Tenure Under Attack: An Examination of Tenure’s Viability and Value in the Neoliberal Academy

May 20, 2022

Published in Conversations | Issue 5

Carmen Kynard, Texas Christian University

José Manuel Cortez, University of Oregon

Khadeidra Billingsley, Jacksonville State University 

José Luis Cano Jr., Texas Christian University 

Moderated by Alexis McGee and Ana Milena Ribero

Introduction

By Alexis McGee and Ana Milena Ribero

Soon after the pandemic started, public conversation turned to the importance of social labor in relation to one’s profession. Educators, specifically tenurable professors, were not immune to such public scrutiny. University professors found ourselves under attack for teaching “progressive” topics like Critical Race Theory, anti-racism, and LGTBQ2S+ scholarship. While moves to villainize social programs (stimulus checks, food stamps, childcare subsidies, culturally-relevant educational programs) are intimately tied to the US political process, the oppositional response to pandemic measures protecting the most vulnerable (masking, vaccination, eviction moratoriums) highlighted a seedy underbelly in the discourse of rights: the right to have rights in the US is reserved for a selected (read: white, able-bodied, cisgendered) few. 

The recent attacks on tenure illustrate not only the usual US anti-intellectualism, but also the alignment of various strands of the pandemic milieu: conservative attacks against liberal and anti-racist education, panics over the decreasing value of productivity culture, and a changing US demographic. Conservative political forces in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia, among other states, have made removing or undermining tenure a political priority, eroding the main protection academics have against retaliation or censorship. It is no coincidence that these same states are the ones in panic over what they have misunderstood as Critical Race Theory, anti-racist pedagogies, and social-emotional learning. As participant José Manuel Cortez pointed out in our coversation, “tenure, as a modality of labor conditions and speech (logos) is important to the degree that scholars maintain a condition of protection from religious and conservative (and white supremacist) groups that seek to usher in a new modality of power and control in civic institutions.” In a time of far-right insurrections and congressional attacks on our basic rights to voting and privacy, tenure becomes increasingly important. 

As our conversation participants discuss, attacks on tenure are closely connected to the desire to silence BIPOC and queer people as well as our bodies of knowledges in an era of diminishing returns on the capitalist “American Dream.” Indeed, these attacks on our academic work often spring from legislative policies and conservative politics/political ideologies attempting to refashion higher education as a business that prioritizes profit-making and devalues critical thinking and social justice. If, as Carmen Kynard states in this conversation, tenure is “the most personal way that faculty AS WORKERS understand and feel their relationship to neoliberalism today,” then attacks on tenure signal the death of employment stability in academia and the beginning of employee disposability in a thought-economy. 

Being university professors and women of color in both US and Canadian contexts during a global pandemic, we know, first-hand, how particularly precarious academic life has been in the last two years. We’ve experienced new restrictions to crossing national borders, shifting student and administrative expectations, and healthcare and childcare challenges at home. These volatile times have highlighted the feminist adage— the personal is political. Unfortunately, these precarious times also present an opportune moment for conservative legislators to attack tenure when it is most needed. With these issues in mind, we invited the following scholars from around the country to talk about how they see the most recent attacks on tenure:

Carmen Kynard, Professor and Lillian Radford Chair of Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University

José Manuel Cortez, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oregon

Khadeidra Billingsley, Writing Center Director and Assistant Professor of Composition & Rhetoric at Jacksonville State University 

José Luis Cano Jr., Graduate student at Texas Christian University 

Each scholar is at a different point in their career, so they provide a diverse perspective on the value of tenure, its promises and perils.This rich and engaging conversation made clear the connections among attacks on tenure, neoliberalism, racial capitalism, the commodification of intellectual labor, and white supremacy. We hope readers (re)consider the urgency and importance of tenure, and we hope you appreciate our attempts at illuminating the vast and tenuous networks influencing such an important academic lifeline. 

