Reflections on a Prayer to the Tenure Gods

Reflections on a Prayer to the Tenure Gods March 1, 2023

There is some poignant humor in a bit of satire from McSweeney’s depicting the prayer of an assistant professor to the “tenure gods” when going up for tenure. But I also feel the need to comment that I am part of a department that has very clear tenure and promotion guidelines, something that I only fully appreciated when I did a Wabash Center workshop for early career scholars many years ago and discovered that this was anything but commonplace. I know a lot of academics have become cynical about higher education institutions and resign themselves to fighting for their own interests and those of their department or program. What they seem not to realize is that adopting this stance is what, more than anything else, makes academia into everything they say they despise.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Muhammad, and countless others in history have had a lasting transformative impact. They could use wit as a weapon against the powers that be. But none of them is characterized by the cynicism that characterizes far too many academics.

Now, I know that a religious appeal to academics in general may fall on deaf ears. But I hope that this one is not only couched broadly enough to be found worth considering, but is focused not on an appeal to revelation or other religious authority, but the practical effectiveness of not allowing oneself to be warped by what one hates into the very image of that thing. So many people who claim to be opposed to privilege will nevertheless object when it is proposed that a “mere lecturer” get something that they as a tenured faculty member do not have. (Seriously, I’ve seen this very thing happen, literally. I’m not just offering a hypothetical scenario.) People will complain that administration is all about egos and not realize that in adopting that attitude and assuming that there is no alternative, they create and perpetuate the very institutional culture they sounded as though they were criticizing.

It is not as though religious institutions are inherently better. Sometimes if anything they’re the worst offenders. My point is not that religion in general or any specific religion in particular offers a solution to this. My point is that when transcendent values and ideals are let go of, there is nothing left but competition for scarce resources–and backbiting when someone who was esteemed as a colleague who took on the burden of an administrative role allegedly engages in favoritism when they made an excruciatingly difficult choice about where to allocate those limited resources. No one on a limited budget can get everything they want. But if those who work in higher education choose a path of loving what we do and rejoicing in the privilege of being paid to do it, we can get something that it sounds like everyone wants, namely a happier and more collegial place in which to practice the job of our dreams – the dream job of those of us fortunate enough to get tenure, that is.

Of related interest:

Humanities Scholarly Infrastructure in Utter Disarray

Academe Should Revise Promotion Process for Full Professor

A Novel by a Retired NYU Administrator

Humanities Scholarly Infrastructure Vanishing

Survey Shows Most Faculty are Happy

2022 Institute on Truth and Racial Healing

Higher Education and Health Care Compared 

Christian Century on solidarity with student workers

Also related to this topic:

Timothy Hampton, University of California Berkeley – Cheerfulness, Then and Now

And finally, for those who read all the way to the end of this post, here’s a classic bit of humor related to this topic…

Why God Never Received Tenure at Any University
1. He had only one major publication. 
2. It was in Hebrew. 
3. It had no references. 
4. It wasn't published in a refereed journal. 
5. Some even doubt he wrote it himself. 
6. It may be true that he created the world, but what has he done since then? 
7. His cooperative efforts have been quite limited. 
8. The scientific community has had a hard time replicating his results. 
9. He never applied to the Ethics Board for permission to use human subjects. 
10. When one experiment went awry he tried to cover it up by drowning the subjects. 
11. When subjects didn't behave as predicted, he deleted them from the sample. 
12. He rarely came to class, just told students to read the Book. 
13. Some say he had his son teach the class. 
14. He expelled his first two students for learning the wrong subject. 
15. Although there were only ten requirements, most students failed his tests. 
16. His office hours were infrequent and usually held on a mountain top. 
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