What I use tenure for; teachers are not retail salespeople

There is a nice piece over the Chronicle about how students need professors with tenure. The US has so undermined its teachers, it is hard to know where to even with this, but it’s not the case that your child will get better teaching if you can pull strings on a teacher and yell “dance, monkey, dance” at him.

I personally have used tenure in three ways, both of which has influenced my teaching for the positive.

1. I’ve used tenure to pursue, new, long-term projects that involve a great deal of data collection and/or new reading and/or new skill acquisition.

That contributes multiple ways in my research and in the classroom. It means that I integrate new ideas into my existing classes, for one, and has given me a means of how to model lifelong learning for my students.

It also means that when I take time to develop a new dataset that students get to use it, too.

2. Second, I use tenure to stand up to students more, ask more of them, and be more generous about my mistakes and with theirs.

I am a much better instructor now than I was before tenure. Before tenure, any miffed student who marched off in a huff to my higher ups was a threat, and I either went easy on students all the time, placating them, or I undermined disgruntled students right back. Your job is at stake–the stakes are high for you, and they think the consequences are low for them. It isn’t. Having teachers that only pass you along and praise you for being a special snowflake is like a diet of Frosted Flakes and candy bars. It feels good for a bit, but it’s empty, and it’s not particularly good for you.

Teachers are not waiters or retail salespeople whose role it is to give you what you order even if it’s not particularly good for you. Imagine a car salesman refusing to sell you are car because he could tell, during the test drive, that you were a lousy driver: “Take the bus.” Teachers are in a different role.

Now when a student is mad at me, I let them be mad for awhile, and I try to figure it out. Maybe they are struggling with something I can help them with. Maybe I made a mistake I need to rectify. A mistake in the classroom should not have people calling for your head all the time, nor should it be something that causes a student to feel like they are going to get trounced, either, in the professional networks of a university. If you aren’t a little experimental, then you get to join the ranks of boring, stiff-as-a-board appropriate-bots that line our corporate world like drones. Who needs that in a classroom? I swear it’s everywhere else.

What if the mistake in the classroom is a big one? Shouldn’t we be able to fire you over that? It’s possible to get rid of instructors who do malfeasance. Don’t believe the blah-blah heads over at FoxNews on this one: it’s possible to make a tenured professor miserable if an administrator wants to, and it’s possible to dismiss them if the behavior is egregious. If administrators are tolerating egregious classroom behavior from somebody, chances are, that person isn’t being protected by tenure. He is most likely a research bigwig or prestige-networked in some other way, and tenured, and tenure is what people hide behind there when they don’t want to tangle with him. A bad instructor who isn’t adding much value to anything in the place, those can and do go. It takes effort, but it does happen.

But displeasing a student is not egregious.

3. I have used tenure to try to stand up for what is right and echo and amplify the ideas of people who do not have the institutional security to say to people “This is wrong.”

I’ve obviously been speaking my mind about the changes in transit, walking, and biking subsidies at USC. I’ve also made statements about campus policing. I’ve spoken up for my colleagues who have needed support.

I don’t do this enough because on today’s campus, it’s exhausting. I’m very tired after spending this week screaming and yelling about the transit subsidy. My dean has been supportive, and for that I am so grateful, but so far, I am the only policy faculty who has stuck her neck out. Now, we have a Center for Sustainable Ciites. And we have people who have titles with “Sustainable” in them. And when I yell and scream and wave my hands, lots of faculty blink at me like, what do you want from me? What can I possibly do.I’m terribly busy doing things for me.

That obsession with self-branding and self-building in the academy, which is a definite by-product of the star economy, strikes me as far worse for students than tenure might be. It rewards “I, me, mine” over and over to the point that people just can’t see anything else. So tangling with students or making things hard on them? Why would I do that? They just get mad. If we make everything light and frothy, I get to stay a star and they get to stay comfortable and I get to go back to my research.

Now, it’s entirely possible to use star status in important ways. But what, exactly, is the point of collecting social and political capital if you never use it? Or if you only use it to feather your own nest?

There are more consequences of star economy. If get to be a star writing about how “X causes Y” then the incentive is there to beat that drum again and again and again. Over and over. It provides me with an incentive to diddle the data until my next four projects say the exact same thing as my “golly, it made me a star!” project. You also have an incentive to kill off junior scholars who have findings that disagree with yours.

So having won an award on a paper on social media, that’s all anybody wants me to do now. Sorry, folks. That is not happening.