The word “criticism” shares the same root as “crisis” -- a bit of fortuitous etymology that everyone in literary studies remembers from time to time, whether in the context of sublime theoretical arguments (interpretation at the edge of the abyss!) or while dealing with the bottom-line obstacles to publishing one more monograph. Not to mention all the “criticism/crisis” musing that goes on at this time of year as people finish their papers for MLA, sometimes with minutes to spare.
Once this season of crisis management is past, I hope readers will turn their attention to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s new book The Character of Criticism (Routledge). Harpham, who is president and director of the National Humanities Center, offers a meditation on what happens (in the best case, anyway) when a literary scholar encounters literary text. Most of the book consists of close examination of the work of four major figures -- Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said – who bring very different methods and mores to the table when performing the critic’s task. The contrast between Nussbaum and Å½iÅ¾ek, in particular, seems potentially combustible.
But the book is not a study in the varieties of critical engagement possible now, given our capacious theoretical toolkits. Harpham’s argument is that literary criticism is a distinct type of act performed by (and embodying) a specific type of agent. We don’t read criticism just for information, or to see concepts refined or tested. Criticism is, at its best, a product of “cognitive freedom,” as Harpham puts it.
“Interpretation represents a moment at which cognition is not absolutely bound by necessity to produce a particular result,” he writes, “...and this moment serves as a portal through which character, an individual way of being in the world, enters the work.”
In the week just before the MLA convention, I interviewed Harpham by email about his book -- a discussion that led, in due course, to asking him for his thoughts on the MLA's recent report on scholarship and tenure. A transcript of the discussion runs below.
But first I want to quote some favorite lines in The Character of Criticism. They appear in a section drawing out, at some length, the parallel between literary criticism and the kinds of responsiveness and responsibility before “The Word” one finds in, say, Saint Augustine.
“The act of writing a critical text,” as Harpham puts it, “reaches deep into oneself, testing one’s acuity, responsiveness, erudition, and staying power. But critical writing also tests attributes normally considered as moral qualities, including the capacity to suspend one’s own interests and desires and to make of oneself a perfect instrument for registering the truth of The Word.”
Easier said than done, of course. Harpham goes on to describe the obligations thus imposed on the critic, thereby fashioning a new identity in the process. Here’s a passage in a format suitable to be printed out, clipped, and posted near one’s computer monitor for sober contemplation:
“One must .... wish to be regarded as a person who can overcome insubordinate impulses, remove clutter and distractions from the field of vision, isolate the main issues, set aside conventional views, persevere through difficulties, set high standards, see beneath appearances, form general propositions from particulars, see particulars within the context of general propositions, make rigorous and valid inferences from concrete evidence, be responsive without being obsessive, take delight without becoming besotted, concentrate without obsession, be suspicious without being withholding, be fair without being equivocal, be responsive to the moment without being indiscriminate in one’s enthusiasms, and so forth.” --Geoffrey Galt Harpham
That final clause -- “and so forth” -- is really something. Talk about criticism and crisis! The prospect of adding more to that list of demands is either inspiring or terrifying, I suppose, depending on the state of one’s character....
Here's the interview:
Q: We use the word "character" as a way of talking about a fictive person. We also use it, when talking about real people, to refer to a definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes (something durable, if not inflexible, about how they deal with other people). And then, of course, there's the old-fashioned, moralistic sense -- as in referring to someone "having character" or "being of weak character." When you write about the role of character in academic literary criticism, which of these usages fits best? Any secret yearning to be William Bennett motivating your work?
A: Since I’m talking about the character of criticism, your second version, the “definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes,” is the most pertinent for my purposes. But the first usage, referring to fictive people, is also relevant, because fictive characters have to exhibit more consistency than real people, just in order to be recognizable from one textual moment to the next. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the two are linked, that personal consistency is a self-imposed constraint or “fiction” that makes us recognizable to ourselves and others.
To me, the most powerful instances of criticism are those in which the drama of perception and understanding, which is also a moral drama in the broadest sense, is somehow visible in a shadowy way, encoded or encrypted in the critical text. I’ve always been struck by the fact that the criticism that impressed me most deeply managed to suggest an intimate encounter, even a kind of wrestling, between a strong, committed, informed, and responsive mind and a cultural text that probed and tested that mind, revealing its powers, limitations, and dispositions -- in short, its character. Part of the character of criticism is its capacity to reveal the character of the critic, even in ways the critic has no knowledge of. In fact, I think that criticism is, or can be, one of the most interesting ways of manifesting character.
