The Smell of Tenure

Fear is an emotion associated with the stress many people experience when preparing for tenure. Humans can ‘smell’ fear, probably via pheromone receptors that have migrated from the VNO to the nasal epithelium.

I take a little liberty with the title of this blog post because the probability is (probably!) low that a tenure file reviewer would be able to detect even a cumulative pheromone signal of fear from a stack of tenure files. On the other end of the tenure file, however, the fear signal may be quite high. The ability to detect fear in conspecifics (here, other tenure hopefuls) has deep evolutionary roots: in the absence of other sensory input (usually visual), an olfactory stimulus for fright or flight serves the same purpose. Be alert! Follow the pack!

When it comes to the tenure process, there is so much variability across institutions but fear tends to be an overwhelming trait for many. Does this happen in the tenure process when pre-tenure faculty are threatened by tenured faculty or pre-tenure faculty internalize the culture of fear surrounding the tenure process? Some tenure situations warrant fear (e.g., a divided department, unclear guidelines or rubrics, high institutional expectations) but not all. My feeling is that a tenure culture that generates fear pheromones promotes alienation of affection in pre-tenure faculty for their work–the post-tenure slump (see here and here) may even be affected by this. The old adage to find something and do it well regardless of what it is rings true here (see here and here).



Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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