The Co-Production of Knowledge and Power:
A Postmodern Critique of Tenure

Nathan A. Brown & Peter Marston

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents
(An earlier version of this paper was presented to the annual conference of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, November, 1994)

Introduction /nab/

[1] In this time of diminishing public resources, state universities have become increasingly popular targets in budget battles across the country. These budget constraints and the attendant cutbacks have created a crisis of legitimation in which the presumption of value traditionally accorded public universities has been eroded and the burden of proof has shifted to the universities to justify their productivity and institutional practices. One practice under such scrutiny is the tenure system. As available funding decreases, universities have faced a greater burden to legitimate their policies of promotion, job security, and salary increases.

[2] There are also those who attack the system of tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common complaint is that the tenure system guarantees a sort of conformist mediocrity because only those who support the existing system, and the scholarship produced by it, are granted the privilege of tenure. In other words, those who don't "rock the boat" are awarded the life preserver called tenure. Such statements are undoubtedly over-simplifications--there are a wide range of scholars in every field; some excellent, some mediocre, and even some poor. Still, the common perception of tenure as an entrenched, highly conservative institution does call to mind questions about how it is that tenure--and its attendant "perks"--are granted. In order to benefit from the tenure system, a scholar must follow the rules proscribed by the system and engage in the established rhetorical processes that function to legitimate knowledge. This typically entails conforming to established, yet often tacit, formulae that transform publications into promotion. Although indifference to the acquisition of power can liberate a scholar from engaging in these games, for the scholar who wishes to become a functioning member of the academy, an understanding and submission to the rules of the game is a practical necessity.

[3] These rules, procedures, and processes--all language games--form the topic of this essay. Our philosophical position in this endeavor is postmodern. Our analysis is divided into three sections, each offering a critique of tenure from the perspective of a particular postmodern theorist. The first section is grounded in the theories of Michel Foucault, and establishes the circularity of the relationship between knowledge and power in tenure. The second section follows the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard, and argues that the tenure system rewards only performativity, and therefore, drives scholarship into ever-increasing specialization. The final section, based upon the theories of Jean Baudrillard, demonstrates that the continued allegiance to tenure as an academic institution depends upon the substitution of the simulacrum of scholarship for what may have formerly been taken as "real" or quality scholarship; resulting in a realm of discursive practices that may be rightfully termed "hyperscholarship."

[4] We should be clear and note that we are neither proposing the abolition of the tenure system nor advocating some alternative. We are rather engaging in an ongoing dialogue that might lead to a more functional and honest conception of the knowledge produced through scholarship and the power produced through tenure.

Knowledge and Power in Tenure /nab/

[5] Tenure is more than a system of social and professional security for scholars. It is a system that legitimates and encourages the production of knowledge through publication and other scholarly activities. The relationship between knowledge and power is, of course, circular. This position is at the heart of the works of Michel Foucault.

[6] Foucault maintains that power is a feature of all discursive practices, and although often misunderstood as a human or institutional property, is actually a function of knowledge. As Foucault explains, it is through discursive activity that knowledge is legitimated and power is bestowed. However, rhetorical processes that give rise to knowledge at once also give rise to power. In other words, knowledge both creates and is created by power. This conception of the relationship between power and knowledge is especially applicable to the joint legitimation of knowledge and scholars that occurs in the tenure process. Those budding and ambitious scholars who aspire to power in the form of promotion and tenure must create knowledge, and yet only those in positions of power are allowed to legitimate knowledge.

[7] Accordingly, the creation of knowledge cannot be understood apart from the institutions that legitimate knowledge claims. Knowledge is not simply discovered. It does not itself make manifest true, legitimate, or useful. Rather, knowledge claims are sanctioned by legitimizing institutions, such as mass media, courts of law, and professional/technical organizations, among many others. In academe, the tenure system and its attendant methodology, publication by blind peer review, stand as the most important legitimizing institutions. Without receiving legitimation through the discursive practices entrenched in academic fields, "scholarly" knowledge does not exist. It is only through the writing of papers, the submission of those papers to reputable journals, the rewriting of those papers to the satisfaction of the editor and reviewers, the publication of those papers, and the citing of those papers by other researchers that scholarship is legitimated. It is that a scholar's participation in these practices is requisite to the creation of scholarship that demonstrates the interdependence between knowledge and institutional legitimation.

