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Death Without Tenure by Joanne Dobson

Death Without Tenure

by Joanne Dobson

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914203,097 (3.41)13
Professor Karen Pelletier is about to realize her dream. After six years in the English department at New England's exclusive Enfield College, she is up for tenure. Then Professor Joseph Lone Wolf, her rival for the one tenured spot in the department, whose ethnicity gives him minority-preference status, is found dead from an overdose of Peyote buttons. Karen, first on the list of suspects, is harassed by a homicide cop with a grudge against his colleague, the love of Karen's life, Lieutenant Charlie Piotrowski. On campus, political passions rage. Two of Karen's favorite students, Khalida Ahmed, a hijab-wearing Muslim, and Hank Brody, a coal-miner's son on full scholarship, are caught up in the furor. Without the presence of her beloved Charlie, now serving a tour of duty in Iraq with the National Guard, will Karen be able to survive the investigation, protect her students, and find a permanent niche in the world of academia? And what if the killer feels the need to strike again?… (more)

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Reader beware: this book made me angry. I am not a kind reviewer when I am angry. This may indeed be a good book, but it really, really pushed some of my buttons and I am currently unapologetic for the forthcoming tirade.

Death without Tenure is, as one might expect from the title, a murder mystery that takes place in academia with a professorial protagonist. Karen is a professor of English in a New England liberal arts college. She is currently fighting against a fellow professor, the Native American Joe Lone Wolf, for tenure. For some odd and improbable reason, this insane school decided to give tenure to only one of the two. (That's not how tenure works, folks.) Even more improbably, Joe Lone Wolf was somehow hired with no publications, no finished PhD, and no qualifications. He hasn't attended a conference for six years, no one has even checked on what he is teaching, and he isn't producing academic work. But despite this, the (insane) school decides to put him up for tenure because of affirmative action. People, this isn't how the system works. There is no way in the deep abysses of Hell that any professor could get away with the above. The system is also not so corrupt that ethnicity trumps everything else.

Well, of course, Joe gets murdered, and our protagonist is a primary suspect. We have some ridiculously improbable police interrogation and even more ridiculous and offensive characterization of Native Americans and other ethnicities. The book finally terminates with the obvious suspect and an improbable methodology.

As a relatively engaging, light, and not particularly enthralling murder mystery, this is fine. I've read plenty of books that were more poorly written. So why all the ire?

Well, the entire plot centres around racism, ethnicity, and affirmative action, and I have never before encountered someone who combines such self-satisfied politically correct smugness with such disgustingly racist perspectives. We have a lot of different characters with different nationalities: Indian Joe (just in case the fact that his freaking name is "Joe" happened to escape you...), the protagonist's African-American friend, and her Muslim student. Again, the entire story is superficially about racism, with facile characterizations of affirmative action, entitlement, prejudice, and racism, and the oh-so-easy answers. We have various characterizations of various types of racism, from general hate speech to the more insidious "over-affirmative action" and the tendency to view a minority as an exemplar of said minority. The author repeatedly pontificates about white entitlement and appropriation...and then goes on to commit those same crimes. The hypocrisy of all of this infuriates me.

Let's talk about the basics: the characterization of minority characters. First, this book suffers from one of the worst (and yet smuggest) cases of default whiteness I've ever encountered. All characters are (obviously, right?) white unless otherwise specified. Any time any character of any ethnicity is mentioned, you can be sure that some description of "exotic eyes" or "dark skin," etc, will be mentioned. It doesn't matter if it's the hundredth time or the thousandth time that the character has spoken; exotic eyes or dark skin or braided hair are sure to be mentioned, just in case we started thinking of the character as a character rather than an instance of an ethnic group. Any character with any nonwhite ethnicity are seen as of that nationality first, human being second (or never.) And along with that, we get a single "exemplar" character per culture. Each exemplar has all the stereotypes of their culture, and obviously since all are the same, having one character of each nationality is sufficient, right? Our Native American exemplar is an arrogant, entitled, uneducated Native American who dresses in feathers, smokes marijuana, takes peyote, does native war dances, collects tomahawks...tomahawks, for heaven's sake. Kill me now. hover for spoiler One of the worst cases of this, other than the almost abusive portrayal of Native Americans in the story, is that of Khalida, Karen's Muslim student. Every time she is mentioned, her religion, her face veil, etc are mentioned. She is smart, quiet...and Muslim. That apparently suffices to create a personality, right? One of the instances that infuriated me with the book was when Joe touches Khalida's arm and Karen decides to "rescue" her by yelling at Joe and saying that it is a "Muslim crime," etc for him to touch her. Really, Karen is using Khalida as a pawn in her own argument with Joe, but since she is "defending" Khalida, this is apparently laudable. In my own personal view, however, by pushing her own assumptions and preconceptions of Islam on Khalida, Karen silences her just as effectively as Joe's pressure.

