Rise of the Absurdly Demanding Tenure Requirements

Today I received my author copies of Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2020), which has put me, as can be expected, into a bit of a celebratory mood–especially now that the dust of the monstrously challenging COVID-19 Spring Semester is slowly starting to settle. (By the way, if you are an interested reviewer, let me know at mleong@calarts.edu and I can send you a copy of Contested Records.) Shelving some of the books has also put me into a more serious and reflective mood as I take stock of the past few years working in higher education.

In the photograph above, the copies of Contested Records are flanked by, on the left, Vicente Huidobro’s magisterial long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven (co•im•press, 2020), which I co-translated with Ignacio Infante, and, on the right, Words on Edge (Black Square Editions, 2018), my most recent full-length collection of poetry. These books–along with my electronic collection Who Unfolded My Origami Brain? (Fence Digital, 2017)–would have formed the core of my research portfolio had I chosen to stay and apply for tenure at my previous institution, an R1 public university. These four books would have been supported by an array of peer-reviewed articles, essays, book chapters, chapbooks, book reviews, and poems in various anthologies and periodicals–“evidence,” as they say, towards at least another critical project and another creative project. If this all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.

Why did I feel the need to have all this ammunition–what some might (rightly) consider “overkill”–in order to go up for tenure?

To be clear, I surely benefitted from a fruitful stretch of years; and I am a writer with broad interests and many active projects. But in terms of institutional context, the most simple answer is that I was originally hired back in 2015 as a “poet/critic,” a multi-disciplinary figure who could easily wear at least two hats at once. There is nothing I find inherently problematic with the category “poet/critic”–indeed, I take inspiration from a long line of predecessors (from Sidney to Evie Shockley). Nevertheless, over the past few years, I have found myself learning (the hard way) some of the answers to a sensible question that Heather Dubrow poses: “What advantages and risks do untenured colleagues face when they try to combine the roles [of poet and scholar], a problem largely but not entirely institution-specific?” I am grateful for the advantages; that is certain. But one “institution-specific” risk is that poet/scholars might be asked to perform twice as much work as their colleagues. [Update, 7/8/20: Katrina Rogers observes, “Right now, scholars who work creatively and outside the norms of their field often find that they have to do double work in order for it to be considered valid and still sometimes face more serious repercussions like tenure denials.”] This is all to say that “poet/critic” as a tenure-track category needs to be rigorously re-examined as this is far from an equitable situation. But it seems a simple extension of what Pardis Dabashi recently called, in an opinion article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “the rise of the absurdly demanding job ad.” According to Dabashi:

To be “successful” on the market today […] demands a kind of octopoid expansiveness in one’s intellectual reach. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. English departments’ desire to hire a candidate who can cover vastly different areas of expertise in, say, film and media studies, queer feminism, and the history of Latin(x) literature, reflects the extent to which literary studies has become more committed to the diversification of our methodologies and objects of study. This is something to be celebrated.

But under the conditions of extreme job scarcity that candidates face today, and the disciplinary reach “ideal” candidates are expected to exhibit, the clarity of those expectations needs to be more explicitly and systematically articulated.

I concur that “the diversification of our methodologies and objects of study” should be “celebrated.” And I agree with Dabashi that “peculiar obscurantism and unreasonable expectations” need to go.

What makes me particularly uneasy is the epistemological chauvinism within English Departments that casts suspicion on such newly emergent fields as, say, queer feminism, Latin(x) literature, Asian American literature, contemporary poetics, or creative writing. My suspicion is that the bar for tenure is higher for professors who work in or across these fields since they are not perceived as being as “reputable” as, say, Romanticism or Modernism. A book of poetry AND–for example–a monograph on Asian American literature may be, according to this logic, “equivalent” to a single book on Shakespeare or Victorian literature and culture. The big losers, I think, are students since they are–and for good reason–the ones most interested in the fields I’m listing above, which tend not to receive the same institutional support. It is for them that we do the work that we do in the first place.

~ by Michael Leong on June 17, 2020.

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