Counting Towards Tenure

“The most pressing intellectual issue in the next decade,” a New York Time’s article on web reviewing of academic scholarship, “is this tension between the insular, specialized world of expert scholarship and the open and free-wheeling exchange of information on the Web.” For several sources in the story, the key indicator of this tension is whether or not schools will recognize work evaluated through such open source methods as sufficiently rigorous, whether such work will “count for tenure.” But this begs the question: who is counting on tenure?

We are all counting on tenure, it seems, as the professional horizon of intellectual work, as the foundation of security upon which any edifice of independent thought might withstand the forces of erosion in our time. A minimum of democracy, we say, depends upon the minimum of freedom from the whims and imperatives of capital and of administration that tenure grants. However, as far as the Times can tell, tenure primarily counts as a politically neutral reward for professionalism and an accommodation to a hierarchical ideal of expertise. Missing from this  is any body count of those intellectuals whose activity inside and out of the academia, while crucial to its functioning, are not tracked for tenure. This body of work is therefore absent from any table of reckoning that produces a false dichotomy between an “insular, specialized world” and the “open and free-wheeling exchange” beyond. When commerce is equated with freedom, and democracy with capitalism, we lose sight of the labor that transects any presumed division between an insular academia and its social exterior.
No account of the shifting conditions of the intellectual commons, that is, is complete without an acknowledgement of its undercommons, wherein are located an infrapolitics of learning that our newspaper of record remains blind to. But without a second sight trained on these lower  frequencies, without peripheral vision turned toward this blur at the edges of our sharply defined research ‘profiles,’ we are hardly prepared to even acknowledge the history of those journals of tendency, such as this one, that have staked out an outlier position in the count towards tenure, journals that asked what part of academia was for democracy well before the web and its open protocols of assessment came to seem like the only possible answer to the question.

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Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and professor of African American studies, American studies, and theater studies at Yale University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and a new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the fall of 2018. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.