How is tenure important in today’s academic context? 
A graphic with a photo of a dollar bill and the following text: "Neoliberalism, definition if the Hip Hop Nation Language Dictionary according to the Wu-TANG: C.R.E.A.M. Cash Rules Everything Around Me, Dollar Dollar Bill Yall!"

Defining Neoliberalism.

Khadeidra Billingsley: As a junior faculty member, tenure equates to security for me. It signifies the culmination of the blood, sweat, and tears (literal for several of us) that we commit to navigating the rocky terrains of academia. I used to think tenure was a blanket of comfort and protection from attacks on one’s pedagogical choices and practices and ideological stances and opinions, but sadly, I am starting to waver in this conviction given some of the recent experiences that I have witnessed and heard of from mentors. 

Ana Milena Ribero: Khadeidra, to what sort of experiences are you referring? Can you share more without violating anyone’s trust or privacy?

Khadeidra Billingsley: One of my mentors’ tenure approval process was extended because the type of work she did was not considered rigorous enough for the university where she worked. Another individual was removed from their position, heavily due to external influence from stakeholders of the university, for past remarks made on social media that were not related to their current position, department, or university. 

José Luis Cano Jr.: I want to engage the “I used to think tenure” portion of the response (sounds like a potential hashtag). I do think there’s so much investment placed on tenure without fully realizing, at least for me, what it entails and guarantees. From day-to-day interactions, I’ve noticed that there’s a certain sequence happening. In grad school, aim for tenure. Once a job is acquired, don’t ruffle things too much, or tenure won’t be achieved. If tenure ever arrives, now a person may talk. That’s a long process to put up with. 

Carmen Kynard: Tenure is the most personal way that faculty AS WORKERS understand and feel their relationship to neoliberalism today, even when they don’t quite know that is what they are experiencing. In this era of tenure erasure and PP (professor precarity), it is really the way that we have had to come to terms with the fact that we are, IN FACT, workers. In the mode of racial capitalism before our current mode of neoliberalism, folx were tricked into thinking they were something else.

I type horrible and it is truly pissing me TF off right now… I digress.

Back to the lecture at hand… okay, for real…

Ana Milena Ribero: Ha ha ha. Don’t worry about that, Carmen. It’s an honor to have you part of this convo.

Carmen Kynard: LOL! If I start writing notes, I will bring this whole group down to 8th grade. LOL!

(Lawwwwwd, is this going in the final text? I need a time-out corner).

Carmen, back out of 8th grade mode, maybe: I guess I need to explain how I am seeing tenure, neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and the foolishness of the ways we often think about how this impacts us and the study of writing on college campuses.

So… yes, this is all about neoliberalism as it impacts the daily life of every worker in all aspects of how we move through the world. Since that word means everything and nothing these days, I’ll just say what I am getting at: the restructuring of all labor and life for the sake of profit. Or, if we really want to get technical about it: let’s call it C.R.E.A.M., as in “Cash. Rules. Everything. Around. Me. Dolla dolla bill, yall” straight from the Wu-Tang Clan (play it now) Theirs is really the best acronym and real-life definition out here. I locate neoliberalism as the current state of how Jodi Melamed defines racial capitalism as it is rooted in the work of Cedric Robinson. I think it is important to come to terms with this current phase of neoliberalism because the relative newness of neoliberalism is what gets us caught up in some tricky ideas as it relates to our field, which is also still struggling to also articulate the racialization and economics of it all.

It’s realllllllllly all about the 90s. Yup, I said it. But, seriously, the 1990s marks a final and real kinda shift into neoliberalism. Now, granted, I can get real nostalgic with this and the Golden Age of Hip Hop and things like The Native Tongues. But, as it turns out, Hip Hop has a lot to teach us here, if only we were willing to really listen. 90s Hip Hop is often seen as making a turn into gangsta rap, misogyny, misogynoir, hyperconsumerism, violence, guns, blah blah blah. That was Hip Hop showing us what C.R.E.A.M. really looked like, but instead of listening, many turned to the usual white supremacist strategy of scapegoating Blackness (thus, reifying the Carceral State) instead of witnessing a true soundtrack of our new neoliberalism lives.