Any yearning I had to be William Bennett was more than satisfied when I became president of the National Humanities Center: He was one of my four predecessors, before he went to Washington to serve in the Reagan administration. He is, however, interesting in terms of all three of your definitions of character. Because he does not display consistent behaviors (scolding people about their lack of moral strength on the one hand, compulsive gambling with horrific results in Vegas on the other), he has come to be seen as a kind of “fictive person,” one that exists only in books -- his books. Some people, inspired perhaps by those very books, might draw old-fashioned moral conclusions.
Q: Your first chapter has a long section describing a sort of ideal-typical "critical character" (so to speak) through an account of the act or process of critical writing as testimony to the power of a definitive encounter with a text. It’s powerful. But it’s also utterly inapplicable to an awful lot of critical prose one comes across, whether in academic books or journals or at sessions of MLA. The tenure-driven critical encounter often seems like an effort to apply some exciting new theoretical gizmo to a problem that would otherwise be uninteresting except as an occasion for trying out said gizmo. Or is that completely wrong? Is criticism as vocation (the response to a call) actually surviving amidst all the so-called "professionalization"?
A: I agree that the optimal “critical character” is rare, and for good reason. First, one has to be not only a critic, with a certain kind of education and professional opportunities, but also an unusually interesting person, one whose responses to the world are consistent, valuable, and meaningful, significant in a larger sense because they seem to proceed from some set of commitments and convictions rooted in human experience. Then, one has to be willing and able to expose oneself to a text, to respond without defensiveness, to be alive to a challenge. And lastly, one has to be able to write in such a way that both adheres to professional decorums and does something more by giving the reader some sense of the experience of coming to grips with an object of great significance and value.
In addition to the critics I discuss in my book (Scarry, Nussbaum, Å½iÅ¾ek, Said), I can think of a number of others, but really, it’s a wonder anybody can do this. Much of what goes on in the world of literary studies (including gizmo R & D) supports the very best work by providing a professional context for it. Such work can be honorable without being heroic; it can, of course, also be neither. But the best work is done by those who are personally invested in it. I think if more people felt this way about criticism, their work and even their careers would profit and the whole field would be more interesting.
I have learned a great deal about the profession of literary studies from studies of professionalization, but I do not think that criticism benefits from a heightened awareness among critics of their status as professionals. It’s a difficult situation. As marginal and undervalued as literary scholars are at most colleges and universities, they need to develop their own credentialing structures just to keep their sense of dignity intact. But nothing kills the authentic spirit of criticism faster, or deader, than a consciousness of one’s own professional circumstances. Criticism is a professional discourse, but the sternest test of criticism is whether it can communicate even its most refined or challenging thinking in the vernacular.
I would not call criticism a vocation in the Weberian sense; nor would I call it a calling, as if it were a summons you could not refuse without disgracing yourself or violating your own deepest nature. But the greatest critics, the ones who animate and advance the discussion, do seem to have a certain need or urgency to communicate in this form that comes from within.
Q: Well, I want to challenge you a bit on part of that last answer. "Criticism is a professional discourse," you say. But that calls to mind R.P. Blackmur's statement to the contrary: his definition of criticism as "the formal discourse of an amateur." He meant, among other things, that the critic's role was connected pretty closely to the activity of the artist -- that it is a loving ("ama-teur") participation in the making and assimilation of literary form (even if at a certain, well, formal distance). Besides, the idea that there is anything particularly academic about literary criticism is a very recent development in cultural history. In 1920, an English professor who wrote criticism was doing something a little undignified and certainly "unprofessional." So how is it that all of this has changed? Or has it? If asked to name a recent critic whose work really manifested a strong sense of character as you've described it, I'd tend to think of James Wood, who's never been an academic at all.
A: I'll push back a bit on that one, even if it forces me to defend what I have just criticized. Blackmur began his career of poetry and editing in the 1920's; his critical career was finished over a half-century ago. And he was unusual even in the company of amateurs that dominated the literary scene at that time in that he did not have a B.A. Moreover, at the same time as Blackmur was advocating critical amateurism, John Crowe Ransom was writing "Criticism, Inc.," an early manifesto for professional academic criticism (1938). So even in Blackmur's time, his position was not the only, or even the dominant, position being enunciated.
I doubt that most people today would find criticism written in 1920 particularly interesting unless it was written by T. S. Eliot. Come to think of it, with the exception of Eliot's The Sacred Wood, I don't know of one durable, much less memorable piece of criticism that appeared in that year. Modern literature (post-Wordsworth) was not taught in universities, and criticism was necessarily confined to newspapers and journals like Hound and Horn, Blackmur's journal. The total situation today is different, and I don't think that we get a purchase on the present by reminiscing about the old days. Nor is James Wood an argument on your side. He is comfortable outside the academy, as is Louis Menand. But today, they're both at Harvard, Wood in a non-tenure-track position. They are part of the reason that (I contend) Harvard has, right now, the greatest English department ever assembled.
