Thursday, July 20, 2006

Paul Horwitz on Courage, Prudence, and Tenure

I LOVED this post by Paul Horwitz of PrawfsBlawg, and I shamelessly crib the best parts here:

What is the point of tenure, after all? It's not job security as such; if that's all tenure is about, there would be a good case for abolishing it. It's more specific than that. The point of tenure is job security in service of academic freedom -- security against being judged for one's teaching and scholarship except according to the standards of one's academic field, and against being judged by anyone other than qualified senior colleagues duly applying those standards. Tenure is meant to enable us to pursue our goals as scholars and teachers fearlessly, provided we continue to meet the relevant standards. It's certainly not, as I see it, supposed to be a reward.

It seems to me, in short, that a junior scholar who does everything with thoughts of tenure in mind is precisely the kind of tenure about whom we should be concerned when it comes time to actually award tenure. Vincent Blasi wrote powerfully some years ago about the ideal of "civic courage" in the First Amendment. Junior scholars should be encouraged, similarly, to display at least as much "academic courage" as prudence.

None of which is to say that the advice that's parceled out to junior scholars isn't good advice. We don't live in the best of all possible worlds, we do often value tenure as an end and not just a means, and it is possible that tenure committees won't always be everything they should be. There is room for prudence here. Moreover, there are ways in which junior scholars should be prudent that are academically relevant, rather than just politically relevant. They should be modest about what they don't know; in disagreeing with more established senior scholars, they should be humble about the gaps in their knowledge and experience; and, a point of special relevance to such questions as whether to pursue empirical work, they should be painstaking in seeking to meet professional standards. But the goal of all of this should be to earn tenure, to be the kind of scholar who deserves that protection, and not merely to receive tenure by avoiding doing anything that might put it at risk.

This doesn't mean we junior scholars don't want and don't appreciate the very good advice we often receive. It does mean that we should be trying to shape these discussions differently. Although the real-world burden may often fall on the junior scholar, we should be aiming to shift that burden. We should be encouraging junior scholars to take chances, provided they do so in a way that strives to meet the highest standards of the academy. We should be asking, to paraphrase a comment of Jason Czarnezki at the Conglomerate discussion, how to support junior scholars' pursuit of scholarship in a useful, professional, and fearless fashion. We should distinguish between the kinds of prudence in a junior scholar that are about becoming good scholars, and those kinds that are merely about staying out of trouble. And if the point of much of the advice we get is that senior scholars sometimes apply improper standards for tenure ("Why is he writing about racial issues?" "Why is he blogging?" "What the hell is this empirical stuff?"), our primary focus should be on reforming that sector of the academy rather than placing the burden of prudence on the junior scholar.

I appreciate the advice I receive on tenure. We all do. I would like to be writing and teaching five, fifteen, and fifty years from now. But in thinking about tenure and the junior scholar, we should be thinking as much about how to make this the best of all possible worlds as we do about how to survive in something less than the best of all possible worlds. We should remember that tenure is a means and not an end, and junior and senior scholars alike should work together to ensure that we all pursue our scholarly muses with as much fearlessness as we can muster. Junior scholars should strive to avoid error -- not failure.