I indict myself as a 90s Hip Hopper here to show some compassion for folx in our field still wedded to its 1990s organizational and theoretical stylings, because that moment plays a big part in what is keeping us from understanding our new economic/neoliberalist relationship to tenure and the identity of our work as faculty and especially as writing teachers. 

Ana Milena Ribero: I totally agree, Carmen. Also, people demonize Hip Hop because of its “consumerism” and misogyny instead of seeing it as a reflection of the neoliberal moment. 

José Manuel Cortez: If by today’s academic context, we mean the structural attacks against academic freedom by conservatives and the religious right, then tenure, as a modality of labor conditions and speech (logos) is important to the degree that scholars maintain a condition of protection from religious and conservative (and white supremacist) groups that seek to usher in a new modality of power and control in civic institutions. 

I think it’s important to frame tenure as a kind of speech in the way that Jacques Rancière suggests in Disagreement (1999), where speech signifies not just the content of what is said but what speaking means in a given situation. So: tenure, not just about protections for the content of speech, but also, tenure as a site for what speaking means. To those conservatives who would seek to eliminate tenure because it amounts to protecting ideological predators, to use their language, speaking amounts to indoctrination. It doesn’t matter what I would say to my students, or even how I said it—to them it’s all indoctrination and marxism and so on and so forth. The importance of tenure, from the vantage of asking about what speaking means amid the resurgence of the moral majority and an increasingly antagonistic public culture (by antagonistic, I refer to groups like the Proud Boys and other white supremacist paramilitary organizations that have incited violence in public discourse), amounts to no less than protection not just from state actors but from the violent, grassroots, paramilitary organizations that are a symptom of the wider conservative efforts to debase public discourse. 

I also want to say this carefully: it seems like tenure, to some administrators, is a working condition that is too expensive. I haven’t been around long enough to say this with authority, but I hear some senior colleagues mention that they’ve seen a rise in administrative bloat over the years that seems to correlate with an erosion of faculty governance, in practices like the centralization of tenure hiring, for example, where lines are no longer guaranteed to be replenished and where departments don’t get to choose what kind of tenure lines they want. We now have to think about advancing proposals for tenure-track (TT) hires that we think the provost would find “useful,” or are otherwise more likely to be approved. We’re now competing with other units to “win” the right to hire TT faculty. I don’t like competing like this, and it seems like this kind of jockeying erodes a sense of community at the expense of some kind of competition.

José Luis Cano Jr.: When I think of tenure as a doctoral candidate, I think of academic freedom and job security. Admittedly, I’m not too sure about how the process itself works in its entirety, but I know processes and parameters exist. So, tenure is important for these two components, but I think it’s also kinda tricky because it makes me wonder what conditions produce a “lack” of academic freedom or job security without tenure. From this angle, tenure is important because it provides these two things, but it simultaneously articulates these funky yet prevalent forces that work at hindering more stable work conditions in the academic context. Moreover, it somehow becomes innate knowledge to pursue tenure because that will bring something. Yet, tenure-track, as a route to tenure, makes the “probation” period pretty lengthy. Usually, I imagine jobs having a three-month probation period where folks do their job and then have a guarantee to work there. Tenure charts this lengthy path of insecurity and doubt—I imagine—before feeling secure.

Attacking tenure is not new. How is this particular moment different from previous attacks on tenure? 
A sepia-toned image of the front of a library, featuring the phrase "and the truth shall set you free" engraved above the doors.

