Editor’s note: the following is adapted from a viral Twitter thread by the author. She notes: “I wrote this to call tenured professors to account, and to present them with clear, actionable, even mundane steps we can take to make higher education more functional, more humane and more equitable.” It has been retweeted over 500 times and viewed by more than 160,000 readers, clearly striking a nerve. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
A lot of us with tenure are watching PhD students leave their programs without finishing, go into debt, suffer lousy adjunct jobs and destroy their mental health. We are watching our undergrad programs turned into scaled-up piecework, our administrative structures turn managerial. What can we do?
Because we, the tenured, are the ones to do it. Who else? Marginalized scholars? Contingent workers? Trustees and boards? No. If anyone has the footing, power and safety to push back, it’s tenured faculty. What are you going to do?
Yes, yes, I know: you are just one mid-level associate trying to finish your book, get that grant, grade those assignments. You’re a nobody. Except you’re a nobody with very strong job protection, a stable salary, benefits and institutional access. That is not nothing. Now what?
You could do some positive things: push for better, stable contracts for adjuncts and lecturers. Push for the continuation of tenure lines. Push to protect people below you from the depredations of academic exploitation. Push for the things you claim to value in your research.
You could sit on hiring committees and push back against always hiring from the same high-prestige programs. You could push forward the idea that diverse hires are necessarily going to present differently than the usual hires, including in interview style, experience, and interpersonally.
You could perform service in your department and your faculty as if it were actually meaningful. You have the power to care, and the power to be a pain in the ass to do things the right way. This would be better than complaining about “the powers that be.” You are the powers that be. Use it.
You could sit on undergraduate and graduate curriculum committees and make sure the workloads and degree demands do not assume an able-bodied, 18-year-old middle-class kid with no other obligations than to study. Be inclusive.
You could ask yourself why the degree programs you teach in have to be exactly the same as the degree you took 20 years ago. Our students and our world and the market is not the same. Be the change that will make things equitable.
You could (this is harder) consider why you only want to teach upper-level courses, and consider that you are leaving the grad students, the adjuncts and the junior instructors the most challenging courses. That’s not fair. You’re trying to skim the cream off the top.
You could (this is hard, too) look at your own syllabi and do an audit – are you mostly teaching white dudes’ texts and ideas? Because you always have? Because that’s what you know? Look at your students: that’s not them. Branch out. Learn more. Diversify your syllabus.
You could think about your pedagogy. How much is construed to perform gatekeeping, rather than teaching? Are you acting as a judge or arbiter, or as a guide and mentor? What kinds of labour are you not doing with your students? Who is doing that labour for you?
You could model integrity, balance and equity for your grad students. They learn the profession’s and the field’s values from you. Respond promptly, support the whole student, really listen, act as a coach and not just as a grader. Be a decent human. It matters.
And now I turn it to you. What can you do, my tenured friends, to make the university a better place? I feel like marginalized scholars are doing way more to advance this conversation, and it should be work that falls mainly to us. Go!
Aimée Morrison (@digiwonk) is an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo working in digital humanities and new media design and culture.