April 7, 2017

Pop Culture, Academia, and Tenure Track Free-For-Alls

In a recent article, Slate's Rebecca Schuman suggests that "all of Hollywood's depictions" of college tenure processes are incorrect.  While all of the depictions might not be wrong, Ms. Schuman does point to some egregious examples, and one is one of my favorites, an off-the-rails episode of CBS's The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). In it, Sheldon, Raj, and Leonard all compete for a tenure track position at Cal Tech after a member of the tenured faculty suddenly passes away. The implication is that tenure at U.S. educational institutions is a gladitatorial free-for-all in which smoozing and sex appeal (represented by the guys' significant others) have as much to do with ultimate success on the intellectual battlefield as degrees and other academicc criteria. Other weirdness that comes out in the episode: the H.R. head, Janine, is on the committee that makes the decision.

No. Just no. Watch my lips (figuratively speaking). No.

The episode might be funny (although I didn't laugh much, and I actually like this show for several reasons), but as Ms. Schuman points out, it misleads viewers about how tenure actually works and how academic institutions actually seek out candidates for tenure track positions.

It also reinforces the notions that people with no experience or exposure to educational institutions have about how universities work, which is not a Good Thing At All. Too many taxpayers already think that public universities "waste" money on professor salaries, for example. One of my students said in class the other day that universities spend too money on frivolous things like dorm luxuries. In the next breath he also talked about students as consumers. I pointed out that colleges now have to compete in these areas to attract students like him. Students don't consider quality of faculty or libraries. They look for things like microwaves in dorm rooms and whether the pools are heated and how many of them there are. I remarked that if students are consumers (an analogy I don't favor), then colleges have to compete for them and offer them products they want.  Those products are shiny. They're not ultimately very useful for brain development, although they're pleasant for the after class environment. He did acknowledge that I had a point.

This TBBT episode gets a number of things wrong, as I note, but probably does so for satiric purposes. What does it get wrong, and why? First, none of the characters, Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj, seem to have been hired initially into a tenure track line. Thus, none is eligible for the position. In order to be eligible initially, you would need to apply for the position at the start, go through the interview process, and receive an offer (which would go through the faculty, chair, dean, provost, president, and board of trustees). It's a long process, and might be slightly different depending on the institution, but most institutions follow this pattern. These searches generally get many applicants, weed through them to a pool of qualified candidates whom they interview, perhaps by phone or in person off-campus, and then bring some to campus to interview for a day or two, and then discuss the finalists. Then someone gets and offer, negotiates with the chair, and then accepts (or declines). If the finalist declines, the department might move on to the second choice, if it wants to, if it still has the money in the budget, if the second choice is still available. There's none of the wackiness, including the mass schmoozing that you see at the cocktail party, in the episode.The candidates wouldn't meet. Generally if you are candidate for such a position, you would not know who else is a candidate for that position.  If Raj, Leonard, or Sheldon wanted to be considered, they would have had to apply when the position was finally posted, and the posting would have need to be open for a specific amount of time. Given Cal Tech's prestige, the posting would certainly have been nationally posted, and perhaps even internationally advertised, and probably for several months at least. Raj, Leonard, and Sheldon would have been in competition with scientists from around the world, not just with one another.

Why does TBBT present such a situation? It probably wants to show these characters in conflict. It wants to show some infighting in an academic setting. Maybe the show wants to suggest some (supposed) inanity at academic institutions. There certainly can be some. But not this kind.

Second, Janine, the HR head, and her staff certainly could have helped with the writing and the posting of the job description (which as I note would have taken months). She and the staff would done triage on all the applications once they received them. But she would not have served on the search committee. That committee would have been up of faculty members from the hiring department, and perhaps a faculty member or two from another department. Perhaps a staff member with knowledge of the research area might have been invited to search on the committee. But Janine would have had no place in the interviewing interactions. She would have had a role to play in informing on-campus candidates of job benefits. Again, why does the episode show her involvement? Because it wants to heighten the conflict--she's been involved with these characters before. But again, the notion that in real life such a staff member would weigh in formally on such a hire by being on the search committee--no.

Finally, the department apparently decides not to make a hire from among the three candidates. At an institution like Cal Tech, which loses a prestigious prof, is this outcome likely? I'd suggest the answer is no. But that's the outcome the episode ends with, again probably heighten the conflict. A real department, assuming that it has the money to hire, would try its best to make a hire, because it has invested months, and perhaps a year, in seeking a replacement for the late, lamented, prof and it wouldn't want to lose the line (although there are things it could do to save it).

TBBT actually has a real life physics prof around to the physics that appears on the dry erase boards on the show. The writers could have asked him about the tenure procedure. Of course, maybe they did, and just didn't follow his guidance in this area. In any case, the result is a disappointing episode, and one that TBBT didn't really need to make. There are many ways to depict conflict among the physicists and engineers on this show. This one wasn't necessary.

We also see a certain amount of bickering among Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj (to a lesser degree) over offices. In one episode, Sheldon and Barry Kripke fight over possession of an office vacated by a recently retired prof. Neither Sheldon nor Barry is a tenure track prof. Why would they be entitled to such a prestigious office, and why would the department chair indulge them in such a way, even if they are relatively famous scientists, bring in big grants, and run big labs? The tenured profs in his department are, one presumes, even bigger names and bring in even larger grants and run even bigger labs than do Sheldon and Barry. The kind of posturing and bickering that Sheldon and Barry carry on is childish. If they are unhappy about their circumstances, and truly that brilliant, they could seek out opportunities elsewhere (M.I.T, Princeton, Berkeley?)  Again, TBBT is showing up the kind of conflict it may presume goes in academia, probably just for the entertainment value. Yes, there is conflict in academia. But the real thing is actually, I'd suggest much more interesting than this kind of thing, which seems silly and suggests that grown men with brilliant minds are ultimately toddlers. I'm frankly happy to see that in season 10 Sheldon is finally developing some personal and behavioral skills.

These kinds of things aren't the only ones that pop culture gets wrong about academia. Some of them are some basic that I wonder why they're incorrect. What purpose does it serve to misrepresent them. In a lot of shows, and some films, college classes end with the ringing of a bell to show that class is over, usually right when the prof is saying something important, so that she has to give the next assignment and wrap up quickly (right when a student is asking a question). I'm going to be very clear about this next point. Classes at universities DO NOT END WITH BELLS RINGING. That happens in elementary and secondary education. You would think that writers, many of whom have actually been to college, know perfectly well that college classes don't have bells. One could signal in the script that class is over by having the instructor say, "I see that we're out of time today. For next time, please read..." as if there's no syllabus (although again, there are syllabi in college classes, and again you'd the writers would know this).  Those bells really need to go.

If pop culture wants to dramatize some of the interesting academic issues today, there are a lot that would make riveting tv and film. Stories about sexual harassment (think about David Mamet's Oleanna), or firing a prof for the use of  profanity in the classroom (and the prof responding that profanity is part of the learning experience), actual conflict between scientists for credit, or plagiarism, or falsifying data, or the dramatization of a sexual attack on campus by a star athlete--these would make great tv or film experiences and opportunities for thoughtful discussion about the educational environment and the responsibilities of higher education to its students, staff, and faculty, as well as the public.  If some writer would like assistance with developing some of these ideas, email or tweet me. Happy to help.

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