Universities provide jobs and -- in the case of Harvard -- ask little in return. Of course, the university does determine, in large ways and small, what goes on in criticism. Still, precisely because so little is explicitly demanded, an individual critic should find it possible to cultivate that "ama-teur" orientation that -- as I gather you feel -- is the precondition of character in criticism. If it were impossible, I would expect and even hope that talented young people would leave the profession (as I'll call it) in droves.
Q: The question of what counts as scholarship, and how it gets counted, is very much in the air, now, given the recent MLA task force report. The four figures whose work you examine in The Character of Criticism (Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said) have produced work in the usual venues and formats of scholarly publication. But all of them have been active in other ways -- through public-intellectual commentary, but also as activists, at least to some degree. Can you draw any lessons from their examples that might be useful now, as other critic try to figure out how to respond to the felt need to change the circumstances of academic work?
A: This question approaches some very swampy ground, and my response may not get us on dry land altogether.
One easy response to the general problem you describe would be to declare that "the circumstances of academic work" have already changed, and that blogging, chatting, intervening in online discussions, and "public intellectual commentary" conducted in non-academic forums should be recognized by promotion-and-tenure committees as valid academic work, to be considered alongside books and articles in scholarly journals.
Even though this, too, is an easy response, I disagree. Universities pay you to do university work and they are not obliged to accept just any view of what counts. And, as an abstract proposition, it is important, both to oneself and one's readers, that one has established one's scholarly credentials before one weighs in. I say "as an abstract proposition" because I'm all too aware that our credentialing procedures, even at the very best universities, are, shall we way, non-ideal. But in theory the discipline and skills acquired in the course of mastering a certain body of knowledge and finding one's voice in an established discourse serve one very well. None of the people I discuss in my book were public intellectuals at the beginning of their careers, with the exception of Å½iÅ¾ek, who was operating in a very different environment. Nor, for that matter, were Noam Chomsky, Stanley Fish, Walter Benn Michaels, Skip Gates, Paul Krugman, or even Michael Bérubé.
One may think that it's stifling to insist that gifted young people hold their tongues until they prove themselves to their elders, but I don't see it that way. They aren't holding their tongues; they're doing what they were hired to do, and what they presumably love doing; and in the process they are preparing themselves so that if and when they do speak out on public matters in a public forum, they speak with an authority gained over years of reflection on the archive of human creative accomplishment. A distinguished professor, enraged, is a force to be reckoned with.
I know that the real effects of tenure, from an institutional point of view, are to depress faculty pay and encourage people to serve on committees. But among its side effects is a certain measure of protection for people who exercise their freedom of speech in oppositional ways. In fact, I think that tenure imposes a certain burden on one's conscience to do what one can when the situation calls for action.
Q: OK, but the new venues and potentials for digital publication represent only one part of the changing circumstances in academic work. The task force addressed the larger question of what kinds of scholarly activity count for tenure. Any thoughts on the rest of the report?
A: I've thought about tenure a good deal, especially in 2000-1, when I headed a university-wide committee on faculty evaluations and rewards at Tulane. Tulane was a perfect place for this debate to take shape because it was not an elite institution, but routinely compared itself to Brown, Northwestern, Emory, Rice, and Vanderbilt. In other words, faculty were encouraged to think of themselves as serious researchers, even though most of them were not -- if they were, the comparisons would have been more realistic.
What I found over the course of that year and a half was that the contemporary debate on tenure was being driven by a variety of forces, including state legislatures hostile to academia in general, conservative academics hostile to elite institutions, high-powered researchers at those very elite institutions, and a great many ordinary academics who were doing lots of committee work and teaching and wanted to be recognized, with promotions and salary increases, just like those who were publishing regularly. "Flexibility" was the key phrase: universities were encouraged to reward flexibility, as individuals realized themselves in their various ways. Our committee found several problems associated with "flexibility," each one of which we considered insurmountable.
The first was that it granted extraordinary powers to department chairs to work out individualized agreements with faculty members, and that was a recipe for corruption and cynicism. Second, it eroded faculty governance by making department chairs into members of the administration, rather than volunteers arising within the faculty. Third, it meant that the rank of professor at an AAU, Carnegie I institution would not mean anything in particular, and that would lead to a loss in status for all.
