Friday, January 22, 2010

Tenured idiots

Recently, I went to a meeting in the small, Midwestern university English department where I teach, and got reminded of one of the main reasons I like teaching online: my tenured colleagues. Though there are a few of them I don’t mind—specifically, the ones that care about teaching their students whatever the class’s content may be, rather than forcing their own pet literary theories and/or on the students in the guise of teaching—I really can’t stand most of them.

And believe me, the feeling is mutual. I’ve become the John Adams of my particular English department


My other half tells me that a lot of the dislike stems from jealousy. I don’t know what it is (though I have my suspicions), but I’ve come up with more new paper ideas and new ways to use technology than the rest of the department put together. For example, many of my colleagues have their students keep a writing journal; however, I’m the first one that has required mine to keep a blog. And read and comment on each other’s blogs every week. My colleagues in the meeting where I unveiled the idea (because I thought they might like to take the assignment and use it in their own classes) absolutely panned it. One couldn’t get past the idea that I’d listed Fox News as a credible news site (despite the fact that they use the same AP stories as CNN and MSNBC). Another said it was nothing but busy work, and “I’d drop your class if I were a student and got this assignment.”

Believe it or not, though, I’ve seen results: I’ve never seen a larger and more rapid improvement in coherence, grammatical correctness, and rational argument than I did last semester. My students told me, in the reflection essay I had them write about blogging, that they worked harder on grammar, sentence, and paragraph structure in their blogs than they do on their graded essays because they were more worried about what their peers thought of their writing than they were about the grade they’d get. When I brought that up in this most recent meeting, my colleagues kind of brushed it off to make fun of Fox News again.

I’ve seen the professional jealousy pop up in another way: my classes usually fill up before any of my colleagues’ classes, some of whom don’t even make the minimum enrollment. A lot of them think it’s because I grade easier than they do, but that’s often pretty much the opposite of the truth. According to my students, they want my class because they actually learn the tools they need for writing for the rest of their classes, rather than just whatever the instructor wants to teach. I’ve had more than one student come to me and ask to transfer into my class because the instructor gets up the first day and tells them that they can’t write about their faith, their political beliefs (if they’re not leftist beliefs), or their personal opinions because the professor doesn’t agree with them, and even if they write a superb paper, they won’t get better than a C because their opinions are wrong.

Case in point: a couple of years ago, I ran into a colleague’s Composition I student crying in the hall outside my class because my colleague told her that her paper sucked because it was too optimistic, badly organized, and didn’t have a thesis statement tying it all together. She was waiting for one of her friends, who was in my Comp I class. Her friend drug her into my classroom and asked me to help her. When I asked to see her paper, I realized that my colleague was right about the lack of organization and of a thesis statement, but I also realized that my colleague had given her no instructions on how to improve the paper she’d written.

So, I helped her. And she turned in the revised version, and got a C because “it was about marriage, and my teacher’s marriage failed, and so she doesn’t believe in marriage, and my paper is too ‘Disney.’” Despite the praise on the improvement in organization, and the addition of a thesis statement tying the whole thing together. And that colleague, when the student enrolled in my Comp II class instead of hers said “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think you’ll learn anything in her class.”

Nice. I’m just glad the student didn’t tell that instructor that the improvement in her class was because I explained the things the student wasn’t understanding and my colleague wasn’t explaining. Otherwise, it likely would have gotten even more unpleasant in the department offices.

Another colleague’s student, who happened to be a friend of mine, walked into my office hours and threw himself into a chair in disgust. Why? Because said colleague was teaching The Scarlet Letter through gender and sexual political theory: she explained, in a class full of conservative Christian students, that the scene in the book where the minister is punishing himself for his hidden sin of adultery (using a flogger on his back in the closet where no one could see him and ask awkward questions) was actually referring to masturbation (something it certainly was not).

These instances have one thing in common: an arrogance bred by the knowledge that they cannot be fired. They’re tenured. I’m not.

