Amazons running the gauntlet: Resisting and transforming the culture of academe Culture, Tenure, and the Acquisition Process
Mary Lynn Hamilton

Two weeks ago, I received notification that I would be granted tenure and promotion by my institution.  Since that time, I have heard myself say "I am dedicated to having a life, now that I have tenure" or "I can relax, now that I have tenure,"  or "I can spend more time on my teaching, now that I have tenure," or "Now, I plan to change the system."  What system?  What tenure?  What kind of a system would sap the very life out of its members?  In a post-post-modern world where essentialism, colonialism, deconstructionism, and poststructuralism are all the rage, how is it that tenure exists?  Why can I fight against the tenure process now, where I could not fight against it two weeks ago?  What establishes the boundaries?  Who establishes the boundaries?  Who emphasizes teaching or research?  Was I simply folding to the hegemonic reign of the phallocracy, unable to find balance within the tyranny of white, male, phallocentric permutations?  Or something else?  In this manuscript, I assert that it is all of the above and more....and less.

In this work, I suggest that we must look at academe as a culture to understand the tenure process in its complexity.  Because I have kept journals of my own experiences and have madly dialogued with colleagues during my tenure process, my depiction of that culture will be grounded in my own experience as well as the experience of these selected others.  Prior to sharing that narrative experience, however, I will frame this work with a discussion of the academic culture as portrayed in research studies focused on academe and a discussion of the acquisition of culture, critical to understanding academe.  For example, how is academia seen by academics and others within its realm?  

First, let me step back and introduce myself before I step forward into this text.  I am a white, female academic educated at the University of Arizona in the late 1980's.  Although there are a few pretenders in my family history and much evidence of a struggle to attain the American dream, my bloodlines are New Jersey working class.  Factory work and unions held center-stage in family conversations.  As I have developed my intellectual knowledge, I have also developed an understanding of the powerful foundation established by the intoxicating indoctrination of my childhood -- that included an absence of inquiry into difference and equity as related to people and ideas that varied from us.  While it was my person receiving the indoctrination, I was not always aware of the dangerous power the indoctrination had over my thinking.  I grew up streetwise about some things and ignorant about others.  So why did I enter academe?

Simply, I came to the University to save the world.  (Yes, a missionary zeal seems apparent there, but, at the time, that was not a conscious observation.)  I did not come for academic freedom, because I did not know I did not have it.  I did not come for research monies, because I did not know how to get them.  I came because I wanted to support people in becoming the best teachers they could be -- free of stereotypes, biases, and other barriers that bind our young students in mediocre lives -- and I came because I wanted to provide an education to people of the sort I had not received myself.  I also came to academia because I knew I could reach more public students by reaching their teachers.  When I chose this profession, I did not know about its unyielding culture there and I did not realize that learning the secret handshake would drain away my intellectual energy.

The academic culture, although mentioned in many texts (for example,    ) and alluded to in many more, has rarely been described.  What is that dynamic, yet invisible force that implicitly dictates how the academic environment will function?  How do the people within that culture understand it?  And the secret handshake?  The tenure process, as it is now enacted, represents a colossal waste of time.  While harmful to most people, there are degrees of harm -- with some people experiencing more harm than others.  During this process, people are disempowered rather than empowered to find their voices, their teaching directions, and their research perspectives.  Now that I have gone through this process and live within this culture, I very much want to understand what happens here, so I can change it.  As it exists today, it is demeaning, debilitating, and detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of many of the people that live within it.  So, to grapple with its definitions and its descriptions, I will explore the process of acquiring this culture. 


Generally any university can be defined by its established missions and goals, its procedures, its traditions, its reputation, and the relationships of the students, faculty, and administrators found there.  Importantly, the cement that binds everything into place, is the culture.  Although not identical at any university, there have been numerous texts written about academic culture in general terms (For example, Van Patten, 1990; Martin, 1990).  Still other texts, simply allude to culture, but offer no definitions (For example, Clifford & Guthrie, 1988).  This academic culture has members who value scholarship, academic freedom, and an elimination of elements that might affects these pursuits (Reesor, 1995; Van Patten, 1990).  Yet, even within institutions (not to mention to competition among research institutions) the choice of how to emphasize research generates a tension among factions that affects the culture there. 

