Disability and Decolonizing Time/Knowledge on the Tenure Clock

by Danika Medak-Saltzman (Syracuse University), Deepti Misri (University of Colorado Boulder), and Beverly Weber (University of Colorado Boulder)

In this post, the three of us draw on our shared experience at a predominantly white public university in order to share some initial responses to the following question: How are the neoliberal academy’s modes of organizing labor and valuing knowledge steeped in spatiotemporal logics that are both settler colonial and ableist in nature? Our motivation in tracing these logics stems directly from having observed “faculty with disabilities” at our university “running against the tenure clock” under expectations that are as ableist as the metaphor, as well as seemingly abled women faculty, faculty of color, and contingent faculty, who have strained against the academic clock and ended up debilitated in the process. 

Our discussion here engages primarily with the peculiar temporalities produced by the tenure clock. While we focus primarily on our own observations as tenured and tenure-track faculty, the tenure clock inevitably also impacts adjunct faculty who work in proximity to the clock, often absorbing onto their bodies and lives the effects of the (limited) “protections” offered to tenure-track faculty, receiving low priority in matters ranging from teaching times to course preferences, deprioritized for research and conference funding, all while often dealing with ever-increasing numbers of students. Accordingly, we acknowledge that the tenure clock already positions some within the academy (including us) in a space of relative privilege, and that the project of addressing the adjunctification of the university and its embeddedness in settler time (Rifkin) and the neoliberal academy is equally urgent. Below we outline how ableist time and settler time intersect in the neoliberal academy’s production of the tenure process as an endurance test where only the fittest survive. In our conclusion we will suggest some ways of unsettling time in the settler academy (Morgensen).

We take inspiration from a mounting body of feminist and decolonial scholarship that has detailed how the neoliberal university is underpinned by masculinist, imperial, plantation and settler colonial histories, methodologies and imperatives (Chatterjee and Maira; Mountz et al.; Tuitt et al.). For example, Scott Morgensen describes how the “settler academy” is consolidated by alternately marginalizing and assimilating Indigenous scholarship (Morgensen). These twin strategies of marginalization and management rely heavily upon the very imagination of “good”—i.e tenurable—scholarship as “new”, “exciting” and “cutting-edge.” In The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber observe how “The corporate university’s language of new findings, technology transfer, knowledge economy, grant generation, frontier research, efficiency, and accountability dominates how academic scholarship is now framed both within the institution and outside it” (Berg and Seeber 63). The image of “frontier research”says it all: the solo author “breaks new ground” and plants a flag bearing their name on the terrain they have discovered. Implicit in this notion are familiar colonial tropes of spatial discovery, Indigenous dispossession and their attendant temporalities: the forward movement of time through the “discovery” (and occupation) of space.  The “shift from content to counting” observed by Mountz et. al. is another example of the settler academy at work (12). 

At times of evaluation, the settler academy requires that colleagues take on positions reminiscent of a border regime—armed, as they are, with the ability to bestow or deny full and tenured academic citizenship. These structures, like so much else in the academy, are based on a set of standards, or academic laws, if you will, often imagined and presented as unbiased or fair, when they actually disproportionately benefit those for whom they were originally created. For such systems to continue to work, they must maintain the illusion that the academy functions, at least in part, as a meritocracy. The violence of the settler academy and attendant systems of employment and evaluation are also enacted through the control of income levels tied to merit reviews or access to healthcare. 

The border patrol imperatives of frontier research are also implicitly ableist. Jina B Kim warns about “intensified levels of scholarly productivity that mark us as fit or unfit for academic citizenship, as well as the systemic exhaustion of women of color (WoC) intellectuals, who typically assume greater service/mentoring duties while receiving less mentorship and support.” In this way, the neoliberal border patrol functions to protect the settler academy’s political economy of belonging/citizenship by eliminating any potential threats to, or potential drains on the status quo of the established system (in terms of the rising cost of healthcare, the need for accommodations, and “unproductive” uses of time for reasons of health and disability).

