Chapter 5: Tenure Denial and Body Affirmed

This is an ongoing story about my back and my body and yoga. I began posting the story on Jan 24, 2009. Scroll back to that date if you want to begin at the beginning. Otherwise, just jump in.

So where am I? A year or so post surgery. We’re still living in Nashville. Summer, my younger son, is just a couple years old. I’m struggling. My tenure case came up for review in the 1998-1999 academic year, just a year and a half post-surgery. I wasn’t the best candidate, but I wasn’t the worst. When I compared myself with my Vanderbilt colleagues I felt more than adequate to the job. I had worked hard and put together a strong portfolio. The pile of my publications measured more than a foot thick. But the thickness of the pile was not what the Dean was judging by. He had an additional agenda. He needed to cut the size of faculty by at least 10%. Since he couldn’t fire tenured faculty it meant a brutal year for those of us coming up for tenure review.

The process of denying tenure means they have to prove that you aren’t good enough. I heard rumors through the grapevine that the Dean set the tenure bar as "tenurable at Harvard" even though I was in a backwater department with few resources at a second tier university. It sounded devastating. I heard nothing directly from the Dean up until the day before the University Board meeting where the final stamps of approval were given. Although the Dean had made the decision to deny me tenure months before, he held onto my paperwork until the very last minute. I don’t remember who told me that I had been turned down, fired in any other business. It was probably my department chair, a rather ineffective and imemorable man. The news put me into a shock. I do remember sitting outside on a bench with Jay (my husband), alternately crying and being stunned. It was an devastating ego blow. I was lost. My career had been my primary definition of myself. The rug had been pulled from beneath me.

My contract with the university required them to pay me salary for the following academic year. So I stuck around and did as little work as possible. I learned why corporations give golden parachutes and buy people out of contracts: my presence in the Geology department was bad for everyone’s spirits and general morale. The graduate students, who had no political power at Vanderbilt, lost more respect for the Department. My colleagues who didn’t have tenure got paranoid and started looking for ways out. I showed up everyday and I taught my classes. I tried to sit outside the fray, have no opinions, and not enter into discussion. People asked me if I would sue the university, but I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want the job back. I thought about applying for other academic jobs but just couldn’t. I had been beat up and spit out by academics and I didn’t want to enter the arena again.

I started practicing yoga everyday. I decided to reclaim my physical health. I made my body a priority over my job. I went to the gym daily and took all the yoga classes available there. Yoga was just starting to bloom in Nashville. K-Lea Gifford, had opened 12SouthYoga and I became a dedicated student. I took occasional Ashtanga classes downtown at the Yoga Source. I tried to taste all the flavors of yoga available. I went to yoga workshops with Erich Schiffman and Tim Miller. My shift in focus from geology to yoga started to bring me out of my depression. I was finding pleasure in having a body.

Here is what I learned: movement is essential. The human body is made to be in motion. My spirit could recover in motion. Being confined to a chair for hours at a time is unnatural and leads to ill health and pain. I felt best when I was just living a normal life in motion: walking, talking, cleaning, moving, parenting and prioritizing body over brain. It took a few more years, but I gradually weaned myself from pain and neuropathy medicines. My body got stronger, healthier, and wiser. I learned to listen to it.

Pain is a powerful motivator. To stay out of pain, I practiced yoga everyday. I went for long hikes a few times each week. I learned to stay away from conference room chairs, soft couches, and any sitting support that encouraged slumping. I learned to meditate in motion. Sitting still was, and continues to be, a struggle. Motion is my saving grace.

Here is a short video to underline my point that movement is essential for a healthy life. Enjoy: