Submitted by Alex Golub on December 16, 2005 - 4:00am
When does one really enter the community of scholars and become a "real" professor? When you finish your Ph.D.? Perhaps -- but having a degree is very different from being a professor. What about teaching for the first time? But many people do that before they complete their Ph.D. Getting hired a professor? Getting a tenure track position? Getting tenure? As a new Ph.D. I thought these questions would end with a successful dissertation defense. And yet now as a young professor I find that the goal posts of disciplinary self-confidence seem to shift ever backwards over the horizon. Or at least they did. Today, however, my doubts have been erased with a single stroke. I now know, with a certainty and firmness beyond doubt, that I am a real professor: I have just found out I have been rated at ratemyprofessors.com.
Most obviously, I'm happy with "my reviews" because they've good (all three of them): I get a 4.8 out of 5 for overall quality.I am a "good professor," a "very great instructor," and I teach "a very interesting class." Although I was surprised to hear that in my classes there is, apparently, "no right answer." Some comments are even more enigmatic, like the one noting that "one of the books he has chosen for the class is very different from other books." But make no mistake about it, I’m gratified that someone cared enough about my course to register an opinion one way or the other, and delighted that the opinion was a good one.
In fact, comparatively my reviews are quite good -- of the four other rated profs in my department, I tie for second in terms of overall quality, although I am second to last for overall easiness (i.e. most professors are easier than I am). There is one thing that I am missing though: the coveted chili pepper icon, which indicates that at least one of my students thinks that I am "hot". This lack of hotness is something I share with only one other professor in my department. Transference: it's complicated. When I told my chili-peppered department chair that I lacked this most desired icon, he just put his hand on my shoulder and said "don't worry, Alex, it'll come. Just give it time."
What does the existence of sites like ratemyprofessors.com have to teach us? Quite a lot, actually. We professors worry constantly about how our corporeal classrooms spill out onto the Internet. Was Dan Drezner denied tenure because of blogging? Is Ivan Tribble right that blogging hurts your chance of being hired? Is it ethical for profs to blog anonymously? Ratemyprofessors.com raises a related problem: what happens when students, rather than professors, virtualize the classroom dynamic?
The first response of many professors to their virtual rating is, of course, the same one they bring to bear on their real-world evaluation: angst and denial. Frankly, I understand the usual end-of-term outpouring of complaints that professors release into the blogosphere about how unfair and unrepresentative student evaluations are. I am sympathetic to much of this, and I can understand why ratemyprofessors.com would be even more galling. Completely anecdotal, unregulated, random -- despite pretensions to quantitative rigor -- and biased, as a diagnostic of actual teacher performance it probably stinks. As someone with good ratings on the site, I can shrug off the weight of these problems. But as someone lacking the chili pepper, I know all to well how these sorts of sites can sting.
How to respond to our students' virtual evaluations? Is it wrong, in other words, to go in to my class and thank them for the rating and tell them I'd really appreciate a chili pepper? Intuitions vary wildly here, but I bet some of you reading this think that mentioning virtual discussion of a professor’s performance in class somehow violates our students’ privacy, or at least the in-class/out-of-class divide that structures so much of our relationships with our students. Here we see the strange dual nature of the Internet at work again -- writing on the Internet is both public and private, and the mediated nature of interaction on the Internet makes every blog post and Amazon review written both a personal confession made in the solitude of a glowing screen and a world-readable, deeply public statement.
There is an even more interesting question here: what about my world-readable confession? Which bounds of propriety am I crossing if I discuss my ratemyprofessors.com entry not in class but on screen? If we started with a recognition that not only professors talk out of class, then we can now ask: What happens when professors blog back?
I imagine the situation could ultimately come to resemble that in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman goes undercover and weds the Nazi Claude Rains in order to track down a post-war cabal hoping to revive the Reich. He discovers her secret, and begins poisoning her food. She knows what is happening, he knows that she knows, and she knows that he knows that she knows, but they go about as if nothing has happened in an eerie, very Hitchcock set piece in which no one is willing to admit that the game is up. It could be that my students and I could each end up blogging behind our backs, unwilling to admit in class what we have both been saying behind each other's backs.
So in some sense ratemyprofessors.com has the potential to provide me both existential solace and to affect my in-class dynamic in a way which, if not as poisonous as Claude Rains's meals, at least has the possibility of being unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I think that the way to navigate this dilemma is simply to accept it. Increasingly today young Ph.D.’s (or at least young Ph.D.’s like me) recognize that the question is not whether you will leave a data trail on the Internet, but simply what sort of trail it will be. Reconciling with the fact that information about you is going to circulate willy-nilly, means accepting that part of being a professor these days means actively construing yourself online -- shaping your data trail to make it behave the way you want it to. The solution, as I see it, is not to futilely rail against sites like ratemyprofessors.com, but to learn to live them. Which is just to say that for a professor like me, the surest sign that we have well and truly arrived is not an august sheepskin with my name on it, but a small smiley face icon next to my name at ratemyprofessors.com. Preferably with a chili pepper underneath it.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The abuses placed upon adjunct faculty members by college administrations are legion, long-standing, and not likely to lead to change anytime soon -- despite intermittent committees, activist organizations, and other groups of well-meaning but naïve educated people. Still, hope blooms eternal and the forces of justice press onward. I am not about to add to that fray, but rather, will reflect upon a higher caste of faculty. How much higher, though, is up to debate.
Administrations rationalize their un-evenhanded -- at times underhanded -- treatment of the one or two or three section per term laborer by saying that he or she is probably enmeshed in graduate work, and the adjunct experience is a fine training ground for future full timers. But what of that group designated as non-tenured full-time faculty: Those with the one-year contracts with no promise? They labor on without the dream of a full-time job, for they already have one. In fact, in many cases they are worthy enough to receive a full plate of benefits: A job with a health plan, full-time status, and office space commensurate with that of (can we dare utter its name) an associate professor?
Yes, these are good things. If not an answered prayer for an academic, at least such a position may appear as a sign of one. But the academic fine print and the job market challenges this purported academic coup. For while the adjunct may dream of tenure-track possibilities when the dissertation is done or that refereed journal cherry picks his or her article off the crowded transom, what dreams does the year to year full-time teacher have?
For half a decade the door of my office in the humanities department was located at 45° angles to two others across the hall, forming an invisible equilateral triangle. From this vantage point, I witnessed the injuries of cast and class of this species of scholar. One office was easily visible by a leftward turning glance. It was inhabited by an associate professor; the office further up was apportioned to a full-time non-tenured year-to-year man. While the geometry was ineluctable, the effects upon these two professors -- equally matched in education, competency, and age -- was all too palpable. As the months and years went by, and the mien of the overworked scholar grew wearier, I recalled an essay by Isak Dinesen wherein she lamented the suffering of oxen, who because of the insensitivity of the farmers to notice how poorly designed were the creatures' wooden collars, doomed the poor animals to a lifetime of suffering. On the other hand, the harness designed by the administration in funding the non-tenured position was a sophisticated, bureaucratic one, albeit devoid as well of any empathy to relieve the stress of this educated beast of burden.
The associate professor would jauntily enter the department domain in good cheer, spotlessly attired in a gray suit, well-groomed hair, and freshly shined shoes. While her job duties may not have been those of a managerial professional in the business world, her appearance would pass muster without a thought in the corporate corridors. She differed from her counterparts in business, however, since she needed make her appearance only twice a week. She taught two classes -- both "upper level" -- and dashed about the hallways as if her requisite time at the institution was something of a novelty, even an adventure. Not so the faculty member whose office abutted hers. He walked with a slow slouch. His demeanor reflected the toll of his job was heir to. His face poorly hid the toil of teaching twice the number of sections and grading hundreds of freshman compositions: first drafts and final. On occasion he could summon up a smile or a retort. But it was clear these were temporary anodynes, and even though his contract went from year to year basis to a guaranteed two-year stint, his reward for his labors were as threadbare as were his clothes.
He was friendly to his neighbor of higher status as she was congenial with him, although I could not help but notice a mote of resentment settle in his eye and a subtle gritting of the teeth from time to time as he turned from a brief interchange with his colleague back to his office. Eventually I noticed other subtle signs of unsucessful attempts at hiding his discontent. When new candidates for tenure-track positions were interviewed, he’d often show up and cordially inquire about their views on teaching or ask pertinent questions regarding their experience. However, I had the troubling feeling this was a pose, that beneath his professional stance, there stooped a disheartened soul that cringed at the idea the next academic year would bring in a new faculty member with higher rank than his. Why he did not apply for these positions himself is a mystery. He certainly seemed to have the qualifications. Perhaps after so many year-to-year years, he believed he had been apportioned his lot. Was he a representative of a new millennium academic Uncle Tom?
As for the professor who resided beside him during those years -- the one who kept bankers' hours -- it never seemed she was aware of the irony of being placed so geographically close yet so professionally apart from him. I suspect, however, she was grossly unmoved or unaware of the life on the other side of the thin slab of sheet rock that separated them.
There is an old adage that the three best things about college teaching are June, July, and August. This seemed to be the case for the solidly tenured half of our duo. When the first inklings of summer tinged the end of the academic year with warmth and greenery, she was off to parts unknown to the rest of us. But for her counterpart, these months were filled with summer teaching assignments (as many as could be legally and logistically taken on). Which led to another irony of academic life. Since the year-to-year contract covered only nine months per annum, summer school pay was lowered to an adjunct's compensation. So, as is the case with bureaucracies such as certain local governments, operations that exist outside the law, and corporate whistleblowers, it seems for the non-tenured faculty, no good deed goes unpunished.
