Recently, I have been re-reading Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission. It’s about a hedonistic literature professor who sleeps with his students, has the diet of a frat boy, and occasionally does “work” researching an obscure (at least, to me) 19th-century French novelist.
Obviously, the man has tenure.
He’s employed at a public university which is not-so-subtly government run. In a surprise election, a conservative faction—led by Muslims—takes power. Polygamy is legalized. Women must wear veils. The main character is offered a more lucrative job in terms of pay and power. There’s just one catch: to get this job (and not lose his current), he must convert to Islam.
The book was highly controversial because of its description of Islam and its (ironic?) timing of being released the same day as the Charlie Hebdo shooting. To me, beyond any politically incorrect statements about religion, it lambasts academia (see below) and really makes me think about “compromise.” Specifically, compromising personal beliefs and character. The climax of the story is whether or not this professor will give up his preferred lifestyle for more pay. Will let his bosses choose his wives for less teaching. Will fake being a social and religious conservative and take on a faith he doesn’t believe in just for a check.
And while that ending may be disappointing, it’s really not at all surprising.
“The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature—it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.”
Have you ever been told by a colleague “you need to make sure your course evaluations are good no matter what”? Have you ever been told by a colleague “I do things this way because otherwise I’ll have low course evaluations”? Have you ever been told by a colleague, “Now, we can’t treat students like you did at [insert your previous institution].”? (I’m not sure what floors me more about that last statement. (1) The arrogance in “knowing” how these other places function, or (2) the ability to simultaneously and indirectly put down your own students and make someone with high standards feel bad for having high standards.). Have you ever “warned” another (possibly pre-tenure) colleague of these types of realities, masking them under the veil of “institutional culture”? This is all submission; it is putting politics ahead of your own beliefs about teaching and learning and what’s right for your students and your classroom. Because when you say and hear things like this, you realize teaching and learning and pushing students past their pre-conceived knowledge limits are not the top priorities; winning a popularity contest known to be biased against groups like women and minorities administered to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds in the most stressful week of their term to keep a dream of tenure alive is the bigger priority.
Have you ever been told by a colleague before a meeting “we just let [insert another colleague’s name] talk”? Has a colleague told you, “[insert colleague’s name] is very mercurial…we all just make sure to stay on their good side”? Have you ever heard a colleague say “[someone not even on a relevant committee] really needs to be consulted—their support will determine whether or not [item in question] gets done”? This too is submission. There’s a difference between being polite and being meek; there’s a difference in not speaking up because it’s distracting or counter-productive to a cause, and not speaking up because of fear of repercussions. There’s a difference between asking a colleague for support, and appealing to a title-less despot. And why would you do anything other than run when someone describes a colleague—let alone one with apparently nontrivial power—as mercurial?
Are there real world parallels? Most definitely. But that’s actually what makes this so sad. Academia is marketed as the “opposite” of the real world. More than that, academia wants to see itself as “better” than the real world. It’s partly why people on the market have identity crises thinking they may have to leave. Academia is the dream. It’s more open-minded, more intellectual, there’s more freedom of expression…or is there? The fact that academia mirrors the real world—especially in these ways—is, if anything, utterly soul-crushing.
One major difference, of course, between academia and the real world is tenure. You get tenure, and unless you’re caught on video doing something illegal with a chicken, you’re not going to be fired (and even then it’ll take at least a year of investigations, during which time you’ll still be paid but won’t have to show up to work at all, and you’ll likely get a golden parachute instead of a pink slip). Tenure gives you the luxury of speaking your mind, of putting right back before might.
Or does it?
