Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.
The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.
In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels. Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.
Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?
Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.
University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”
When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.
Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.
The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.
The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.
In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well).
The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.
At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.
The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.
The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.
Of all the tasks that confront a tenured community college professor, perhaps the least useful is the tri-annual self-evaluation. This year, I’m on the Pasadena City College committee that is reviewing the evaluation process for tenured faculty members, and last week I was handed the administration’s proposal for the new “Self-Evaluation Review of Professional Performance.”
It’s never been clear to me that anyone in the administration, from our department chairs to academic vice presidents, ever actually reads these self-evaluations. For tenured professors, reviewed once every three years, the main administrative concern is with student and peer evaluations of teaching. (We, of course, have no publishing or research requirements at the community college.) In the dozen years I’ve been at the college and involved in union politics, I’ve only heard of a handful of tenured colleagues receiving negative over-all evaluations from the administration. None have ever been dismissed. As far as I or anyone else I’ve asked knows, a poor self-evaluation has never been used against a tenured faculty member.
Here are three of the proposed questions for our new evaluation:
1. How has your perception of your role as a faculty member changed/developed since your last evaluation?
2. After taking time to reflect, what more could you do to provide students with a successful learning experience?
3. What can the college do to support you in your professional goals and development?
These are very different from the queries on our old self-evaluation forms, which simply asked us to list the courses we taught and what achievements, if any, we had had since our last evaluation. Reading these new questions, I’m struck by the increased emphasis that the college puts on never-ending personal and professional growth. These are questions to be answered by men and women who already have the security of lifetime employment, who (barring a felony conviction or gross incompetence) will never be forced to apply for another job again.
With the first question, I’m stumped. In 2002, I thought that my job as a professor was to be a good and interesting teacher, an attentive mentor, and an amiable colleague. That’s what I thought in 1999 and 1996, too. I suspect it will be my definition of a good faculty member in 2008, 2011, and beyond. But I suspect that that’s not the answer the administration wants. What shall I tell them? That I have suddenly discovered an interest in “student success”? (That’s the great buzzphrase on the lips of the Ed.D.’s who run the joint.) That it finally occurred to me to start getting my grades in on time? That I’ve at last thought better of telling sexist jokes to my women’s studies class? The notion that we ought always to be “professionally developing” suggests a career trajectory that resembles nothing more than a 30 or 40-year adolescence. Teenagers reinvent themselves with predictable regularity; the new model of faculty development seems to suggest that we do the same.
The second question is the shiny new academic version of that great interview trap question “Tell us your greatest weaknesses.” (As I recall, the correct answer to that question is “I’m a relentless perfectionist, and sometimes I’m too hard on myself.”) What more could I do than I am already doing to provide my students with a successful learning experience? Well, I could drop three-quarters of them in the first week, so that I would have more of an opportunity to mentor those who remained. I could become a far more dedicated activist to the cause of lowering textbook prices, so that my students would actually buy the books instead of trying to pass my classes on lecture notes alone. I could set up a Starbucks franchise in the corner of my classroom, so that the overworked and the over-videogamed could stay awake for a 9:00 a.m. lecture on Carrie Chapman Catt or Cato the Elder.
On the other hand, if the administration defines success as a passing grade, I could eliminate the requirement that my students form coherent English sentences. I could encourage the use of Wikipedia entries as a substitute for research papers. I could give A’s to the deserving and undeserving alike. I could, ala the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland after the races, announce that “Everyone has won, and all must have A’s”.
My colleagues and I are busting our collective behinds to reach students with limited English skills, who work three jobs, who are single parents, who are struggling with addiction. We teach five, six, and seven classes a semester, 35 to 40 students each. We have no readers or T.A.’s. But regardless, the new self-evaluation form insists that there must be more we could be doing. No matter how hard we’ve been trying, the question implies, the administration (staffed as it is by those who have rarely spent time in the classroom) feels strongly that we ought to be able to identify still more that we could be doing. Am I the only one reminded of a good old-fashioned Maoist self-criticism session?
As for the final question -- what more can the college do for us -- this is the one query that I’m confident will get an enthusiastic response. Yes, for starters, you can pay us more. You can reduce our teaching loads so that we can spend more time with our students. But above all, you can stop treating us like perpetual teenagers, doomed to a world of perpetual self-criticism and reinvention. Some of us will change over the course of our career for the better, some for the worse. And some -- not an insignificant number, either -- will continue to bring to the classroom what they have always brought, teaching at 50 much as they did at 30. Will their students be the worse off for it? I suspect not.
Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.
In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.
The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?
Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!
For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”
The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.
This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.
In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.
But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.
Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.
But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.
Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.
Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”
A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.
Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.
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.