Knight Library, University of Oregon, September 11, 2020. Source: José Manuel Cortez

Khadeidra Billingsley: When reflecting on this question, I am reminded of the idiom, “too many hands in the pot.” I think community engagement is an integral component of higher education relations; however, I do think there is a certain boundary to such, particularly when discussing tenure requirements. As our conversation concerning the first question posed illustrates, tenure is contextual and ambiguous. Thus, I feel when you have individuals who are not fully aware of the nuisances, histories, and experiences of the tenure process creating legislation that affects others within a space that they are not familiar with, it creates unnecessary chaos and confusion. I’ll give an analogy of sorts to exemplify what I mean. I consider myself to be a pretty good cook, so when individuals who seem to be unaware of the affordances and operation of my kitchen impose on my space, it angers me. Same concept, different context. My advice to these government officials is to simply stay out of our kitchen. 

José Luis Cano Jr.: Uffff, I definitely am outside my capacity in this question [I disagree, you killin it up in here. -ck], so I’m going to reduce “previous attacks” to a pretty confined scope in the context of Texas in the past decade or so. There was a partnership between a community college and a university in the lower Rio Grande Valley that disintegrated. In this disintegration (and I don’t know the internal politics of what happened), faculty members who had been tenured lost tenure as a seeming byproduct. This loss of tenure wasn’t so much phrased as an attack, but it removed tenure from folks—at least, that’s how I understood the sequence of events and the outcomes. Nonetheless, my main point here is that an attack sometimes comes directly or indirectly. In Texas, there has been some movement on the legislative side on eliminating tenure. The arguments for eliminating tenure that I’ve heard seem absurd. To me, it comes down to a fear of folks of color inhabiting the post-secondary landscape in meaningful ways. In particular, the continued identification of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as an educational issue points toward the way that some white folks fear thought produced by folks of color. Based on this recent identification of CRT as an issue, I can only deduce certain components that folks take to antagonize racial progress in education: 1) they don’t attack people directly (or maybe they have); 2) they attack thoughts produced by these people to sidestep obvious forms of direct racism; 3) they codify it to replicate it to an innumerable amount of institutions and people.

Ana Milena Ribero: Wow, José Luis, I can’t believe people actually just “lost” their tenure! I can’t imagine working so long for something and then having it be gone. Just like that. 

José Manuel Cortez: Yesterday, there was Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Today, there are professor watchlists maintained by groups like Turning Point USA (I think that is the group, at least). I just learned yesterday about the changes to tenure at the University System of Georgia . And there is a growing resurgence in Texas, for example, of satanic panic about “marxism” and “indoctrination” from so-called “liberal” professors who would seek to teach students through one specific ideological frame about putative “objective” subjects like history. 

In South Carolina, HB 4522 was proposed to prevent public universities and colleges from awarding tenure to faculty fired after December 31, 2022. Bill Taylor was quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, arguing that the intention was to “​​to alter professor tenure…with a contractual agreement that is comparable to what other sectors of American life have.” To what are the comparable other sectors of American workers right now that Taylor is referring? Perhaps, the erosion of worker stability in general

Ana Milena Ribero: José Manuel, I wonder how this makes faculties less likely to give up old ideas. Like newer faculty are not protected while older faculty are. 

José Luis Cano Jr.: jajajajajaja—“satanic panic.” I’ve definitely witnessed folks who have not studied or talked about Marxism get categorized as such through some really interesting mental maneuvers.

José Manuel Cortez: José Luis, It seems like Marxism has just taken the place of the devil as the new boogeyman. If it wasn’t so crass, it might actually be easier to laugh at! Attacks on tenure, now, occur at the intersection of violent white nationalism and full-blown late-capitalism. If you can justify your work within the reasons for existing established by capital and the conservative moral majority, then you probably don’t have as much to worry about as folks like those in this document, whose work matters a great deal precisely because it pays respects to neither. 

Ana Milena Ribero: As Dr. Kynard mentioned already, neoliberalism won the culture wars in the 90s, and we are paying the price for that right now. The humanities are, in general, fucked, because we are required to ground our work in some kind of debased pragmatism that is itself really only grounded in instrumental reasoning that market forces have already dictated. It’s a race to the bottom for Reason© itself. We’re required to justify our work in the humanities under the general heading of “reasoning defined by the market for the humanities to exist,” because it doesn’t produce commodities and immediate impact. 