Izzy Academic is the psuedonym of a writer and college teacher who resides on the East Coast. His previous column recounted the visit of a famous writer to a college where he taught.
Submitted by Dean Dad on February 21, 2006 - 4:00am
OK, a thought experiment.
Although tenure is still around, it seems clear to me that it’s on its way out. Higher ed hasn’t really had an open, honest discussion about that yet -- denial is one of our talents -- but it’s hard not to notice. Right now we honor tenure in the breach, by saying all good things about it while simply replacing retiring full-timers with adjuncts. It seems to me that this strategy has a natural limit. We need full-time faculty, but do we need tenured faculty?
In the corporate world, “at will” employment is the normal default mode. Under “at will,” employees can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason, with a few legally defined exceptions (racial discrimination, say, or absence due to jury duty). “At will” is a pretty good description of the bottom of the occupational ladder, but in the credentialed ranks, there’s usually a brief probationary period followed by a system of graduated warnings. If you do something badly wrong, first you get an informal spoken warning, then a written warning, then some sort of sanction, then termination. (Layoffs are another matter, since they’re about reducing headcount rather than addressing individual performance.)
“At will” strikes me as inappropriate for professors. The subject matter expertise required of faculty is usually quite specialized, and no rational actor would undertake such narrow specialization without some reasonable expectation of still having a job next week. Given the realities of course scheduling and the nature of semesters, it’s just not realistic to assume that people can be fired on Wednesday for looking slovenly on Tuesday. Nor would it be any way to run a college.
Tenure certainly meets the needs for security and predictability, but it does so by granting impunity and saddling a college with immovable costs for the life of the employee. (It used to expire at 70, which struck me as more than fair, but now it expires at death.) As any academic manager can tell you, once people have tenure, they’re almost completely unaccountable for their actions. Give large numbers of people absolute immunity for decades on end, sheltered from economic reality, stuck with the same peers for 30 years, and some very weird behaviors come to the fore.
(For a while, my family lived in Ann Arbor. One of our favorite games when we went downtown was pointing to badly disheveled men and asking “homeless or faculty?” Sometimes the only way to tell was to see if the shiny aluminum thing they carried was solid or foil. Even then, you couldn’t really be sure.)
Worse, locking a group in for decades on end has the unintended side effect of locking new hires out. In my academic field, for example, my current college’s last hire occurred during the Nixon administration. He’s still here. I’d venture to say that the field has moved forward since then, but you wouldn’t know it here.
When I’ve tried to engage faculty friends in this conversation, they’ve uniformly reacted with horror. “I’ve killed myself for years to get tenure! Don’t take it away now!”
Well, exactly. I don’t think tenure is the solution to abuse. It’s a root cause.
The labor surplus in academe is not new. Why does it persist? Why do smart people keep crowding into a field with relatively few jobs, shockingly low pay relative to its training period, and absolutely no idea where it’s going? Sure, teaching is fun, but lots of things are fun.
I think the siren call of tenure is the culprit.
Tenure creates a do-or-die moment 15 years into a career. What other profession has anything even vaguely like that? At least in law firms, if you don’t make partner, you have the option of putting out a shingle and starting your own practice. Most of us can’t afford to start our own colleges. After years of extended graduate training, some post-grad-school bouncing around, and more years of tenure-track teaching and writing, you are either set for life or summarily fired. No wonder people are edgy!
Colleges have responded to increased cost pressures and a huge and enduring labor surplus by raising the bar for tenure for the lucky few on the tenure track. To my mind, this pretty much guarantees increased burnout. People who’ve lived monastically for 15 years and finally get tenure often effectively retire on the spot. They start paying back the other parts of their lives, which makes individual sense, but no institutional sense.
There’s an obvious alternative out there. Every administrator I know, when pressed, admits that the alternative is better. A surprising number of tenured faculty, when pressed, admit the same.
Long-term renewable contracts.
Hire full-time faculty to 3-to-5 year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews. (I could imagine the initial hire being for 3 years, with subsequent renewals for 4 or 5.) It’s far more secure than anything in the corporate setting, and it allows for predictability of scheduling, in-depth course preparation, and the like. But it doesn’t allow for someone to throw in the towel at 40, and self-righteously suckle at the teat of the college for another 35 years. It would give faculty some sort of stake in the success of their programs, since contract renewal times would be natural times to make adjustments reflecting changes in enrollments. It would allow for more turnover than we have now, which means more hiring of new people.
Some might argue that post-tenure review already accomplishes this goal. It doesn’t, and it can’t. At my college, tenured faculty are reviewed on a multi-year cycle. As one of them (correctly) put it to me, I can write that they feast on the entrails of the innocent and it wouldn’t make any difference; they still have tenure, and raises are contractual and across-the-board. Other than hurt feelings, they’re bulletproof.
(Before I get barraged with “easy-for-you-to-say” comments, I’ll disclose that my job is on one-year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews, and without tenure. I don’t even have a faculty position at my current school, despite having a Ph.D. in an academic field and having reached the associate professor rank elsewhere. So I’m not proposing anything I wouldn’t gladly accept myself.)
Most faculty, I would predict, would get renewed easily. (That’s what happens at Duke University, which uses a system like this for its "professors of the practice.") But those awful 10 percent at the bottom (the ones who use two sick days a week, or who just go AWOL without even calling in, or who last bothered updating their courses sometime around the bicentennial) could be dispatched and replaced by people who really want the job. They couldn’t just hang around and spread bitterness for decades on end.
Good new people would actually have a chance to break in, students would be spared the worst of the worst, and colleges could actually start to focus on performance. With the siren call of tenure muted, the rush to graduate school (and the resultant labor surplus) would gradually subside, bringing us closer to market equilibrium (and forcing better salaries).
The analysis of citations -- examining what scholars and scientists publish for the purpose of assessing their productivity, impact, or prestige -- has become a cottage industry in higher education. And it is an endeavor that needs more scrutiny and skepticism. This approach has been taken to extremes both for the assessment of individuals and of the productivity and influence of entire universities or even academic systems. Pioneered in the 1950s in the United States, bibliometrics was invented as a tool for tracing research ideas, the progress of science, and the impact of scientific work. Developed for the hard sciences, it was expanded to the social sciences and humanities.
Citation analysis, relying mostly on the databases of the Institute for Scientific Information, is used worldwide. Increasingly sophisticated bibliometric methodologies permit ever more fine-grained analysis of the articles included in the ISI corpus of publications. The basic idea of bibliometrics is to examine the impact of scientific and scholarly work, not to measure quality. The somewhat questionable assumption is that if an article is widely cited, it has an impact, and also is of high quality. Quantity of publications is not the main criterion. A researcher may have one widely cited article and be considered influential, while another scholar with many uncited works is seen as less useful.
Bibliometrics plays a role in the sociology of science, revealing how research ideas are communicated, and how scientific discovery takes place. It can help to analyze how some ideas become accepted and others discarded. It can point to the most widely cited ideas and individuals, but the correlation between quality and citations is less clear.
The bibliometric system was invented to serve American science and scholarship. Although the citation system is now used by an international audience, it remains largely American in focus and orientation. It is exclusively in English -- due in part to the predominance of scientific journals in English and in part because American scholars communicate exclusively in English. Researchers have noted that Americans largely cite the work of other Americans in U.S.-based journals, while scholars in other parts of the world are more international in their research perspectives. American insularity further distorts the citation system in terms of both language and nationality.
The American orientation is not surprising. The United States dominates the world’s R&D budget -- around half of the world’s R&D funds are still spent in the United States, although other countries are catching up, and a large percentage of the world’s research universities are located in the United States. In the 2005 Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, 31 of the world’s top 100 (research-focused) universities were located in the United States. A large proportion of internationally circulated scientific journals are edited in the United States, because of the size and strength of the American academic market, the predominance of English, and the overall productivity of the academic system. This high U.S. profile enhances the academic and methodological norms of American academe in most scientific fields. While the hard sciences are probably less prone to an American orientation and are by their nature less insular, the social sciences and some other fields often demand that authors conform to the largely American methodological norms and orientations of journals in those fields.
The journals included in the databases used for citation analysis are a tiny subset of the total number of scientific journals worldwide. They are, for the most part, the mainstream English-medium journals in the disciplines. The ISI was established to examine the sciences, and it is not surprising that the hard sciences are overrepresented and the social sciences and humanities less prominent. Further, scientists tend to cite more material, thus boosting the numbers of citations of scientific articles and presumably their impact.
The sciences produce some 350,000 new, cited references weekly, while the social sciences generate 50,000 and the humanities 15,000. This means that universities with strength in the hard sciences are deemed more influential and are seen to have a greater impact -- as are individuals who work in these fields. The biomedical fields are especially overrepresented because of the numbers of citations that they generate. All of this means that individuals and institutions in developing countries, where there is less strength in the hard sciences and less ability to build expensive laboratories and other facilities, are at a significant disadvantage.
It is important to remember that the citation system was invented mainly to understand how scientific discoveries and innovations are communicated and how research functions. It was not, initially, seen as a tool for the evaluation of individual scientists or entire universities or academic systems. The citation system is useful for tracking how scientific ideas in certain disciplines are circulated among researchers at top universities in the industrialized countries, as well as how ideas and individual scientists use and communicate research findings.
