Monday, November 23, 2009

Competency vs. Incompetency

The first job I had after I graduated from Reed was at OWA. I was a good administrative assistant when I worked at a small trade association for Oregon Wines. I could run a mail merge, layout a newsletter, sell ads in our association’s directory, draft business letters, balance the books. I wasn’t great. I neglected to file. I made typographical errors. But I was OK at it. I could host in-office wine tastings, plan a three-day conference, design formal invitations for big fund raising events. The fact that I got paid half as much as my predecessor helped my boss be patient while I learned the ropes. I must have done well enough because when my boss left to be a lobbyist for the American Winery Association, I was promoted—not to executive director, the position my boss left, but to Administrator which meant I did all the stuff I did before, plus organized the monthly board meetings, attended lobbying meetings, corresponded with members and made sure members paid their dues and advertisers paid their invoices. I wasn’t great at it. I was 22. I was the only person left in the office. It wasn’t easy to have no one to go to for help but I lasted for another year and now I have mad mail merge skills and can desktop publish four-color, full-bleed brochures.
Today, over at Dean Dad, Dean Dad has embarked on a fight with Michael Berube over tenure. I get some of Dean Dad’s points. Tenure, when you end up with tenured shirkers, does kind of suck. But I mostly agree with the comments from anonymous comment #7—that tenure is a trade off for a more reasonable salary. My dad in 1987 made as much as I do in now. The idea that in an economic slump, I would be one of the last to let go gives me some extra kind of compensation when, especially at this point in the semester, I can’t imagine how I’ll get it all done—the letters of rec, the grant proposals, the recruitment campaign, nominations for contests and awards, portfolio grading. The promise of tenure is an economic one—if I do all this, then maybe, even probably, it will be worth a sustained, even though non-monetary, reward.
But the problem isn’t just this immediate economy. It isn’t just tenure as an additional, separate carrot as salary. As Ivory said, also in the comments, “The real issue is that academics can't kick the dust of a place of their heels and go elsewhere to work. It puts them at a terrible disadvantage in negotiating with their employer. As long as people keep going to grad school vastly in excess of the number of jobs available at the end of the pipeline, this will continue. The real remedy is for folks to make sure they have marketable skills so that the alternative to starvation is something other than endless adjuncting or postdocing. Knowing that you could tell your department chair to shove off for a job you would really enjoy is enormously freeing - it helps mentally deal with the slings and arrows of academic life because you know you're there by choice, not because you don't have any other choice.”
The economic problem isn’t really with the tenure system. It’s the idea that there are so few jobs and so many of us applying for them that lets the university value us so little. There are 300 people who could do my job. More. 1000. I’m lucky to have a job. I’m lucky.
It makes it hard to ask for much when the mantra running in the back of your mind is always “I’m lucky to have a job. I’m lucky to have this job.” So while I have competent, marketable skills like desktop publishing and mail-merging, I am completely incompetent to ask for anything more. I employ my desktop publishing, mail merge skills and even my budget-making skills for my job. I teach and advise and recruit. I go to meetings and organize meetings and think, if I would do the administrative part at 22 for $14,000 a year, certainly I can do it for what I make now. The eight years that went into teacher-training and writing make up for the rest of my salary. I am lucky to have a job. And yet, even in the mid-nineties that salary was still half a joke. When I took over for my boss, I did his work and my work for a fraction of the executive director’s former salary. My negotiation skills were as bad then as they are now.
I’ve never wanted to make a ton of money. That wasn’t the point. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to write and teach. I wanted my SOE to be clear and the rewards for fulfilling it obvious. I wanted tenure not necessarily because it meant security or even academic freedom but because it was something I could work toward that wasn’t money, that I didn’t have to negotiate for. The rules for reward were established. They weren’t tucked into the folds of your negotiating skills bag of tricks. Since I have none, I end up better off in a “here’s what you came for, here’s what you get” kind of situation. If I knew jobs existed that said in 7 years, if you work your butt off, we’ll increase your salary by x-amount, I would have liked it too. I liked the idea of established reward. The world of negotiating is foreign to me. I read the Chronicle Forums and get freaked out by the general sentiment there that if you don’t ask for it when negotiating your contract, you’ve lost your chance at negotiating at all. The problem with negotiating at contract time is that you want the job. You played your hand pretty openly when you went ahead and applied for the job and came for the interview. There are 300 people who applied for my job. You don’t feel a lot of negotiating power when you can feel that crowd of people rolling their eyes at you, saying, I could do that job. As well as you. Better than you.
Conceivably, I could take my mail merge and desktop publishing skills (and now, with web-design!) skills and go (not that these skills are in such high demand). I’d flush 8 years of PhD school down the drain but I’m sure I could, as Ivory says, go elsewhere to work. My mom’s always reminding me that they’re always hiring technical writers at her work. But I don’t want to. I like the chair of the department. I like my colleagues. I like my students. And, when everything seems right in the world, I like the ratio of teaching to service to research. But even with the promise of tenure, when the service becomes, at the almost-end of the semester becomes almost 80% of the job and when the appreciation for the research and the teaching dips to nearly zero, I feel like I’m 22 again and mail merging and desktop publishing for $14,000 a year. I would like to ask for a little sign that I’ve gone above and beyond—a tenure plus something else kind of reward, something that would indicate that they would like me, not just the 300 others who could do the job but me in particular to stay. But that would send me to the negotiating table where I know, in the back of my head, that I’m just lucky to have a job.