Part of the work we do is about imagining futures that have yet to exist because what we see around us today isn’t good enough. If that work is unreasonable in the eyes of neoliberalism, then so be it. We’re in the business of issuing unreasonable demands.

Carmen Kynard: This moment is different because it is lodged in a new moment of racial capitalism. I mark neoliberalism and its 90s super-emergence as a turn away from the previous “welfare state”namely that moment of racial capitalism where Big Business gave up a little more of their Big Profit for peace on the labor organizing front, that time before we would all so casually say that 1% own all the wealth of the world and make a quatrillion times what their workers make. By the recession of 2008, major financial news outlets were reporting the best investment/portfolio strategies of college presidents alongside the C-suite (COO, CEO, CFO) of Fortune 500 companies. Plenty of folx in our field would say this kinda thing has nothing to do with writing, and they are wrong. They came to simply understand themselves as the professoriate under the “welfare state” where being a professor was seldom thought of as the equivalent of being a worker cuz it was about white liberalist escape hatches: the life of the mind, universal education, managerial training, the greater good, the value of public education. Neoliberalism has dumped on all that kinda thinking cuz professors, tenure or not, gon get the boot just as fast as any other kind of non-compliant worker. Tenure won’t save you anymore (and it never saved all of us or was even intended for some of us). Tenure came from a whole other economic ordering and variant of racial capitalism, and it ain’t transfer over. I am guessing we bout to see even more of how little tenure and things like shared governance matter to university organization. As José Manuel so brilliantly laid it out for us here: tenure is often “a working condition that is too expensive.” We had a glimpse of the residue of the “welfare state” with Biden’s stimulus checks, but even that only lasted as long as Big Business’s decision that COVID and the pandemic are gone. It’s why oftentimes even the leadership of faculty unions today (as opposed to the work of creating graduate student unions) feels more like managing a relationship between capital and labor rather than antagonistic action, especially in relation to a university’s long-standing history of institutional racism.

I want to bring this home with a real-life example to show how caught up we are in not fully understanding this transition from the welfare state to neoliberalism and reifying neoliberalism in the process. Not so long ago, I was reading articles for an awards committee and quickly noticed that a prominent writing program at a public university was centered in many of that journal year’s published articles (and not because they were at a loss for other publication possibilities). This program was presented as a model and mentor for the rest of us without nary a nod to the fact that this public university had the largest endowment of any public university in the country that year, nationally ranked as the sixth largest endowment in the nation and thereby tied with Duke University. Now, we could give all kindsa statistical analyses as to why their endowment is so high, but none would change the fact that this place doesn’t look and operate like anywhere else on the public college landscape, that a public university like this one can be as neoliberalist as all others, and that ain’t no wider public being served at this college. Yet still we have talked (and literally published) about this university as if it is operating within the genre of a “welfare state” instead of a neoliberalist golden child rendered to us as critical educational insight for all. The neoliberalist engines that shape work at this university were not in any way challenged or problematized, just championed. That’s going to be very dangerous if we are serious about countering what life in the 21st century university has and will continue to look like if we are simultaneously mesmerized at how neoliberalism funds writing programs.

How would you like university administrators, policy makers, and financial supporters of higher ed to respond to new attempts to abolish tenure?
Image of a red, white, and blue yard sing at the base of a pale stone wall, featuring the text: "Presidents are temporary, Wu-Tang is forever, 2020"

Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta F**K Wit.

Carmen Kynard: I don’t expect them to actually listen, and even for those that might want to, they are operating within their own confinements. At best, I think a critical, conscientious administrator, policy maker, or financial supporter of higher education can mitigate harm. They can limit the damage of the violence of higher education, but their positions do not allow them to pursue truly transformative projects. Meanwhile, many faculty expend their time and energy fighting individual deans and directors as the sole symbol of radical action (always and not coincidentally, a less risky path than targeting the more powerful provosts, chancellors, presidents, and boards of trustees like student protesters do). Faculty’s ultra-vocal complaint against mid-level managers (and never the racists amongst their ranks) isn’t always the same thing as really challenging neoliberalism, and it rarely translates to a critical revision of actual classrooms, students’ lives, or schooling.

