Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘On Quitting’ and ‘On Tenure’

with 7 comments

When I returned to the U.S. from Kenya in December 2011, I could feel the poison re-entering my system: my skin changed again, as the hard Baltimore water scrubbed off the softer Nairobi water, and, with it, whatever healing Nairobi had effected. I returned to James MacArthur and Christopher Dorner, to the disposability and killability of black men; I returned to “jokes” about nine-year-old girls; to a panel discussion on Django Unchained hosted by film scholars at my university that did not, in the initial panel composition, include any single black scholar; I returned to a post-racial U.S., which meant that racist jokes could circulate with impunity; I returned to a world that Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois would have found too familiar, and mourned.

At a required end-of-year meeting with my then department chair, I confessed that I was exhausted. I was tired of the banal and uncomprehending racism of white students who spoke of blacks as “they” and “them” and complained about “their broken English” and “bad dialect”; I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as “simple,” “reactive,” “irrelevant,” “done”; I was tired of being invited to be “post-black” as the token African, so not “tainted” by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

From Keguro Macharia’s excellent and moving essay in The New Inquiry, which (along with this one yesterday at the Chronicle and host of others like this recently) prompted a Twitter conversation about my growing frustration with exclusively negative discourse around the academy (specifically with respect to tenure). Adam wrote today that the ontological structure of the academy is grading, but I’d like to suggest instead it’s something closer to academic freedom as guaranteed by the tenure system; what makes the academy (semi-)unique is the (always partial, always dreadfully incomplete) suspension of the usual operation of capitalist waged labor. And what’s killing the academy today is not the proliferation or evacuation of graders but the destruction of tenure.

7 Responses

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  1. Tenure itself is a system that is based on the authority of educational institutions to judge one of their members to be worthy of perpetual employment as an academic, and legitimated by the pursuit of knowledge. In other words, my analysis is still ontologically prior — and we’d better be able to imagine the academy without tenure, because it’s a reality for most of us.

    Adam Kotsko

    May 3, 2013 at 11:28 am

    • Yeah, after I hit “publish” I figured you’d say that. And I think you might even be right! But it seems to me we could imagine a university without grades, without degrees, without ranks, without inter-institutional rankings, but not without academic freedom. And just because academic freedom necessarily requires some type of evaluation (at whatever bar you set it) as its core mechanism doesn’t mean it’s really secretly about evaluation as such. It’d be more accurate to say that a dialectic between evaluation (the awarding of tenure) and non-evaluation (academic freedom) is the paradox at the core of the university, rather than saying one or the other pole is the privileged term. That’s why I tried to say it was both at once.


      May 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

      • So the academy at its deepest level exists to employ academics on favorable terms? Doesn’t it have a social role?

        Adam Kotsko

        May 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

      • You need academic freedom for the production and reproduction of knowledge; that’s its social role and what distinguishes the university from other forms of education. After the Revolution you’d still need academic freedom for knowledge production even if the employment of academics on favorable terms was no longer an issue.


        May 3, 2013 at 11:45 am

  2. Knowledge production happens in a lot of places and ways. Bell Labs produced a lot of knowledge, for example, as does the Bureau for Labor Statistics. We’re producing knowledge right now!

    What is distinctive about academic knowledge is that it’s certified by the academy. Hence, again, the certification — and things like academic freedom (reinforced by tenure, preferably) help to bolster the academy’s authority as a dependable arbiter who can be trusted with that job of certification.

    Adam Kotsko

    May 3, 2013 at 12:34 pm

  3. Reflecting further, I don’t think tenure really represents a utopian exception to capitalism — it represents more or less the normal terms of employment in most careers under Fordism. Hence it’s one of the last holdouts of a previous form of capitalism.

    Adam Kotsko

    May 4, 2013 at 6:55 am

    • There’s an important recognition there, though I think that overstates the case a bit. Tenure both predates Fordism and pretty significantly exceeds it….

      Gerry Canavan

      May 4, 2013 at 6:59 am

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