Dead wood: a person, a place, or a state of mind?

Related to the various debates over tenure at MoneyLaw, the kids over there have spent some of the summer in their tree house talking about dead wood, as in, the lazy and/or destructive faculty members that the institution of tenure protects, unfortunately, along with the fabulously productive and generous colleagues like us.  (Don’t ask me about all of the hockey stuff over there–it must be a law proffie thing.  Wev.)  Historiann would like to offer a few thoughts inspired by Jefferey Harrison’s recent post on the subject, “Wood.”  I like the way he debunks the notion of “dead wood” somewhat, and goes with the metaphor to describe things much more destructive of faculty morale:  dry rot and pulp. 

It occurs to Historiann that in common usage, “dead wood” is always someone else.  No one wakes up in the morning and trots off to work happily thinking of themselves as dead wood.  No one embraces that label–it hasn’t been reclaimed, like “queer.”  It’s more like “feminazi:”  a weapon that people (other faculty, administrators, and maybe some students) use to demean and undermine other people and their work.  Let’s be honest:  most of us faculty types who have been successful (so far!) think we’ve got the exact right balance of work on research, teaching, and service down.  Most of us walk around believing that many of our colleagues do not.  Why did he agree to serve on that committee when his book’s not even finished?  She needs to teach that course again–the rest of us have been stuck teaching it, so she should, too.  That teaching award was nice, but he really has to get his research agenda going again or he’ll never get promoted.  Why am I always stuck chairing a search committee, when I’ve got a second book under contract, too? 

Historiann wonders:  is “dead wood” what we call colleagues who have gray hair (or no hair) and too many wrinkles?  Is “dead wood” the reward that our senior colleagues get for agreeing to chair a department or serve as a dean when they didn’t really want to, but there was no one else to do the job?  Is that their reward for offering to chair and serve on time-consuming committees so that their junior colleagues could finish their books and articles and get their tenure files ready?  Is that what they get for being mensches, and teaching an overload so that their untenured colleagues don’t have to?  For a bunch of people who spend a lot of time in the past, there’s not a lot of honoring of our elders going on in this profession.  (And no, this is not a personal complaint–Historiann is ageless, miraculously unmarked by gray hair or wrinkles!  She’s never done any of these selfless things for her department, either, except chair Graduate Studies for a year.)

As we slide into August, that beautiful, awful month in which we face the return of the faculty meeting, please reconsider the next time the phrase “dead wood” pops into your mind.  Those senior faculty may not have published a book recently, but their work has value that you may not fully understand or appreciate, although others surely do–the students they mentor, that class they’ve been teaching for twenty years that’s a legend on your campus, that wry humor and good judgment that gets everyone through those T&P committee meetings without unduly damaging anyone’s career or anyone else’s relationships with one another.  Please also recall “dead wood”‘s usefulness to people outside of the university who don’t want to fund higher education.  “Dead wood” is everyone’s favorite rhetorical bludgeon when arguing to end tenure, but how many truly worthless faculty do you know?  How many people can you name whose immediate retirement would be a net benefit for your department, institution, or academic field?

0 thoughts on “Dead wood: a person, a place, or a state of mind?

  1. Part of it is resentment of shifting expectations: I have a near-retirement colleague who teaches 2/3 of the standard courseload, and in his entire career, has never published anything but book reviews; I’m coming up for tenure and am worried about getting the boot for having only two peer-reviewed articles and my book only under review, rather than under contract.

    On the other hand, he serves on three *major* university committees every year (all of them boring and time-consuming), and supervises twice the grad students that I do. He keeps up with the literature in his field, broadly (something I am woefully incapable of doing), and his student love him.

    So, on the whole, it’s a wash, except that he tends to make passive-aggressive comments about faculty who take time off of teaching (fellowships) to do research.


