I always thought I was good at dealing with gatekeepers. After all, my parents lived in a border town for 15 years, so anything the family needed—books, gas, cigarettes, shoes—we got across the line. In fact, “going shopping” was pretty much a synonym for “crossing the border,” and “America” was just another way of saying “shopping mall.” And we never paid duty on anything, thanks to my father’s Jedi-like ability to befuddle border guards by answering questions with non sequiturs like “I just put in the toast” or “I had a Coke at Denny’s.” Another strategy was appealing to the gatekeepers’ salt-ofthe-earth masculinity, a good tactic in the days before affirmative action. This generally involved adding a sixpack of Budweiser to any purchase (beer and groceries, beer and shoes, beer and books, beer and eyeglasses…) while liberally deploying the word “the” in front of “wife.”
But even my father would have been defeated by the year-long gatekeeping ritual we call tenure. From assembling my file to receiving that coveted letter, I was a nervous wreck, notwithstanding the fact that my colleagues were awesomely supportive and my university’s process transparent and fair. Linguists report that assistant professors have 65 words for not getting tenure, and I can see why.
Nothing seemed to help. The more orientation sessions I attended, the less oriented I became. The more people told me, “There are no stupid questions,” the more I became convinced they really meant that my questions were stupid. The more I organized my file, the more I thought I was forgetting something. “You fool,” I imagined some future letter reading, “tenure would have been granted if only you had included a copy of Assignment Two in HIS263 from Fall 2004.”
Damn! Where did I put that copy!?!
And how can anyone with a trace of humility write a Research Statement? Every second sentence of my first draft was “stupid, stupid, stupid,” which I can’t imagine goes over well with international referees. And who are these people with “Teaching Philosophies”? When I’m in front of a classroom, filling 50 minutes without drooling is pretty much my primary goal, and anything north of full-out humiliation is pure gravy.
And oh, the seductive charms of tenure lore! It doesn’t take much more than a few in-the-hallway sessions with your colleagues—whose multiple boxes of colour-coded files, tabs affixed, seem to undergo mitosis before your eyes—to move from nervousness to absolute despair. “Just go with the flow,” a friendly senior colleague suggested—forgetting that, by definition, things flow down hill. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” my faculty mentor reminded me. Fine words, until I passed this bit of alleyway graffiti the very next day: “The light at the end of the tunnel has gone out.” Even this seemed an optimistic take on things after six months of waiting.
The more I worried, the crazier my delusions became. At one point, I began to suspect that my PhD alma mater would realize that my B-level undergraduate marks actually disqualified me from graduate school. It got worse: since I have the good fortune of teaching in the department where I got my BA, I became convinced that some member of my tenure committee would realize I still owed them an essay from 1988. “Right! Out with him then!” (Not to mention that very supportive Full Professor who may not remember that I got a 42 on his mid-term exam).
Well, you don’t need to google “impostor syndrome” to see where this is going. Tenure is serious business and, unless you’re my dad, dealing with gatekeepers is nervewracking and stressful. But perk up. Even if non sequiturs won’t work, you can always set your word processor to replace adjectives like “stupid” and “incoherent” with phrases like “prestigious international journal” and “flexible pedagogic strategy.” In the end, even I entered into a common law relationship with my university. And now for that six-pack of Budweiser…
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.