Yes, there are a multitude of self-conscious and self-satisfied stereotype reversals; for example, Khalida's family are fine with her gaining an education and don't want to kill her for transgressing sharia law (shocker!). But the creation of the stereotype, the self-satisfied-aren't-we-PC reversal, and above all the use of an exemplar, is just as bad. It's like the TV shows where the token minority is placed in a position of power rather than as the token minority goof-off sidekick or subordinate, or the tech-savvy girl being incredibly beautiful and articulate. It's an attempt to reverse an ethnicity/socioeconomic/power stereotype, but it ends up looking smug, self-conscious, and forced. It actually enforces the stereotype as it creates a separation between "good" __'s and "bad" __'s because it basically suggests that if you don't totally renounce everything typically attributed to your minority, you don't deserve to be represented as a character. It's patronizing: rather than letting a character be an individual, it's almost like the author is trying to correct the "flaws" of the minority and erase anyone with a subset of these "flaws".

The entire basis of the plot is that, given the right ethnicity, you can get away with anything because obviously, affirmative action goes on to shove totally unsuitable candidates far above their "proper station". This attitude is disgusting. It reminds me of certain rather insane leaders and their belief that white middle-class men are "oppressed." Yeah, right. I'm white and know that, since I grew up in suburban America, my outlook is tainted by racism and I can never fully understand the perspectives of those who have encountered the casual, everyday prejudice that is such a part of American life. As a woman in CS, which is
Honestly, I don't know how to approach sensitive topics like race. I am white; I can never actually fully understand the precise problem. But whatever approach is right, I think this one is indubitably wrong. It effectively pushes minority viewpoints into handy pidgeonholes and easy solutions, minimizes and appropriates the pains and problems of prejudice, and, by simplifying and stereotyping, effectively silences those who actually understand the subtleties of the problem of prejudice. Ah, well, back to smug self-satisfaction at our own PC-ness, I suppose. ( )
  page.fault | Sep 21, 2013 |
Karen Pelletier is a candidate for tenure at Enfield College in Massachusetts. Only she or Joe Lone Wolf will achieve that status. She should be a shoo-in. After all, she has an earned Ph.D. and a publishing record far superior to that of her colleague's. Members of the tenure review committee, however, may have plans to keep Joe because of his ethnicity. When Lone Wolf turns up dead, suspicion falls to Karen and to some of her students. In the mean time, her tenure portfolio disappears. Karen's boyfriend, a police detective, is serving in Iraq, and she does not trust the investigator who already dislikes her to resolve the issue. She must investigate on her own with the help of her boyfriend's partner who is on leave. I listened to this in audio format. I thought the narrator Christine Williams did a good job. I did find some similarities between the plot of this novel and an academia mystery that I read probably 15 to 20 years ago that centered on a tenure plot. However, this one did differ in enough aspects of the plot to make it seem new. ( )
  thornton37814 | Jan 3, 2013 |
Karen Pelletier, professor of American Literature at Enfield College in Massachusetts is up for the only open tenure spot in the department. She has worked her entire academic career toward this goal and has her tenure package ready to submit when she learns that the head of the department has announced that he favors her colleague Joe Lone Wolf (who does not even have his Ph.D!!!) because he wants the department to reflect my ethic diversity. When Lone Wolf is found murdered, suspicion falls on Karen.

In the meantime, her lover, a state police detective, is not available to shield her from the nastiness of the current investigator, because he is serving with the National Guard in Iraq. Her daughter is off traipsing the world in Katmandu, and like any good parent, Karen is concerned about her safety. When the police get particularly obnoxious, and don't seem to believe anything she tries to tells them, Karen sets off to clear her name and solve the murder.

The plot is fairly linear, there aren't any red herrings, but there are lots of suspects. As is often the case with amateur detective stories, I find myself having to suspend belief---would real people REALLY ignore common sense and the advice to get a lawyer and let the police handle things, and are the police REALLY that incompetent? The ending is particularly mind stretching, but satisfactory.

I certainly will be looking for at least one more of this series. I enjoyed the portrayal of the pomposity of the literature faculty as much as the mystery itself. It made me quite happy that I settled for being a math major! ( )
1 vote tututhefirst | Mar 17, 2012 |
Professor Pelletier is up for tenure. The entire process becomes that much more fraught when her rival for the only available slot is murdered and she falls under suspicion. Meanwhile, her personal life is in turmoil, with her lover in Iraq and her daughter in Kathmandu.

The pleasures of this series are less the mysteries than the depiction of campus life and personalities. ( )
  readinggeek451 | Feb 5, 2010 |
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