I think we also have to question these Enlightenment philosophies of European white men where the right knowledge, correct explanations, and good arguments win the day. That was never the case for racially subordinated groups anyway. After all, the Enlightenment’s rhetorical frameworks originated from and within the terms and actions of white settler colonization and racial enslavement. I ask myself different questions these days: what will tenure look like as university’s capital wants to maximize its profits and discipline us? By disciplining us, I’m juxtaposing here José Manuel’s’s important reminder that STEM folx are seen as more valuable based on the ability of their research to generate capital alongside José Luis’s reminder that tenure is a deliberate form of temporal control, mood/behavioral management, and sensory withholding—what he also called a probation (I mean, TBH, there’s even a parole board called a tenure committee, P&B, etc). Content and affect are determined far outside of us, which is all the more violent when operating within the terms of racial hierarchy as José Luis warns us. So, will university management systems move even more into relating to our work, not as professors and teachers, but as labor for the generation of more capital? The question for me is also: what is our work in colleges today? How and where do we intervene in students’ lives? What do writing classrooms look like and do and why? What does our theorizing look like? What does our scholarship do?

I also have to wonder about this erasure of tenure precisely at a time when the academy is seeing more BIPOC and QTPOC faculty than ever before and at a moment when young BIPOC students are demanding a whole different kind of set-up. You have to question all of those years of operation where predominantly white men faculty were granted authority over the numbers of tenure lines, tenure procedures, hiring processes, and departmental budgets. Now that the demographic has changed just a little, it seems like all of the proverbial seats at the table (and the whole table) are gone. And while tenure gets erased, it also gets codified in ways that make it even more difficult to achieve and looks very different from previous generations. University press publishing is more competitive with fewer presses; textbooks and service do not count. The list goes on. More work. More work. More work. And less and less of everything else, like retirement benefits, health coverage, vacation time, etc. Neoliberalism, as a mode of racial capitalism, is also always racial containment, as much as the previous modes of racial capitalism, just in a different way. That switches up what we mean when we ask for tenure. Now, I know it’s easy for me to say this cuz I have tenure. But, really, would my enslaved ancestors have asked for a better-functioning cotton gin on the plantation as synonymous with liberation? What else could we ask for? 

I also want to connect here to Khadeidra’s comments that tenure doesn’t look to her like it will grant you, your ideas, your scholarship, or your teaching a modicum of protection or comfort. I want to lift up that comment, because as a rather recently promoted-to-full professor and Black woman, “Life for me [as tenured] ain’t been no crystal stair.” In fact, I would say that white folx often try and come for me harder (and I stress the word TRY) because I now share and bear the sanctity of the most coveted award in the white academy: rank equal to theirs. As an important reminder here, Black folx got Jim-Crowed when they started movin up, not down, and the university ain’t been no different. As José Luis puts it, there is a “fear of folks of color inhabiting the post-secondary landscape in meaningful ways.” Ironically, this will happen alongside even bigger demands on your time and energy because there are so few of us in “rank.” I don’t mean to discourage, but I just want to affirm that Khadeidra ain’t out here imagining this stuff and is seeing the terrain more clearly than I was before tenure. I. Mean. These. Fools. Really. Tryyyyyyy. And. Come. For. You.

José Luis Cano Jr.: I feel like a huge disconnect exists between these various organizing entities. I don’t think I have a sound response, but I do feel that coming to an “understanding” of things won’t resolve much either. Sometimes, the issue is one of misunderstanding, but that’s not the case here. To draw from Dr. Carmen Kynard’s positioning of tenure in a neoliberal and racial capital context, in my pessimistic sense, the moves that administrators, policy makers, and financial supporters make will probably somehow end up negatively impacting racialized folks the most. That’s such a dense context for folks to navigate that these organizing entities come up with interesting language to support their decision-making. 

