Movies to Avoid While Watching the Tenure Clock

Managing the wait while your tenure decision is made.
By Robin Harper

Tick, tock. Did the meeting end? Did it end? What did they decide? They didn’t decide today? When will they decide? Okay, focus on something else. Finish that draft for a journal. Grade papers. Clean spice bottles. And the reel begins again . . .

As anyone for a tenure decision knows, time bends. There are the years of work. Then a maddening rush to prepare the documents for your tenure file, and then, time seems to stand still, no decision, no resolution. I am on a seven-year clock; it’s biblical time for decision making. Our tenure committee process lasts several months. Promotion comes months after that. It’s given me lots of time to think. So, I try to keep busy: I write, I read. I cook. I clean those corners in the house that never seemed dirty until now.

Academia is a second career for me, so I am trying to stay healthy. I try to eschew liquor, food, and anything deliciously gooey. Well, what does that leave me? Television!

I thought that movies about people whose lives are far more interesting than mine would offer escape. Yet, just as there’s always a commercial for hot fudge sundaes on the day you start your diet, I am deluged by stories of academic politics.

Who knew there were so many movies about people coming up for tenure? One night, my son is watching his homework assignment: Oleanna, David Mamet’s brilliant and haunting story of a tenure-track professor who is falsely accused of sexual harassment and ends up losing his tenure bid, his job, his home, and even his composure, as he explodes in rage attacking his accuser. I walk in on the first act and am transfixed by how quickly things can go so terribly wrong. One misunderstood comment. One misunderstood physical, amicable touch. A diatribe of misconstrued academic prose used against the professor by the student and her well-meaning supporters. So easy for it all to fall apart. Could something like this really happen so quickly? I must remember, especially in these last few days, not to talk to anyone, if I can avoid doing so. Looking at people is probably also not a good idea. Yes, that’s a plan.

I am thinking too much, I am sure. After another few minutes, I have to leave. I never see the end of Oleanna. It is too close to home.

I turn on the TV a few days later to find Mona Lisa Smile, pop culture’s attempt to understand women’s colleges and coming of age in the 1950s as feminists. This should be safe, I thought; I’m a women’s college graduate. The protagonist teaches at Wellesley College. I worked as a visiting professor at Wellesley; I loved it. It should be a great two hours. 

I probably should have read the synopsis first. Julia Roberts plays a newly appointed junior professor, Katherine Watson, who is challenged by amazing students. She is overwhelmed. So far, so good; I remember the first days of teaching. Watson pushes her students to think critically about art and, more important, women’s roles in society.

Watson sets her own rules for romantic pursuits as well as academic endeavors. Because of this, she is beloved by her students but chastised by the power structure at Wellesley, which condemns her to supervision if she wishes to continue teaching there the following semester. Rather than succumb, she leaves her dream job to pursue something else—we never find out what it is. The great question mark: Is there life after academe? If your students love you, shouldn’t that be enough?

In Kant’s time, when professors had to find their own students to earn their salary, students’ adoration would have been enough. In today’s films, students’ evaluations follow the needs of the institution and the petty needs of the other faculty. I say to myself, I would never accept the kind of heavy-handed management that Wellesley tried to impose in the movie. But, when the mortgage needs paying, would I? For my children’s tuition? What cost would be too high? I am getting into dangerous territory, I fear.

My prelaw students ask me what the first year of law school will be like. We read Scott Turow’s account of his odyssey as a first-year law student, One-L. I indulge the students in The Paper Chase, a 1973 film about first-year law students at Harvard. I have seen the film many times. I always sat in the seat with the protagonist, James Hart (Timothy Bottoms), suffering with him as he learns what it is to be a law student. This time, however, I see it differently. Hart is consumed by his contracts professor, Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), who can only be described as egotistical and cold. Using the Socratic method, Kingsfield breaks the students down and forces them to find their voices as lawyers. Now I see Kingsfield as my colleague, the kind who votes on me at personnel and budget committee meetings. This pompous shell of a man is able to determine whether I am worthy? This is the club that I am attempting to join? Voting on my future is but a task the committee was assigned. I am, as a person, insignificant to them. I realize that even if they grant my tenure, I don’t know if (like Groucho Marx) I “want to belong to any group that will accept me as a member.” All of a sudden I hate this film that I once found so intriguing and useful as a teaching tool for students; I hate it now that it is a teaching tool for me. I hope one day I can enjoy it again.

