Monday, January 30, 2012

The recursive arithmetic of tenure

The long career path from college student to a tenured academic job is designed to be conservative. A student in the humanities who discovers a passion for an academic subject in his or her first year of college can expect that four years of college will be followed by, say, six years of graduate school that not only provide training in a discipline, but initiate the student in its culture. The (increasingly rare) PhD who then immediately walks into a tenure-track job typically faces seven years of scrutiny before a tenure decision. Newly tenured professors have proven that their work meets the professional standards of their colleagues — seventeen years after entering college.

Like many professors, I hope that a college education is a formative experience in the lives of my students. Imagine that the newly tenured professor was inspired, seventeen years ago, by an exciting teacher and scholar. That person of course would have climbed the rungs of the same professional ladder, so the youngest tenured professor who could have inspired today’s youngest tenured professor might in turn have first been inspired as a new college student … 34 years ago.

In 1977, the late Steve Jobs was just starting a company he had formed the previous year to sell the computers he and Steve Wozniak were building in his father’s garage.

We’re trying to cross an ocean by standing at the shore and waiting for continental drift to carry us to the other side.

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