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?