Tenure – Reflections and a Movie Review

I have finally found some time to reflect upon a question that has been floating around in my head for quite some time: Is teaching and a tenure-track position what I want to do in the future?

While I certainly haven’t found the answer quite yet, I want to reflect a bit on the process of tenure and why it doesn’t really seem that appealing to me. Incidentally, I watched the movie “Tenure” with Luke Wilson a couple of weeks back which actually proved helpful in a way (I provided the link to the movie’s IMDb page and embedded the review in a spoiler box so that I won’t spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you haven’t seen it yet). You don’t have to read the review to follow my thoughts on tenure, but it might prove helpful to you as well.

Review of Tenure (includes spoilers)

The movie takes place at a picturesque small New England College. The main character, Charlie Thurber (played by Luke Wilson), is an English professor on his third attempt to receive tenure from a university. This is mostly due to the fact that, while he is an outstanding teacher, his publication efforts are more than lacking. However, since he is the only candidate for the tenure spot in his department, it seems like smooth sailings for him. Enter Elaine Grasso (played by Gretchen Mol), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed recent Yale graduate with a strong publication record. Suddenly, Charlie’s chances for tenure seem cloudy, as everyone in the tenure committee seems to favor her over him. Frantically, he tries to get one of his articles published before his upcoming tenure review and schmooze with all the members of the department. As his attempts seemingly fall short (his article being rejected and certain animosities between him and a female faculty member) he even sinks so low as to follow his friend Jay’s advice (played by David Koechner). Jay, an eccentric anthropology professor on the quest to find Bigfoot whose tenure was just denied, argues that the only way for Charlie to get tenure is by sabotaging Elaine’s footing in the department.

However, as Elaine comes to Charlie for advice, it is revealed that behind her impressive résumé Elaine is severely overwhelmed with her teaching assignment. As he helps her become a better teacher both characters start to develop mutual respect, causing Charlie to re-think the sabotage. Throughout Charlie’s struggles with the idea of losing the job he loves he finds unlikely support from his father William (played by Bob Gunton), a professor emeritus of English at a large, renown university that previously had often taken note about the fact that his son has not reached tenure yet. Through their conversations, William reveals to Charlie what Charlie cannot see for himself: that regardless of what happens in the future, Charlie will always be a teacher, as teaching is both his passion and part of his character. Yet in the middle this journey it is time for his tenure review. As he is called into the room where the entire tenure review committee is assembled, he is greeted by the dean of his college who reveals that, without his vote, the tenure committee is at a tie. Three people voted for Charlie’s tenure, and three against. However, the dean proceeds to tell Charlie that, while he wasn’t impressed with his publication record, his evaluations revealed that he was very well liked by his students. As such, the dean offers Charlie probational tenure, under the condition that Charlie focuses on his publication record and agrees to a largely reduced teaching load.

The movie closes with Charlie’s first day at a new job – as a high school English teacher. To the question why he gave up a career at the university in order to teach high school students, Charlie answers “because it is the only I’m good at”.

It may be best to start with why the tenure process does not seem appealing to me. Personally, I think that many schools put way too much emphasis on the importance of research as opposed to teaching. And the thing is, I do like both teaching and research, although I feel more rewarded through my interactions with students than through my research right now. Thus, a school with only a teaching focus would also not be appealing to me. However, my major concern about the tenure process is that  the most important measures for one’s evaluation is the number (and quality) of publications. While I know that it is not entirely “publish or perish”, it still comes close to that. The reason I find this to be a debatable indicator for the assessment of a faculty member is the fact that whether or not a paper is accepted is completely out of the writer’s hands. Add to that the quite hostile environment within Computer Science in terms of peer reviews, and it becomes even more likely that a paper with perfectly valid results may be rejected based on a reviewer’s disagreement with the approach used – even if that approach is valid as well.

Now, I know that peer review is not perfect and that this issue might be alleviated somewhat through Open Access (in fact, I will probably dedicate a future blog post to both issues). However, any hurdle to generating publications aside, the fact remains that the pressure to publish makes it harder to justify spending time on teaching and preparation for teaching rather than research. Thus it is not surprising to me that, in dialog with faculty, one can sometimes hear that someone is “buying out” of teaching by getting more grants. Why is it, then, that we cannot “buy out” of research in the same way? What makes research so much more important in the eyes of a university than the very reason why universities were established in the first place?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions. The only thing I know is that I am both a researcher and a teacher (and a developer, too, just to make things more interesting). In the end, my decision for or against academia will probably be based on whether I can find a place where I can pursue all of the things I love equally without having to sacrifice one for the other.



[1] Tenure on IMDb

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