Kuh and Whitt (1988) suggest that culture can be defined as a the "persistent patterns of norms, values, practices, beliefs, and assumptions that shape the behavior of individuals and groups in a college or university and provide a frame of reference within which to interpret the meaning of events and actions on and off the campus (p. iv)."  This culture outlines, distinguishes, and justifies authority found there (Goodlad, 1984).  Raths, Katz, and McAninch (1989) recognize several quite diverse cultures in academia with differing values, ideas, and ways of interacting.  Berquist (1992) identifies four cultures --  collegial, managerial, developmental, and negotiating -- within academia.  He suggests that these cultures represent a pattern of assumptions used to cope with problems within the institution.  While one culture tends to dominate, all cultures exist there. 

Other authors (Kuh & Whitt, 1988) identify another four cultures -- the academic culture, discipline culture, institutional culture, and the culture related to the national system of higher education which influence a faculty member's behavior.  The academic culture represents the ideal image of what might be found on any university campus and the culture related to discipline can be fragmented as exemplified by Clark's (1987) typology of that culture with binary properties of hard and soft, pure and applied.  Still another author focuses on the identities within the culture (s).  According to Birnbaum (1988 as cited in Reesor, 1995) a continuum exists within academia of cosmopolitan-local faculty identities within the culture, where faculty members identify on a scale from a more global view of their discipline to a narrow local basis.  One author (Adams, 1976) has even depicted the academic culture as tribes of individuals who behave in very ritualistic fashion.  According to him, the "politics of academic life are predicated on the laws of tribal interrelation, the myths of the tribes, and military history (p. 63)" and everyday life is filled with a babel of tongues.

In this work, I will focus on the academic culture.  While the other potential aspects of cultures found within higher education may be as important, the struggle for the ideal, the consummate representation of the academic culture, seems to be the pervasive force.  One researcher suggested that to understand why faculty and students think and behave the ways they do, their culture must be described and studied (Van Maanen, 1979).  The power of the culture is strong (Clifford & Guthrie, 1988).  And, understanding this pervasive force may help understand and change the tenure process.

To support my focus on the general academic culture, I looked to the literature.  Kuh & Whitt (1988) suggest that, although academe may have several cultures residing within it, views of scholarship and the role of faculty within higher education may also bring a common element found among many faculty members.  Furthermore, they identify three basic shared values - the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge as the purpose of higher education, autonomy in the conduct of academic work, collegiality as demonstrated in a community of scholars that provides mutual support and opportunities (p. 76).  Kramer (1991) claims that, at least among the schools of education, there are  striking levels of conformity, with many shared goals.  Once we focus on the broader picture and delineate components of the general process, we can begin, if necessary, a more detailed analysis.

Schools of education may be unique because teacher educators are more likely to spend longer hours on the campus in teaching and advising than on research projects (Clifford & Guthrie, 1988; Ducharme, 1993).  Indeed, schools of education are not well-supported at the institutional level (Lanier & Little, 1986).  In addition, some authors (Kramer, 1991; Wisniewski, 1989, for example) target Schools of Education as having a lack of interest in and commitment to scholarship which, they say, contribute to a second-class status in the academy.  Yet, schools of education also fit within the aforementioned commonalities.

As members of the academic culture move through it each day, they shape and are shaped by it.  And as with any culture, there are languages, myths, stories, traditions, histories, and more to be uncovered.  Within the institution there are varied codes, a code of many colors (Jelinek, Smircich, and Hirsch 1983, p. 331) which offer alternative assumptions.  Most of these codes are beneath the conscious surface of the day, making the process of acquiring this culture difficult.  Interestingly, few published works describe colleges and universities with the level of detail needed to reveal cultural elements.  This may have occurred because so many people become caught up in the tenure process and do not study their own process or have the time to study the process of others.  The next section presents the tenure process as portrayed in the literature.