José Manuel Cortez: I don’t know. I don’t have a relationship with my administrators, so I don’t know how they’d even speak on my behalf. And I know this is different at different institutions. I know that there are good folks out there at the level of administration who are doing good work. But I think it’s important to keep in mind, here, that tenure is not under attack equally. I think a disposition for lending support might already be closed to those of us in the humanities, and as Dr. Kynard reminds us, BIPOC and QTPOC humanities faculty in particular. The folks in the humanities are receiving more vitriol than our colleagues in the sciences simply because the market forces that have set the stage for learning in institutions of higher education already prioritize the so-called pragmatic or instrumental forms of intellectual work. I don’t believe that my colleagues in the sciences are feeling the same attacks against tenure that we in the humanities (and some social sciences like Gender and Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Disability Studies, Education, etc.) are feeling. There has to be different kinds of advocacy going on for different faculties.

Khadeidra Billingsley: This is a tough one. To be honest, sometimes I feel that administrators and policymakers are part of the problem. I agree with José Luis about the disconnect among the groups, as it seems that each one has its own different agendas and desires. To follow up, will everyone ever be able to come to one consensus about what tenure should be? I am not sure that is even possible, quite frankly. However, what I do know, to build on my response to the previous question, is that I would most definitely want policymakers to defer back to those with the institutional knowledge and awareness to handle these discussions and decisions in-house. 

If you could draft your own tenure guidelines, what would they look like? For example, would you incorporate new criteria for assessment, such as service to the community and/or contributions to diversity and equity? How can tenure guidelines reflect the priorities of the humanities?
An image of handwritten pieces of paper set up on a set of stairs like a timeline. In ascending order, they read, "relocate away from family, value an academic identity, commit to a white establishment, trust in the tenure process, tenure track."

The tenure-track path requires unsettling steps. Photo captured by José Luis Cano Jr.

José Manuel Cortez: How should we reward folks for doing the work that different kinds of institutions prioritize? Two-year colleges, comprehensive regional universities, high research activity and very high research activity institutions—they each prioritize different kinds of work. I think there’s a need to protect workers who write more than they teach, workers who teach more than they write, etc. If we’re going to draft tenure guidelines that reflect the priorities of the humanities, then perhaps we should get together to do the work of defining what those priorities are so that some kind of collective advocacy work can happen. Better support for teaching isn’t always going to amount to better tenure guidelines, since we are already often relegated to the “service work of teaching,” as many administrators have already debased teaching to a kind of service. But then again, I think the work of making new criteria should prioritize protecting our women of color colleagues, specifically, as they overwhelmingly receive violent behavior and evaluations from students.

José Luis Cano Jr.: I’m reluctant to start with tenure guidelines because I immediately think of Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included, where she mentions how institutional language—DEI, for instance—can simply reinforce institutional structures. And since I don’t know guidelines too well either, I wonder: How do minority-serving institutions handle tenure requirements? I think these institutions serve as prime sites to reconceptualize and enact the idea of tenure because they inherently serve minoritized students. That may be idealistic though.

Khadeidra Billingsley: So, I actually have never seen any tenure guidelines (just secured but have not started my first tenure-track position yet), so I only have a small foundational understanding of what they look like based on hearsay. However, I do think that tenure guidelines should be more individualized because across the gamut of faculty, particularly in the Humanities, our work looks different. Thus, I think it is difficult to represent those nuisances in one standard criteria. I think faculty should be integrated into developing their own tenure guidelines. Something like Asao Inoue’s labor contracts… just with faculty. Not only do I believe that this model would help clean up some of the ambiguity of tenure, but it would also boost faculty morale and perceptions of the experience and journey they are embarking on.