[8] On the surface, it appears that the creation of knowledge is a causal path to power. That is, the scholar must produce scholarship and legitimate it through publication before s/he is granted the power of tenure. Foucault, however, maintains that knowledge and power cannot be separated as cause and effect--or even as antecedent and consequent. In the case of tenure, the decision to legitimate knowledge is equivalent to the decision to grant power. When those in power make the decision to publish some bit of scholarship, they are not only deciding the position of the scholarship, but also of the scholar. The two decisions are not separated logically or temporally. Furthermore, the researcher's motivation (the quest for power through tenure and promotion) precedes the creation or even the conception of knowledge. The striving for power has always already shaped the production of knowledge.

[9] In most four year colleges and universities, there is a typically tacit rule: "publish or perish." Under this rule, a scholar pursuing tenure must publish some predetermined number of books, articles, and/or reviews before the various personnel committees, comprised of other tenured faculty, allow the applicant to join their "club": "It's like we [the tenured faculty] have this exclusive club, and if you can pass our initiation, you can get in. But if you don't pass it, and sometimes all the rules aren't clear, then you can't get in." At first glance, this system seems reasonable enough. After all, a scholar who contributes to knowledge within an academic field is probably preferable to the scholar who makes no such contribution. Further, it is also reasonable that the people most competent to preside over tenure decisions are those who have been through the process and who can decide based upon their own experience.

[10] However, this process of seeking and acquiring tenure through publication may have a chilling effect on the kinds and quality of knowledge that is produced. That is, within the current tenure system, the most salient feature of knowledge is that it is rhetorically appealing to the accepted "experts" who make the decisions to publish scholarship and to tenure faculty. Scholarship that is not rhetorically appealing is not published and therefore fails either to produce knowledge or power. This system requires untenured faculty to conform to existing models of inquiry, to ingratiate "experts" by citing and imitating their work, to submit to substantive and stylistic revisions suggested by reviewers and editors, and so on. To deny these effects of the tenure system is to ignore that the fundamental nature of scholarship lies in its rhetorical appeal to other scholars.

From Performativity to Paralogy /pjm/

[11] Tenure and promotion are vessels of power. High-ranking, tenured professors sit on personnel committees, deciding the fates of the untenured faculty. They are largely protected against evaluation by their peers or their students. In the absence of a scandal--and a gradual slide into incompetence is never scandalous--the tenured professor has h/er position for life, like a Supreme Court Justice in the epistemological courts of academe. The social and political need to legitimate the power that accompanies tenure leads to the search for more and more "objective" measures of scholarly performance--that is, to an allegiance to performativity. What matters is not what one thinks, not what one values, not who one is, but rather, how much product (i.e., how many publications) one can produce.

[12] The concept of performativity has been developed most fully by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition. Lyotard describes performativity in terms of a researcher's ability to produce "proofs" of h/er knowledge claims. The production of proof, which is in principle only part of the argumentation process designed to win agreement from the addressees, . . . thus falls under the control of another language game, in which the goal is no longer truth, but performativity--that is, the best possible input/output equation. This is precisely what occurs in the case of tenure review: the candidate's contributions to knowledge in the field (read: proofs [read: publications]) are weighed against the resources devoted to h/er support. The equation of knowledge and the production of proof underlies virtually every policy regarding tenure and promotion in today's universities.

[13] At many universities, the criterion of performativity is explicit in the personnel guidelines, requiring tenured faculty to achieve x number of national publications, y number of regional publications, and z number of convention presentations, and so on. It makes no difference whether x, y, or z are fixed constants, ranges, minimums, or "guidelines"; the determination is still formulaic.

[14] Formulae, of course, may have a proper role in decision-making, but in the case of tenure procedures, the formulae have often replaced the decision-making. True, personnel committees talk and discuss, and they may even advance opinions concerning the "quality" of a candidate's publications, but these discussions most commonly seek resolution through determinations of the circulation of the journals in which the candidate has published or the number of times the candidate's publications are cited in other publications or used in pedagogical materials. As finer and finer measures of "quality" are sought, they merely lead to new layers of performativity.

[15] This allegiance to performativity requires faculty who wish to compete in the language games of tenure and promotion to cultivate narrower and narrower lines of research. By narrowing areas of expertise, the number of "experts" multiplies, until, by right, every professor on every campus stakes h/er claim to being an "expert" in some narrow self-proclaimed "field." Measured by the criterion of performativity, this practice is a grand success: more fields, more professional organizations, more journals, more articles published, more experts, more tenure, more power. Yet, the traditional meanings of these terms are lost. No longer are fields established by the consensus of a practicing profession; they are established by the proclamations of factions (and sometimes by factions of one). No longer is an expert defined by h/er ability to comprehend a body of knowledge consensually acknowledged; experts are defined by their dominion over their field--a dominion that is sanctioned by the procedures of blind review through which said experts are appointed as referees/justices.