Within the academic culture, the tenure process -- a rite of passage, a ritual, a device of torment -- remains the most mysterious and most studied aspect.  According to the literature, tenure first became a part of the academic culture in 1913 (Arcano, 1982) or 1915 (Lederman & Mooney, 1995) when the

AAUP began and forged a structured concept of academic tenure in the United States.  At that time, the members wanted to protect the academic freedom of the professoriate.  An updated definition offered by AAUP in 1940 suggested that tenure represented a means to certain ends, that included freedom to teach and research as well as some degree of economic security in order to attract strong people to the profession (Chait & Ford, 1982).  Thus, academics viewed tenure as a benefit where academic life provided job security (Clark, 1987).  By the 1970's, tenure had become increasingly difficult to attain because it became the only consequential way to acknowledge the work and achievements of their younger members (Abel, 1984). 

One interesting depiction of tenure suggested that tenure was a rite of passage, a coming of age in academe that takes a linear approach.  From the time the person is hired until the tenure is granted, the process becomes a" trial by innuendo",  with the final phase undertaken in absentia.  For the faculty member, there is a progressively more acute torment (Adams, 1976).  The young faculty members sink into isolation, which generates more anxiety about tenure.  According to Adams (1976) faculty members must make their roles within academia not find their roles there (p. 90).

Now, according to the literature, many consider tenure to be the ultimate prize of academia, that brings job security, power, privilege, and prestige (Theodore, 1986; Smith, 1990; Magner, 1995) and eliminates the fear of dismissal.  Anderson (1992) states that once faculty members achieve tenure, they are guaranteed a life-long job with excellent working conditions, and generous pensions where faculty members do not have to worry about overbearing bosses or judgmental peers. In contrast, the tenure process, while seen as a life-long meal ticket (Smith, 1990, p. 14) that creates job security, it robs faculty time, causes considerable grief, and can involve questionable decisions.  Although designed to generate job security, tenure, in fact, greatly increases insecurity.  Often, lives are put on hold for six or seven years, not knowing whether they will be accepted into or rejected from the culture.  Until that time, however, new faculty members feel that while teaching might be rewarded, writing receives the most reward (Anderson, 1992; Smith, 1990; Solomon & Solomon 1993, Verrier, 1994).  Some say that research is everything (Sakes, 1988).

As new faculty members take their positions, they feel like outsiders (Whitt, 1991).  Of course, if academia is viewed as a culture, that is precisely what they are.  Unfortunately, many institutions do not have formalized orientation or mentorship programs (Whitt, 1991) and faculty members suffer from a heavy workload, a sense of isolation, pressure to perform, and a general disorientation (Boice, 1992; Whitt, 1991; Olsen, 1992), no one offers support.  They also desire feedback about their performance (Boice, 1992).  Interestingly, new faculty members also desire collegiality and encouragement which the senior faculty seem to rebuke (Boice, 1992). 

Within the academic culture, members have created their own world with rules and writing, and levels of acceptability (Anderson, 1992; Smith, 1990; Verrier, 1994).  Within it, tenure pervades their entire life and being of the new faculty member (Austin & Pilat, 1990; Finkelstein, 1995). It corrupts and dulls them as they begin to understand the culture and its expectations (Sakes, 1988).  In fact, according to Sakes (1988), tenure is a form of thought control because it can be the ultimate control mechanism used to temper young faculty members who depart from tradition (Sakes, 1988, p. 137).  Tenure traps people in entrenched hierarchies that tolerates no questions and seems to force faculty members through a professional hazing that lingers for 6 or 7 years (Solomon & Solomon 1993).  Interestingly, many faculty are quite critical of the system, but they are quietly critical (Smith, 1990).  Tenure serves as a predominant norm setter of the academic community and the higher educational system at large (Clark, 1988) and entrenches academics so deep that they can not step back and examine their process (Wilshire, 1990).

As the new faculty members progress toward tenure, they sometimes perceive the demands for publication as subtle discouragement of their work in surprisingly powerful ways (Boice, 1992).  Additionally, within the academic culture, new faculty feel they receive many mixed messages where they are told one thing, but another thing seems true.  For example, a new faculty member might be told that teaching is important, when in reality the only thing that the faculty discuss is the number of publications necessary for tenure (Seldin, 1987; Armour, Caffarella, Fuhrmann, & Wergin, 1987).  New faculty also complain that  no community exists (Armour, Caffarella, Fuhrmann, & Wergin, 1987).  In the end, to succeed within the institution, faculty members must work within the system to establish their own niche (Armour, Caffarella, Fuhrmann, & Wergin, 1987).  Consequently, many faculty members assert that the tenure system is quite unfair and ambiguous (Noel, 1987).

