Monday, March 19, 2007

Producing Deadwood

Circulating around the edges of every discussion of tenure and promotion standards, policies, and procedures is also talk about eliminating academic deadwood. The assumption seems to be that if standards are high enough, then deadwood -- faculty whose modest records of publication, teaching, and service don't warrant their substantial institutional power -- will be prevented from accumulating in the ranks of senior faculty. Seldom, though, does the discussion stray into asking questions about how the academy manages to produce this deadwood. That is, how do we transform bright, lively, talented graduate students into bitter, disaffected, unproductive deadwood?

In his 2004 book on peace studies and conflict resolution, Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work, Johan Galtung writes about life in conflict ridden areas:

Then there are those who have been neither killed nor visibly wounded: the raped, the externally or internally displaced, the refugees.

They can all build their lives around their hatred. But this will never be a really rich and creative life. Every day we can hear, at the micro- and meso- levels, stories of violence from people forever marked by conflict and violence. They have become offended, and have built their lives around the injustice they feel they have suffered. They become dark, sombre persons who radiate nothing, like black holes in the social universe, rather than a source of light that can shine within them, and for others. ...

The culture becomes a storehouse of deep wounds, way into the collective memory and soul of that people, wounds that are used to misunderstand everything and everybody rather that to search for new approaches.

In short: violence creates humans incapable of reconciliation and reunion, more fit for retaliation. ...

Their own creativity is something they lost a long time ago. (78-79)
Academia is not Rwanda. However, Galtung's description of the survivors of violence bears more than a passing resemblance to many of those we meet with at department meetings. All of us know, and some of us fear we may become, "dark, sombre persons" who move "like black holes in the social universe" and are "more fit for retaliation" than a "rich and creative life."

If you recognize any part of yourself, or your colleagues, in this description of people who "build their lives around their hatred," or you find it sadly plausible to describe your department or institution as a "storehouse of deep wounds," then it is imperative to resist the continual escalation of standards and increasing workloads imposed on faculty. Deadwood is made, not found. The escalation of standards for tenure is the surest path to increase the production of deadwood. Tenure is currently a violent process, although we don't often use that language to describe anything in academic life. But the survivors of the lengthy and conflictual process that stretches from graduate school to full professorship are marked by this passage. The cost of this violence is all too often the very joy and creativity that was the reason for the journey in first place. If our goal in the academy is to produce and foster a vibrant and creative faculty, then increasing the size of the stick and the number of strokes they are to receive along the way is a very poor strategy. It is a strategy more suited to producing the vindictive deadwood we all encounter in the academy whose "own creativity is something they lost a long time ago" and who are now only "fit for retaliation."

As some of my readers may already know, the aftermath of the violence of the tenure process is one that I'm currently grappling with myself, and one I've written about previously. I would like to avoid perpetuating the cycle of academic hazing that constitues the current system of tenure and resist taking up the role of bitter, vindictive, academic deadwood that I've now earned. It will be a struggle, though, not to become one of the academic "offended."


  1. I don't think there is any magic here - being conscious of the problem is the only solution to the problem. Oh, and acting occasionally on that consciousness. Damn, I always forget that.

  2. You are probably right Roger. I would love to get to the acting part though. What's frustrating is that, as a group, academics' self-conscious awareness of their own labor issues still seems so very, very far away.

  3. It is also the psychic conditions in which people have to work while meeting those standards. Atmospheres fraught with paranoia and backbiting are really destructive no matter how much course release you have, how good a library, and so on.

    My *graduate program* produced a lot of 'deadwood' - people with brilliant PhDs who actually deserved about 2 PhDs by the time they were finished, or a PhD *and* an tenured job - but who were now too tired and weirded out to go on to stellar careers.

  4. Very true. Working in a conflict ridden environment -- which seems to describe vast areas of academia -- does damage. Along with the past two years of conflict over my tenure and the dissolution of my department, my dissertation defense and a failed job search as the inside candidate stand out for me as some of the most conflictual and most damaging moments in my professional life. None of these experiences left me feeling energized and ready to do excellent work in the classroom or in my research.

    You are also right that the attrition rate in grad school is appalling, and all too often it's some of the best and brightest that flame out first under the stress.

  5. It is deeply ironic to see our deadwood faculty posting here, whatever their excuses. 'Psyhic weirdness' is still no excuse for not publishing.

  6. Cool! My first troll! Although I know you aren't supposed to feed them, since this is my blog I figure I can do what I want.

    I don't think you've read this exchange very carefully anonymous. The posters here have tended to be from the ranks of the overly productive recently tenured. Not deadwood. And the discussion has been about the costs, both personal and to the profession, of a system that now requires a publication record for tenure substantially similar to what used to be spread over an entire academic career. There have been no excuses given for not publishing, certainly not "Psyhic [sic] weirdness."

  7. There are deadwoods because we (as a department or as an academic community) let them survive. In the competitive corporate world, they are already discarded due to natural selection to trim unwanted branches.