Can You Have Your Pie and Eat It Too?: Tenure and the County Fair

by | Jul 17, 2023

A friend once told me that earning tenure is like winning a pie-eating contest at a country fair[i] where the prize is more pie—a lifetime supply of pie in fact.

Belaboring this metaphor is useful to illustrate that there is no singular “tenure” earning or having experience. More importantly, it also illustrates what is so often left out the tenure process itself: preparing people for what comes after you’ve “won” the pie-eating contest—the administrative commitments and leadership required to keep your local county fair (university) and the broader network of fairs (academia) going.[ii]

Always more pie

Pie in this metaphor of academia refers primarily to teaching (how most of us stay employed) and research (how we are actually judged). Academic service is expected by most county fairs (universities), but the main problem in the pie-eating contest (tenure) is that it’s not clear where service happens and how much it “counts.”

Whether teaching or research is the filling or crust in this metaphor depends a lot on a definition of what makes pie pie and academia academia that I’d rather not get into.

Keep in mind that 70% of US faculty isn’t even allowed to take part in the pie-eating contest, although they are doing the bulk of the work keeping the rest of the county fair in operation (i.e., operating the rides, feeding the people, counting the money) and do so in much more precarious positions.

The rules and expectations of the pie-eating contest focus so narrowly on individual productivity (eat more and more pie!) it is no wonder so many contestants going through the process forget about the underlying labor and infrastructure that makes the contest possible to begin with. They also are not necessarily prepared to keep the contest going after they’ve received their prize.

Same game, different rules

Which county fair you’re doing your pie-eating contest at significantly shapes your odds of “winning,” not to mention what you do afterward.

While the general goal of pie eating remains the same, not everyone is actually following the same set of rules. Although it seems like just eating a lot of pie is the goal, it turns out not all flavors or crust textures are worth the same number of points.

At well-resourced institutions, you might have a mentor to help you decide which combination of flavors will maximize your points, cooks who will prep the crust and fillings, and a crew who will clean up after. This access to support allows you to mostly focus on eating the pie as fast as you can.

At institutions without those resources, you might have to make these consequential decisions on your own, make all the pies yourself, clear the plates, and do the washing up after. If that’s the case, it is still on you to eat as much of the right kind of pie as the folks from other institutions.

Nobody really knows how much pie—in which combination of flavors—is enough to win. But the more pie other people are eating on average across all the county fairs, the more pie you are expected to eat, regardless of the resources available to you at your local fair.

After all, you aren’t judged against others at institutions with similar resources, you’re judged against others at institutions with similar rankings. Even among Very High Research Activity universities (R1s as classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education), resources for faculty vary dramatically, and how rankings are calculated hide this fact.[iii]

Service as infrastructure

Where’s the service in the pie-eating tenure contest? Well, that’s kind of the problem. One form of service, serving on your institution’s tenure committee, would involve organizing your local pie-eating contest venue at your institution: setting up the chairs, judging if each pie plate is clean enough to count, and debating with other contest judges whether a given contestant should be recognized as winning.

It might also entail baking pies for contestants at other county fairs, doing the washing up for others, and/or mentoring folks within and beyond your fair on how they can learn how to make pies, clean up, and set up venues as well.

And then there is the service needed all over your local fair and other fairs as well—service that also needs doing because as central as the pie-eating contest is in the minds of contestants, it is just one corner of a much bigger operation.

Some institutions never expect that sort of infrastructural service labor from someone just trying to win their own pie-eating contest. But that’s not true everywhere. And often, the less resourced the fair, the more service the person eating the pie also needs to do.

Need here is a tricky word, of course. A person who eats close to enough pie but also did a lot of work around their local fair or in support of the broader network of pie-eating contests might get a pass if their local judges are willing to honor that extra work.

There is a lot of pressure, experienced more by those who are underrepresented in the fair especially, to do certain types of service so the contest judges perceive them as collegial. But such collegiality is tricky. After all, no one wins their local pie-eating contest if they failed to eat any pie but spent a lot of time corralling baby goats at the petting zoo after fixing the Ferris wheel.

From contestant to organizer

Let’s fast forward a bit in the metaphor. Regardless of resources, you’ve managed to win your local pie-eating contest and have in front you your prize: a lifetime supply of pie!

At this point, some people get to just go on eating pie. Some may eat at a slower pace than they used to, while others might continue to eat it like they’re in a contest. But honestly, with tenure, you could also choose to eat just enough pie to keep your job. Are there people who do that? Yes, but they are thankfully uncommon.

In reality, most academics actually do like pie. They really want that lifetime supply of pie and they are excited to eat it! And if you don’t, you might reconsider signing up for this pie-eating contest. There are many other jobs that don’t require eating pie forever.

