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College Embraces Microtenure

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by Diana Senechal

Microprofessor Kaitlin Gibson is microtenured in drawing engaging diagrams on dry erase boards.
Microprofessor Kaitlin Gibson is microtenured in drawing engaging diagrams on dry erase boards.

Brightview, Iowa—In the midst of bitter and widespread feuds over the future of tenure, a small college in the hinterlands of Iowa has quietly approved an innovative solution that could become a national model.

Instead of awarding tenure to a candidate as a whole, Kusok College now awards “microtenure”—that is, tenure linked to one aspect of the candidate’s profile. For example, a professor may receive tenure for research on the morphology of the Icelandic verb, but not for teaching Icelandic or anything else. Similarly, a professor could be microtenured in remedial writing instruction but not in research.

“The specificity is liberating,” said Kusok’s new financial adviser, Brent Fungibilis. “Instead of trying to find someone who can be everything, and instead of subjecting young scholars and teachers to sleep-depriving and family-ruining demands, you tell them exactly what you want. Then, if they do it well, you tenure them for just that thing. It’s a big money-saver, because you’re not paying them to be teacher and scholar and everything else. You might be paying them for just one strand of research, and that’s the way it should be.”

What happens if a full professor position involves both teaching and research? “We only hire them in their tenured area,” said Fungibilis. So, if the position calls for scholarship and lecture courses, and they’re tenured in the lecture courses but not the scholarship, they obviously aren’t qualified for the position. But we’ve also been experimenting with microprofessorships. In fact, right now we have a Microprofessor of Microbiology. She teaches the introductory microbiology course, and that’s it. She doesn’t even need an office.”

How do the professors feel about it? “You can’t talk about our feelings here,” said Greta Erlich, currently up for tenure as Microprofessor of Scholarship on Feminist Critical Responses to the Wife of Bath’s Tale. “We only have microfeelings. As scholar of feminist criticism of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, I am microhappy. As a teacher of Chaucer and of English overall, I am micromiserable. Yes, the micromisery feels larger than the microhappiness, but if you measure it scientifically, it isn’t a whit bigger, or so I’ve been told.”

“The great thing about micromisery is that it can easily be stamped out,” said Beauregard Mouche, lead public relations consultant for Kusok. “Research has shown that when you limit your misery to something concrete and bounded, you make it manageable. So you may hear faculty complain of micropains, but those are nothing compared to the great angst of the past. Break down the pain, and you’ll see that it’s almost gone.”

Students seem to disagree. “We want professors!” reads a banner strung across the freshman quad. “What’s the big idea?” reads another.

Mouche laughed at the mention of the banners. “Of course they do that. They’re freshmen,” he said. “They haven’t been to our focus groups yet. Once they learn how to set and work toward microgoals, they forget about all of this stuff.” He added that the traditional B.A. and B.S. diplomas would soon be replaced by microdegrees. Far less expensive than a “liberal education,” a microdegree certifies a student in a specific skill, such as finding the main idea or calculating an interest rate.

According to an anonymous funder of the project, if microtenure and microdegrees succeed, they could be the start of a revolution. The more specific each person’s skill set, the more precisely it can be approximated by artificial intelligence. “Soon you’ll see robots and microprofessors having coffee together in the lounge,” said the donor. “Yes, you can train robots to like bad coffee.”

“The micro movement is small right now,” added Mouche, “but it has the potential to become huge. Teacher preparation programs are catching on. There was even a TED talk about it last year.”

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Read Diana Senechal‘s article “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective” in American Educator at https://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter1213/Senechal.pdf