Rallying and Quibbling on Tenure Plan

MLA proposal to change how professors are hired and promoted draws generally strong support -- and some objections on details.
December 29, 2006

Just weeks after a panel of the Modern Language Association issued a call for radical changes in the way English and foreign language professors are hired and promoted, organizers of the effort urged the rank and file to take the ideas home to their campuses.

"This idea does not depend on the top down process," said Donald E. Hall, a professor of English at West Virginia University and one of the panel's members, at the annual meeting of the MLA, in Philadelphia. "Change is not the sole responsibility of department chairs and deans," he said.

He also said it was "not responsible" to argue, as some have, that the report's ideas are sound, but that their departments can't act until they see movement at Harvard or Yale or Berkeley or whatever institution they aspire to be. "That's a cop-out. That's status envy," said Hall, who argued that the changes sought by the MLA will not take place by some sort of legislative fiat, but through discussions among professors, leading to departmental discussions, leading to meetings in which departments propose changes to administrators, campus by campus.

The MLA report is a sweeping reconsideration of how professors are evaluated. It argues, among other things, for a broader definition of research, moving away from what Hall called "fetishization of the monograph" as the best way to demonstrate competence; for a full embrace of electronic scholarship; for better mentoring of junior faculty members; and for considering how these changes may suggest an overhaul for graduate education as well.

For a report suggesting so many changes (and the previous paragraph just scratches the surface -- for the full report, go here) the proposals have attracted support from a wide range of MLA members and academic observers. Junior faculty members, senior professors, and publishers alike seem to agree that the current system is broken -- with too much reliance by departments on monograph publication -- at a time when university presses are financially stretched and press runs for most monographs are embarrassingly small.

And administrators who have commented on the MLA ideas have generally been encouraging, saying that if their departments come forward with reform ideas, monograph publication isn't something that presidents particularly care about. (And there's evidence that the presidents mean that: Other disciplines have long valued journal articles or other forms of publication as being on par with or even more important than monographs.)

But although no one is challenging the main approach of the MLA panel, there are serious quibbles. At a session Thursday, for example, a dean questioned a proposal to give tenure candidates more of a say in which outside experts will analyze their work. And there was grumbling from some rhetoric and composition faculty members that the ideas in the report didn't reflect their professional realities.

For many professors, the main question about the report has been: Can its ideas be enacted? Hall told the group that panel members were under no illusions. "The MLA can't force anyone to do anything," he said. But for changes in tenure to take place in a meaningful way, he said, the action has to be department by department.

Supporting that view at the session was Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. "Deans may propose, but on certain issues, faculty members dispose," she said. Tenure reform is one of those issues, she said.

As Hall reviewed the broad ideas behind the report, no one really challenged anything. He stressed that the panel wasn't "anti-book," but "pro choice," in the sense of believing that faculty members should be able to determine whether their research is best evaluated based on a monograph, essays, textbooks, electronic curricular work, or any other possible vehicle. He said it was fundamentally false for people to assume that monographs were held to a higher standard than other forms of publication, noting that he recently had 12 outside reviewers for a textbook he wrote.

Stimpson, who was on the panel to provide insights into how deans might react, strongly endorsed the panel's view that the monograph has no particular claim as the best way to evaluate professors' research contributions. And, as the panel did, she went further, saying that it wasn't clear to her that the dissertation was the best way for graduate students to demonstrate their worth. A dissertation theoretically displays respect for past work, originality of thought, independence as a scholar, and sustained inquiry, Stimpson said. Those might well be demonstrated in other ways.

While Stimpson had various quibbles and critiques, the substantive issue on which she raised the most concern was the MLA panel's recommendation that faculty members up for tenure review be able to recommend up to half of the outside experts who would provide a rating of their work. She called that "a really, really bad idea."

Why? She said she feared that "dispassionate and collective objectivity" of the process could be lost and that "cronyism" could allow junior faculty members to pick senior professors sure to give them great rankings.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the MLA panel, strongly defended that recommendation. He called it the "junior candidate protection program," and said that it was designed to deal with the "irrationality" in which many young scholars have their careers derailed by senior scholars who may not have any understanding of their work. Many times, especially in smaller departments or with scholars who may be the sole specialist in their field in a department, it is the person up for tenure who knows who the leaders in the field are, Bérubé said.

As for cronyism, Bérubé noted that junior faculty members are quite capable of seeking to be in the good graces of eminences today, and many don't hesitate to do so. So the danger already exists, he said. Bérubé also stressed that even under the MLA's recommendation, no outside panel would have more than half of its members picked by the candidate.

While Bérubé and Stimpson sparred on that issue, they notably agreed on other aspects of reform needed in seeking outside evaluations. Another of the MLA panel's points is that there should be no assumption that good reviewers are found only at the most prestigious research universities. Stimpson strongly backed that view, saying that there has been a "decentralization of brilliance" in the United States, such that there are great thinkers all over the academic universe.

The opposition that most surprised panel members came over the issue of rhetoric and composition faculty members -- many of whom have felt for years that they get stepchild treatment in English departments, even as they handle large shares of enrollments and handle the freshman comp courses that might not appeal to literary scholars.

Michael Bernard-Donals, chair of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, whose background is in rhetoric and composition, questioned whether the MLA report did enough for composition professors. And several audience members came up to him as the session let out thanking him for raising the issue, and saying that they had wanted someone to speak up about it.

Bernard-Donals said that while he agreed with the idea that broader conceptions of research were needed, he said that the MLA report embraced a "teaching-research diad," which did not reflect the many administrative responsibilities given to composition instructors, many times right after they are hired. When an instructor is put in charge of freshman composition, Bernard-Donals said, the contributions being made are administrative, and deserve recognition. He said he didn't feel that this was taking place now or in the MLA proposal.

Bérubé said that he thought the ideas in the MLA report -- evaluating professors' contributions in creative, flexible ways -- could be applied to composition, and to the specific duties cited by composition faculty members. He noted, for example, that right now, some of the best composition faculty members get no credit for their curricular work or administrative work -- "and are told that for tenure they need a monograph."


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