The tenure process has strong foes, but faculty voices never seem to be heard.  For example, Smith (1990) suggests that academics are involved in ritual murders when they do not tenure assistant professors (p. 195) and that the tenure process resembles the ancient rite of human sacrifice.  Winn (1992) suggests that the reviewers of the tenure dossiers serve as prophets for departments within the University (1992).  The ideal is to know whether or not a faculty member is ready for a permanent academic position by the sixth year, but is that realistic?  Many call for a more humane system (Winn, 1992).  But what can be done?  The culture and its processes have a firm grip upon the institution, and if you do not fit within the acceptable (white, male) image and know the secret handshake, what happens?


While I am aware that the essentialist position momentarily transposes the gender hierarchy, I also recognize that it leaves intact a gendered and hierarchical system (Kirsch, 1993).  Furthermore, essentializing understandings can obscure people's diverse experiences (Lie & O'Leary, 1990).  Unfortunately, of the texts I perused for this work, I found little work focused on issues of class and race within the tenure process.  Of those texts I found, I have included them in my discussion.  Although much of the literature on academic women generalizes to include all women and the most current feminist literature and my own experiences call those generalizations into question, there are certain important kernels of information to be gleaned from that work.  For example, most women feel less successful and progress more slowly through the academic system (Gappa & Uehling, 1979); most women are not taken seriously, struggle to be taken seriously, and many women are allocated to teaching, rather than research, functions (Aisenberg & Harrington, 1988). 

Political naiveté is also a factor in many women's successes within academia (Aisenberg & Harrington, 1988) with many women resisting the expectation to play by the rules.  And it is this strong thread of resistance by women to academic conventions that establishes the boundaries of knowledge, which, in turn, generates the scorn from their local community (Aisenberg & Harrington, 1988).  Many women in tenure-track positions find it difficult to have a life outside of work (Wilson, 1995) and find their colleagues less than supportive.  Historically, women have been outsiders to the academic culture (Keller & Moglen, 1987). 

According to Luke & Gore (1992) the academic culture is currently based on a sexist, patriarchal, phallocentric knowledge system that militates against women there.  Women must, from their perspective, tread on hostile male territory and must demystify the culture for themselves.  For many women, the tacit codes in the dominant -- white, male -- language are quite difficult to decipher (Grosz, 1988) and bring about silences (Fine, 1992).  Further, women in the academy, as evidenced by their progress along the tenure-track, are prepared in an environment where they are "daughters to the masters" (Luke & Gore, 1992, p. 198), not generators of knowledge.  And, not every instructor was male.  From their own experience, Luke & Gore (1992) state that "...we also encountered women teachers who ruled our voices out, who taught us the statistical significance of gendered differences, and who showed us that some women academics are much harder on female than on male students (p. 198)."  Of course, there are always the female men, the women who adopt male standards of achievement and attempt to do it all, and who sabotage rather than support women (Fuehrer & Schilling, 1985).

Within the institution there is an issue of control that governs the social structure of the academic culture where maintaining the rules establishes both the social and knowledge relations (Foucault, 1979).  From this perspective, women always reside in another's discourse which, in turn, rationalizes the rules within which they are forced to operate  (Foucault 1979).  In fact, women are required to "work within and according to the rules laid down and maintained by those whose interests those rules serve (Foucault, 1979, p. 206)."  It is this phallocentric culture that absences women from within it (Grosz, 1988).  The power of some people is conditioned upon the powerlessness of others (Bannerji, Carty, Dehli, Heald, & McKenna, 1992).  Our racist, classist and heterosexist society foster a university system that perpetuate those relations (Bannerji, Carty, Dehli, Heald, & McKenna, 1992).  While it is politically important for women to make public their experiences with this culture, it can be dangerous to their success within the culture, catching many women in a conundrum.  Women are caught by the academic culture.  They are expected to attain "mastery" in a system that does not welcome them (Delhi, 1992).  To some degree, many women in academia become first the colonized and then the colonizer as they assimilate and adapt the requisite, fostered, and prized discourse (McKenna, 1992; Lewis and Simon, 1986).  Understanding how we live as contradictory, multiple subjects within these positions will help us see more clearly ways to resist and reconstruct the educational subject so that a wider range of people can find a place within it (Heald, 1992).