A system invented for quite limited functions is used to fulfill purposes for which it was not intended. Hiring authorities, promotion committees, and salary-review officials use citations as a central part of the evaluation process. This approach overemphasizes the work of scientists -- those with access to publishing in the key journals and those with the resources to do cutting-edge research in an increasingly expensive academic environment. Another problem is the overemphasis of academics in the hard sciences rather than those in the social sciences and, especially, the humanities. Academics in many countries are urged, or even forced, to publish their work in journals that are part of a citation system -- the major English-language journals published in the United States and a few other countries. This forces them into the norms and paradigms of these journals and may well keep them from conducting research and analysis of topics directly relevant to their own countries.
Citation analysis, along with other measures, is used prominently to assess the quality of departments and universities around the world and is also employed to rank institutions and systems. This practice, too, creates significant distortions. Again, the developing countries and small industrialized nations that do not use English as the language of higher education are at a disadvantage. Universities strong in the sciences have an advantage in the rankings, as are those where faculty members publish in journals within the citation systems.
The misuse of citation analysis distorts the original reasons for creating bibliometric systems. Inappropriately stretching bibliometrics is grossly unfair to those being evaluated and ranked. The “have-nots” in the world scientific system are put at a major disadvantage. Creative research in universities around the world is downplayed because of the control of the narrow paradigms of the citation analysis system. This system overemphasizes work written in English. The hard sciences are given too much attention, and the system is particularly hard on the humanities. Scholarship that might be published in “nonacademic” outlets, including books and popular journals, is ignored. Evaluators and rankers need go back to the drawing boards to think about a reliable system that can accurately measure the scientific and scholarly work of individuals and institutions. The unwieldy and inappropriate use of citation analysis and bibliometrics for evaluation and ranking does not serve higher education well -- and it entrenches existing inequalities.
Philip G. Altbach
Philip G. Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College.
As a purchasing agent in Silicon Valley, I felt challenged. I needed to direct sales staff, placate management, reroute angry clients, and above all, make sure that no production lines went down in northern California. It was more than a 40-hour-a-week job. I often came in one weekend a month to help with inventory. Wrangling semiconductors -- getting them from vendors at a fraction less of a penny than my competitor, divvying them up between deserving clients, and getting them to their destinations before a disaster could happen -- was exhilarating work. I often went out with co-workers after work to celebrate another "productive day." This, I thought, was living.
Years later, I found myself working as a graphic designer for a small advertising agency. Later I moved into art direction and copywriting. I worked for a large agency in San Francisco, providing campaigns to multi-million dollar corporations. I loved the work. I often felt pushed to do my best -- and per the industry standard, I often worked two full weekends a month. Creative directors would have dinner brought in from smart fusion restaurants. And we would work on. And on. More than a few times, my senior art director would find herself on the phone, trying to give away tickets to the symphony or opera as we worked into the night. I found that I thrived on deadlines.
In 1999, I made the switch. Intent on a career that provided more than a paycheck, I started tutoring high school students for success on the SAT; later I taught composition at a local business college at night. Finally I landed a string of adjunct work at several colleges in the Bay Area. I quit my day job at the advertising agency, and by January 2000, I was supporting myself as a postsecondary teacher.
It is the most demanding work I have ever done. Yes, managing millions of dollars worth of semiconductors was challenging. Designing national advertising campaigns was tough. But these positions required less of me -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Teaching college was a whole new game. And one that would require me not only to use every skill I had to succeed -- but also force me to grow and change in ways I could never had anticipated.
What is it about college teaching that makes it so demanding? Why do so many professors suffer from fatigue so deep that only a summer off can revive them? The answer is complex -- and one that differs according to circumstance.
First, for most, the teaching load is overwhelming. Many of my untenured university colleagues work a 5/5 load. Some, like me, in English (or other disciplines with heavy grading requirements) work a 4/4. Add on to that the requirement to publish, to present at conferences, stay current with industry publications, and do committee work and you have a recipe for a breakdown.
Colleagues who work for a university dedicated to research do get release time from teaching. Yet even graduate assistants and release time cannot balance out the energy required to succeed in research and teach a 2/2 load. Sometimes preparation for classes comes last -- which leaves professors feeling guilty and anxious.
The expectation to publish puts additional pressure on already-stressed professors. Today I met a colleague eating a sandwich in the faculty lounge, a staggering pile of paperwork spilling from his attaché. Exhausted, he is struggling to grade finals, conference with students, and figure final grades. He confessed that he has not written the paper he is to present at an out-of-state conference. The conference is in three days. He is not alone. Many of my professor friends have revealed that they, too, are strung out on work and unable to keep up. Knowing that publishing is crucial to promotion and tenure makes many professors anxious and depressed when they cannot write when they are most productive.
Although rewarding, committee work requires effort. Attending biweekly meetings, studying materials, producing reports, advising colleagues, and being in constant contact with committee members can make it difficult to prepare for classes. Keeping administrators happy with up-to-date paperwork not only requires concentration, but the ability to organize. Professors who don't log deadlines in a calendar they regularly consult may find themselves in trouble. Because so many committees' work affects things that are important, such as the curriculum, professors feel that they must invest the time -- if only to uphold their department's goals. And that time must come from somewhere.
My colleague's office sports two full bookshelves of publications; yet not one spine is broken. Journals and magazines can be a great source of support and even inspire us to try out new teaching strategies -- but to find the time to pick one up, we must put something else down. Many of us simply cannot find time. One professor friend of mine in science does find time. A magazine holder in his bathroom is stocked with geology publications. Each of us knows that these publications can help us teach -- yet where will we find time to reconfigure our course materials to reflect these new concepts?
Preparing for lectures and creating assignments demands time. Even when colleagues teach a course they've taught before, many invest considerable time retooling the course outline, revamping handouts, and creating new assignments. I change textbooks every two or three semesters -- if only to find a new way to teach decades-old information. Workbooks and companion Web sites often help me feel refreshed, too. But in some disciplines, preparation doesn't take the biggest slice of the time pie.
For many, grading feels like the anti-teaching tool. The bulk of my time is spent in evaluating and marking up students' work. No matter how many positive comments I make on a student's paper, I feel as if I am using the stick rather than the carrot to motivate. And the sheer number of hours it takes to grade a stack of papers is intimidating. It's no wonder that many in my discipline have trouble getting to this perilous task. It's one that will steal a professor's weekend more quickly than any other teaching requirement.
Before each semester, I mark my calendar -- not only for my teaching dates, but for the weekends after I collect papers. I know that in addition to nights, I will spend six or seven hours each on Saturday and Sunday grading. This is part of my job. I anticipate it and plan for it. Yet somehow, when I collect any one of the four papers I require (or the midterm or final essays), I feel the weight of them in a box on my front seat. It may take two trips for me to get them upstairs. After days of reading, making individual comments on papers and filling out a grading sheet, I will transport these essays back to campus, plug students' grades into my grading software, and bring them to class to hand back to students. And so the process begins again.
Even those in disciplines that require more standardized testing may find the grading process daunting. With trained graduate students, a mathematics professor I know must still review students' grades before moving on to teach another assignment. He cannot build on a shaky foundation; if students are doing poorly, he must find time for review. And that will take away from other more advanced concepts he was planning to teach. Yet every instructor knows to check for retention of knowledge; a somewhat flexible course outline will allow them to adjust for learning. This, too, requires more thought.
Managing a classroom is difficult work. Professors gradually become more adept at identifying the psychology at work in these groups -- but each class provides its own challenges. Many early morning classes can be terribly quiet; students literally have not yet woken up. Night classes can be stimulating -- or quiet, depending on students' level of confidence in the subject. Student population may not reflect the campus demographics reported. After teaching for several years at a large community college in California, I realized that my classes were crowded with Asian-American students. After attending workshops in diversity, I found teaching strategies that encouraged participation from this population. Later I found myself at a small private university that catered to athletes; this forced me to find another set of skills to reach this specialized group.
In many general education courses, students may come into the same course with wildly different expectations and abilities. And a good instructor's job, of course, is to somehow bring all these minds to the same place -- so that they can not only succeed in this course, but also go on to the next course in the sequence. Students often disagree about class topics. They may even argue with a professor about an assignment. These conflicts, much less conflicts among students, cause professors much anxiety.
On many campuses, professors report that they feel more like security guards than instructors. Telling students to sit down, separating students who are shouting and fighting, taking away cell phones and electronics, and confiscating notes during exams not only tire professors, but make them wonder why they got into this field. Although not all classrooms are as chaotic, even the occasional argument among graduate students can cause instructors to lose their composure. Carefully timed lessons can become a piecemeal experience. Overachieving students may feel cheated out of necessary instruction. A professor may have to take time from another well-planned class recapturing information lost during a discussion that got out of hand. And so more thought needs to go into the next lesson.
Being "on" in the classroom is draining. Many introverted friends told me that they collapse in their offices after a 50-minute class. If they are lucky, their schedules allow breaks between each class (or between every two classes) to re-energize. One colleague told me that she now understands the life of a comedian. After grueling preparation, they go onstage, deliver what they have, look for feedback, and then slink back to a dressing room to either drink, sleep, or cry. Instruction is not so different.
With a VH1-influenced culture, many instructors feel compelled to "edu-tain" rather than educate. With iPod and MP3 Players in hand, many students have come to expect to be entertained in class; anything less may result in grade review and tenure denial. Even for extroverts, teaching demands everything we have. While delivering a lecture, we are constantly checking for understanding. Constantly switching teaching methods can be tiring for instructors; yet we feel compelled to keep students' attention. Seeing students as an audience to be entertained can also give an instructor the false sense that students are indeed "getting it," when they are actually just responding to new stimuli in the most basic sense. Smart professors constantly check for retention; tools for assessment need to be adjusted for each course -- and in some cases, for each class.
