I wear a running watch to track my resting heart rate (RHR). Research indicates a RHR below 70 beats per minute is optimal for a long, healthy life. When I wake up I the morning, my RHR usually checks in around 66, but if I’m worried, stressed, or sick, it’s higher–a warning to slow down.
Illinois has a special judicial system for education labor disputes, the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB). I testify before it tomorrow.
The UPI’s attorney told me what to expect at the hearing. She explained strategy and process. Testimony should be easy, but I’m swearing in in front of a state board, so it’s enough to make me feel that something important is at stake. After talking to the UPI’s attorney last week, that night I went to bed anxious and the next morning I frowned when I saw that my RHR rose above 70.
The following day, a union leader told me that the question before the labor board is one of process: Has Western Illinois University complied with the process? Does WIU have to comply with the process? Phrasing it that way, so that I could better understand this long and complicated grievance, put me at ease. My RHR slowed to 66.
In my early 40s, I was worried that my RHR was too high, so I started running. I was in the middle of tenure track and my RHR was sometimes 80! Running lowered it, but not enough.
Now, after a year’s break from WIU, and a heart rate that eased itself, I often wonder if it was the tenure track that prevented my heart from slowing down when I was at rest. In hindsight, I sometimes think the tenure track was stripping me of the ability to relax. I looked forward to completing tenure and believed that after the conferral, I’d be able to work with a slower heart rate.
It’s not that the requirements for tenure were excessive (I knew how to publish and teach); rather, it was the feeling that so much was at stake, that I had so much to lose. If tenure was denied, I’d have to either end the career I’d invested decades in or move away from my family. As long as my entire career was at stake, I could not rest, not even while sleeping.
In addition, I was anxious because I felt that I was being surveilled–that anything I said or did at work, or any public activism I engaged in, would be monitored and used against me. Feminist activist academics developed Women’s Studies, which has always been a publicly critical and publicly engaged discipline. I wanted my colleagues and administrators, especially, those with power over my tenure process, to say, “We support academic freedoms. We support dissent and diversity of perspective that is central to the discipline of Women’s Studies.” They did not. My heart raced.
Still, how would I have lived with myself if I had hidden the activist that I am? If I would have silenced myself? I would have felt like a coward in front of my students. Maybe I erred on the side of too much critical dissent, and that’s okay too, because it’s not going to be perfect. Knowing I have acted in a way I believed was good and true eases my heart rate.
As it turned out, nothing was at stake because tenure at Western Illinois University no longer exists-not in any reliable way: when administrators conclude they don’t need you, your tenure is irrelevant. My heart speeds up with righteous anger.
In hindsight, the irony is dramatic: I believed that the anxiety induced from working towards tenure would be temporary and worth the stability of having WIU commit to me and me to WIU; for that is how the contract (20:10) defines tenure. The ability to reflect, because time has passed, slows my heart.
I’m not sure what’s at stake at tomorrow’s hearing. (Backpay? A path back into my Women’s Studies classroom?) We could lose.
Wish me luck and thanks for reading. As for me, I’m going to read a book. Reading books, real books, slows the heart.