Academia is an institution that pays lip service to values like equality.  The academic culture is historically situated, contextually specific, and socially constructed (Ellsworth, 1992).  As I look at the academic culture and the covert process of tenure, I attempt to deconstruct a process that is quite close to many peoples' experiences, it is something that so much a part of the culture that it difficult to examine it.  I hope to demystify the realities of it and to unpack its defining features (Lather, 1986).


Acquiring a culture.  Anthropologists have studied this process.  How does a person become a member of the culture into which they are born?  How do they recognize and conform to the expectations of their group?  Or, in more current terms, how do individuals actively organize their culture?  Many studies of cultural acquisition focus on children and the ways they come to know their birth-cultures.  Yet, birth-cultures are not the only cultures individuals acquire over a life time.  Rather, we attempt to acquire many cultures and this paper will endeavor to explore the acquisition of one such culture -- academia.  True, not every person acquires or attempts to acquire this culture, but an examination of this acquisition process may help understand other processes.

As I have endeavored to find a way to understand of the acquisition of the academic culture, I remembered the work of Margaret Eisenhart.  An anthropologist, Eisenhart has for a number of years examined the acquisition of culture in an effort to best describe the process.  Her latest work, an article in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, exploring the process of cultural acquisition for members of particular business.  It best captures for me the acquisition process as I think it occurs and best fits with my experiences as person attempting to acquire the culture of academe.  Consequently, using her work as a foundation, I am going to present my descriptions of my own cultural acquisition.

Critical to this examination is the reciprocal examination of how culture organizes individuals and how individuals organize culture.  Although Eisenhart (1995) and others suggest that the most important element of the process is how individuals organize culture, there are aspects that suggest that the culture attempts to organize the individuals.  Important elements of the acquisition process include figuring out how culture is used, regarded, and integrated in individuals' lives. 

For many anthropologists (Eisenhart included), what is not absorbed and incorporated by an individual is as important as what is absorbed and incorporated.  All potential members of a culture do not always acquire the same bits of information, in the same order, or in the same amount (Eisenhart, 1995; Ogbu, 1993; Holland, 1992, for example).  What many members do, though, is use stories as both a strategy for learning the culture and a means of identity formation with the culture to be acquired (Eisenhart, 1995).  Importantly, individuals do not passively assume membership within a culture, they actively participate in understanding the culture and identify themselves within it.  This also affects an individual's interest in developing their expertise within a culture Holland, 1992).

Within the current understanding of culture, cultural models are the expected, yet unspoken, mostly unconscious (Kay, 1987), and taken-for-granted aspects of the world that contain "shared implicit knowledge" and involve the process of identifying the complex elements of beliefs and knowledge (Holland and Skinner, 1987, p. 79).  They are the guides (Eisenhart, 1995) for acceptable behavior within a given culture.  While individuals may construct differing versions of identity, what is selected and relinquished become important elements in understanding the culture and understanding the process.  To understand how people organize their culture, and how that culture may be understood, Eisenhart (1995) suggests collecting and examining stories about self that describe the new cultural setting.  By her definition, these stories represent a device that mediates learning within that setting.  These stories reveal both how individuals see themselves and how they see the setting within which they are situated.  The public nature of the story also locates the individual's identity within the culture.  In fact, the stories may direct individuals' budding sense of self and how their construction of their universe.  To understand individuals' talk about their culture, the unremarkable elements and those that are taken-for-granted must be understood (Holland & Skinner, 1987; Holland, 1992).

These stories are important tools.  Linde's work (1993) explores the power of life story, stories used to situate ourselves within our lives, to establish continuity, to recognize relationships and to describe the "good" self.  Harkness, Super & Keefer (1992) describe the ways that parents construct their parental identities through the use of stories and representations.  Further, they also looked at the ways that culture is organized within those stories.  Stories are told over and over and express our sense of self.  Stories can and do also conceal elements of control (White, 1992).

