18 December 2007

Professor Ms. Manners

A friend wrote to me today, wondering what to say to a friend and colleague who's been denied tenure. Any suggestions from out there in reader land?

My own experiences with a friend denied tenure were wrapped up in some awful personal and campus politics, so much of our conversations around that involved venting and analyzing the rather idiosyncratic and personal factors that led to the situation. My friend was so angry that the anger steered a lot of the conversations.

In the friend-of-friend's case, I don't know anything about the background. But I can imagine that this general scenario is the kind in which many people don't know what to say, so they don't say anything, and they avoid the person, which could well make the person feel even worse. So what to do?

When New Kid on the Hallway didn't have her contract renewed last spring (click back to the April 2007 archives to see a set of posts about that, and here's the first long discussion of it), there was an impressive array of comments supporting her in all kinds of ways. Her most recent post, in fact, discusses what she's thinking about her future career options; it's clear that her response to the non-renewal has been to stop and consider what she wants to do with her talents and interests (not to mention moving, necessitating a new pseudonym for Long Distance Husband). That's the attitude at a moment like this, I think, to try to remember that life goes on--in or out of academia--and there are options to consider.

But still, what to say, in the moment? In the face of any kind of loss or sudden bad news, it's wise to let the friend take a bit of a lead: does s/he want to discuss it? avoid it? dwell on the sadness? anger? At the same time, the friend probably doesn't know what s/he needs, either. So bringing over dinner, or movie tickets, or inviting the friend over for lunch or out for a walk or whatever seems good. Dropping a note to say, "I'm thinking of you," or bringing by flowers. Gestures that let the person know you notice them, that they've not gone invisible, that you're trying to make their day a little brighter.

What to avoid, I think, is pushing to solutions when the person isn't ready for that. In any kind of crisis, we need to be sensitive to when someone wants a listening ear, when they want some help with strategy, when they want additional ways to look at things, when they want validation for their analysis or reactions. If the friend really wants someone to say "Ah! those b@st@rds! " and instead gets detailed advice about how to work the grievance procedure, frustration will ensue.

I remember a Tenured Radical comment at New Kid's last spring that brought me up short: as I recall, there were a number of comments about NK's non-reappointment that were focused on could she appeal, how awful it was, what should she do next, and TR said, "whoa! let's think outside the box: what do you want to do now?" (I can't find the post and comments to link to, so perhaps my memories playing tricks on me. But this seems like a TR kind of comment to me, and I can't imagine she'd be distressed to find it attributed to her.) So in the long run, I think the friend, and friend-of-friend, need to find ways to use the tenure denial as an opportunity to figure out what is the right next step. There are plenty of prominent academics who didn't get tenure and whose careers have flourished. And there are ways to take skills from academia and use them elswhere. (As college class newsletter, I'm amazed at the jobs people have that I never new existed.)

So those are some of my thoughts. Yours?


Ianqui said...

I have long thought that if I get denied tenure, I'm outta academia. It's just not worth it to try to beg my school, or beg some other school. I could finally become a park ranger!

Alternatively, I could be very happy at a lower-tier or teaching-oriented school, if they could find a place for someone in my field.

niobe said...

Personally, if I were denied tenure, I'd like to disappear without a trace, without anyone making a big deal of it.

But I know that in the cases where people have been denied tenure at L's school (where, until recently, denial of tenure has been so rare as to be shocking), we've invited the person over or for coffee and at least said something like "I've heard you had some bad news," leaving it up to the person if she wanted to discuss it further.

The Advice Seeker said...

The most uncomfortable aspect of this situation is that we live fairly far away from where Partner teaches, and she usually spends several nights a week at this friend's house...

susan said...

Park ranger has always been one of my career alternatives, too!

I think the issue here isn't so much what will Tenure-Denied-Friend do him/herself, but how to be a friend to TDF. So if TDF wants to leave academia, or if TDF wants to look for another job, what's the role of an (academic) friend here?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I really like this post (hi, sorry I haven't been over here much recently!). (And you're right, that's exactly what TR said, very wisely. ;-D) I think your advice, and niobe's advice, are very good - what was most upsetting to me at the time was when people simply said nothing about it at all (like all but one of my senior colleagues...but we won't go there). There was a woman who went through a similar kind of experience, except at the beginning of the year, and when this happened to me I really regretted that I hadn't said something directly to her (at the time, I hadn't wanted to bring it up because I thought it might be awkward). Just letting the friend take the lead is probably good - there were times when I wanted to obsess and wallow, but other times when I was sick of thinking about the whole thing.

(Reassurance that just because this had happened didn't mean I was a failure, a loser, and an idiot for ever having tried this profession was always nice, though!)

Though I don't mean to set myself up as the expert b/c I went through something similar! People respond so differently, and situations vary so much. Just my two cents.

liz said...

I'm not in that situation, nor do I know anyone in that situation at the moment, but I think there is never a bad time to bring a lasagne to a friend. Or cookies. Or a turkey tetrazzini if they eat meat. Or a pie.

Food is (almost) always appropriate.

Or a gift certificate to a spa day if they're dieting.

Wordgirl said...


This was quite a blog to stumble into given my own post today about my having given up the psuedo-academic world (I've been teaching at one of those lower-tier teaching oriented places...a community college -- for seven years). I actually am on a leave of absence to try (unsuccessfully so far) to get pregnant.

It is an awful, emotional, political thing -- even at my college where I was an adjunct through three hiring rounds of not being hired full-time and then FINALLY, by the skin of my teeth, being hired a few years ago -- and now, ironically, thinking about throwing in the proverbial towel.

As for me? I was given the job -- only to find that the job has kept me from writing -- the thing I really wanted to do -- and perhaps the thing I should focus on, but I'm not sure anyone could have told me anything that would have made it any easier.

I just needed a listener, mostly.

Anyway -- nice to stumble in,


Bardiac said...

I guess I kind of think it's like any really bad news? You express sorrow at the news, and then try to take the other person's lead. Well, unless you voted against the person. Then you, I dunno, try to be honest, ethical, and humane. (Been there, not fun.)