, let’s say a drop of rain falls on your wrist. Which way is the drop going to roll off?
He made me want to become a professor.
Years later, I read White Noise. A brilliant take-down of academic culture. Still, the job sounded like so much fun.
I mean, Jack Gladney’s job looked easy to me when I was 22, sipping espresso at a hipster hangout. He did nothing all day but lounge around his office and show off his intellect to easily-impressed teens.
After finishing that novel I said to myself, “This is exactly the kind of life I want.” Minus the toxic spill.
My first week in a doctoral program disproved almost everything in White Noise. And Jurassic Park. Professors rarely act like that. Plus, it turned out that I had to learn a second language.
Each of our professors assigned us a book a week. They expected us to read extra ones, too. Handed us lists upon lists.
A professor once caught me on a date at cafe. He pulled up a chair and gave me some serious evil eye. He said, “I’m pleased to see you drink coffee. However, I urge you to go home and work on your seminar paper.” The punchline is that I was already planning to.
The average PhD student reads a thousand pages a week. Your third year, they lock you in a small room for three days — where your brain vomits everything you know into about 40 pages of vaguely coherent babble. A month later, three professors grill the shit out of you about what you wrote.
As if you remember.
All of this is to say, nobody gets a PhD because it’s easy. Academia knows how to weed out laziness as well as anybody.
Still, some people do burnout eventually. Or maybe the occasional bullshitter manages to charm their way through.
Kind of like politics. Or life.
It sure would be nice to get rid of all the problem professors. Wouldn’t it? But they have tenure. Too bad. You’ve got one choice. Wait for them to retire. Or die. I guess that’s two options, actually.
Soon, a third option will open up. Extinction. All across the U.S., states are working with boards of trustees to undermine tenure.
If you don’t believe me, check out The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed. They’ve covered the death of tenure for years.
But it’s not a scary bedtime story anymore. It’s happening. Soon, my own university will implement more rigorous post-tenure evaluations. Sounds harmless. Until you read between the lines.
With lots of confusing legalese, my university basically told everyone it doesn’t matter if you win tenure. You still have to publish just as much. Your students still have to love you. And you still have to accept every single invitation to serve on a committee. On top of that, you still have to kiss ass forever. Never say what you actually think.
One bad semester can place you on an “improvement plan.” Another one can lead to non-reappointment.
I’m all for accountability. Some professors really do need a swift kick in the crotch. But the rest of us don’t.
The rest of us do an inhuman amount of work for 4–5 years. We assemble a massive portfolio that gets read closely by two or three different committees, plus professors at other universities.
My tenure portfolio fills a three-inch binder. If my university doesn’t like what they see, I’ll be fired. Excuse me, “declined.”
This means I’ll have to start the entire process over again. At another university. Probably in another state.
Failure to win tenure usually kills your career. Nobody wants to hire a professor who lost their tenure bid. Word gets around.
So the stakes are fairly high.
Here’s the thing. After tenure, you’re supposed to take on more service. Direct more thesis and dissertation committees. Contribute to your community. You finally have more freedom to take risks with your research. Maybe you can speak up during faculty meetings.
Oh, and you can start a family now.
If you already have one, you can spend weekends with them. You know, instead of secluded in your office on campus, ignoring texts from your spouse like “What’s for dinner?”
Tenured professors can refuse orders from their deans and chancellors. Especially if we think they violate our university’s mission or ethics. Or students’ civil liberties.
Tenured faculty can actually stand up for people. They can point out injustice. They can speak unpopular truths.
They can’t be fired for publishing studies that show, yes, climate change actually does happen. The gender wage gap does exist. That illegal immigration “doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact” on the economy. Or that cat-calling actually “violates inherently understood tenets of politeness theory, by engaging in face-threatening acts.”
Because that’s how we write, up here in the tower.
Sure, some professors shoot their mouths off. They abuse their academic freedom. One full professor I know even got caught jerking in a colleague’s office while drunk and high.
Tenure didn’t protect him. He was fired.
See, we’ve got things totally under control.
You’re probably rolling your eyes. Big deal. Everybody has to work. No such thing as a free lunch. Welcome to the real world. Right? Besides, nobody’s forcing me to teach. I could always find another job.
Sure, I could. In fact, I probably will if the situation goes any further south. And so will every other smart, talented professor. Universities will be left with the dregs, the ones who couldn’t find any other form of employment. You know, the very people they wanted to get rid of.
The only people treated worse than un-tenured professors are the part-time faculty. These people do an excellent job. And yet the academy may never recognize their hard work with fair pay. At least I have an office. Most adjuncts don’t. The ones who can find better jobs do.
Stereotypes of the lazy professor have spread throughout American culture. Universities haven’t tried very hard to counteract that image. We’ve let the Scott Walkers of the world defy and vilify us.
Tenure is the only reason people like me went through all this. You know, some basic level of job security. Without that, I might as well return to full-time freelance writing. Because I sure as hell don’t grade papers on Saturday afternoon for fun.
For the last year, I’ve logged all my hours. Every week comes out to about 40. I’m not talking about your average 9–5 job. Riding the clock. Playing solitaire while I pretend to fill out forms. No, I do 40 hours of deep work — planning, grading, research, editing, emails, reports, meetings.
Maybe the end of tenure will be good for me. I’ll finally get a job that pays what I’m worth. Or maybe I’ll wind up taking your order at Starbucks. Hey, I promise to spell your name right.