Avatar, an Australian colleague, asks me about the state of tenure in the US. I blather on about tenuous tenure, a topic which years of tenurelessness has made me an expert in. I cite the latest statistics I’ve seen: “In 2009, only 24.4 percent of American faculty members were tenured or tenure-track,” according to a recent New York Times book review of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a book by bitter long-time adjunct Professor X who taught introductory courses that many students failed, as the students, he says, were “in some cases barely literate” (in case you don’t plan to buy the book, I’ll jump ahead: he’s going to suggest that university might not be for everybody. This might be very good news for those of you who are debating between putting your money into 529s for your less-than-brilliant children or into future passage for your hard-working self on the Crystal Serenity for a taste of LA, Papeete, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Cape Town, and London, with a few dozen at-sea days in between).
Technically, Avatar and I are about to find ourselves among (or increasing?) that untenured/untracked 75.6%. But you won’t find me complaining. My students will be far more than literate. I will have small classes of engaged, intelligent future Nobel prize winners. I will be mentoring my future senators and perhaps a president or two on an individual basis, discussing their ideas, helping them to refine their critical thinking skills, guiding them through the thickets of theoretical texts and their own sometimes muddled prose (that might end up in The Great American Novel). So I’m definitely not complaining.
Actually, I’m ecstatic.
But I might not be in 5 years.
Because that, my friends, is around the time I’ll be looking for a new job.
That’s the way it goes. Tenure might be a failing system, but it’s the system everyone seems to be upholding; the tenured want to keep their power, and the untenured want to gain that power.
The boys debate between them the next three places we’ll live. This is a debate they have taken up between them, without a word about future relocations from The Scientist or me. They just understand this to be life: first you move, then you move, then you move again. And each time, you’re the “new guy” and everyone comes over and checks you out and maybe, if you’re lucky, one or two of them also really likes Super Mario or Toy Story and then you pretty much have everything in common there is to have in common, and you’re BFFs–at least until the next move.
“I’ll do first and second grade here,” announces LL. “Then we’ll move to Miami to be near the alligators.”
“NO!” retorts Cool J. “There are way more alligators in New York. Remember how many we counted in the sewers?”
“Oh yeah! I think it was 426!”
“I think it was infinity alligators.”
“Would you rather go to Your-ami?” (Much laughter here. Tell this joke–this Mi-ami/Your-ami bit–to children under 6, and you will be the equivalent of Jackie Mason for the alter kockers) (Did you know Jackie Mason is still alive, by the way? I have friends going to see him in Long Island this week. One of them is not even 35. But I guess alter kockers come in all ages).
“I want to go to where Dada’s from next. If we live there, we can play with all of his Lego.”
“What about The Tower of Power? I want to go back to the Tower of Power.”
“The Tower of Power! It had a red elevator and a yellow elevator!”
(they are sidetracked for a while in the discussion of the elevators)
(a long while)
The conversation resumes another day, the thread intact: “How about Miami, THEN the Tower of Power, THEN Dada’s old house?”
“Does Baby MoFo get a say in all this?” I ask. Baby MoFo chooses not to talk yet, but the big boys regularly report on his desires (“Mama, the baby said he wants to watch Backyardigans.” “Mama, the baby said he wants a popsicle, but don’t worry–I’ll hold it for him.””Mama, the baby said he really really really really wants a Zurg Lego, and he wants to go to Target right now to get it.”).
“I think . . . ” begins Cool J. “I think the deer place. Yeah, that’s it. He wants to live in the deer place.”
(Nara, Japan: those were some impressive deer. They certainly got intimate with Cool J:
Or maybe he just remembers what a rock star he was–a Baby Sensation.
So here’s to the tenureless dream: every five years or so, pack up your bags. Find a place to live. Grasp a new culture or language or laws. Learn the the new job, the new schools, the new kids that come to your door from here and there and everywhere. Meet the kids’ parents, meet the work colleagues, meet the neighbor that comes by with homemade empenadas and grilled plantains. And of course: collect many more Facebook friends.
Are we exemplars of a 21st-century post-modern rootless cosmopolitanism? Not a chance. LL was born in one country, The Scientist and I in another. Throw in LL’s 4 grandparents, and you’ve added 4 more countries to our family tree. Their parents, our grandparents? Add another 4 countries. That’s 11 countries accounted for in 4 generations. There’s nothing new here. We’re not modern; we’re traditional–a family of Wandering Jews descended from Wandering Jews. . .