Queer in the Academy: How the Tenure Process Stifles Difference

Academia embodies a paradox: We’re allegedly open to all sorts of new ideas, tolerant of differences, rabid about social justice, have made the embrace diversity all but mandatory, and are willing to discuss any sort of crazy theory. At the same time, we’re buttoned-up personalities in button-down shirts who are afraid to push the bounds of politically correct groupthink and who enforce bureaucratic school policies and an unwritten code of “professionalism” with tongues well-versed in euphemism. Both of these are, of course, stereotypes, but they’re stereotypes with roots in reality.

Queer in the Academy: How the Tenure Process Stifles Difference
Einstein’s theory of relativity applied to the tenure clock

Nowhere is this cognitive dissonance more manifest than in academics’ personal lives. We can study the rebels of history, but God forbid we try to épater le bourgeois ourselves. Those who wish to snatch the golden ring of tenure must self-censor every e-mail, hide behind pseudonyms on discussion boards, and make sure no incriminating photos of Happy Hour get posted on Facebook. This has only grown worse in recent years: In a tight job market and with the increasing insistence of running the Academy like a business, the pressure to be a perfect employee and to have no life outside of one’s research and teaching (save, perhaps, for some safe and non-threatening form of exercise such as jogging or swimming) is all-consuming.

In short, our lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

So who is queer these days? For starters, women with children. In researching this piece, I received a few e-mails from people who had to hide their gay BDSM lifestyles from their colleagues. However, it was pointed out to me that the real sexual nonconformists in academia are those considered some of the most normal in the real world: reproductive females. I was pointed to one study of art historians that revealed that, even with a field that is overwhelmingly (70%) female, men—especially married men with children—were granted tenure faster and more consistently, and at more prestigious institutions. For a woman to achieve on the level of a man, she needs to be, effectively, a female eunuch. This reflects both that two-career couples are likely to de-prioritize the woman’s career—and that home and childcare are more likely to fall to the woman, to the detriment of their careers. Even in the purportedly feminist academy, it seems de facto gender roles are alive and well.

How does this work? To get Foucaultian, the tenure carrot is used to discipline the academic body. “In my experience, thus far, the body and the person and the disciplines of both are opened up for commentary by senior faculty under the rubric of ‘tenure’,” an assistant professor in a Midwestern university posted on the H-HISTSEX discussion network. “If you want tenure you should think about such-and-such; you should be careful about so-and-so if you want tenure.”

Of course, only certain discourses are permitted. Replace “such and such” with “wear shorter skirts” or “wear your hair in a more attractive way” and you have a sexual harassment suit. Replace it with “marry a member of the opposite sex to fit in,” or “stop being a lesbian,” and you have a civil rights case. However, to say “stop asking us to arrange your classes so you can pick your kids up at 3 PM” is as allowable as “tone down your involvement with gay-rights groups” or “don’t let it be known you’re a furry.”

While the norms of academe may “queer” even normality, the process isn’t any easier on those who are more traditionally non-conformist. “It is only since getting tenure and then a promotion to a more senior position at a major old university that I have felt able to get visible body modifications, tattoos, etc.,” another respondent e-mailed me. “And given that, it means I am silent about most of the things that are associated with identity politics (I have not come out, primarily because I live with a girl, and prior to that was married with a kid). Not because this is necessarily prohibited, but because already working on ‘weird stuff,’ as the prof in my dept put it at our last staff meeting (homosexuality, S&M, other perversion, the body, etc). Most of my colleagues know my ex-wife and kids, they know I have a girlfriend, but they do not know that she is as queer as me.”

It goes without saying that we need to do more to promote real gender equity, instead of just lip service. (Paternity leave, anyone?) The big question is: Why the closeting for more traditionally eccentric professors? What would happen if people opened up? Who would complain? Students? Hell no. College students should be exposed to people of different backgrounds—race, class, sexualities, and, yes, lifestyles. It’s not like eighteen-year-olds can’t find out anything they don’t know via the Internet anyway, and, as it is, we already give them permission to be far more outrageous than the faculty is allowed to be. Alumni donors, the board of directors, or the state legislature? Again, hell no. If the big money spenders are dictating what people think and do in your school, then you’ve got more problems with intellectual freedom than a simple case of intolerance.

No, the ones who are consciously or unconsciously holding up the married, heterosexual, tweed-jacketed male as the gold standard are our senior department members—those who make the hiring and promotion decisions—and the rest of our colleagues in our fields of study. (And how did the generation that first marched for equality get so conservative?) The mold of “the way an academic should be” is nothing more than something in their heads—a self-perpetuating myth that forces us into untenable hypocrisy. Rather than perpetuating it, we must do what scholars have done throughout the ages: Examine our deeply held and unquestioned beliefs, and discard those that are badly founded.

While it is true that we, as a society, are growing more alienated from any ideology of authenticity, authenticity in the existential sense is an integral part of the academic mission to search for truth. It is no easy thing to adjust one’s gaze so that a woman is given the luxury of not having to choose between her child and her career, and so that being one’s authentic self (within the limits of professionalism and ethical conduct) is not an object of shame. However, it is a moral imperative.

Ken Mondschein received his Ph.D from Fordham University, and has also studied at Boston University, SUNY Buffalo, and Harvard. Besides his academic work, he has written for Nerve, the New York Press, ...read more

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