A Dean's View of the MLA Report

A Dean's View of the MLA Report
February 6, 2007

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 is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a past president of the Modern Language Association.



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