Patricia Adler, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, just got fired because of a lecture she gave on prostitution in a popular undergraduate lecture course on deviance. As part of the lecture, Adler had students dress up as various kinds of prostitutes — slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services — and asked them enact scripts in front of the class where they were asked what they charge, what services they perform and how they got into the sex trade. This lecture, which has been part of the course for years, ruffled a few too many feathers and Adler is basically being pushed out by the University.
Whether you agree with the course subject matter or not, the issue up for debate is academic freedom. What is the point of academic freedom if you can’t act out a silly skit in class?
For many, securing a tenure-track job right out of graduate school is the Holy Grail of academia: if you’re in the humanities you start earning between 65,000 and 85,000 a year to teach classes you’re interested in (or often not interested in) and you get to pursue the ideas you want to pursue, that is, of course, when you’re not bogged down with all of the other work you have to do. There are fabulously enticing start-up packages that give you coins to do your research, to get equipment, whatever you need to get started with your academic career. And, most gloriously of all, if you get tenure (and it is a BIG if) you have a job for life: you’re not supposed to get fired.
It’s an awesome deal, and you can see why there are so many more Ph.D.s than there are jobs. To put this in perspective, this year I applied to 50 jobs at liberal arts colleges and universities around the country, as well as a handful of postdoctoral fellowships. One job I applied to received over 500 applications. For. one. position. Another fellowship received 1100 applications for 8 available slots.
What the what?
A life on the tenure-track is nice work if you can get it (cc cultural theorist Andrew Ross), and as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch. Professors on the tenure-track typically have six years to get it together — to get sterling reviews from students, to have been an invaluable departmental citizen, which in a lot of cases means doing nearly everything you are asked to do, to have published fabulous articles and at least one book on a major academic press — before anyone can even talk about granting you tenure. And even once you go up for tenure review it’s still possible that The Overlords Will Deny Your Tenure File, meaning you kind of just wasted 6 years of life.
Most of my scholar friends talk about waiting to write the book they really want to write or saving the projects they really want to pursue until after they get tenure. They’re afraid of what their department chair will think or how it will reflect on them. But if the whole point of going into academia and pursuing a life in the Ivory Tower is academic freedom, teaching the courses you want to teach and offering students material in new and exciting ways, what’s the point if the only thing you’re worried about is how everything you do pre-tenure will look as you go up for tenure? Where’s the academic freedom in that?
The sordid truth is that academic freedom exists only selectively, typically when it benefits certain individuals or a university and bestows upon them great press, which of course makes it easier to seduce donors to give even more money to the school. That’s the point of tenure: you are so amazing and your work brings great press and accolades to the university.
When I was in graduate school I taught an extremely popular self-designed seminar on nightlife that was a real hit with the student body. We had a blast, too. But when news about that course spread, others didn’t think so highly. News media all over mocked such a silly class on nightlife and I even got an email from a disgruntled university donor who was all, “Shame on you for offering such rubbish.”
I was really scared. Scared that I would get kicked out. Scared that my dissertation would never pass. But thankfully I had some faculty advisors who really believed in me and stood by me and unwaveringly supported my work.
Point is, academic freedom doesn’t really exist. If your work is outside of the box, uncomfortably edgy and doesn’t fit within the confines of what department chairs, tenure-review and hiring committees believe proper scholarship is, you’re going to have a rough go of it. A few years ago an Ivy League university was hiring a scholar and a friend told me that a member of that hiring committee said that they didn’t want someone “who was a scholar of Beyoncé.” Even some of you, in your most hateful moments about my writing on this site, leave comments about how my dissertation was about being fabulous (yes it was, so get over it) — which isn’t a “real” topic — and so therefore I deserve to be totally discredited etc.
If you want true academic freedom, make it. Keep doing the work that interests you and that hopefully interests others, not work you think will get you hired at this or that school or that you think will get you tenure. If you want true academic freedom, find it. Get colleagues and publishers and departments that want to go where you are taking them. As with any creative industry, you often have to make your own way.