middlebrow said...

I've read Dead Dad's post, Berube's response and, today, Dead Dad's response. I usually respect Dean Dad's opinion, but he has a weird blind spot when it comes to tenure. He's certainly right to point out that tenure seems to be a dying institution. His claim that eliminating tenure will result in more full-time jobs doesn't seem right to me. And what's the financial advantage to the institution here? His argument that institutions are risk-averse when it comes to tenure-track jobs makes some sense, but getting rid of tenure isn't going to all of a sudden increase the operating budget at my college. We'll still be stuck with the same full-time to adjunct ratio. He never really confronts that criticism in his argument.

All in all, it's a good go around in the blogosphere, though, when two of my favorite bloggers disagree. I give the win to Berube, though.

Lisa B. said...

Yeah, I think Dean Dad is up in the night on this one. While I wish both of them would tone it down about a dozen notches, I also thought Berube was right.

And Dean Dad (Berube as well, actually) don't understand the power of the symbol of tenure--and that cannot be dismissed in our understandings of it. Symbolically tenure means academic freedom and job security (the two are related for most academics); and I think it's arguable as to whether the law or longstanding practice is more reliable. Take a look at how swiftly employment law can change when a motivated party is in power. Tenure has an extra-legal durability.

I want someone to outline the tenure-is-dying story who doesn't have an axe to grind in that debate. Is it tenure that's dying? or is it a whole model of higher education?

In the meantime, Nik, courage. You are an amazing professor and writer, your institution should count its blessings to have you, and you should take a workshop in negotiating, because I'm pretty sure you're worth more than they're paying you.

Nik said...

Thanks MB and Lisa B for your sustained thoughts. It's been a tricky week in thinking about how to balance expectations with the actual work I need to do. I worry about next semester and having another baby and not meeting expectations. That's another post I presume. Something about not wanting special favors just for having a kid but not actually being able to do it all. Does the promise of tenure give you superhuman strength? That's what must happen.

Dr Write said...

Well said, all of you.
And yes, while we are all lucky to have jobs and should be thankful and are, our institutions are lucky to have us as well. Sure, there are 300 or 1000 other applicants out there, but as we know, some of them are crazy. Or unqualified. Not all of them, but some. And we work damn hard. And we should be appreciated. And yes, we didn't take these jobs for the money. And tenure is one thing we have.
Also, don't look now, but my dad just retired. Then, this year, Idaho cut all benefits to state retirees. Man. So count your blessings, but for God's sake, invest or buy gold or something.

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