How, then, might we seek to decolonize the organization of time and knowledge in the academy, and in particular (for our purposes in this piece) the tenure clock? We would have to begin, we suggest, by clearing space for alternative habitations of time that may be at odds with the fixity and linearity of the tenure clock. Disability Studies scholars such as Alison Kafer and Ellen Samuels have written eloquently about the process of doing academic work on “crip time.” In Alison Kafer’s words, crip time “bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock (27). Often the response to experiences of illness, disability, and debility is a clock stoppage or time extension. Yet, clock stoppage itself is flawed, in that it locates faculty bodies in a singular settler time-space. 

The rhythms of what many in Native North American communities call “NDN time” offer other ways of bending the clock. It is frequently assumed that NDN time means arriving or beginning later than a prescribed start time. While this might be the consequence of NDN time, particularly with regard to its use as a resistance tactic, it is more accurate to think of NDN time as the time it takes to do things in a good way. While this might seem an amorphous definition, the charge of “doing things in a good way” is more important than the fixed amount of time it takes to do something (Chisholm Hatfield et al.; Marino and Lazrus). For this reason, it might be easier for those unfamiliar with NDN time to conceive of it as an understanding of, and approach to, the world we live in—particularly as it relates to the cyclical nature of seasons, moon phases, life phases and ceremonial calendars. Built into NDN time is the flexibility required to uphold and honor one’s personal and communal responsibilities, for maintaining right relationships with all beings and with the land itself. Settler logics and strategies of erasure have included overwriting Indigenous understandings of time that are rooted in deep knowledge of specific territories (further see Rifkin 3). By design, NDN time, like POC time, account for the potential, the provisional, and the realities of precarity that settler rule, settler time and the settler academy do not, and cannot yet, account for. “POC time” is not simply a means of “foot dragging” that slows down the economic and temporal efficiency of white or settler systems—although this use has also been deployed strategically. Rather, and importantly, these more flexible understandings of time refuse the impositions of settler logics, settler time, and the settler academy because they allow both space and time to respond to the expected and unexpected flux and challenges that are a part of human experience. Such an understanding of time must play an important role in any ethics of care. 

A consideration of “bending time” means that those of us inevitably involved in petitioning our universities to “accommodate” faculty members with disabilities, must avoid exclusive reliance on an accommodationist model that only addresses itself to those who are already (legally or institutionally) recognized as disabled, and merely elongates the clock through clock stoppage or extension. Such strategies often leave those who are most precarious subject to reduced salaries that must be made up through later teaching. They further presume a straightforward return to an “able-bodied” state, or consider “adding time” as adequate support.

We believe that the following are steps to a more just conception of time, and call on our tenured colleagues to consider adopting some of these paths:

  • Bend the clock: Flexible paths towards tenure, and flexible modes of assessment and promotion that are oriented towards the goals of support and promotion rather than gatekeeping.
  • Develop an ethics of care that emerges from more expansive conceptions which can better account for the same or similar tasks requiring different amounts of time to complete or address. Such an ethics of care will also require that tenured faculty advocate for better working conditions for faculty who are not in tenure line positions.
  • Develop a more holistic approach to valuing the impact of a faculty member on a campus particularly when it comes to evaluating a candidate’s tenure file. We want to be clear here that, at the risk of adding to the categories of assessment that are used to feed the gatekeeping neoliberal border patrol work of the settler academy’s tenure process, we also believe that we must acknowledge the different weight, import and value placed on particular kinds of service work—to the campus, to the ability of POC faculty and students to feel comfortable and thrive at a PWI, to facilitate attracting students and grant funding to individual campuses, and to diversifying curriculum. Furthermore, we should value public scholarship—which may particularly benefit underserved populations. For decades now, various studies have highlighted the fact that women faculty and faculty of color engage in disproportional levels of service work and public scholarship that positively impacts student experience and earns the University “diversity cred,” yet these activities are not counted towards tenure. We must understand that saying “learn to say no” is an inadequate response to the exploitative conditions that the tenure clock creates, particularly given that such a response effectively blames and punishes people for work central to oft-touted University missions and to fostering student satisfaction.
  • Move away from the perpetual investment in the “new,” while foregrounding collaboration, radical contextualization and citation of what has come before. Speaking particularly from a humanities perspective, we also reject the over-emphasis on individual achievement, which manifests in logics that value hyperindividualist productivity (countable single-authored pieces over quality, valuing co-authored scholarship less than single-authored work). This is not to dismiss the possibility of original thought, but rather to observe how an over-investment in “frontier research” has served again and again to efface prior insights of women and BIPOC scholars, much as colonial tropes of discovery erase the material presence of Indigenous populations that were already there. While original thought is possible and valuable, we value collaborative modes of knowledge that emphasize building on and carrying ahead bodies of knowledge rather than “breaking new ground.”
  • Work less, and make arguments for working less. The Marxist feminist Kathi Weeks’s provocative feminist call for a “post-work society” is helpful here. Weeks argues in her book The Problem with Work that a “feminist time movement” should entail shorter working hours for everybody. We believe this may also be a crucial step towards addressing the unacknowledged disability employment gap within academia, where faculty with disabilities are sacrificed on benchmarks of productivity. While we acknowledge the widely—if unevenly—dispersed pressures of the neoliberal university on all within it, we nevertheless wish to ask: how might we initiate conversations within our departments and universities about the need to work and produce less, rather than doing more and meeting ever higher benchmarks? With Weeks, we invest in the political possibilities of a utopian demand for less work.
  • Rely on an ethics of feminist leadership work that can challenge the imperatives of neoliberal settler time. This entails leadership work that challenges the dominance of an assessment and audit culture at the university (further see Mbembe). Here we refer you to Hester Baer’s piece, “Strategies for Feminist Leadership in the Neoliberal University,” available online at the Digital Feminist Collective. 

Works Cited

Baer, Hester. “Strategies for Feminist Leadership in the Neoliberal University.” Feminist Scholar-Activism at the Digital Feminist Collective.https://digitalfeministcollective.net/index.php/2018/06/21/strategies-for-feminist-leadership-in-the-neoliberal-university/.

Berg, Maggie, and Barbara Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. U of Toronto P, 2016.

Chatterjee, Piya, and Sunaina Maira. Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. U of Minnesota P, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Centralhttp://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucb/detail.action?docID=1693973.

Chisholm Hatfield, Samantha, et al. “Indian Time: Time, Seasonality, and Culture in Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Climate Change.” Ecological Processes, vol. 7, no. 1, July 2018, p. 25. BioMed Central, doi:10.1186/s13717-018-0136-6.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.

Kim, Jina B. “Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique: Thinking with Minich’s ‘Enabling Whom?’” Lateral, 15 May 2017,http://csalateral.org/issue/6-1/forum-alt-humanities-critical-disability-studies-crip-of-color-critique-kim/.

Marino, Elizabeth, and Lazrus. “We Are Always Getting Ready”: How Diverse Notions of Time and Flexibility Build Adaptive Capacity in Alaska and Tuvalu.” Contextualizing Disaster, edited by Gregory V. Button and Mark Schuller, Berghahn Books, 2016.

Mbembe, Achille Joseph. “Decolonizing the University: New Directions.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 29–45. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/1474022215618513.

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. “Destabilizing the Settler Academy: The Decolonial Effects of Indigenous Methodologies.” American Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 4, 2012, pp. 805–08, doi: 10.1353/aq.2012.0050.

Mountz, Alison, et al. “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 14, no. 4, Aug. 2015, pp. 1235–59. https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058

Rifkin, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Duke University Press, 2017, doi:10.1215/9780822373421.

Tuitt, Frank, et al. “Plantation Politics and Neoliberal Racism in Higher Education: A Framework for Reconstructing Anti-Racist Institutions.” Teachers College Record, vol. 120, no. 14, 2018, https://www-tcrecord-org.colorado.idm.oclc.org/library/exec.asp?ContentID=22379.

Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke UP, 2011.