The one quality that professors value most about their jobs can also be the one that causes them the most fatigue: intellectual challenge. Even though I had to use many strategies to sell semiconductors in Silicon Valley, it was nothing compared to the brain power I've had to use to teach a subject to college students well. A decade ago, I found advertising challenging. Dreaming up new ways to sell a product or service to corporate executives was exhilarating; still, it was nothing compared to finding ways to reach a student population of incredibly diverse abilities.
And professors do not "clock out" at 5 p.m. As one online colleague posted, "The work is infinite. There is always one more thing you could, should, would like to do." The industry encourages workaholism. Professors that "do it all" are promoted and given tenure. Those that buckled under the need to publish, teach, do research, serve on committees, and do informal public relations work are pushed out of this tremendously competitive business. For many, it's exhausting. Although tenure can provide some relief, I know of two dozen colleagues who do as much as they did when they were seeking tenure. These seasoned veterans are even more in demand by others in the discipline. Now mentoring younger faculty, they find themselves presenting at campus functions as well as at academic conferences. Retirement may be their only hope for much-needed relaxation.
The professors I know are not rich. In fact, many are not even considered upper middle class. In this Midwestern town, many are labeled "middle class" only because the cost of living here is so low.
Yet with student loans in tow, many of the my Ph.D. colleagues have found themselves working not only a full-time position, but also summer and overload assignments, just to get out from under. For many of them, it will be 10 years or more before they pay off their educational debt. Yes, some professors in research do very well. Yet these are the exception -- not the rule. Most professors, especially those without at terminal degree, find themselves barely paying the rent. Those in the first few years of teaching may accept any position just to fill out their CV. And full-timers on contract find themselves not only working for 70 percent of what their colleagues make -- but with no guarantee of work past that academic year. Many have made great financial sacrifices in order to teach.
Accountability at so many levels can place further pressure on professors. Not only do professors answer to students and their parents, but to administrators, colleagues, their discipline, the state -- and ultimately the nation. Education has never been the simple task of passing information on to students. Preparing students for real-world jobs has been one goal; finding ways to assess students them has been another concern. Retaining students when local blue-collar businesses are paying double the minimum wage is a battle.
At every turn, we hear that a college education is worth less and less. In Declining by Degrees, editors Richard Hersh and John Merrow explored lowered academic standards, an increased focus on research instead of teaching, and an administration interested in rankings rather than high academic standards. The move from liberal studies and general education to specialized education (and a focus on technology) has challenged traditional professors' values.
Most professors I know feel impotent. They may be forced into either coddling students, watering down curriculum, or passing students who have not earned a passing grade. Those who do not give in may find themselves labeled as "outdated" or, worse yet, a political outcast. In today's consumer-driven world, holding the line is becoming more and more dangerous -- not only for institutions, but for individual professors as well.
In their book, Supporting Beginning English Teachers: Research and Implications for Teacher Induction, Thomas McCann, Larry Johannessen and Bernard Ricca have suggestions to assist secondary teachers in English; these can also be applied to postsecondary teachers in any discipline. After recognizing the pressures of teaching, administrators can seek to assign reasonable workloads. Asking a new instructor to do five different preparations for five different courses will not produce a positive outcome. Evaluations that focus on professional development rather than taking a punitive stance is valuable. Mentors and peer coaches help not only newcomers, but those already teaching on campus. Compensating instructors to attend orientations -- either comprehensive, or dedicated to a discipline -- can result in less concerns during the academic year. Campuses that invest in statewide or national organizations help instructors see themselves as professional educators.
Ultimately, dedicated professors will find that they will need to find their own way in balancing workload, family and personal life. Many will find phases of their career where everything else takes a backseat to education; the foundation that they are building will guide later efforts in academia. As in any industry, overachievers will often land the best jobs. Those who cannot make the ultimate investment for their career may find a place in postsecondary teaching -- or eventually move to a profession with much more reasonable demands. What was once a soulful business has become more and more businesslike. The end result is that many qualified professors may find themselves in private industry -- rather than make the sacrifices necessary to succeed in education.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
In May 2002, Stephen Greenblatt, then president of the Modern Language Association, wrote a letter on behalf of his colleagues on the Executive Council that reverberated throughout departments of English and foreign languages. Drawing on conversations with university press editors and the members of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing (whose report was released later that year), Greenblatt noted that “university presses, which in the past brought out the vast majority of scholarly books, are cutting back on the publication of works in some areas of language and literature” and that “certain presses have eliminated editorial positions in our disciplines.” As a result, Greenblatt warned, junior faculty members whose departments require a book for tenure and promotion might be at risk, due not to any shortcoming in their scholarship but to a “systemic” crisis. “Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.”
Greenblatt’s letter circulated widely in the profession. Within the year, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an association that includes Big Ten universities, decided that there was, in fact, no crisis in scholarly publishing. But university press directors continued to insist that their budgets were being trimmed, that university library purchases were down, and that they were compelled to publish cookbooks, or books about regional flora and fauna, to absorb the losses associated with your average scholarly monograph. Meanwhile, junior faculty members became even more worried about their prospects for tenure, while a few opportunistic departments took the occasion of the Greenblatt letter to raise the quantitative standards for scholarly production, on the grounds that if the monograph was the “gold standard” for tenure and promotion at major research universities, then clearly the way to clamber up the rankings was to demand more books from young faculty members.
For the next few years, debate spun off in a variety of directions. Greenblatt had mentioned the possibility that universities might provide “a first-book subvention, comparable to (though vastly less expensive than) the start-up subvention for scientists.” My own institution, Penn State, had a mixed reaction: When, as a newly elected member of the MLA Executive Council, I discussed the letter with my dean and with my colleagues, I was told that Penn State would not consider reverting to the bad old days in which assistant professors without single-authored books were considered for tenure -- but that the College of Liberal Arts would provide $10,000 in start-up costs to every newly hired junior faculty member, to be used for (among other things) book subventions. Across the country, however, the subvention suggestion drew a good deal of criticism. For some observers, it smacked too much of vanity publishing: If we are now in the position of paying presses to publish our work, critics cried, then surely this is a sign that our work is worthless and that the once-high scholarly standards of the discipline had been eroded by feminism and postmodernism and cultural studies and queer theory and Whatever Else Came to Mind Studies.
Remarkably, these critics did not stop to reflect on the fact that scholarly monographs have never sold very well and were kept alive only by the indirect subsidies thanks to which university libraries were able to purchase large numbers of new books. Since new monographs were no longer subsidized by academic library purchases, the MLA argued, it only made sense to support the production of monographs some other way -- particularly since many of the least “popular” monographs are produced not in the fields of queer theory and cultural studies but in medieval studies and foreign languages, fields whose precarious place in the system of academic publishing can hardly be blamed on their trendiness.
Likewise, many departments balked at the idea of “lowering” their tenure standards by relying on modes of scholarly production other than monographs -- things like journal essays, scholarly editions, translations, and online publications. Any move away from the monograph, these critics argued, would necessarily involve a decline in scholarly quality. This argument, it seems, is quite common among professors in the modern languages. It is also quite strange. Less than 30 years ago, the monograph was generally not part of the tenure-and-promotion apparatus: The book-for-tenure criterion is a recent blip in our history. And most academic disciplines, from sociology to linguistics to anthropology to philosophy, do not require books for tenure; yet tenure committees in those disciplines somehow remain capable of distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship.
The anecdotal information was piling up, and so were the critiques and countercritiques. The MLA wanted to figure out what was really happening, so the Executive Council created a Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion in 2004. We spent two years sifting through evidence, statistical and anecdotal; we commissioned a unprecedented study of the tenuring practices of 1,339 departments in 734 different institutions over the past 10 years; we read studies and reports on tenure and the production of scholarship over the past 40 or 50 years; and almost to our own amazement, we completed our report on schedule earlier this year.
The survey contains good news and bad news: The good news is that there is to date no “lost generation” of young scholars whose careers have been thwarted or blighted by the system of scholarly publishing. Tenure rates since 1994 have not changed appreciably, even as many institutions have demanded more published work for tenure and promotion. But there are other factors at work, long before the tenure review. MLA studies of Ph.D. placement show that no more than half, and often fewer, of any given year's Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions in the year they receive their degrees. Information is sketchy for career paths beyond the first year, but what information is available suggests that, on average, something on the order of 60 to 65 percent of all English and foreign language Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions within five years of receiving their doctorates and an estimated 38 percent are considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of those 38 percent, 90 percent -- or 34 of every 100 doctoral recipients -- are awarded tenure. In other words, for a variety of reasons, many scholars simply drop off the tenure track long before they are reviewed for tenure and promotion; most of the people who stick it out do so in the belief that they have met the requirements. One might say that the tenure and promotion glass is 90 percent full -- or 66 percent empty, thanks to all the attrition along the way. But it seems clear that the people who are considered for tenure today have become so accomplished at meeting expectations that by the time they are reviewed, they are ready to clear almost any bar, no matter how high it is set. Thus, even as the system of scholarly publishing remains distressed, the scholars themselves seem to be finding ways to cope.
On the other hand, and this is the bad news, their coping mechanisms -- or, rather, the disciplinary practices that produce them -- seem to be rendering the system dysfunctional in important ways. For one thing, the press directors and librarians are not wrong: regardless of the fact that the campuses are not strewn with the bodies of young scholars turned down for tenure, the system of scholarly publishing is under severe financial pressure, and no one imagines that library and press budgets will be increasing significantly anytime soon. New monographs in the humanities now face print runs in the low hundreds and prohibitive unit costs. At the same time, over 60 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years, and the percentage of departments ranking scholarship of primary importance (that is, more important than teaching) has more than doubled since the last comparable survey was conducted in 1968: from 35.4 percent to 75.8 percent. Almost half -- 49.8 percent -- of doctoral institutions (which, because of their size, employ proportionally more faculty members than any other kind of institution) now require progress on a second book of their candidates for tenure.