  2. Thanks for posting this. I find all too often the phrase is used as a covert form of age discrimination. It’s true that many universities like mine are suffering from “mission creep” — i.e. increasing expectations for tenure and promotion, with no reduction in teaching loads and more and more “service” and administrative work. Those who agree to serve as chairs or on major committees, at the expense of their scholarship and creative activity, get NO recognition or credit when they apply for promotion to full professor. Not surprisingly a lot of these “mensches” are women.


  3. It is useful to rethink these types of pejoratives.

    At my last university, though, there were faculty members who did nothing that you describe. They did not research nor did they serve on committees (mostly because the administration could not deal with their bitterness). When they taught, they often gave a minimum effort and used multiple choice exams.

    Also at my former institution, we wondered about a post-tenure means of making things “equitable.” Since those who did not produce research did not get raises, we thought there could be a “teaching/service” tract. The latter, though, would require that they assume more classes if they were not publishing. They would, however, start qualifying for raises based on their teaching performance.


  4. Dead wood at my department is a faculty member who has published nothing since 1980–unbelievable, but true–who teaches the normal course load, but with course evaluations that are well below the departmental average, and who serves on no committees because people are afraid of her; yes, on top of it, she’s mean. We only have merit raises for publishing, so in fact she’s making now what she was making in 1988–the only ameliorating factor. Meanwhile she’s blocking a line in an important field, but all post-tenure review ever leads to is another round of “remediation,” whatever that means.


  5. Notorious Ph.D.: it’s true that we are expected to meet higher expectations than people hired in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of this is because the job market is so much more competitive, so we’re victims of our own success, in a sense, if we’re lucky enough make the cut for a tenure-track job. (Back when the government spent more freely on higher education, and the G.I. Bill meant the expansion or creation of entirely new universities, those universities were scrambling to fill faculty positions with warm bodies. Unimaginable now, isn’t it?) At least at my university and most others I’ve taught at, those senior faculty were also hired under different expectations: they had a 3-3 or 4-4 course load, and no expectation of publishing, so from that perspective, their career trajectories made a lot of sense. Those of us hired in the 2000s have never taught more than a 2-2 load, and it’s pretty easy to get another course release for a research project/deadline. (Try to ignore the comments about the fellowship: no one who’s graduated with a Ph.D. since at least 1980 would see that as a BAD thing. My guess is that most of the rest of your colleagues will be concerned about losing you to a better job this year!)

    KC: yes–exactly about the age and gender angles here. (What’s the feminine of “mensch?” My Yiddish isn’t great.)

    And GayProf: You didn’t have post-tenure review at your former institution? (I’m certain you can look forward to it at your current university.) We’ve got it at Baa Ram U., and I’m not opposed to it at all. (Besides, we go through an extensive documentation of our annual activities for our salary exercise, so my guess is that it’s more of a bureaucratic hassle than a matter of true anxiety, if you’re just keepin’ on, keepin’ on.) Not sure how I feel about the teaching/service track thing–especially if a department has graduate students. It seems like one should make at least some effort at keeping up with current scholarship in a documentable fashion–giving conference papers, doing book reviews, etc.–even if the second or third books are slow in coming.


  6. One more thought: depression may well be a major issue with people who appear to be unproductive and/or don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for their job any more. It may be because they’ve been bullied, of course, but there are people prone to depression in even the most collegial departments.


  7. This could be post-of-the-year, for its complexity and “faceted-ness,” and I’m almost speechless, for all of the thoughts crowding to get out. I’ll settle for this anecdote: My most revered senior colleague, now emeritus, hired-in in the mid-60s while teaching in high school, with a Ph.D almost in hand. When the degree arrived, not knowing what to do, he sent news of it to the dean. Next week a letter arrived from the president, promoting him to Associate Professor! He never became a publishing machine, but he’s the least dead wood we have around, even counting me. And when he retired he closed his office, sent his papers to the U. archives, and took up a post that he’s never relinquished on a couch in our suite, where he reads more history than the rest of the department put together, and I’d almost say advises more undergraduates than the rest of us too. It’s the juniority, alas, who arrive and discover what you mostly have to do to get tenure–not get hit by a bus–and soon go pulpy, if not even to sawdust. I think I’d favor the “track” system, subject to Historiann’s caveat that everybody must do something scholarship-wise. But to expect everyone to do yeoperson service, while scholarship is a lifestyle option, that can’t be a good thing.