Tenure was created to give college professors protection against a superior that doesn’t like them because of the way they teach, because of their personal lives, or because of their politics. I can certainly understand the benefits; however, as an untenured professional, I can definitely also see its downsides.

English departments in general are beginning to be seen by other departments and by the world at large as irrelevant, mostly because tenured individuals are teaching their pet theories and their pet politics instead of the content they’re supposed to be teaching. I’ve heard tenured colleagues complain about teaching composition classes because “there’s no content—how do we teach a class where there’s no content? We have to bring in our theories and politics to give content.” And that’s some of the best of them—the ones that actually try to increase their students’ knowledge. The worst simply assign papers without trying to teach, and pass the students with A’s and B’s because they don’t want to be bothered.

What these tenured idiots don’t seem to realize is that teaching writing—sentence, paragraph, and whole paper structure, organization, development, style, grammar, all of it—is the content. Our students have been coming to us less and less well prepared. Our students have to be taught how sentences work together to form coherent paragraphs, and how coherent paragraphs work together to form a cohesive whole, whether that cohesive whole is a persuasive essay, a narrative, a story, or an explanatory essay. Our students need to be taught that explicitly, not just assigned readings and writings with the assumption that “they’ll pick up what they need to know by reading good writing.” That is simply not so, not for the vast majority of students. Maybe we, who teach composition and literature, learned how to write well from our voracious reading habits, but that’s why we majored in and teach English to start with.

Our department’s tenured idiots are the reason why our department is losing relevance, and the reason why one area of the core curriculum—the section of the humanities requiring six credit hours of literature—has been halved and rolled into another requirement. Before they know it, there will no longer be an English department, because the other departments on campus are going to realize that they can teach their students what they need to know about writing, and do it far better, because they’ll be able to tailor the writing to their discipline. Better, they’ll be able to hire their own, non-tenured composition instructors, and hold the people they employ to a higher standard in teaching writing, rather than take the crap the English department passes off as writing instruction.

I’ve done all I can to reverse the trend, but as a non-tenured adjunct, there really isn’t much I can do. And I’m absolutely ready to bail out and try to get one of the other, saner departments to hire me on as a non-tenured, discipline-specific Composition instructor. I’m tired of dealing with the tenured idiots who haven’t re-evaluated themselves as teachers since they got ahold of the brass ring.


  1. TENURED IDIOTS Good opening.

    I was thinking back to high school.

    The negative effects of tenure in high school is more 'dangerous' than college,

    High schoolers minds are still
    maturing, making them very naive about lots of things.

    I would hope that college aged would be a bit more ready to handle the damaging effect of tenure.

    But then again, if they were
    bred (educated) in a tenured high school system---it may be too late.

    I graduated high school in 1957,
    barely--not stupid just not a good student--and how many times was I told, "boy, when you
    grow up you'll see how right the teachers are/were."

    There were many of these teachers at my 10 year reunion,
    and you know they were still stupid.

    Tenure, a dark side of teaching.

    Not to be forgotten those teachers who I "worshiped" as educators.

    Excellent post!

  2. You're entirely right. I'll likely be talking about that at some other time. It's just that this was at the top of my mind because I met with the tenured idiots I work with last week, and classes started Monday

  3. Tenure is tenure.....

    One thing I observed a long time ago, education too often gets a bad rap because of the few and not the majority.

  4. This was exactly my fear when I started college this year; that I would be in a class where I was going to be forced to agree with opinions and beliefs that I did not agree with so that I could get a good grade. I am so thankful for the teacher that I have, one who appreciates and understands the purpose of her class, with an honest representation of the core of the subject. I enrolled in school to learn about subjects, NOT to learn a new viewpoint, or to be shown where my beliefs are wrong.

    This was an excellent post, and it makes me feel good to know that there are teachers who teach for the right, purest reasons. In the Bible, Galatians 6:9 reads, "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." Hang in there!