Carmen Kynard: Dope question. I would root it in which students and communities you made a difference for and how. Tenure and college teaching often have NUTHIN to do with students, especially undergraduate students. Our relationships are more and more antagonistic with students; you hear it in how so many talk about them. I wanna bring students back into our critical imaginations, especially BIPOC students, because they bear the biggest brunt of the white supremacist, ableist, heteronormative regimes under neoliberalism’s current mode of racial capitalism. They deserve different kinds of classrooms, colleges, and ways of organizing ourselves in them.

About the Authors:

Dr. Khadeidra Billingsley is a newly-minted Ph.D. from the University of Alabama. Her research illustrates the complex and multi-faceted experiences of secondary English educators as they teach writing to high school students. She will be starting a new tenure-track position in the fall at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL as the Writing Center Director and Assistant Professor of Composition & Rhetoric. She can be contacted on Twitter at @MsK_at_UA.

José Luis Cano Jr. is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. Cano investigates border checkpoints, teaches Latinx rhetorics, and engages brown digital humanities. Prior to doctoral school, Cano worked as a qualitative researcher, adjunct instructor, and high school teacher. 

José Manuel Cortez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oregon. He is a father to Finn and Reyna and partner to Dana. His work appears in Philosophy & Rhetoric, CCC, RSQ, Composition Studies, & Journal for the History of Rhetoric. He serves on the Civilian Review Board (the civilian oversight of the Eugene Police Department) for the city of Eugene, Oregon. 

Carmen Kynard is the Lillian Radford Chair in Rhetoric and Composition and Professor of English at Texas Christian University. Before TCU, she worked in English and Gender Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice as well as English, Urban Education, and Critical Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She interrogates race, Black feminisms, AfroDigital/Black cultures and languages, and the politics of schooling with an emphasis on composition and literacies studies. She has taught high school with the New York City public schools/Coalition of Essential Schools, served as a writing program administrator, and worked as a teacher educator. She has led numerous professional development projects on language, literacy, and learning and has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her award-winning book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies, makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Her current projects focus on young Black women in college and Black Feminist/Fugitive imaginations in anti-racist pedagogies. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions,” which has garnered over 1.9 million hits since its 2012 inception. On the rare occasions when she is so inclined, you can find her talkin trash on IG.

About the Moderators

Alexis McGee received her Ph.D. with two certificates of concentration: one in linguistics and the other in rhetoric and composition from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama where she teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses such as Advanced Writing; Technical Writing; and African American rhetorics. Her research lies at the intersections of Black feminist theory, Black rhetoric, language, and literacies; sound; and pedagogy. Her first manuscript, From Blues to Beyoncé: A Century of Black Women’s Generational Sonic Rhetoric, is currently under advance contract with SUNY. In it, largely, she argues that music has served as a pathway for Black women to teach generations about resistance, survival, and liberation. Along with her book project, Alexis is also working on a co-written chapter about extra-institutional mentorship; and an article about theorizing Black voice. You can also see some of her prior work in Pedagogy and Obsidian as well as the e-book Racial Shorthand: Coded Discrimination Contested in Social Media; The Lauryn Hill Reader; and The Lemonade Reader. Additionally, she has served in a number of service roles for national organizations and is the current recipient of NCTE’s “Cultivating New Voices” cohort and the past recipient of NCTE’s “Early Educator of Color Leadership Award.”

Ana Milena Ribero is a proud Latina, Mother-Scholar, and assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at Oregon State University. Her research and teaching mainly focus on rhetorics of im/migration, rhetorics of race, critical literacies, and Women of Color feminisms. Her book project explores “Dreamer rhetorics”—the rhetorical productions of undocumented youth activism—during the Obama years. Her scholarship can be found in Rhetoric Review, Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Performance Research, Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies, and the Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric. Twitter: @anamilenaribero

Production Credits

Copy Editors: Ana Ribero, Alexis McGee, Iliana Cosme-Brooks, & Alexandra Hidalgo

Editorial Assistant: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

Social Media Manager: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill