Monday, December 03, 2007

Academe and the handmaiden

I'm just catching up with Perlmutter's "The Joyless Quest for Tenure" at the Chronicle. To put it mildly, I have a few problems with it.

1. What quest-romances has he been reading where the protagonist says, "Golly gee whiz, I'm glad to be going on this quest! What a swell adventure it'll be!" and lives happily ever after? Isn't a quest by definition, well, hard to achieve and not especially joyful?

2. Perlmutter tells us to "Just avoid being relentlessly negative," a state that doesn't seem to go away with time. Are people really depressed and not especially joyful when they get tenure? Do we really need to throw them a Tenure Shower with Post-Its and "Guess the Citation Format" games just to cheer them up?

3. Dr. Crazy has rightly called him out for the assumption that "wife" and administrative assistants (translation: academic wives, for people of a certain mindset) would take care of the petty details. As Dr. Crazy pointed out, some of us have this support and some of us don't. Even though this advice is well meant, it's the kind of advice that could only come from someone who has (and has always had) this kind of support--a person with academic privilege.

I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." Shorter Berry: "Because it is Good for the Earth and I am an environmentally pure soul, I refuse to buy a computer. Oh, and also because I just put the pages on my wife's typewriter and she types them. See how easy it is to get along without one?"

There's a kind of idealism, or "professionalism," or whatever you want to call it, that doesn't want to get its hands dirty by doing something of lower status but isn't averse to having someone else do so. Sometimes this status differential is obvious (just ask me about my years as adjunct faculty), and sometimes less so: "Undine, would you like to take notes?" if I'm the only woman at the table. Mercifully, I think there's less of this than there used to be, but I guess what I'd like to see is this "academic handmaiden" work made more visible so that the privilege of those who use it is equally visible--visible enough, in fact, that Perlmutter wouldn't be caught off guard by comments about it as Wendell Berry was twenty years ago.

And the "have your wife type your papers" thing isn't a myth; I've actually heard this.


heu mihi said...

I actually found the essay a little baffling--it wasn't clear to me what he was arguing, exactly. That we should be cheerful? Okay, um, cheerfulness is...good.... But maybe my bemusement stemmed in part from the fact that I was reading the article while also eating lunch and balancing office hours, so my focus wasn't what it should have been.

undine said...

I think he was trying to be helpful about how to make the process easier, but the joylessness after tenure part really confused me. Maybe people feel let down over this, but I've never heard anyone express it.