A lesson in ‘tenure-splainin’



For those of you who don’t move in adjunct activist networks, you may not have encountered the term “tenure-splainin\’” very often if at all. Some activists use it to refer to lectures from TT/T faculty about the stresses and difficulties of the tenure-line, almost always as a reaction to adjunct faculty assertions that TT/T faculty have it better pretty much by definition (I’m generalizing here, obviously, because it would take thousands of words to nuance this as much as it deserves). The short version of it is, we’re tenure-splainin’ when we say anything that smacks of “If you’ve never been in a tenure line, you can’t understand it, so let me tell you all about how hard it is.”

To be honest, I’ve done it. I’ve made arguments publicly (including on the blog), for example, that contest the claim from some activists that adjuncts do “the same job” and should therefore be paid the same. And I’ve argued in other venues (including a management search I served on several years ago) that nobody who hasn’t been in a tenured/promoted position should be evaluating applicants for tenure or promotion. There is an experiential difference (one that we TT/T folks would do well to remember cuts both ways every single time we invoke it).

So, having both tenure-splained a little and having agreed with some accusations of same from some of my adjunct activist comrades, imagine my surprise when yesterday I realized that it was in fact happening to me as I (a tenured full professor with a 4/4 load of mostly gen-ed) was getting lectured that faculty in teaching positions have no claim to be tenure-eligible. I don’t feel like rehashing the whole conversation here, mostly because it was frustrating enough to have it the first time–and to be fair, probably just as frustrating to the blogger as it was to me–but in short, her argument is that only research faculty need tenure and academic freedom protections because the value of what they produce (new knowledge) is so high that it trumps the labor problem created by protecting due process for otherwise-at-will employees. I tried to argue that AAUP’s definitions of tenure and academic freedom say otherwise, to no avail. I tried to argue (in response to her claim that she’s pro-union) that the essence of union logic is to contest at-will employment. Didn’t work. I’ve thrown in the towel trying to discuss it in that venue with her, and I’m sure she won’t miss me.

The reason I’m writing about it now, and on my blog instead of hers, is that it occurs to me there’s still an important lesson to be gotten from the exchange (several, really, but for today just this one!).

I also spent much of yesterday and this morning venting/commiserating about this on Facebook, during which time I noticed that a great many of my TT/T colleagues were every bit as irritated by the blogger’s claims and persona as I am. And although I don’t think any of my TT/T FB friends are guilty of tenure-splainin’, at least not that I can recall, I can easily imagine people like us who would contend simultaneously that: (1) people who don’t think college-level teachers need tenure/academic freedom protections are dopey; and (2) adjuncts (and allies) who sometimes angrily rail against tenure or tenure-privilege are wrong because they can’t possibly understand the tenure-track.

Those aren’t flatly contradictory claims, at least not within the confines of propositional logic, but it’s hard to argue well that people doing primarily teaching work deserve tenure, and that the very same people doing most of that work don’t know what they’re talking about. And if you empathize with my frustration at being told that I don’t understand tenure (as a tenured full professor who studies academic labor rhetoric), then you have a glimmer of the annoyance adjunct faculty feel when we tenured folks play the “You don’t understand the tenure track” card as a silencing move.