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What Does Tenure Really Stand For?

Tenure, in and of itself, didn't seem to mean much to anyone at the Computers and Writing Conference. Many people seemed relieved that their un-tenured positions kept them away from the continually exasperating pressure to publish at all costs. Good, useful teaching (especially writing instruction) is a physical, of-the-moment activity that doesn't leave much time for continual, self-absorbed printed reflection. Not having even the slightest possibility of receiving tenure can be a wonderful gift to a good teacher because it means she or he is actually getting paid to teach, nothing more, nothing less. If this teacher then goes on to write about what she is doing in the classroom, she does so because she feels compelled to help other teachers who may read her work, not because she was forced to write something as an addition to her vitae. Striving for tenure becomes a game for bean counters, not an occupation for teachers.

Why then, do so many of us want tenure? Security, of course, but also because tenure is the ultimate symbol of inclusion in our profession. It may be fun playing the radical for a while, but ultimately we do all want some form of professional acceptance. Tenure is a way for many departments to claim someone (both their research, writing, and supposedly their teaching skills) as one of their own. They like you so much, the reasoning goes, they now want to keep you forever. Much of the innovative and obviously important ideas talked about at the Computers and Writing Conference would count for very little at tenure time in many universities. For many of us, if we want to receive tenure (and the acceptance that accompanies it) we must often discard most of our ideals about being good writing teachers, while also striving to stay within the confines of traditional English scholarship in our attempts to be taken seriously. Ultimately teaching writing and using computers to do it may be interesting and fun, but it very often doesn't have anything to do with tenure.

At the very least, tenure requirements need to be thoroughly re-examined to see if they even come close to approaching the goals and overall intentions of a "public" educational institution. If providing an innovative way to teach an entire student body how to communicate intelligently through written discourse (by using in-class and on-line collaboration) is not considered worthy of tenure, then something is seriously amiss with the goals of a so-called "educational" institution.

Again and again, both in presentations and in after-hours conversations, the refrain continued to arise -- "Yes, all this stuff is interesting, but my department doesn't really support any of it when it comes to tenure." When applied conscientiously and over a long period of time, computers and computer networks can be one of the best ways to teach students how to write, how to read, and how to think in a careful and logical manner. We all know this, but we still have yet to "prove" this to our departments -- and until we do, tenure is going to remain an elusive goal for many of us.

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©David Gillette, 1996