When I see the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man on Netflix, I am pretty sure that I am in safe territory. I did not intend to have to think about tenure. What film about the trials of Job could concern university life? The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), goes from rabbi to rabbi asking why his world is unraveling. His problems are legion: his wife has left him for a friend, his daughter steals to get a nose job, his son refuses to study, he is transfixed by a nude sunbathing neighbor who is destroying his search for peace. Most important, an anonymous letter writer sends a series of accusatory letters to members of the tenure committee imploring them to reject Gopnik. Does this really happen? Could it happen? I start to wonder.

A few days later, after grading quizzes and finishing a draft of a journal article, I decide to indulge in a more light-hearted comedy. In Confidentially Connie, a 1950s comedy about a poor college professor (Van Johnson) and his pregnant wife (Janet Leigh), Connie craves meat but admits that her husband’s salary doesn’t allow for any. Johnson’s cow rancher father visits, hoping to bring his son back to the ranch, where he’ll be a millionaire. There are opportunities for advancement at the college, but none as remunerative as being a rancher. Johnson’s character prefers to remain a humble professor who brings education to his fun-loving but ignorant students. The father-rancher makes an agreement with the butcher to sell meat at half-price to the professor and secretly pays for the other half.

This silly film raised important questions about whether it is all worth it. I know my colleagues who went to business school and law school certainly “eat meat” more frequently than I do. I don’t have the same interests as they do; I never did. But did I make the right choices for me? The film also conveys what we all know to be true: academia is underwritten by people outside of the academy, whether it be through government grants, private funding, or even cattlemen supplementing their children’s academic careers. Regardless of the funder, this underwriting shapes relationships and our work.

The days go by and I still have no response from the tenure committee. Tossing and turning in bed, I wonder if eight years of grad school and dissertation writing, one year as a visiting professor, and seven years on the tenure track will be for naught. I turn on the TV: Tenure, the big daddy of them all.

The title alone assures me that I will have to face my fears. Does he or doesn’t he? The protagonist, Charlie Thurber (Luke Wilson), is an assistant professor awaiting the tenure decision. The faculty don’t seem to have much of an intellectual life, despite the fact that the story takes place at a university. They make off-color jokes and accuse the nontenured of urinating on faculty toilet seats. Thurber is consumed by a colleague’s success. The colleague is a kind-hearted and perky tenure-track professor whose first article is published by the Paris Review or some journal of its ilk, while his own oft-rejected piece eventually finds a place at an unknown and, certainly, unranked journal. The horror! Thurber knows that her rising star eclipses whatever promise he once had.

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I am feeling cold and clammy. I know that if Thurber gets tenure, he will resign himself to life among these clods. Is that what he wants? What do I want? Where do I want to be? I think about a note from one of my students, an amazing woman who went from a prison cell to getting a master’s degree in social work and now runs a program at the jail where she was once an inmate. The note thanked me for believing in her and teaching her what she needed to know to be successful. I think about the research article I just wrote and how excited I still am by academic puzzles. It never stopped being interesting, not even for a day. The film ends with Thurber’s being offered “provisional tenure.” He leaves and begins teaching at a local high school. He is doing the part of the job that he loved most. But I know I would miss the field research, the data analysis, the conferences, the workshops, and even the protracted publishing process if I were just to teach somewhere else. This is a tough night.

The committee voted a few days ago. I still don’t know if I was awarded tenure. Despite it all, I would never have traded my experience as a professor. My decision to own a television, however, would definitely have to be reconsidered.

Robin A. Harper is a still tenure-track assistant professor of political science. Her future remains TBD.

Comments

I just spent the last year living through this. It was incredibly awful even without watching those movies. I am still recovering. I do wish the author the best of luck.

What a great article! Even those unfamiliar with academia certainly know the movies. Who would have thought there was so much to be feared from everyday films?

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