Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A reason for tenure

I think I found a way to describe concretely to myself and to my students one of the reasons tenure matters.

Here's the background. This week in my graduate research class, we read an article from about 1989 by Stephen Nissenbaum, "The Month Before 'The Night Before Christmas'" from a conference proceeding volume called Humanists at Work. We were reading it -- or rather, I asked them to read it -- to get a concrete sense about the life cycle of a research project, and about the experiential side of the "methods" of research, including the communal aspects of it (advice and leads gleaned from colleagues, conversations, and conferences) and the moments of seeming luck and serendipity (which I pointed to students really only seem lucky -- they often come as the result of experience, knowledge, and preparation). It's an article I highly recommend: it's vivid in its portrayal of how a humanities researcher works and it makes concrete the research life of an academic, and also describes a fascinating research project on a poem everyone knows, "The Night Before Christmas." Nissenbaum is a historian, I should point out, and ultimately the small project on the poem became a larger cultural history project on the history of Christmas in the US, called The Battle for Christmas (available in Vintage paperback, 1997), but the article could easily be describing a new historicist literary project.

One of the things my students took from this article is how much work and time good research takes, as well as how much of that time is, as one student put it, "sitting and thinking." Nissenbaum talks about how, in 1989, he'd already been thinking about this poem off and on for 15 years. And I pointed out that the book it became didn't come out (in its original edition) until 1996. By the time he was working on this project, he had tenure, so he had that luxury of time to sit and think, to let the project reveal itself to him.

We can do that to some extent as advanced graduate students and assistant professors -- after all, my dissertation-to-book process did take about 10 year -- but there's also a pressure to get stuff out there, to complete it and have something to show for all that sitting and thinking. That's not to say that such pressure is totally gone with tenure (after all, I do want to make full professor), but it's certainly relieved to some extent. And one of the things I vowed to myself when I got tenure was to let my next project evolve more slowly, to let it reveal itself to me. I like very much the ability to say, "I'm not sure what this research will become, but here's where I am right now" and just following the pure pleasure of the leads and even the digressions in that research.

I think that gift of time, that ability to take projects slowly, to give them what they need to develop fully -- including the permission to fail or to lead to dead-ends -- is part of what tenure is about. (This is one of the many reasons I hate the term "deadwood" for senior faculty who aren't frenetically producing, but that's a post for another day.) Take away tenure and we're all back under the pressure to produce rapidly and we lose that ability to let ideas and analysis ferment fully. That would be a loss not only to those who produce the knowledge, but to the world at large.

Now, if only we could transfer that freedom and time to the untenured as well.


I realize, by the way, that I may be contradicting or complicating my own notions of why the professionalization of graduate students is not a bad thing. Well, to that I say: I am large, I contain multitudes.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

That makes so much sense! I like the idea, and know it's true for many of our colleagues. But I'd also like to add that the really successful (for values of successful) colleagues do seem to produce bits and pieces along the way.

I absolutely agree that this is a good reason for tenure. On the other hand, I do think we have colleagues who will never share the results of their sitting and thinking, who never do much of anything (and honestly, I know very few of them -- unfortunately, they tend to be glaring examples) in terms of productive scholarship OR service. Honestly, I have little time for them.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, the ones who do little in terms of scholarship OR service are a whole 'nother story!

Anonymous said...

"Now, if only we could transfer that freedom and time to the untenured as well." Dr. V

Or to other fields! One of the arguments against public ownership of companies is that the push for quarterly results speeds up decision making (and not in a good way) and makes people react to short term shifts. This actually is the case in non-public entities as well since all owners want visible results. But my best ideas and strategies always require a reiterative process, either in my own head or with others. Oh, for some time to think!

Profane said...

Great post as usual. Now to go entirely off topic. . .

I am teaching the Miller's Tale for the first time on Monday. Can the literary brain trust offer any tips, words of wisdom, or caveats to this simple historian?

Dr. Virago said...

Profane - I'm going to send you my notes from the last time I taught the Miller's Tale. A lot depends on what else you've been teaching: if you teach the Knight's Tale, you can always spend a lot of time asking the students to discuss how successful the Miller is in "quiting" the Knight's Tale -- how the Miller's Tale parodies, inverts and subverts the Knight's Tale. And sex and gender always give us something to talk about. But you might also want to talk about the university town, town/gown rivalries, the diversity of clerical culture, class and economic mobility, etc. A lot depends on what kind of class you're teaching it in and for what reasons.

Profane said...

Many thanks! I carved out two weeks in the center of a standard British History I survey to read Chaucer, hence I have had to be very selective. We are skipping the Knight's Tale, since a great deal of the class up to this point already serves its purpose. Gender, social class, religion, and economics are the issues I am really looking to hardball. After this, we are moving on to the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.

medievalkarl said...

After this, we are moving on to the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.

Then you're in a perfect spot for emphasizing the inter-pilgrim rivalries. Hang out on the prologues on the Miller's prologue for a while to set up the Pardoner's interruption of the Wife of Bath and the Miller/Pardoner fight at the end of the Pard's Tale.

(Great post DrV)

Unknown said...

Dr. V: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I am not a Medievalist-- I'm a music historian who deals with the nineteenth century primarily-- but I'm currently teaching a class for first-year graduate students on Music Research and Reference. Because most of the students are performers, not academics, the course is a hard sell. They can spend hours in a tiny practice room, but ask them to spend 30 minutes in the library, and it's as though you're stealing their first-born child.

Anyway, the Nissenbaum article on the first stages of his project is just the perfect explanation of how and why prolonged thought about a subject is important and fun! And the interpretation of a poem as a such a vivid catalyst for social change (not just commentary, as he points out in the last paragraph!) directly parallels the sorts of points I like my students to understand about analyzing music in its social and cultural context.

I can't wait to assign this piece to my class next year at the beginning of the semester.

Love the blog, and thanks again for such a great pedagogical tool!