So expectations are indeed rising, and most scholars are rising to the challenge. What’s the problem?
The problem is not simple. For one thing, departments are increasingly asking for books from junior professors without providing them the time to write books. It’s no surprise that 88.9 percent of doctoral institutions rate the publication of a monograph as “important” or “very important” for tenure, but it might be something of shock to learn -- it certainly was a shock to us -- that 44.4 percent of masters institutions and 48 percent of baccalaureate institutions now consider monographs “important” or “very important” as well. At the same time, 20 percent to 30 percent of departments -- at all levels -- consider translations, textbooks, scholarly editions, and bibliographic scholarship to be “not important.” About the digital age, most doctoral departments are largely clueless: 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating journal articles in electronic format, and almost two-thirds (65.7 percent) report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This despite the fact that the journal Postmodern Culture, which exists only in electronic form, has just celebrated its 15th birthday. Online journals have been around for some time now, and online scholarship is of the same quality as print media, but referees’ and tenure committees’ expectations for the medium have lagged far behind the developments in the digital scholarly world. As Sean Latham, one of the members of the Task Force, said at the 2005 MLA convention in Washington, “If we read something through Project Muse, are we supposed to feel better because somewhere there is a print copy?” For too many scholars, the answer is yes: The scholarly quality of the .PDF on your screen is guaranteed by the existence of the print version, just as your paper money is secured by the gold of Fort Knox.
The Task Force report recommends that departments and colleges evaluate scholarly work in all its forms, instead of placing almost exclusive emphasis on the monograph. We have nothing against monographs; in fact, a few of us have written monographs ourselves. But our survey suggests that an increasing number of institutions expect more publications for tenure and promotion -- and substitute measures of quantity for judgments about quality. Most important, we believe there is a real and unnecessary disjunction between the wide range of scholarly work actually produced by scholars in the modern languages and the narrow way in which it is commonly evaluated.
We hope it will surprise some people that our recommendations go well beyond this. We attempted to review every aspect of the tenure process, from the question of how many external letters are too many (in most cases, more than six) to the question of how to do justice to new hires who change jobs at some point during their time on the tenure track or who are hired to joint appointments (with explicit, written letters of expectation stating whether and how each candidate’s work at other institutions or departments will be considered). We have recommendations for how departments can conduct internal reviews, so that they are not quite so dependent on the determinations of referees for journals and university presses; recommendations for how to evaluate scholarship produced in new media; and -- though we acknowledge that it’s just beyond our reach -- a recommendation that graduate programs in the modern languages begin deliberating about whether it is a good idea to continue to demand of our doctoral students a document that is, in effect, a protomonograph waiting for a couple of good readers and a cloth binding.
And though our report is complete and (we like to think) comprehensive, we know there is plenty of work left to do. The Task Force believes that the tenure system needs careful scrutiny at every level. Perhaps most important, we need to recognize the fact that two-thirds of college professors in the United States now teach without tenure (or hope of tenure) -- that may well be the “lost generation” on our campuses today -- and that there are few avenues available for the evaluation of their scholarly contributions to the profession. We wrote the report, finally, with multiple audiences in mind -- younger scholars, department chairs, and tenure committees, of course, but also upper-level administrators, graduate students, and the higher education press as well. We hope that all these audiences will find something of value in the report -- and will try, in whatever ways possible, to work with the MLA to implement the Task Force’s recommendations.
The expression "Internet year" refers to a period of about two or three months -- an index of the pace of life online, in what the sociologist Manuel Castells has called the "space without a place" created by new media.
That means a decade has passed since Inside Higher Ed made its first appearance at the Modern Language Association, during the 2004 convention held in Philadelphia. So next week is a kind of homecoming. I'll be in Philadelphia starting on Tuesday and will not return home until sometime late on Saturday -- and hope to meet as many readers of Intellectual Affairs as possible along the marathon route in between.
The whole "space without a place" quality of online experience can, at times, prove more anomic than utopian. So here’s a thought: Inside Higher Ed will have a booth (#326) in the exhibit hall. I'll be there each afternoon between 2 and 4. Please consider this an invitation to stop by and say hello.
Tell me what you’re reading lately.... What sessions have blown your mind, or left you cursing under your breath.... Whether you think the report on tenure is going to make any difference or not.... What magazines or journals or blogs you read that I have probably never heard of....
And, by the way, if I ask you if you’ve heard any really interesting papers during the week, please don’t then go, "OK, what’s hot nowadays?" If I want to know what’s hot, I’ll go ask Paris Hilton. This peculiar insistence on mimicking the ethos of Hollywood (talking about "academostars,” “buzz,” hunting for the “hot new trend,” etc.) sometimes makes it seem as if Adorno was an optimist.
To put it another way: I’d much rather know what you’ve found interesting at MLA (and why) than hear you try to guess at what other people now think is exciting. Please come by the booth. But if you use the word “hot,” I hope it is only in the context of recommending someplace to get a burrito.
That sort of ersatz fashion-mongering is less a problem than a symptom. Lindsay Waters, the executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, has been complaining for some time about the structural imperative for overproduction in some parts of the humanities -- a situation in which people are obliged to publish books, whether they have anything to say or not. And when scholarly substance declines as a definitive criterion for what counts as important, then hipness, hotness, and happeningness take up the slack.
“Few libraries will buy many of the books published now by university presses with booths at the MLA convention,” wrote Waters in an essay appearing in the May 2000 issue of PMLA. “Why should tenure be connected to the publication of books that most of the profession do not feel are essential holdings for their local libraries?”
He brooded over that question at somewhat more length in Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, a pamphlet issued by Prickly Paradigm Press a couple of years ago. You hear quite a few echoes of the booklet in the recommendations of the MLA task force on tenure. “Scholarship,” as the final report puts it, “should not be equated with publication, which is, at bottom, a means to make scholarship public, just as teaching, service, and other activities are directed toward different audiences. Publication is not the raison d’être of scholarship; scholarship should be the raison d’etre of publication.”
Well, yes. But you’ve got the whole problem of the optative, right there -- the complex and uncertain relationship between “ought” and “is.” (Sorry, had a neo-Kantian flashback for a second there.) The real problem is: How do you get them to line up?
The task force makes numerous recommendations – some discussed here. I thought it would be interesting to find out what Waters thought of the report. “It does talk about a lot of the problems honestly,” he told me, “including the shift to part-time labor.” But his reservations seem a lot more emphatic.
“My fear for the MLA report,” he wrote by e-mail, “ is that it will be shelved like the report of the Iraq Study Group. And there may be another similarity: The ISG made a mistake with Bush. They gave him 79 recommendations, not one. This report runs that risk, too. Like my Enemies book, the report offers up ideas that it will suit many to ignore.... Churchill said it so well -- the Americans will do the right thing only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities. The problem is that this relatively frail creature, the university, has survived so well for so long in the US because for the most part it was located in a place where, like poetry (to cite the immortal Auden) executives would never want to tamper. But they are tampering now. And they are using the same management techniques on the university that they used on General Motors, and they may have the same deadly effect.”
Worrying about the long-term future of the life of the mind is demanding. Still, you’ve still got to pack your luggage eventually, and make plans for how to spend time at the conference. MLA is like a city within a city. No accident that the program always looks a little like a phone directory.
It contains a great deal of information – and it’s well-organized, in its way. But it can also be kind of bewildering to browse through. It seems like a salutary development that people have, over the past couple of years, started posting online lists of the sessions they want to attend. It’s the next best thing to having a friend or trusted colleague make recommendations. Here is an example.
If you’ve already posted something about your conference-going itinerary, please consider using the comments section here to link to it. For that matter, if you’ve noticed one or two sessions that you consider not-to-be-missed, why not say so? Consider the space below a kind of bulletin board.
One tip I hope you’ll consider (despite the beastly hour of it) is the panel called “Meet the Bloggers.” It is scheduled for Saturday, December 30th, at 8:30 in the morning. The list of speakers includes Michael Bérubé, John Holbo, Scott Kaufman, and the professor known as Bitch, Ph.D.
For abstracts, go here. I will also be on the panel, commenting on the papers afterwards. That is, assuming I can get an intravenous caffeine drip.
There is a nice bit of synchronicity about the date that the program committee scheduled “Meet the Bloggers.” For it will be the anniversary (second or tenth, depending on how you count it) of “Bloggers in the Flesh” -- an article that appeared well before anyone in MLA thought of organizing a panel on the topic.
A lot has happened in the meantime -- including a sort of miniature equivalent (confined entirely to academe) of what sociologists call a “moral panic.” For a while there, blogging became a suspicious activity that threatened to weaken your scholarly reputation, ruin your job prospects, and cause thick, coarse hair to grow upon your palms.
It all seems kind of silly in retrospect. No doubt the level of discussion will be much higher at the panel. I hope some of you will make it. But even if not, please consider stopping by to say hello at the IHE booth, any afternoon between 2 and 4.
The word “criticism” shares the same root as “crisis” -- a bit of fortuitous etymology that everyone in literary studies remembers from time to time, whether in the context of sublime theoretical arguments (interpretation at the edge of the abyss!) or while dealing with the bottom-line obstacles to publishing one more monograph. Not to mention all the “criticism/crisis” musing that goes on at this time of year as people finish their papers for MLA, sometimes with minutes to spare.