[16] These two processes are, of course, interdependent. The need to publish to secure tenure and promotion leads to the proliferation of "experts"; and one of the consequences of the proliferation of experts is that no one's scope of expertise is sufficient to comprehend another's field and therefore, to judge fairly the quality of scholarship. Hence, performativity fills the void, replacing judgment with formulae.

[17] This shift toward narrow, self-proclaimed research areas parallels Lyotard's concept of paralogy. Although this term traditionally refers to illogical or fallacious reasoning, Lyotard uses the term to refer to a particular type of "move" in the language game of research and scholarship. Specifically, paralogy is the legitimation of knowledge claims through [1] locally established standards with [2] a clear and self-conscious recognition of the pragmatics of the move that may result in legitimation. This conception of paralogy is, of course, consistent with Lyotard's more general description of the shift from legitimation through grand narratives (with an attendant claim to Truth) to legitimate through "petit" or local narratives (with an attendant claim to pragmatic value).

[18] Even a cursory survey of academic journals, those in the field of communication for example, reveal the signs of paralogic legitimation. There is a high demand upon authors and editors to provide "new" concepts--a demand that has caused an effervescence of theoretical activity. The last ten volumes of The Quarterly Journal of Speech, for example, are teeming with "new" theoretical concepts, genres, forms, functions, and so on. That most of these concepts are never seen nor heard from again is not important--what is important is that the scholar has published and moved forward in the language game toward tenure and promotion. There is virtually no research published without a "new" concept--and yet, we have come to define a "new" concept (or, more traditionally, a "contribution to scholarship") as one that does not fall under the purview of an existent theory or within the dominion of another scholar. Hence, the quest for smaller and more remote crevices and cracks in the intellectual landscape to which an up-and-coming scholar can stake a claim and construct h/er own dominion.

[19] This shift toward paralogic programs of research associated with individual scholars may be usefully contrasted with the more collective programs of research associated with modernism and warranted by the philosophical values of the Enlightenment. In the modernist model, academic fields are best conceived as an army of scholars, marching in concert toward a common mission. The good of the scholar and the good of the field are identified in the doctrine of progress--the field moves forward. In the postmodern model, scholarship is more of a guerrilla endeavor, as individual scholars hide in the foxholes of their narrow research programs hoping to escape the detection of some totalizing "expert." The good of the scholar and the good of the field are no longer identified, and as a result, the field disperses.

[20] Whether the rise of performativity and paralogy in tenure and promotion is something to be celebrated or denounced is a topic beyond the scope of the present analysis. What is clear at this point, however, is that although the political rationale for the mandate of "publish or perish" has not changed ("quality" education and research requires "quality" scholars; and "quality" scholars are those that produce "quality" scholarship), the surrounding practices and strategies have changed markedly--to the point that the very notion of "quality" is in question.

From Simulation to Hyperscholarship /pjm/

[21] One of the most important results of the allegiance to performativity in tenure and promotion is that there is now a greater demand to publish than there is for the publications: that is, the locomotive driving the journals in our field is the need for authorship, not the needs of the readership. In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Jean Baudrillard describes a similar phenomenon as it occurs in media communication. For a long time, it was enough for power to create meaning. . . . Meaning was in short supply and all the revolutionaries offered themselves to produce still more. Today, everything has changed: no longer is meaning in short supply, it is produced everywhere, in ever increasing quantities--it is demand which is weakening. And it is the production of this demand for meaning which has become crucial for the system.

[22] In academe, the demand for meaning is produced by a variety of mechanisms, including the procedures through which we grant tenure and promotion. To achieve tenure and promotion (i.e., to keep one's livelihood), one must publish a certain number of articles; to publish, one must cite other sources (the more the better); to cite other sources, one must read the journals. A similar logic guides the evaluation of teaching effectiveness: to be an effective teacher, one must be "current" in the field; to be current one must cite recent journal articles on course syllabi and bibliographies. Another more specific example of a mechanism that produces demand for meaning in academe is the common practice of professional organizations to require members to receive at least one journal (and note, that in the Speech Communication Association, the vast majority of members receive this minimum one journal--is this a readership hungry for more information, more publications, more experts?).