Have you ever said to yourself “Once I get tenure, I’m changing this”? I don’t care if “this” is how you manage your classroom, or how you (finally) speak up in certain meetings. I’ve heard just about every pre-tenure individual mention something they’ll change once they no longer have to play the “Please, give me tenure” game. But for those for whom this is relevant: once you got tenure, did you honestly just change your mind on how wrong “it” was, or did you instead think “Meh…it’s not worth the effort”? If the latter (which again, in my experience with my friends, appears to be the more common situation), then you too have submitted. You have allowed this system to make your square peg fit its round hole; you’ve allowed others to remove any original or counter-“culture” thought you may have once had. And you’ll probably point out that we’re talking about people you’ll be working with until retirement or it’s a small town or you’re hoping to get promoted to admin and need to not burn bridges or something like that; you’ll mention that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place. You’ll talk about other fish you want to fry (but realistically we both know you won’t).
I encourage every single once of us—pre or post tenure—to think about all the times we’ve submitted and all the times we’ve encouraged (however subtly) others to submit.
“It may well be impossible for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay.”
I’m not advocating close-mindedness. Be open to new ideas, including if not in particular to those that are foreign or initially abrasive to you. Be respectful of colleagues, especially those who have been there longer and know how the system works. Remember, though, that “culture” is a plate of bacteria; it’s not a politically correct rewording of either “tradition” or “groupthink” and you don’t need to conform. It’s so sad to see a system that so vocally calls itself “free-thinking” actually be so stifling; it’s depressing to see intelligent, well-intentioned people lie (by omission) and silence themselves because they cannot resist the dangling carrot (of “tenure”) that’s being waved over their heads by “mercurial” megalomaniacs threatened by change and by those who are simply different.
I’m also not endorsing anarchy. Every team—departments, committees, organizations and classrooms are all teams—needs a leader. But others without the title of “leader”, even if they’re not crazy about the one with the title, need to respect and not undermine the leader [don’t worry, in most departments and organizations and classrooms, leaders change with regularity]. There should not be these games of “This person is the chair, but this other person basically runs the department.” If Dr. X is not on the committee in question, then Dr. X should not determine what that committee does. No one should need kid-gloves. And no one should be afraid to express an opinion, voice a concern, or ask a question—regardless of the opinion’s or person’s popularity. Silencing or even vetting people and their views is one of the most basic manifestations of censorship. Glance over any history book, and I doubt you’d want to mimic any of the societies that have endorsed that.
In an earlier post, I said that if something’s worth fighting for then it’s worth sacrifice. I stand by that comment and to some extent its converse. Even if I disagree, when I see someone else put something of theirs on the line—be it money, or reputation, or job—for their opinion or beliefs or way of life, I respect that. I’ve certainly “paid the price” for my own beliefs in my career—examples could probably fill another blog post.
You might think as I bring this to an end that I’ll return to Houellebecq (with, or without, a quote) and how “the profession” and the research and the students and the pay were worth the sacrifice of personal life preferences.
Why? Because the book wasn’t called Sacrifice. It was called Submission. There’s a huge difference.
You can’t sacrifice something you do not value or do not have in the first place. And the professor in that book didn’t have morals or beliefs or even strong habits to put on the line. He didn’t care about anything other than his daily comfort in the form of money and tenure, which he was NOT going to cede at any cost. It didn’t matter that he totally disagreed with his colleagues, didn’t hold any of the same ideals as his bosses. It didn’t matter that he would just go through the motions and regurgitate what he thought others more in charge wanted to hear.
It just wasn’t worth it.
“I maintained a tactical silence. When you maintain a tactical silence…[people] talk. People like to be listened to, as every researcher knows–every researcher, every writer, every spy.”
Think about that. Think about the difference between submission and sacrifice and whether your actions (or lack thereof) are in one category or the other. Think about the limits to which we’re willing to go to for tenure, for graduation, for I really-don’t-care. What’s more important—keeping a job (in academia), or keeping some sense of self and morality? Speaking your mind, or toeing the (current) line? Is it really the hours and the pay that you like, or the students and your colleagues? Do you feel like you can speak your truth, or do you have blood in your mouth from biting your tongue all week? They say to hate the game and not the player, but how much are you willing to ante up?