>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.