In these circumstances, culture can be defined as the mutual interpretations of experience that are shared by group members and can be acquired by people with whom group members interact (Eisenhart, 1990).  The acquisition of culture occurs through a process by which people as individuals come to understand meaning from culture and make it their own  (Eisenhart , 1990; Heath, 1983).  Culture is a consistent and meaningful construction that has tacit and manifest elements (McLaren, 1986).  For those who tell stories, these self-stories help individuals develop their membership within a culture as well as establish their identity there.  There are cultural scripts to follow with certain information to include or not include.  Understanding culture can be very complex and interpretations can be integral parts of that understanding.

So, as new faculty members enter the academic culture, they must quickly attempt to figure out what is happening in the environment and in relationship and what they are going to do in response.  How do they make those decisions?  How do they know?  What do they know?


What do we know about the acquisition of the academic culture?  We know that the tenure process dominates the cultural and social life among young faculty members.  Social activities and relationships often revolved around potential tenure-influencing encounters or around talk about tenure-related relationships.  The faculty shared ways of communication about and connections for interpreting tenure-related relationships.  Goals, intentions, and qualities are interpreted according to these ideas about tenure.  We also know that the tenure process and the academic culture Involve power relations.  In this setting, any discourse is partly constituted by the power relations between the participants as well as by the relation of the local power relations of larger structures.  The tenure process allows the system time to accept/reject person.  It also gives the person rules to follow and check out if they follow them (Holland, 1992). 

Holland (1992) suggests that an assessment of a cultural interpreted world can affect how individuals decide whether the system has relevance for them.  Not only are people expected to understand the cultural model of academic success and the many elements that  populate the academic world of tenure, they are also constantly exposed to model-based interpretations of their own behavior.

The shift in thinking as one enters a new culturally defined role, such as new faculty member, involves the integration of previous experience, general cultural models available in the environment and the day-to-day events of life with a particular faculty.  In this process, cultural models become elaborated and specialized and they gain "directive force" as needed to shape faculty's responses to the demands of their roles (Harkness, Super & Keefer, 1992, p. 164).

Sometimes, when people have one primary set of friends, their language and actions begin to conform to the way the group talks about issues.   In our experience, we did not really have a group, we often talked about being alone and isolated.  Indeed, we seemed not to conform.  But, we were not welcomed either.  Many acquisition processes can be welcoming.  People are encouraged, guided, and/or taught the cultural ways.  On the other hand, members of the academic culture seem determined to keep the cultural ways beyond the reach of the newcomer.  Is the academic culture about ostracizing people from the system rather than training them/informing them about how to fit?  And how did faculty colleagues train us?  What was it about them or us that made them exclude/include certain information?  Harkness, Super & Keefer (1992) suggest the importance of examining all people involved in the construction of the culture, and for us, colleagues would be important to include in the examination of our acquisition process. 

The best way to examine the acquisition of the academic culture is to look at personal experience.  For the past six years I have been journalizing individually and with colleagues about my tenure process.  According to Linde (1993), the use of journals offers the same self-understanding and self-presentation required in a life story.  Within our private texts, we revealed our experiences and analyzed our process.  In the next few pages, I will present the some of stories we shared as I came to know myself and we came to know ourselves as members of the academic culture.


We all entered academia within the same year.  Our common bond was our University of Arizona education.  As friends, we have developed over the past six years.  As peers at the UofA, we had good relations, some of us had stronger ties than others.  While the intensity of writing has varied according to the year, the month, and the day, we have all maintained contact during our 5 or 6 years in academia.  Our journals tell the tale.  In this section, I will present my experience and that, to a lesser extent, of my colleagues, while simultaneously analyzing the experience.


As I attempted to find my place within my institution, I looked around for something with which to identify.  Unfortunately, I found my search for similarity quite difficult.  In one journal entry I wrote:

As I walk down the corridor in ......Hall, which houses the various Chancellors' offices, I enter what I now call Famous Men's Hallway.  On the walls there you will find a series of photos of the people who have made are white male with one exception, an Asian male.  I have no idea if there was ever a famous female on this campus.

The male models that I observed represented what was acceptable within my institution.  Finding my place, searching for my voice seemed impossible.  When I wrote:

...there is just so much tradition and history that they simply expect new people to understand...The old faculty still gets caught up short by us not knowing tradition...   

I offered evidence of the frustrating collision between what they knew and what I could not seem to understand.  As an outsider, academe seemed difficult to transcend.

