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A milestone I never expected

Academic procession

I got the good news today that I have been granted tenure at the University of Massachusetts. This is very good news, as the tenure process is inherently a gamble: if you begin the tenure process and are not offered tenure, you’re generally not permitted to remain at a university, and I have just gotten started at UMass. Better yet, I really like it here and plan to stay for a long time.

But tenure is a complicated thing for virtually all academics, and perhaps especially so for me. It’s increasingly clear that academe is splitting into two tracks: tenure, where scholars have a good deal of security and stability once they’ve become associate professors, and adjunct status, where academic work is poorly paid, insecure and highly contingent. I am glad to have joined a university where a combination of faculty and union advocacy limit the use of adjuncts and where much of the faculty is able to pursue tenure, but it’s not a system that seems broadly sustainable or fair.

I recognize also that tenure can often calcify structures of power – notably sexism and white supremacy – that desperately need to change. The same structure that offers academic freedom and the ability to research and speak without fear of losing one’s job also gives guarantees of employment that make it harder for academic departments to reflect the diversity of their student body and the nation that they serve. At the worst, tenure sometimes protects faculty from the consequences of their unacceptable behavior, notably sexual harassment, which remains significant within academe. In feeling intense gratitude at being awarded tenure, I am also deeply aware of the complicated nature of practice and its implications.

For me, personally, tenure was never an aspiration. I came to academe later in life, and through the back door. I dropped out of a Masters program in 1994 to work in the early dot.com economy, moved from a startup company (Tripod.com) to starting up a nonprofit organization to work on technology education in the developing world (geekcorps.org). When that NGO folded and I came to the Berkman Center (now Berkman Klein Center) at Harvard, I intended to spend a year thinking about my future, not nine years building another NGO (globalvoices.org) and a media analysis platform (mediacloud.org). In retrospect, I should have used my time at Harvard to earn a PhD. In my defense, it wasn’t entirely clear what I should have sought a PhD in, as my interests spanned a wide range of academic topics.

Berkman and Harvard took a chance on me, giving me ample opportunity to discover that I enjoyed research not only on the topics I was most passionate about, but on a wide variety of unanswered questions about how media attention, censorship and constraints on online speech work. I got an other astounding chance from MIT, who not only allowed me to teach with only a BA, but to advise doctoral students and award PhDs. Those PhD students now teach at Cornell, Olin College and Northeastern, and students who are finishing their doctorates this year are already doing groundbreaking and widely recognized research. I hope that MIT feels like the success of those students validates the bet they made that I could advise doctoral candidates.

When I was recruited to UMass, it wasn’t at all clear to me that I would be hired to the tenure track. Tenure is so closely tied to the PhD and to the conventional academic pathway that I assumed I would be hired into a position similar to the one I held at MIT: Professor of the Practice, an academic status that allow experienced practitioners to teach, but does not confer the full rights and privileges of “academic” faculty. (At MIT, I taught Master and doctoral students and led research grants, but was not a member of the faculty.) Deans John Hird and Laura Haas surprised me by telling me that I was being recruited as tenure-track faculty and they expected me to file my tenure case as part of the hiring process. Again, I am incredibly grateful for an academic institution taking a chance, and I hope to reward UMass’s gamble with a long career at this excellent university.

I want to thoroughly acknowledge the many privileges that have allowed me to take this unconventional path. I had significant financial security after leaving a startup that allowed me to take advantage of a fellowship at Harvard and pursue years of research where my costs frequently weren’t covered by the grants I was able to receive. It’s not a coincidence that I’m a white male, the most overrepresented category in academe, and where my status as an unconventional academic may have been more controversial if I were a woman or a BIPOC person. I got incredibly lucky in that my academic interests aligned with a field experiencing significant growth: had I discovered my passion for English literature after a successful professional career, it’s unlikely that academic institutions would have been so welcoming to an uncredentialed scholar.

So while I feel intense gratitude in being awarded tenure, it’s a different feeling for me than it is for many young academics for whom years of hard work as PhD candidates and as assistant professors has been rewarded with a promise of security and stability. Gratitude, surprise and a sense of how unpredictable one’s path through life can be are my emotions, rather than the sense of hard work and a job well done that I hope my peers who’ve completed a more conventional path feel.

That said, I want to make the case that we need more people who’ve taken the unconventional path towards professorship, not fewer. While the contemporary doctorate descends from the church-issued “licentia docendi” (license to teach), until the 20th century, most teaching faculty in the US and Europe did not have doctoral degrees. The research doctorate came from the German academic system and the first PhD was offered in the US at Yale in 1861. The spread of the degree as a qualification for teaching has been gradual, and in some European countries, many distinguished faculty and scholars do not hold PhDs. In other words, while most teaching faculty in the US these days have PhDs, that’s a fairly recent development, and it’s far from universal in academia globally.

The PhD is excellent preparation for academic research and teaching: the students I’ve worked with as an advisor have used their PhD research to learn the hard work of developing and testing hypothesis, collecting, cleaning and analyzing data, writing cleanly and citing work that supports and challenges their work. The PhD can be a great way to develop these skills, but it’s not the only way. I’ve sharpened my writing by writing books and popular press articles as well as academic ones, and I push my students to write for non-academic audiences as well as academic ones so that their work can be widely understood. Some of the best data scientists I know are not academics, but journalists, industry professionals and others whose work requires them to ask hard questions about data and to be rigorous and honest about the results.

Much of my work these days focuses on the idea of technology in the public interest: the emerging field of people who think critically and carefully about technology and how it can be used for social change and public benefit. This is a field that will develop best from both inside and outside academia. We need to learn from people researching bias in AI from within the lab, but also from people working in tech companies and government about what actually works in leveraging technology for social change. We need pathways for people who discover in their professional work that they want to research problems deeply and rigorously from within an academic framework and to share what they discover along the way with generations of young scholars. We’ve gotten increasingly good at understanding that not all PhDs will – or should – become professors, and I hope we can move towards a realization that not all professors will have – or should have? – PhDs.

I am profoundly grateful for my membership in academe, a club to which I do not have the formal qualifications for admission, but which has nevertheless provided a warm welcome. I am eternally grateful for all the individuals and institutions who’ve taken a gamble on me in the past, and I hope to reward their confidence in the future. And I hope I can both recognize the struggle and hard work that so many of my peers have gone through to earn tenure via more conventional routes while reminding people inside and outside academia that there’s more than one path to a lifetime of teaching, learning, research and service.

At university events like graduation, you’ll see the faculty line up in procession with colorful academic hoods that reflect the universities they’ve gone to and the degrees they’ve earned. Next time you watch one of those processions, look for the rare odd one out, the scholar wearing the basic black baccalaureate robe. We’re there too, just as proud of our work learning and teaching and of the paths that have brought us here.

1 thought on “A milestone I never expected”

  1. Congratulations, Ethan! As a BSc holder myself I’ve been thinking about what you mentioned in the last couple of years as my next step, and I share your hopes for what I can call less “academic hierarchy” and more “academic diversity”. Good luck! :)

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