Once you’ve won the pie-eating contest, though, in addition to continuing to be part of your local pie-eating contest (that never actually stops, even if you do not have to eat as fast), you are responsible for:

  • recruiting and training new contestants
  • organizing your local pie-eating contest
  • managing the budget
  • marketing and finding an audience
  • securing the funding to buy ingredients
  • managing the kitchen
  • securing and setting up the venue
  • baking pies while also recruiting people to bake pies
  • judging your local contest and also recruiting people to judge the contest
  • judging other contests at other fairs
  • cleaning up while also recruiting people to clean up

If you identified problems in the pie-eating contest as you went through it and you are the kind of person who wants to fix things for the next folks, you are also trying to:

  • convince the owners and sponsors of the county fair to give you more resources to make everything work better
  • find ways to tweak the pie recipe
  • offer more kinds of pie that make it easier for people with different diets, allergies, and food sensitivities to participate in the pie-eating contest
  • make a case that the flavors should all be worth the same points
  • set up new systems to make the kitchen and venue more inclusive
  • form a better relationship between the pie-eating contest and the rest of your local fair
  • work with those at other fairs to make all of this better across the board as well

Eventually, you will also be responsible for helping manage the rest of your local fair, because our academic systems are built on the (fair in many ways[iv]) expectation that those that won their local pie-eating contest are also the ones who should hold administrative roles all the way across the fair and the broader network of fairs as well.

The problem is that no one wins the pie-eating contest because they are good at running a pie-eating contest, let alone running the county fair. Stepping into those roles is a great way to learn how little the pie-eating contest prepares you for understanding what is happening at the rest of the fair.

This system is also increasingly unstable because each fair and the broader fair industry has relied so long on hiring people who can’t participate in any pie-eating contest or the organizing of them.

It does not help that most people win a pie-eating contest only by focusing on their own pie, and there is little incentive to do any of the work needed to support the fair let alone the pie-eating contest. But, as the peer review crisis has shown us, the work still needs to get done.

Beyond pie

There are no simple answers here. It would be great if we could just eat vegan corn dogs and vibe with attendees and other fair workers in the local music tent. But the work of running the fair still needs to happen.

Short of just shutting down the whole fair, the privilege of winning the pie-eating contest is also the responsibility of taking on those administrative roles even if one does not fully understand the entire fair.

That is a responsibility that needs to be more equitably shared though, and it requires understanding the underlying infrastructure and labor required to make the whole fair work, including the pie-eating contest. I’d love for us to think beyond that as well to the suppliers, mechanics, factories, farms, and all the laborers thereof that make even the existence of the fair possible.[v]

All of that, however, requires that the pursuit of such knowledge (i.e., professional development) is valued in ways that reflect the importance and cultivation of this set of knowledge, skills, and labor.

In short, the tenure evaluation and hiring processes must prioritize and value service. Importantly, administrative and leadership roles are also an opportunity to think about how you can help make things better for everyone at the fair, from the first-time attendee to the longtime ticket taker to the short-term contract funnel-cake maker. And if you can’t, because let’s face it there are major crises facing fair organizers that are not easily solved (if they are even solvable!), at least you can do what you can to mitigate harm and try to still find time to enjoy the pie.[vi]

[i] County fairs are where I imagine most pie-eating contests happen, but I admit my experience with them is purely abstract.

[ii] I can only speak to elements of US academia, and this is focused on tenured positions that are increasingly rare, but feel free to extend this already stretched metaphor into other contexts if you like.

[iii] I’ve met many folks within and outside of academia who have major misconceptions about the resources actually available to faculty at R1s—institutions that make up only a tiny percentage of US universities to begin with. These misconceptions might stem from mostly seeing the folks from well-resourced R1 institutions at major international conferences or industry events and assuming they are the norm rather than the exception.

[iv] I say this is fair simply because otherwise these positions are forced upon faculty in contingent positions. Tenure allows a bit more protection to those put in administrative roles, although the big thing I have seen all colleagues realize as they get into those roles is there is not inherently more power in most of those positions either, just more responsibilities.

[v] I would love it if while critiquing publishers for profiting from our scholarship and free review labor we could also organize in solidarity with the workers who package, copyedit, typeset, proofread, upload, index, and market the articles—or if the very helpful suggestions on how to fix the fair came with some acknowledgment of the labor needs then created by those suggestions.

[vi] Many thanks to Cathy Hannabach, Shawnika Hull, and Jonathan Gray for providing feedback on drafts of this post.

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Author: <a href="" target="_self">Adrienne Shaw</a>

Author: Adrienne Shaw

Adrienne Shaw is an associate professor of media studies at Temple University, author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, and creator of the LGBTQ Game Archive.

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