The Balancing Act

One theme that emerges from our writing is our desire for balance.  We wanted balance, to get an understanding of what was happening to us, but that never seemed to happen.  One of us wrote:

I had thought the beginning of school would be easier the second time around, but I feel just as off-balance and harried as I did last year.  (*)

We wanted to balance our lives, our families, and our expectations, but we were never sure if the choices we made were the best for our futures or our well-being.  The uncertainty lead to our imbalance and a disorientation with the system.

Interestingly, several researchers have addressed the stress of competitive personal and professional demands, the expectations on performance in a competitive environment, the disappointment in failed collaboration (Whitt, 1991), and the positive challenge offered by their teaching and research (Whitt, 1991; Reynolds, 1988).  Our concerns were similar, but we also had an abiding urge to focus on change.  We recognized that the system needed to change, but could not understand the system enough to change it.

In one study of School of Education new faculty members, Whitt (1991) found that "having to be responsible for their own socialization may have added to the already heavy workload of new faculty.  Having to spend time 'spinning their wheels' finding out answers to questions - or finding out questions exacerbated the sense of carrying a 'a load of bricks'" (p. 193).  We all had stories about attempted changes and we all had stories to share about those thwarted efforts.

Feelings of Isolation

Loneliness and isolation remained a constant theme, although over time the intensity of feeling seemed to lighten.  The "...loneliness of no support group among colleagues and no relationships...(*) was addressed more than once in our letters.  Several researchers, including Whitt (1991) addressed the isolation of new faculty members.  Entering a new institution away from friends and families caused certain problems.  We also discussed the feelings of isolation that intensified when we experienced little no collegiality at our workplaces.

As reported earlier, various studies of new faculty members suggest a camaraderie of experience ( Mager and Myers, 1982; Reynolds, 1988; Whitt, 1991, for example). Their concerns comprise feelings of isolation, competition, departmental politics, uncomfortable interactions, ambiguous measures of success, time pressures, lack of time for research, and tenure fears. 

Attempts to find comfort, find context, find a place in our academic worlds seemed often futile and frustrating.  Although there was a desire to fit, success was fleeting.  Yet, we were slowly learning the culture of academia.  Or were we really only learning how we did not fit into its context?  One important aspect of the discomfort was the lack of fit between our beliefs and the perceived beliefs of the academic culture.

Clashing with Tradition

The most pervasive concerns demonstrated both in our conversations and in our writing was the clash between the contexts we were attempting to adopt as our own and our beliefs in education as a transformational process.   Sometimes we would discuss the dress of our colleagues, wondering if we were being judged on whether or not we dressed in similar fashion.  We hoped not.  When one of us said

We newer faculty cannot be mentored by the old guard because they did not have this research push.  They are not role models.

She was expressing her concern with tradition.  Tradition followed us, dominated us, held us back.  It was like invisible flypaper.

I want to help change teaching/learning so all kids are respected/valued and get their needs accommodated...I want to help change this system that we are caught in.  I think all of us have fought to bring real meaning into our own educational endeavors and we shouldn't stop now...(***)

Our interest in transformation also caused discomfort.  Although we did not meet with explicit resistance, we were often reminded that there was a legacy of tradition at our various institutions. know I want to research and write because I love to do both.  But it is almost getting like I don't want to do it just to 'dance their little song.'  (***)

Sometimes we revealed our rebellious natures showed through in writing.  We did not want to give in to the system because we did not feel that it supported our students or ourselves.

Yes, most of us know the language of academia.  We can use certain words- grant, money, research, computer, tenure.  Yet the implications of that language are lost, at least to some extent, on us.  We may have some fluency....Even worse, most of us are standing alone.  No one has come to serve as our translator, no one can elucidate the secret smiles or nods...We most assuredly are constructing our realities, amidst so many other realities that it is difficult to make sense of it...I feel as if I was just thrown to the wolves (male), to either stand or fall completely on my own...(****)

In fighting the system we also felt alone, like lonely crusaders.  Some of us had female colleagues, although those colleagues did not often share similar views.  Sometimes we attributed that to life experience.

I can see the temptation of moving toward putting less effort into my undergraduate teaching and more into research and working with graduate students.  My undergraduate teaching, which was my primary interest the first year, my obsession, the thing that kept me up at night, going to the library, creating new activities, solving teaching problems, is shrinking this second year in proportion to all my other duties: committees, graduate students, service to the schools...research.  I can see how it happens.  (**)

We also discussed giving in to the system, but that did not happen often.

