Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Leaving a Legacy Off the Tenure Track

Full kurosawa pryal

Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

Many contemporary writers on psychology — specifically the psychologies of work, business, and economics — have written about the value of intrinsic motivation. First observed by researchers in the 1950s, and built upon in the 1970s, intrinsic motivation is often contrasted with extrinsic motivation. The latter is akin to "the carrot and the stick,” while intrinsic motivation originates from internal drives to be good at things and to enjoy them — drives that seemingly have very little to do with carrots and sticks.

Graduate school is one long lesson in intrinsic motivation. No supervisor sits in your crappy apartment telling you to read and write, to stay late in the lab and conduct research after everyone else has left, or to prep for class after class. In other words, there is no stick. As far as carrots go, you don’t get paid much (or at all) for the work you do in graduate school. You get little praise, especially in the short term. Viewed from the outside, you seem to be working, quite literally, for nothing.

All of which suggests you don’t pursue a Ph.D.unless you are an intrinsically motivated person. Furthermore, students must significantly delay gratification while in graduate school, another quality of intrinsic motivation. The benefits (and negative consequences) of working (or not working) are a ways down the line — and nearly impossible to see if you are the kind of person who needs instant, external motivation to keep working.

So graduate students — in the United States at least — are intrinsically motivated, delay gratification, and work for pennies. And here’s the kicker: They do all of those things hoping for a tenure-track job that (as Kelly J. Baker recently pointed out) will likely never come. So what are they working for?

Agency, Mastery, and Legacy

People who write about business psychology agree that, in our current economy, fostering intrinsic motivation in workers creates the best outcomes for businesses. Some businesses (and business gurus) call that sort of motivation “happiness.” Others focus on “culture” to foster motivation. But what keeps coming up again and again across all of the business psych books and articles I’ve read (none of which I endorse as products, by the way) are three main concepts that work together as a coherent motivational entity: agency, mastery, and legacy.

What do those words mean? According to the Harvard Business Review:

  • Agency is the “ability to choose who you work with, what projects you work on, where and when you work each day, and getting paid enough to responsibly support the lifestyle that you want.”
  • Mastery “refers to the art of getting better and better at skills and talents that you enjoy using, to the extent that they become intertwined with your identity.”
  • Legacy is your “higher purpose.” It is what you want to leave behind when you leave this world. It is your bigger picture. For an academic, perhaps your legacy is an ISBN. Perhaps it is a documentary film. Perhaps it is a scholarly article that means something to you. Only you know what you want your legacy to be. (More on figuring out your legacy in a minute.)

Typically, you have to have agency in order to acquire mastery. And you have to have mastery in order to leave a legacy. The concept of legacy helps explain why contingent faculty continue to publish and present on their research — even when the work isn’t paid for or valued in any way by their academic departments. Most non-tenure-track faculty never even have agency. And that is a problem given how intrinsically motivated most faculty members are.

Off the Tenure Track Without Agency

Now, take a person who is so intrinsically motivated that she can earn a doctorate, and stick her in a crappy non-tenure-track job. She likely just left a program in which she wrote an entire book on an entirely new idea that she invented out of thin air and supported with an immense amount of self-directed research in order to earn the credentials for this job in the first place. In this new job, she teaches four or five courses a semester. She has no research support. Her “colleagues” barely know her name. She is on a year-to-year contract.

You expect her to thrive in this new environment? Really?

The agency-mastery-legacy concept has really helped me wrap my head around one of the big reasons why contingent faculty end up hating their jobs so much that they quit and leave for what may seem (to people still in the academy) like boring non-life-of-the-mind work in the private sector. Ph.D.s leave academe in search of opportunities for — you guessed it — agency. Then mastery. And then, hopefully, legacy.

Finding Agency Within the System

But what if you don’t want to leave academe? Or can’t? Can non-tenure-track faculty find agency, mastery, and legacy while working within the academic system? How can you make your mark?

The first thing I can tell you: What you want your legacy to be is a very personal decision. But the second thing I can tell you is that academics are trained to believe that their academic legacy should be one very particular thing — a book, a grant, a discovery. For the longest time, for example, I believed that if I didn’t publish a scholarly monograph that I had failed to achieve my professional legacy.

Why did I think that? Why? Why? I have absolutely no use for a scholarly monograph! I have no time to write one, it would make me no money — it would probably cost me money — and no job I would ever want would care if I had one. The source of my belief? Academic brainwashing. It is a powerful thing. Do not underestimate its influence.

You need to be sure that what you want to leave as your legacy is what you really want — not what you think you should want, or what “real” academics want, or what you are supposed to do in order to get a tenure-track job. (That’s not a legacy, that’s a résumé.)

In many ways, working off the tenure track gives you great freedom. If you don’t want to write a monograph, you don’t have to. Write something else instead: a memoir, a novel, an oral history of some fascinating historical event. Then sell it and make a ton of money.

Sit down and figure out what you want to leave behind in this world. Then figure out what kind of freedom — agency — you need in order to gain the skills — mastery — to be able to produce that kind of legacy.

You already have the intrinsic motivation. You just need to point it at something, and let it fly.

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