The strong case for tenure emphasizes academic freedom. I share this view (and harbor deep suspicions of those who argue against tenure in our current setting of anti-intellectualism, attacks on the university, and neoliberal fanaticism). But there is another case that can be made for tenure, a case that hinges on teaching.
Before going any further, I should say that I teach undergraduates in a private liberal arts college. Classes are generally small (my classes typically range between 25 and 8 students). It is possible that my reflections don't apply to large universities. Yet my experience in large lecture courses as an undergraduate and graduate student (albeit in private schools) is one of engaged, dedicated, charismatic faculty. So I think my reflections might go beyond small, teaching-oriented, colleges and their faculty.
Not counting the teaching I did as a I graduate student, I've been teaching about 18 years now. And I've started to notice what seems to me to be something like a teaching life-cycle. Faculty with more experience than I have confirm this. We don't stay the same as teachers over the course of our careers. Tenure gives us the space to grow, change, and become better, more responsive, more knowledgeable teachers.
My first years out of graduate school were rooted in trying to separate myself from my students. Some were less than ten years younger than I was. Many were taller. There was the gender issue; some students were inclined to treat young, female faculty rather dismissively, too familiarly, not very seriously. It's not just a gender issue, though. I've talked with lots of faculty right out of graduate school who expressed anxieties about their students not treating them with any respect. I was so nervous before one of my first classes that I persuaded myself to act like a professor, pretend to be a professor, in the hope that the students would treat me like one. At any rate, the effort to distinguish myself from my students made me a bit colder, less generous, and less patient with them. Because I was on a tenure track (rather than an adjunct), I had the chance to get feedback and improve. I didn't just lose my job.
The next phase (which came pretty quickly), was evaluation driven. Because tenure at a teaching college requires evidence of good teaching, and evaluations are used as a key factor in measuring good teaching (which, incidentally, they may not be), I used the evaluations to try to be more what the students wanted--more entertaining, responsive, engaging, less confrontational, rigid, demanding. Evaluation driven teaching can be a way of treating education like television programming--whatever people like is what survives, even if it's quality is negligible. In a world without tenure, more teaching would be evaluation driven. When your job depends on making 18-22 year olds happy, you will do what it takes to entertain and amuse them. I'm grateful that my undergraduate professors did not have an entertainment approach to teaching. I hope my students during the entertainment years learned something despite the fun they had.
After tenure (and the restoration of Hegel and Kant to my syllabi), it was time to develop the distinctive line of inquiry that would mark my approach to political theory. What would Jodi Dean's reading of Plato be? How would Jodi Dean present modern political thought? On the one hand, I look back at the grandiosity that underlay the reconstruction of my courses with a bit of embarassment--was that really a good way to introduce undergraduates to political theory? On the other, the exercise of creating these readings (really, enough for a textbook at this point) was thrilling. There were always students who were mesmermized, who had the text and the world open into new possibilities. Yet others were like, "um, what did Kant say again?" As I think about these classes, I'm not sure how to think about what the students got from them. The courses were content driven, text driven. The focus was on the key ideas and thinkers. Motivated students, students who already had a taste for theory, got a lot out of them. But might I have reached more students if the courses had been focused on them? Tenure gave me the freedom to develop rigorous courses, change them, and rethink them.
And now my oldest kid has just a few years before he starts college. What would be good for him? I don't have to worry about distancing myself from students--they already associate me with their parents (which brings with it all sorts of attempts to put me in a nurturing, mommy role). And I'm not so worried about entertaining the students, although anti-tenure folks who write as if faculty can stand before 18-22 year olds day in and day out without being affected by their attitudes and responses, who presume faculty don't care if students are bored or inattentive, have no idea what they are talking about. It's demoralizing when students fall asleep or play with their portable media devices in class. It's hard not to fill in the silence that accompanies questions posed to the class, "is the idea of a categorical imperative plausible in a culturally diverse world?" But I think there must be ways that I can do more than show the students political theory and theorizing. I think there must be ways that I can help students come to do political theory themselves.
For the most part, I haven't found the tricks and devices proferred by the pedagogists very helpful. They seemed designed for a soundbite culture of opinion, not a rich text culture of thinking. One good thing--they can teach not what to do. I hate the feeling that the pedagogists and their participationist questions induce: it feels like one will only be wrong when one answers. I talked about this with a class a couple of years ago. They hate it when a professor has them read and interpret a passage out loud, rightly suspecting that the professor is trying to lead the class in a particular direction and has a very specific idea in mind, an idea so specific in fact that there is no way the student can do anything but provide a foil for the professor's demonstration of a weak, student interpretation and a strong, magnificent, PhD strengthened professorial interpretation.
My task this fall is to find ways to create spaces for the students to think, gaps that induce them to think. The risk is that I will be lulled into giving them my answers--it will be easier for everyone, filling in the void, the uncertainty. More and more, it seems to me, students want to be told what the text means.
Their next step is to reject all meanings as mere opinion (Paul has a great term for this, the "communicative equivalence" of all utterances). I'm starting one of my courses with Plato's Gorgias as a way to grapple with this tendency. It's the first time I've read it--another part of my new approach: try to put myself in a position akin to that of the students. This means assigning material I haven't read or haven't read in a long time (over 80 chapters of Machiavelli's Discourses!!) It means using new books--without all my previous underlining. It means going in without typed lectures. It means being open to something new. Part of this is delusional: I can only put myself in their position because I am not in it; I can only disarm myself of lecture notes and familiar texts because of prior experience (my god, I've taught Plato's Republic annually for nearly two decades).
We'll see what happens. Fortunately, tenure gives me the freedom to try, to experiment, to try to meet the students where they are. It's risky enough without fear of losing my job.