I have always believed that the time people were trying to figure out that system to move up the ladder would be better spent getting good at what is important and you can still move up the ladder...although, I realize, it might be a different ladder.(***)

...should I be wearing a scarlet letter because my own ideas of what students need to learn is so different than what I see and hear around me...(***)

In general we simply felt different, because of our newness and because of our commitment to providing a different view of education.

Our feelings are confirmed by the current research on gender and academe.  While the college system is impersonal, many women academics seek change (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, 1986).  Generally their ways of understanding are distinctive and dissimilar from the traditional perspective.  Often their goal is to enter as well as change the nature of the work (Aisenberg and Harrington, 1988, p. 19).  Aisenberg and Harrington (1988) found that generally women believed academics advanced through merit and did not need to advertise their abilities and talents; they often refused to play the game.  Moreover, they were shocked when merit acknowledgment did not happen.  For women, the dichotomy between the merit process and their desire for an empowered identity is profound.  They choose arenas for direct, accessible changes to the larger society and resist work that focuses on relationship of actual daily experience to larger social and moral pattern (Aisenberg and Harrison, 1988, p. 94).  Many of our confrontations with beliefs were gender related.

Struggles with public practice

The key elements of the academic culture: autonomy, seeking external financial support, isolation, lack of emotional support, and survival, are reinforced with certain structures, behaviors, procedures, communication practices, norms or values, and expectations of others.  Consequently, as we became familiar with our academic surroundings we endeavored to succeed and establish professional identities within our complex settings. 

Will I Stay Here?

The choice of remaining in academia and how to support ourselves if we remained in academia was a difficult and often discussed topic.  One of us wrote:

As a new faculty member concerned about tenure and looking good on my two year review, I realized how committee appointments can help in the tenure process.(*)

We all attempted to find ways to work the system.  Tenure was a driving force, of one degree of another, at each institution.  As we began to acquire the culture, we began to see what was valued and what was not. 

...the choice between teaching and research tears me apart.  In the long run, I have to do more research to survive, but my teaching always comes first.  (**)

We felt torn by our discoveries about what was important.  We valued teaching, however, our institutions did not necessarily view teaching in quite the same way.  Much of our writing focused on the value of teaching in our lives, and the wrenching decisions we had to undergo when considering our own survival. 

Teaching concerns

As a group, we viewed teaching as a road to learning.  We valued our practice and examined it, with the intention of improving it.  Eventually each of us was out in the field, in one capacity or another, engaged in some form of teaching - whether working with teachers or students.  Teaching was a prized part of our chosen profession.  But was our work valued?  We wrote:

My work with preservice teachers is what makes my work feel meaningful (**)

&ldots;my students stretch me to the limit every day&ldots;I am continually pushing myself to learn more, to understand more, and to communicate it to them.  (**)

&ldots;teaching and learning are two full-time jobs (***)

Judging from our letters and our decisions, our hearts were committed to teaching.  We focused letters on discussions of classroom incidents.  We explored our philosophies.  We placed our research selves within our understanding of our own practice and our own theories.  Our commitment to self-study emerged from this experience.

The acquisition of academic culture involves a new faculty member bringing to the profession, a notion of self,  family history,  school experiences,  professional training, and  beliefs about teaching and education that interact with students, professors, and others in their work.  A person also brings certain beliefs that drive their view of the world.  When that view conflicts with the context, the culture they hope to adopt, much conflict and discomfort can ensue.  Our clashes with our academic cultures seems to suggest that we were not welcomed into academia and the academic culture.


Our experiences with the academic culture and the tenure process were sometimes very different than the materials found in the various texts I reviewed.  Academia is not a welcoming place.  Instead it is overwhelming, overpowering, and insensitive to difference.  And the notion that tenure is seen as a meal-ticket is absurd.  Why would people suffer like this just to have a guaranteed job?  How could it be worth it?  Additionally, the process of acquiring a culture is very different in academia.  In academia, new faculty members are deliberately excluded if they can not quickly decode the system.  This absences many of people. 

NOTE:  Asterisks represent the writers.  For example, we had four writers - *, **, ***, and ****.



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