Mr. W came to see me when he was denied tenure at his academic institution. A creative researcher and popular teacher, he had complied his materials for the Tenure Committee as requested and was assured by all that he was a shoe-in. Several months later, Mr. W was informed that his tenure had been denied because his research was too creative and about a topic that did not have specific applications to employment for graduates. His self-esteem was shattered. He had fears about his career path. He was angry. He felt that his work, an important extension of himself, was not good enough. He believed he had done something "wrong" that caused the Committee to reject him.
Not one to remain defeated, Mr. W was determined to do whatever was necessary to gain job security in his chosen profession. This included exploring his attitudes as well as his aptitudes. He sought psychological help. At the beginning of our work together, Mr. W experienced writers' block. As he explained it, the gold standard for her Review Committee was to be more "practical" in his approach to his research and impart information to his students that would help them land "real" jobs.
We worked through his anger and disappointment and examined some issues that preceded his tenure-terror. We discovered family dynamics that existed in his childhood which led to his understandable writing paralysis in the face of rejection. As we explored his parents' acrimonious divorce and his silent fear, never admitted to anyone, that he assumed blame we unlocked important fantasies about his sense of guilt. He had been a temperamental child and thought he caused trouble which led to his parents not wanting to be around him. Our analysis of his thoughts and feelings led to a new realization that he had not been rejected by parents. While his parents' problems clearly affected him, he was not the cause of them. Mr. W. was able to return to his writing with some pieces of his psychological puzzle in place. His Tenure Committee, and the parental authorities they represented in displacement, had reawakened his old low self-esteem issues that we analyzed when he was emotionally paralyzed. He was able to move beyond this painful situation. Consequently, he continued the arduous tenure process and brought his situation to a positive solution. In doing so, he became less concerned about what the Committee thought of his work and was able to express his ideas about his novel contribution to her field. His sense of self worth rose dramatically. He knew that he influenced students positively both with his teaching and his research.
Mr. W was caught in a web regarding an increasingly vocal argument in academia about who should be granted tenure and job security - the teacher who imparts critical and creative thinking or the teacher who teaches job skills and job preparation. But why do creativity and practicality boil down to "either/or" questions about competence and promotion? Why not "both/and" in respect to critical thinking and skill acquisition? Are not both creative thinking AND job preparation relevant for the graduates of our schools and for teachers who instruct them?
In the Opinion section of the New York Times on July 11, 2011 Stanley Fish wrote a column "Vocationalism, Academic Freedom and Tenure" where he discussed a new book by Naomi Schaefer Riley, "The Faculty Lounges: Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For".
A new book questions how necessary academic freedom is in the context of higher education today. Fish examines Riley's argument against tenure for professors whose research advances knowledge, explores controversial questions, and probes uncharted topics. Riley maintains that there is nothing new to say and that many academics merely pursue their narrow research interests. In her view, these teachers should not be granted tenure, and she argues that higher education should focus on specific skill acquisition which includes career and job preparation.
Many a tenure-aspiring professor or a teacher or other professional moving up the academic ladder toward job security has been impaired by anxiety, writers' block, and other performance anxiety inhibitions in the face of possible rejection by Committees. Tenure in an academic environment where innovative contributions to the arts and humanities are minimized and job skills maximized could lead to universities grinding out graduates who are not steeped in critical thinking and problem solving.
Similar issues arise in the consulting room. It is not unusual for people to seek psychological help when they feel blocked and in emotional pain. They hope for quick answers. If I merely imparted information about anxiety and made suggestions about various occupational skills, people like Mr. W would not succeed in resolving their unique complex inner conflicts that are sensitive to rejection for underlying reasons as yet unknown to them. My approach is to help people explore and discover their worst inner critics and their best inner supporters - themselves. Critical and analytic thinking are compatible with job searches and developing employment skills.
Regarding the Fish/Riley comments about tenure, creative thinking, or teaching job skills (and I add life skills), it is apparent that there is ample room for also/and vs either/or approaches. Hopefully the goals and the gold standard for tenure as well as for coping with other performance anxieties will encompass the idea that there is something new to discover both in academia and within yourself.
Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D. is a psychologist-psychoanalyst in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School with a major in piano performance and a minor in stage fright. She is also a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. Nagel publishes and presents on the topics of performance anxiety and music and emotion. Visit her website at julienagel.net.