Once this season of crisis management is past, I hope readers will turn their attention to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s new book The Character of Criticism (Routledge). Harpham, who is president and director of the National Humanities Center, offers a meditation on what happens (in the best case, anyway) when a literary scholar encounters literary text. Most of the book consists of close examination of the work of four major figures -- Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said – who bring very different methods and mores to the table when performing the critic’s task. The contrast between Nussbaum and Å½iÅ¾ek, in particular, seems potentially combustible.
But the book is not a study in the varieties of critical engagement possible now, given our capacious theoretical toolkits. Harpham’s argument is that literary criticism is a distinct type of act performed by (and embodying) a specific type of agent. We don’t read criticism just for information, or to see concepts refined or tested. Criticism is, at its best, a product of “cognitive freedom,” as Harpham puts it.
“Interpretation represents a moment at which cognition is not absolutely bound by necessity to produce a particular result,” he writes, “...and this moment serves as a portal through which character, an individual way of being in the world, enters the work.”
In the week just before the MLA convention, I interviewed Harpham by email about his book -- a discussion that led, in due course, to asking him for his thoughts on the MLA's recent report on scholarship and tenure. A transcript of the discussion runs below.
But first I want to quote some favorite lines in The Character of Criticism. They appear in a section drawing out, at some length, the parallel between literary criticism and the kinds of responsiveness and responsibility before “The Word” one finds in, say, Saint Augustine.
“The act of writing a critical text,” as Harpham puts it, “reaches deep into oneself, testing one’s acuity, responsiveness, erudition, and staying power. But critical writing also tests attributes normally considered as moral qualities, including the capacity to suspend one’s own interests and desires and to make of oneself a perfect instrument for registering the truth of The Word.”
Easier said than done, of course. Harpham goes on to describe the obligations thus imposed on the critic, thereby fashioning a new identity in the process. Here’s a passage in a format suitable to be printed out, clipped, and posted near one’s computer monitor for sober contemplation:
“One must .... wish to be regarded as a person who can overcome insubordinate impulses, remove clutter and distractions from the field of vision, isolate the main issues, set aside conventional views, persevere through difficulties, set high standards, see beneath appearances, form general propositions from particulars, see particulars within the context of general propositions, make rigorous and valid inferences from concrete evidence, be responsive without being obsessive, take delight without becoming besotted, concentrate without obsession, be suspicious without being withholding, be fair without being equivocal, be responsive to the moment without being indiscriminate in one’s enthusiasms, and so forth.” --Geoffrey Galt Harpham
That final clause -- “and so forth” -- is really something. Talk about criticism and crisis! The prospect of adding more to that list of demands is either inspiring or terrifying, I suppose, depending on the state of one’s character....
Here's the interview:
Q: We use the word "character" as a way of talking about a fictive person. We also use it, when talking about real people, to refer to a definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes (something durable, if not inflexible, about how they deal with other people). And then, of course, there's the old-fashioned, moralistic sense -- as in referring to someone "having character" or "being of weak character." When you write about the role of character in academic literary criticism, which of these usages fits best? Any secret yearning to be William Bennett motivating your work?
A: Since I’m talking about the character of criticism, your second version, the “definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes,” is the most pertinent for my purposes. But the first usage, referring to fictive people, is also relevant, because fictive characters have to exhibit more consistency than real people, just in order to be recognizable from one textual moment to the next. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the two are linked, that personal consistency is a self-imposed constraint or “fiction” that makes us recognizable to ourselves and others.
To me, the most powerful instances of criticism are those in which the drama of perception and understanding, which is also a moral drama in the broadest sense, is somehow visible in a shadowy way, encoded or encrypted in the critical text. I’ve always been struck by the fact that the criticism that impressed me most deeply managed to suggest an intimate encounter, even a kind of wrestling, between a strong, committed, informed, and responsive mind and a cultural text that probed and tested that mind, revealing its powers, limitations, and dispositions -- in short, its character. Part of the character of criticism is its capacity to reveal the character of the critic, even in ways the critic has no knowledge of. In fact, I think that criticism is, or can be, one of the most interesting ways of manifesting character.
Any yearning I had to be William Bennett was more than satisfied when I became president of the National Humanities Center: He was one of my four predecessors, before he went to Washington to serve in the Reagan administration. He is, however, interesting in terms of all three of your definitions of character. Because he does not display consistent behaviors (scolding people about their lack of moral strength on the one hand, compulsive gambling with horrific results in Vegas on the other), he has come to be seen as a kind of “fictive person,” one that exists only in books -- his books. Some people, inspired perhaps by those very books, might draw old-fashioned moral conclusions.
Q: Your first chapter has a long section describing a sort of ideal-typical "critical character" (so to speak) through an account of the act or process of critical writing as testimony to the power of a definitive encounter with a text. It’s powerful. But it’s also utterly inapplicable to an awful lot of critical prose one comes across, whether in academic books or journals or at sessions of MLA. The tenure-driven critical encounter often seems like an effort to apply some exciting new theoretical gizmo to a problem that would otherwise be uninteresting except as an occasion for trying out said gizmo. Or is that completely wrong? Is criticism as vocation (the response to a call) actually surviving amidst all the so-called "professionalization"?
A: I agree that the optimal “critical character” is rare, and for good reason. First, one has to be not only a critic, with a certain kind of education and professional opportunities, but also an unusually interesting person, one whose responses to the world are consistent, valuable, and meaningful, significant in a larger sense because they seem to proceed from some set of commitments and convictions rooted in human experience. Then, one has to be willing and able to expose oneself to a text, to respond without defensiveness, to be alive to a challenge. And lastly, one has to be able to write in such a way that both adheres to professional decorums and does something more by giving the reader some sense of the experience of coming to grips with an object of great significance and value.
In addition to the critics I discuss in my book (Scarry, Nussbaum, Å½iÅ¾ek, Said), I can think of a number of others, but really, it’s a wonder anybody can do this. Much of what goes on in the world of literary studies (including gizmo R & D) supports the very best work by providing a professional context for it. Such work can be honorable without being heroic; it can, of course, also be neither. But the best work is done by those who are personally invested in it. I think if more people felt this way about criticism, their work and even their careers would profit and the whole field would be more interesting.
I have learned a great deal about the profession of literary studies from studies of professionalization, but I do not think that criticism benefits from a heightened awareness among critics of their status as professionals. It’s a difficult situation. As marginal and undervalued as literary scholars are at most colleges and universities, they need to develop their own credentialing structures just to keep their sense of dignity intact. But nothing kills the authentic spirit of criticism faster, or deader, than a consciousness of one’s own professional circumstances. Criticism is a professional discourse, but the sternest test of criticism is whether it can communicate even its most refined or challenging thinking in the vernacular.
I would not call criticism a vocation in the Weberian sense; nor would I call it a calling, as if it were a summons you could not refuse without disgracing yourself or violating your own deepest nature. But the greatest critics, the ones who animate and advance the discussion, do seem to have a certain need or urgency to communicate in this form that comes from within.
Q: Well, I want to challenge you a bit on part of that last answer. "Criticism is a professional discourse," you say. But that calls to mind R.P. Blackmur's statement to the contrary: his definition of criticism as "the formal discourse of an amateur." He meant, among other things, that the critic's role was connected pretty closely to the activity of the artist -- that it is a loving ("ama-teur") participation in the making and assimilation of literary form (even if at a certain, well, formal distance). Besides, the idea that there is anything particularly academic about literary criticism is a very recent development in cultural history. In 1920, an English professor who wrote criticism was doing something a little undignified and certainly "unprofessional." So how is it that all of this has changed? Or has it? If asked to name a recent critic whose work really manifested a strong sense of character as you've described it, I'd tend to think of James Wood, who's never been an academic at all.
A: I'll push back a bit on that one, even if it forces me to defend what I have just criticized. Blackmur began his career of poetry and editing in the 1920's; his critical career was finished over a half-century ago. And he was unusual even in the company of amateurs that dominated the literary scene at that time in that he did not have a B.A. Moreover, at the same time as Blackmur was advocating critical amateurism, John Crowe Ransom was writing "Criticism, Inc.," an early manifesto for professional academic criticism (1938). So even in Blackmur's time, his position was not the only, or even the dominant, position being enunciated.
I doubt that most people today would find criticism written in 1920 particularly interesting unless it was written by T. S. Eliot. Come to think of it, with the exception of Eliot's The Sacred Wood, I don't know of one durable, much less memorable piece of criticism that appeared in that year. Modern literature (post-Wordsworth) was not taught in universities, and criticism was necessarily confined to newspapers and journals like Hound and Horn, Blackmur's journal. The total situation today is different, and I don't think that we get a purchase on the present by reminiscing about the old days. Nor is James Wood an argument on your side. He is comfortable outside the academy, as is Louis Menand. But today, they're both at Harvard, Wood in a non-tenure-track position. They are part of the reason that (I contend) Harvard has, right now, the greatest English department ever assembled.
Universities provide jobs and -- in the case of Harvard -- ask little in return. Of course, the university does determine, in large ways and small, what goes on in criticism. Still, precisely because so little is explicitly demanded, an individual critic should find it possible to cultivate that "ama-teur" orientation that -- as I gather you feel -- is the precondition of character in criticism. If it were impossible, I would expect and even hope that talented young people would leave the profession (as I'll call it) in droves.