    Small caveat to follow.


  8. My tiny caveat: Unless I’ve gone totally dandelion, people hired in the ’70s (not me) met far greater competition than anytime since the early 1990s, since they were looking at applicant/opening ratios of 300-400/1. There were, it’s true, still some jobs being filled on a 1/1 basis, with no advertisement, but that system was being overthrown. Sorry to go “Old Man and the Sea” on this, but I’m pledged to contest crisis-creep. The snows really *were* deeper back then. Now the ’60s were different…


  9. No–you’re right, Indyanna. I was thinking 60s and EARLY 70s, but didn’t actually type it up that way. I’ve heard it was OK until 1971 or ’72, and then the long, dry spell of the 70s and 80s began. It’s better now than those years, but still very tough competition.


  10. We have several crusty old profs who refuse to have anything to do with grad students at our R1 — mainly because they have not researched or published anything since “theory” came into the academy and people started arguing we should look at wider canons that included women and non-white people. Their attitude is “Gah, I’m going to teach biographical analyses of Fitzgerald and Hemingway just like I did back when I knew them personally” or whatever. 😉

    However, I don’t mind having them around as they put the extra time and attention into working with undergrads, mentoring them, hanging out with them, running the ugrad essay contest, etc. So it’s like they’re working at a SLAC instead of an R1 and students get to see a wide range of approaches besides a range of attention paid them — something that the tenure-track research-machine people have to skimp on. Maybe the rampant sexism isn’t all good but experiencing some real old-school gender attitudes can be an educational experience in itself, heh.


  11. I’ll tell you where you can find some dead wood — among the ranks of the jr untenured prima donnas. Who says you shouldn’t have to teach a whole lot and mentor students and be on committees just because you have to do your research? Isn’t the point that you have to be able to do all of the above –and more. Some of these people think they’re too brilliant to talk to undergrads.


  12. Oh, snnnapp, Rad! Oh, no, you di’int! Sir, I believe you are now officially an old fogey. Well, you can have the last laugh on them when you vote against tenuring them!

    And Sis: I wouldn’t say that being subjected to that particular set of Old School ideas (sexism) is ever healthy or appropriate, but I think it’s good for departments to offer a diversity of methods and critical approaches (i.e. theory people and not-theory people.) I feel kind of badly for those old-school literary critics: after the mid- or late 1980s, it was all over for them, and they either needed to Join or Die. I certainly can’t begrudge them their crankiness, but it’s unfortunate that many of them may have equated the arrival of theory with the arrival of colleagues who didn’t look or think just like them.


  13. Hi Historiann,

    Thanks for engaging the tenure discussion that we began at MoneyLaw. I would have commented earlier, but I’ve been far away from my computer.

    1. “Mensch” is grammatically masculine in German, but in practice the word covers women as well as men. After all, “Mensch” means “human being.” If you want an unequivocally feminine noun, I recommend “Frau.” It’s hard to reject a word whose meaning is “woman.”

    2. As I’ve made clear in my posts (which you were kind enough to link), I don’t favor a one-size-fits-all approach to academic merit. There are valuable people fitting all sorts of different niches in the academy.

    3. The real German concept at issue is “Arschlochkeit” (the condition of being an @sshole), which does apply beyond the boundaries of hockey.

    4. Speaking of which, I do plan to continue the discussion without using hockey as a frame of reference. MoneyLaw has caught more “Flak” (noch ein deutsches Wort!) over the hockey references than anything else in this series of posts.

    5. I agree in the end that the use of “deadwood” as a pejoratives obscures more legitimate criticism of academic employment.

    Best wishes,
    Jim Chen


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