I started my current job 6+ years ago. At the end of my 5th year, I started submitting my tenure materials and was tenured last May. I do not come from a family of academics. The highest degree in my family was my birth mother's MA in Folklore. I was so intimated by graduate school that I never even considered it (let alone an academic career) for a decade after I finished college. Once I began contemplating it, I put materials in a file folder with a hand-drawn 'scared face' emoji next to the words "Grad School." I applied for an MFA creative writing program and, despite having published a novel, was not even waitlisted. After a couple of more years in advertising, I applied to a professional master's program and was accepted. That program did not include a thesis, and I was advised by some not to attempt one. In spite of such advice, I completed a thesis, for which my program provided no support or credit hours. (To those who did help me in this - endless thanks.) I was told by some not to apply to PhD programs. I did, and was rejected by the program in the very department that I was currently in, despite others in that department who were actively lobbying for and encouraging me to get a PhD at that institution. I was accepted elsewhere, and got my PhD. All of this is not to sprout sour grapes, but to say I never, ever took the academic life, tenure, or graduate school for granted. It terrified me, and my imposter syndrome was strong. I felt unworthy and unprepared for years into the job I currently hold.
Now I am on the other side. The tenure-track process in many ways does not support (or 'incentivize' to use neoliberal parlance) many things that are incredibly important to teaching, advancing knowledge, and serving communities. My research, teaching, and service were all impacted by the demands of tenure criteria. However, I still struggle to remember that tenure is intended to provide protection for doing that very kind of work. Tenure should provide a degree of protection and support for risk-taking, innovative teaching; unpopular or unconventional research, and service that goes beyond mere participation in so many committees. I acknowledge this conflict. It is something like that of strategic essentialism: While we can acknowledge and explore the social construction of categories such as gender or race, for political ends and social justice many times we have to treat those categories as stable, fixed categories. All of my syllabi include this quote: F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
Tenure is a privilege and privileged. It is something with few parallels in other occupations. That does not make it unimpeachable: There are many things wrong with the process. And there are many hardworking lecturers and adjuncts who do not have access to it. It was through a very specific combination of circumstances that I was even able to secure a tenure-track job. I consider myself lucky and privileged (and yes, I mean it in that sense of being the recipient of privilege) to have been offered this opportunity.
I'm not suggesting some kind of Stockholm Syndrome here. ("Be grateful you got the opportunity, boy!") I'm struggling to make sense of and, by sharing, seek others' input on this process. I don't want to take it for granted; I want to make it work. As a tenure applicant, I wanted my efforts recognized. As a tenured faculty member reviewing tenure-track colleagues, I want their work to be recognized but also to make sure they achieve tenure so they are protected and able to do even more important, powerful work in the future. Yes, applying for tenure kinda sucks, but achieving it can help us to do even more powerful work.
As a gay, liberal kid in Reagan-era Texas, my strategy was to do what was expected of me so I could get where I wanted to go and have the freedom, power, and protection to do and be what I wanted to. I played and faked the game in order to escape. That's the compromise I made. I understand this is not the route for everyone, and that it colors the way I look at things today. I'm not making an argument here -- bad professor! -- nor am I trying to suggest there is a right or wrong way to approach tenure, or to refine the tenure process. I'm just talking out loud and sharing my experiences, which will hopefully be of use to others and bring useful feedback and insights to me.