What Counts?

How to measure faculty performance.

June 23, 2013

Numbers make me itchy. Not so much in the "Oh, don't ask ME to figure out the tip -- I'm an English major!" sense. (I do have sufficient math literacy to function in the world as a grown-up.) More like:  Aren't there other ways to figure out whether or not something is meaningful than just simply determining whether or not something "counts?" It's the same feeling that makes me not want to give grades; I prefer to think of work, and the development of a kind of academic work self, in a holistic manner.  

Some of us might push back -- a little or a lot -- against productivity measures that seek to weigh  the work faculty do; this move in Texas is one example of thinking about productivity that makes me uncomfortable.  I worry over people in and out of academia thinking our work can be measured by overly simple metrics, that my version of productivity doesn’t look like the bean counters’. The ways work gets measured in universities in the UK, particularly the Research Excellence Framework, are also cause for concern, as outlined in this piece. Keith Thomas describes the case of a faculty member who published an important book, the work of years of scholarship, only to find it counted less because it was only one (potentially magisterial) study.  Why didn't he break it up into four discrete publications?

In thinking about "productivity" within an academic setting I'm not talking about the kinds of resources and advice offered by, say, the good folks at ProfHacker; I am all for looking for new ways to make the most of my time.  I also don't want this to turn into an "I'm so busy and that makes me AWESOME" post, a phenomenon noted with utterly justified irritation by Kathleen Fitzpatrick here and Joan Williams here.  Frankly, sometimes it is decidedly un-awesome to be busy.  I've talked about how to ward off pointless busyness by having a personal strategic plan (one of our #femlead chats, here), something that helps me figure out what should and shouldn't "count."  However, when I think about what "counts" in that context, I'd draw attention to those two words, "personal" and "strategic."  

Rather than apologizing for allowing work to basically shape my entire identity and most of my time, I'm going to run with it, much as Danah Boyd does here.  In her piece, she talks about the blurring between personal and professional life, and considers the implications for how we define work.  If you're always "on" -- always coming up with ideas for writing projects, always fielding emails from students, always thinking about that next initiative or agenda item -- when are you NOT working?  I'd say, let's not think about whether we're being "productive" (we probably are) and let's not think about the "life" part of "work/life balance" (if your work is your life) -- and let's definitely not think about what "counts."  Let's think about what makes work meaningful.  Let's redefine what "counts."

(Caveat re: privilege:  I am writing from a position of privilege that allows me to even have this discussion.  I'm tenured.  However my institution defines "counts," I met that definition.  My point here is that for ourselves, we might be able to create definitions of meaningful work, and possibly even find ways to talk about those definitions such that they are also meaningful for others.  We have frameworks in which we have to operate, but they don’t have to be the sole driver for how we define what we do.  For a great take on this, see Donald Hall's The Academic Self.  I love this book but never seem to have a copy because I lend it to everyone I know.)

So, what "counts"?  I ask myself:  what makes my work life meaningful?  For me, it looks, somewhat sketchily, like this:  the common theme within the humanities is that ideas, big questions are the most important thing.  The raison d’etre.  How do I make them, and how do I share them, and how do I work to create an environment in which they can flourish?

Teaching:  What counts for me is whether my students are excited about the books we're reading, and using that excitement to grow a sense of curiosity and intellectual vitality.  Are they changing their minds about long-held assumptions?  Are they discovering new things and sharing them in meaningful ways?  Are they changing my mind?  Are they writing good papers?  Yes?  Great.  Are they writing shaky papers because they are grappling with new and difficult ideas?  Even better, and no problem -- my job is to help them do that better.

Scholarship:  This one's tough.  Everyone's probably got some idea about "how many" articles or books "count," and which journals or presses "count."  I think quality counts.  By that I mean  I'd like to pursue non trivial projects about which I am passionate, in a way that is high quality and well done, and I'd like the results of that work to be disseminated in my field amongst people who will read it and gain something from it.  When I read a book or see a film that really strikes me, my first impulse is to write about it.  I have particular questions I want to work on, themes that continually recur to me as being worthwhile and important.  These shape the directions my projects take, and I try to make others see why they might be significant.  I don't take for granted that other people will be equally compelled by my idiosyncrasies, but I don't shy away from them in coming up with stuff to work on.

Campus Citizenship:  I want my campus to be a place where ideas matter, both in the classroom and beyond.  I want to facilitate other people's good work.  I want the liberal arts to matter.  Most of what I do revolves around those three things.  

Other Stuff:  I say yes to lots of other stuff because it's interesting:  community involvement, exhibits, writing and editing odds and ends that strike me as cool.  I think of the line from Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From:  "Chance favors the connected mind."  You never know where a "yes" is going to lead.  

I'm not saying that what counts for me should count for anyone else.  I am suggesting that it might be worth thinking about how to make things count in different ways, and what that looks like for you.  We’ve got stuff we need to do -- can we tell a more meaningful story about why we do it and why it really counts?  

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at janine.utell@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.



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