Q: The question of what counts as scholarship, and how it gets counted, is very much in the air, now, given the recent MLA task force report. The four figures whose work you examine in The Character of Criticism (Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said) have produced work in the usual venues and formats of scholarly publication. But all of them have been active in other ways -- through public-intellectual commentary, but also as activists, at least to some degree. Can you draw any lessons from their examples that might be useful now, as other critic try to figure out how to respond to the felt need to change the circumstances of academic work?
A: This question approaches some very swampy ground, and my response may not get us on dry land altogether.
One easy response to the general problem you describe would be to declare that "the circumstances of academic work" have already changed, and that blogging, chatting, intervening in online discussions, and "public intellectual commentary" conducted in non-academic forums should be recognized by promotion-and-tenure committees as valid academic work, to be considered alongside books and articles in scholarly journals.
Even though this, too, is an easy response, I disagree. Universities pay you to do university work and they are not obliged to accept just any view of what counts. And, as an abstract proposition, it is important, both to oneself and one's readers, that one has established one's scholarly credentials before one weighs in. I say "as an abstract proposition" because I'm all too aware that our credentialing procedures, even at the very best universities, are, shall we way, non-ideal. But in theory the discipline and skills acquired in the course of mastering a certain body of knowledge and finding one's voice in an established discourse serve one very well. None of the people I discuss in my book were public intellectuals at the beginning of their careers, with the exception of Å½iÅ¾ek, who was operating in a very different environment. Nor, for that matter, were Noam Chomsky, Stanley Fish, Walter Benn Michaels, Skip Gates, Paul Krugman, or even Michael Bérubé.
One may think that it's stifling to insist that gifted young people hold their tongues until they prove themselves to their elders, but I don't see it that way. They aren't holding their tongues; they're doing what they were hired to do, and what they presumably love doing; and in the process they are preparing themselves so that if and when they do speak out on public matters in a public forum, they speak with an authority gained over years of reflection on the archive of human creative accomplishment. A distinguished professor, enraged, is a force to be reckoned with.
I know that the real effects of tenure, from an institutional point of view, are to depress faculty pay and encourage people to serve on committees. But among its side effects is a certain measure of protection for people who exercise their freedom of speech in oppositional ways. In fact, I think that tenure imposes a certain burden on one's conscience to do what one can when the situation calls for action.
Q: OK, but the new venues and potentials for digital publication represent only one part of the changing circumstances in academic work. The task force addressed the larger question of what kinds of scholarly activity count for tenure. Any thoughts on the rest of the report?
A: I've thought about tenure a good deal, especially in 2000-1, when I headed a university-wide committee on faculty evaluations and rewards at Tulane. Tulane was a perfect place for this debate to take shape because it was not an elite institution, but routinely compared itself to Brown, Northwestern, Emory, Rice, and Vanderbilt. In other words, faculty were encouraged to think of themselves as serious researchers, even though most of them were not -- if they were, the comparisons would have been more realistic.
What I found over the course of that year and a half was that the contemporary debate on tenure was being driven by a variety of forces, including state legislatures hostile to academia in general, conservative academics hostile to elite institutions, high-powered researchers at those very elite institutions, and a great many ordinary academics who were doing lots of committee work and teaching and wanted to be recognized, with promotions and salary increases, just like those who were publishing regularly. "Flexibility" was the key phrase: universities were encouraged to reward flexibility, as individuals realized themselves in their various ways. Our committee found several problems associated with "flexibility," each one of which we considered insurmountable.
The first was that it granted extraordinary powers to department chairs to work out individualized agreements with faculty members, and that was a recipe for corruption and cynicism. Second, it eroded faculty governance by making department chairs into members of the administration, rather than volunteers arising within the faculty. Third, it meant that the rank of professor at an AAU, Carnegie I institution would not mean anything in particular, and that would lead to a loss in status for all.
In principle, I was not opposed to "flexible" rewards for faculty, but I thought that each institution had to decide what it wanted to be, and how its faculty should be expected to think of themselves. At the top research universities, flexibility is a very bad idea: All faculty should be seen as having jumped over the same bars. At flagship state institutions, it's still a bad idea. But from there on down -- and at Tulane, one of the questions we had to face was exactly where we stood -- the issue was not so clearcut. Many colleges and universities may wish to reward superb teaching or loyal service to the institution with rank and salary increases.
The MLA recommendation that speaks most clearly to this issue is the one about the "letter of understanding" that institutions should issue to their faculty, outlining the expectations. But such explicitness would cause as much grief as it alleviated. It's a buyer's market for faculty, so lower-down institutions have a realistic chance to staff their faculties with Ph.D.'s from top-tier universities, and many do. These young stars may arrive still thinking of themselves as eminent-scholars-in-the-making. If they were given an official document stating that they were not to think of themselves in that way, it would have a demoralizing effect on them, their colleagues, and their students; it would be seen as a way of capping aspiration and upward mobility, and that would be inconsistent with the very idea of higher education.
If the letter of understanding outlined strict requirements for tenure and promotion, it would encourage precisely the wrong state of mind (checking the boxes) for real scholarship or intellectual inquiry. And if it said that there are many excellent self-realizing things you can do to be rewarded, then it would in effect abandon the very concept of "standards," and that, too, would be destructive.
Q: Whatever its potentially morale-killing effect, the "letter of understanding" would at least be explicit. Do you have an alternative in mind?
A: In a sense I do.
Each institution has to come to a rough understanding of itself, leaving enough room for anomalous individuals to be judged on terms appropriate to their contribution. I'm afraid there is no substitute for the act of judgment exercised case by case by people who are presumed to be competent. Though that presumption can be challenged in individual instances, it must be maintained, because it and it alone ensures faculty governance.
I speak from experience here. I -- like Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, M.H. Abrams, and many others -- was denied tenure (many years ago, at Penn), so I know how difficult it can be to maintain one's faith in the competence and judgment of one's betters. But the experience builds and tests character. Which is where we began, isn't it?
(A number of Harpham’s recent papers -- several of them overlapping with the themes of his new book – are available here.)
The Modern Language Association’s recent report from its Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion offers an opportunity to review some of our commonly accepted notions about the role of research in the definition of faculty productivity. The report is worth the considerable effort required to read through its 100 pages of survey data, evaluations, prescriptions and recommendations. Most of us will find its conclusion about tenure reassuring: The rate of tenure acquisition for tenure-track faculty is high and stable. We may be less sure about the significance of its findings about the growing number of non-tenure track faculty (part and full-time) in our institutions.
More interesting, however, is the extensive discussion of the nature of scholarly productivity. The MLA task force clearly struggled with this issue, and it is this struggle that makes the report so interesting. The report explicitly addresses what it calls the gold standard of the research monograph, which means a book length, usually single author publication that presents original research to an expert public, frequently through the medium of a university press. The report worries that this method places too restrictive a burden on young faculty, devalues the research-based article, and may result in overlong articles being presented as books. University tenure committees, the report indicates, may be off-loading the responsibility for evaluating research onto the editors and reviewers of university presses. At the same time, the report’s surveys do not yet support a conclusion that the current method of evaluating research has disadvantaged young scholars in the tenure process.
One of the great strengths of the MLA task force report is its effort to distinguish among different types of institutions, recognizing that the importance of research publication for tenure varies significantly by type of institution and that the patterns of evaluation that characterize the top research universities tend to propagate to other institutions with different missions. The report endorses the well-known case for redefining scholarship to include activities in addition to original research -- editorial work, translations, bibliographies, textbooks, essays, pedagogical writings and even exceptional classroom teaching. Although this is not a topic easily resolved, the common expectations that drive this research focused behavior warrant a closer look.
Departments in colleges and universities, where most of the critical decisions about tenure and promotion are made, reflect the goals and expectations of their scholarly guilds (in the case of the modern language departments, these scholarly guilds are represented by the MLA). These guilds, while they speak expansively about broadening the definition of research to include other forms of scholarship, tend to focus their attention on the rarest of academic talents. Original research appearing in scholarly monographs published by university presses is valued because it is difficult to produce and therefore rare.
College and university prestige (whether established by ranking organizations or popular culture) rest on the acquisition of the individuals capable of producing these rare and difficult works on a constant and consistent basis. The best universities in the world have the highest number of faculty capable of producing works of original research. This is not restricted to the guilds associated with the MLA, although the MLA report is a wonderful testimony to the process. Even as the report argues for the expansion of the definition of scholarship to include many other activities not precisely defined by original published research, it reinforces our understanding of the high prestige associated with the original research publication.
Many commentators worry about the increased competitiveness of colleges and universities, each institution seeking to purchase for higher and higher prices a greater share of the limited supply of high quality students and research capable faculty. Yet the marketplaces that support universities -- parents, students, faculty, legislators, donors, funding agencies, corporations -- all express a strong preference for the presence of these rare talents in academic settings. The issue for academics is not really whether faculty members should develop a broad portfolio of accomplishments in teaching, scholarship of all kinds, public service and civic engagement. Rather, the issue is whether universities can avoid concentrating on identifying and acquiring faculty whose skills will make their university or college campus most competitive. This perspective, ruthlessly businesslike though it is, provides a clear explanation of the behavior of colleges and universities and their academic guilds, and it highlights some characteristics of the academic environment that we might prefer were different.
Colleges and universities have few ways of defining and demonstrating their excellence other than presenting various measures of scarcity. The market assumes that if a campus attracts a large share of scarce, high SAT and high GPA students, its overall quality is better than another campus with lower SAT and lower GPA students. The market also assumes that a campus with a large share of the scarce faculty who consistently publish original research is a high quality campus. These indicators of scarcity are highly reliable measures, even if we can debate at great length whether what they measure is of greater intrinsic value than something else we do not measure as reliably.