[23] According to Baudrillard, what underlies both performativity and the production of demand for meaning is simulation. The key feature of simulation is "the precession of simulacra." Whereas representation is characterized by models that follow or emerge from experience or "reality," simulation is characterized by models that precede the experience of the "reality." In the case of tenure and promotion, the most significant preceding model is the language game of blind review. That is, "quality" scholarship is not evaluated by blind review; rather it is brought into being by blind review. If the scholarship is not brought to publication through blind review, then it simply cannot be "quality" scholarship. It is unthinkable, for example, that a personnel committee would examine an unpublished essay and somehow conclude that the essay was "quality" scholarship and therefore should "count" in the decision to grant tenure. This is connected, of course, to the problems associated with the proliferation of "experts" in that no personnel committee is qualified to judge the "quality" of scholarship without reference to the processes of blind review.

[24] Of course, in simulation, the very notion of "reality" becomes problematic. Since the real is established by preceding simulacra, it loses its connection with the material, the spiritual, and other foundational conceptions of the real. What is left is not the real, but rather, the hyperreal: "The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. . . . At the limit of this reproducibility [sic], the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyperreal."

[25] In the case of tenure and promotion, what we see is a shift from scholarship to hyperscholarship. Scholarship depends upon our faith in the relation between thought (and representation) and the status of things and people in the world. Hyperscholarship is indifferent to this relation, and instead, depends upon the simulacra (including blind review) that allow us to "produce" scholarship. To master scholarship, one masters a field of study or a body of knowledge. To master hyperscholarship, one masters the production, submission, and review of manuscripts. Scholarship produces knowledge. Hyperscholarship reproduces itself. We describe this distinction between scholarship and hyperscholarship not to suggest that one might simply "choose" to engage in one rather than the other, but rather, to demonstrate how fully we are situated in the realm of the latter.

[26] In this shift toward hyperscholarship, we find that the notion of "quality" disappears, because, although it may make sense to speak of "quality" scholarship, it does not make sense to speak of "quality" hyperscholarship. One's ability to operate in the language games of hyperscholarship may be proficient or inept, but its criterion of achievement is not "quality"; it is efficiency. Hence the paradox: politically, we legitimate the power associated with tenure and promotion by appeal to the concept of "quality" scholarship; yet, in the procedures through which we grant tenure and promotion we are concerned not at all with the "quality" of scholarship, but rather with the efficiency of hyperscholarship.

Conclusion /nab/

[27] This complicated relationship between knowledge and power in the tenure system has significant rhetorical implications both within and outside academe. Within the academic system, this relationship perpetuates the production of hyperscholarship through rhetorical procedures (writing papers, submitting papers, blind review, publication, citation, and so on). These procedures have developed in such a way that they function only in the realm of hyperscholarship. Attempts to subvert this system from within result in rejection and failure (no knowledge and no power).

[28] The constraints operative in the tenure system are, in effect, the same constraints on the production of knowledge. From the inception of a scholar's career, these constraints function to guide and shape the scholar's future research. In academic advisement, for example, the budding scholar may be advised to begin finding those remote areas of study that s/he may claim for h/er own. Already the scholar is introduced to the practices associated with paralogy and performativity. Even at early stages in h/er career, s/he is sensitive as to the difference between engaging in the "production of knowledge," and engaging in the "production of the production of knowledge." It is here that we can see how the model of scholarship precedes the production of scholarship; thus hyperscholarship.

[29] What constrains the production of proof in academe also constrains the nature of knowledge in society as a whole. Thus, what is not acceptable as "proof" in academe is unlikely to be established as "knowledge" in a social or cultural sense. In even the recent past, the university was viewed as a generator of knowledge and wisdom that would benefit the social and political collectives that supported the university and its various programs of research. In a system characterized by performativity and paralogy, however, is such benefit even conceivable? Can the increasingly complex and interdependent problems of contemporary life be properly addressed by a proliferating legion of narrow and fragmented experts? That such questions generate such little enthusiasm--let alone controversy--is perhaps the best indicator that we have truly entered the era of hyperscholarship.


1. David A. Verrier, "Perceptions of Life on the Tenure Track," Thought & Action Winter 1994: 95.

3. Jean-Francios Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 46.

4. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 61.

5. Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983) 27.

6. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983) 2.

7. Baudrillard, Simulations, 146.

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

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