Longtime observers of the academic scene know that original research talent is much more fragile than teaching or scholarship or civic engagement talent. Over a 25- to 30-year career, more faculty will sustain consistently good performance as teachers than will sustain consistently productive careers publishing original research. At the beginning, we do not know which of the recently tenured, research productive faculty will sustain that productivity for the next 25 or 30 years. The institution, understanding the importance of these research-productive faculty in validating their external competitive reputations, places extraordinary emphasis on improving the results of the tenure process by focusing intensively on the quantity and quality of published original research. The result is what the MLA observes: increased standards for published research productivity for tenure.
To some extent the excellent recommendations in the MLA Task Force report lose some of their persuasiveness absent a recognition of the powerful marketplace forces that drive all colleges and universities to emulate the competitive standards of the most prestigious research institutions. Whether we view the marketplace influence on college and university values as pernicious or not, we still must recognize that the primary participants in this marketplace are our faculty, students, alumni, trustees, donors, and other friends. Their preferences, expressed through their marketplace choices, reinforce the academy’s intense focus on original published research.
We would like to see the next MLA task force review the language of academic quality as represented in college promotion materials, in the endlessly popular commercial ranking systems, and in the references to quality visible in the popular culture of news magazines, movies, television, and Internet chatter. As is often the case, we are likely to find that the enemy of the good practices we recommend is us.
In one of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote, "Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." This sense of being a part of a time of incessant change animates the 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Begun in 2004, it is a rich, important document for anyone who wishes to reflect upon the contemporary rivers and streams of change of the academy.
I come to the report as a dean, specifically a graduate dean of arts and science in a large research university. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, I am no emperor. I find it a privilege to be a dean, even though the job has tempered my habitual optimism with stoicism. To oversimplify, the report treats the theme of change in the profession of modern languages and literature in three ways: the structural changes in United States higher education since World War II and their consequences for the humanities, especially for humanities faculty members; changes in the granting of tenure and promotion that people feared might happen but that seem not to have happened, at least not yet; and changes that ought to happen if the profession is to be wise, academically and socially useful, and robust.
Among the most important changes that the report explores is the well-documented rise of positions, full-time and part-time, that are off the tenure ladder. Tenure is increasingly limited to research universities and more affluent liberal arts colleges. Yet again, the rich are getting richer. As a dean, I miss in the report a passionate yet logical definition and defense of tenure that I might use for several audiences --- the tuition-paying students who quickly turn to instant messaging in a class taught by a member of the Dead Wood Society, the trustees who wonder why academics should have job security when almost no one else does. I can make such a defense, and have, but if tenure matters -- and an implicit conviction of the MLA task force is that it does -- then the defense must emanate from all of us who believe in it.
One pervasive anxiety explored in the report concerns a student’s life after the doctorate. The MLA report estimates that of every 100 English and foreign language doctoral recipients, 60 will be hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. Of them, 38 will be considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of them, 34 will be awarded tenure. The report, unfortunately, cannot say what happens to the 22 who leave the institution where they were hired before the tenure ordeal. In my experience, some get recruited to another institution. Some drop out because they will believe they will not get tenure. Some take administrative jobs within higher education, and are judged as administrators, but still do vital scholarship and teaching. Some go on to non-academic careers, for which graduate school in the humanities still insufficiently prepares them.
As a graduate dean, even as I wonder about the 22 doctoral recipients who leave the institution that first offered them a tenure-track job and even as I celebrate the 34 Ph.D.s who do get tenure-track jobs, I feel that now well-honed guilt, anger, and concern about the 40 who are not hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. To be sure, some deliberately and happily choose not to go on in academic life, but others would prefer to become academics. Despite all the national studies, including this report, about the oversupply of doctorates in the humanities, self-interested, faculty-controlled graduate programs are still too reluctant to limit admissions, still suspicious about doing regional coordination of graduate curricula and courses, and still petitioning for more financial aid and more students to teach. It is vulgar to call this a case of “Bring in the clones,” but the phenomenon yet again reveals, I have sadly concluded, how much easier it is to act on behalf of one’s self and one’s family, here the department or program, than on behalf of more abstract and psychologically distant goods, here the well-being of potential graduate students and of the profession as a whole.
The MLA report’s signal contribution is the call, by an impeccable committee of leading humanists, for a serious rethinking of scholarship and scholarly inquiry, which would then have ramifications for the conduct of academic institutions. I can see nothing but good coming out of such a rethinking, to be undertaken both nationally and locally, faculty member by faculty member, department by department, and institution by institution, as each articulates its particular role in the academic and social landscape. These roles will and should differ. Each will be important. The royal road to national prominence can take a number of routes and be paved with a variety of materials --- from yellow bricks to high-tech composites.
More specifically, the MLA report urges us to ask why the monograph has become the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, “the gold standard.” Why not the essay, or a series of linked essays? Why not other forms of scholarly achievement? And why must the dissertation be a “proto-book?” Why indeed? Is there any other form that the dissertation might take? I once had a conversation with a leading Renaissance scholar shortly after I became a graduate dean. “What is the most important reform in graduate education?” I asked. “Change the dissertation,” she said. Surely what matters about the dissertation is less the exact format than a form that displays what this capstone activity must display: respect for past work coupled with originality, independence of thought, and the capacity for sustained inquiry. Rhetorical flair would be nice, too. I have also argued for some years that the humanities graduate curriculum needs a vigorous overhaul, offering more common courses that programs share, including some introductory courses that would comprise a general education for graduate education. Among them could be, at long last, a required course in the ethics and history of scholarship.
Moreover, because of those new communications technologies, much scholarly inquiry is now being done digitally. Some of the most important work about and in digitalized scholarship is appearing from university presses, an invaluable resource that the task force correctly praises and for which it seeks more institutional resources. Yet many departments are clueless, all thumbs in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, in doing evaluations of digital scholarship that respect peer review. Of the departments in doctorate-granting institutions that responded to the MLA’s survey, 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent have no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This finding is similar to that of another useful study, here of five departments, including English-language literature, at the University of California at Berkeley. It concludes that what matters most in judging scholarship is peer review, but e-publishing is still tainted because peer review does not seem to have touched it sufficiently. Scholars are willing to experiment with digital communications. However, for nearly all, the “final, archival publication” must still appear in a traditional format. Only if faculty values change, the Berkeley report correctly suggests, will scholarly communications change. Deans may propose, but faculty actually dispose in questions of academic and curricular values.
The MLA report rightly argues that the academy tightly couples the canons of scholarly accomplishments with the awarding of tenure and promotion. In brief, a faculty member gets the latter if s/he respects the former. Even as the report asks for a re-evaluation of these canons, it offers a series of recommendations for the administering of a transparent, fair tenure and promotion process. For the most part, these are sensible, and indeed, I was surprised that they are not already installed as best practices at most institutions. Of course, if possible, institutions should give junior faculty start-up packages if the institution is to require research and publication. Of course, “collegiality” should not be an explicit criterion for tenure, because it might reward the good child and punish the up-start. However, a dean cautions, because tenure is forever, at least on the part of the institution, it is legitimate to ask how a candidate will contribute to the institution’s long-term well-being.
From this admonitory dean’s perspective, the report strays into boggy ground in its brief analysis of appropriate relations between someone up for tenure and the external letters that a tenure dossier now requires. “Candidates,” it states, “should have the privilege and the responsibility of naming some of their potential reviewers (we recommend half)." Candidates, the report further argues, should be able to exclude one or two figures whom they believe might be prejudicial. This is a really bad idea. If tenure candidates were to have this power, the dispassionate and collective objectivity that is the putative value of peer review would be lost, and self-interest would fill the vacuum. Moreover, the temptations of cronyism, which external letters were meant to squash but which still flourishes among tenured faculty, might appear in a junior guise, accompanied by various modes of ingratiation with the powerful in a field who might then write a sweetly affirming letter.
Strangely, sensitive though the MLA report is to the growth in the number of non-tenure track jobs, and to the meaning of this growth, it is less radical than it might be in imagining the role of full-time, non-tenured scholars within an institution. The report argues, “The dramatic increase in the number of part-time non-tenure-track faculty members puts increased demands and pressure on all full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty members in many areas for which the casualized work force is not -- and should not be -- responsible: service on department committees and in departmental governance; student advising; teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses; directing dissertations; and, less concretely but no less importantly, contributing to intellectual community building in the department and outside it, in the college and university….” But surely a qualified non-tenured faculty member should be able to be a significant academic citizen. Surely the report does not mean to construct such a hierarchy of faculty members with the tenure-track faculty as the philosopher kings and queens and the non-tenure-track professors as credentialed drones. If the report had more fully defined and defended tenure, it might have explored more adequately the distinctions and the overlap between not having and having tenure.
Let me not end with caviling and quibbling, but instead reiterate my respect for the conviction expressed by the task force about the profession’s relation to change. It concludes, “It is up to us, then, the teacher-scholars of the MLA, to become agents in our academic systems and effect changes that reflect and instantiate appropriate standards of scholarly production and equity and transparency for our colleagues, our institutions, and our society.” Or, if a mere dean might revise the language of both a strong committee and an emperor, we neither helplessly observe nor flaccidly drift in the rivers of time. We shape their banks. We dam them or divert them or find new springs with which to refresh them. We build our rafts of thought and boats of words and navigate them. Bon voyage to us all.
Catharine R. Stimpson
Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a past president of the Modern Language Association.