In principle, I was not opposed to "flexible" rewards for faculty, but I thought that each institution had to decide what it wanted to be, and how its faculty should be expected to think of themselves. At the top research universities, flexibility is a very bad idea: All faculty should be seen as having jumped over the same bars. At flagship state institutions, it's still a bad idea. But from there on down -- and at Tulane, one of the questions we had to face was exactly where we stood -- the issue was not so clearcut. Many colleges and universities may wish to reward superb teaching or loyal service to the institution with rank and salary increases.
The MLA recommendation that speaks most clearly to this issue is the one about the "letter of understanding" that institutions should issue to their faculty, outlining the expectations. But such explicitness would cause as much grief as it alleviated. It's a buyer's market for faculty, so lower-down institutions have a realistic chance to staff their faculties with Ph.D.'s from top-tier universities, and many do. These young stars may arrive still thinking of themselves as eminent-scholars-in-the-making. If they were given an official document stating that they were not to think of themselves in that way, it would have a demoralizing effect on them, their colleagues, and their students; it would be seen as a way of capping aspiration and upward mobility, and that would be inconsistent with the very idea of higher education.
If the letter of understanding outlined strict requirements for tenure and promotion, it would encourage precisely the wrong state of mind (checking the boxes) for real scholarship or intellectual inquiry. And if it said that there are many excellent self-realizing things you can do to be rewarded, then it would in effect abandon the very concept of "standards," and that, too, would be destructive.
Q: Whatever its potentially morale-killing effect, the "letter of understanding" would at least be explicit. Do you have an alternative in mind?
A: In a sense I do.
Each institution has to come to a rough understanding of itself, leaving enough room for anomalous individuals to be judged on terms appropriate to their contribution. I'm afraid there is no substitute for the act of judgment exercised case by case by people who are presumed to be competent. Though that presumption can be challenged in individual instances, it must be maintained, because it and it alone ensures faculty governance.
I speak from experience here. I -- like Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, M.H. Abrams, and many others -- was denied tenure (many years ago, at Penn), so I know how difficult it can be to maintain one's faith in the competence and judgment of one's betters. But the experience builds and tests character. Which is where we began, isn't it?
(A number of Harpham’s recent papers -- several of them overlapping with the themes of his new book – are available here.)
The Modern Language Association’s recent report from its Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion offers an opportunity to review some of our commonly accepted notions about the role of research in the definition of faculty productivity. The report is worth the considerable effort required to read through its 100 pages of survey data, evaluations, prescriptions and recommendations. Most of us will find its conclusion about tenure reassuring: The rate of tenure acquisition for tenure-track faculty is high and stable. We may be less sure about the significance of its findings about the growing number of non-tenure track faculty (part and full-time) in our institutions.
More interesting, however, is the extensive discussion of the nature of scholarly productivity. The MLA task force clearly struggled with this issue, and it is this struggle that makes the report so interesting. The report explicitly addresses what it calls the gold standard of the research monograph, which means a book length, usually single author publication that presents original research to an expert public, frequently through the medium of a university press. The report worries that this method places too restrictive a burden on young faculty, devalues the research-based article, and may result in overlong articles being presented as books. University tenure committees, the report indicates, may be off-loading the responsibility for evaluating research onto the editors and reviewers of university presses. At the same time, the report’s surveys do not yet support a conclusion that the current method of evaluating research has disadvantaged young scholars in the tenure process.
One of the great strengths of the MLA task force report is its effort to distinguish among different types of institutions, recognizing that the importance of research publication for tenure varies significantly by type of institution and that the patterns of evaluation that characterize the top research universities tend to propagate to other institutions with different missions. The report endorses the well-known case for redefining scholarship to include activities in addition to original research -- editorial work, translations, bibliographies, textbooks, essays, pedagogical writings and even exceptional classroom teaching. Although this is not a topic easily resolved, the common expectations that drive this research focused behavior warrant a closer look.
Departments in colleges and universities, where most of the critical decisions about tenure and promotion are made, reflect the goals and expectations of their scholarly guilds (in the case of the modern language departments, these scholarly guilds are represented by the MLA). These guilds, while they speak expansively about broadening the definition of research to include other forms of scholarship, tend to focus their attention on the rarest of academic talents. Original research appearing in scholarly monographs published by university presses is valued because it is difficult to produce and therefore rare.
College and university prestige (whether established by ranking organizations or popular culture) rest on the acquisition of the individuals capable of producing these rare and difficult works on a constant and consistent basis. The best universities in the world have the highest number of faculty capable of producing works of original research. This is not restricted to the guilds associated with the MLA, although the MLA report is a wonderful testimony to the process. Even as the report argues for the expansion of the definition of scholarship to include many other activities not precisely defined by original published research, it reinforces our understanding of the high prestige associated with the original research publication.
Many commentators worry about the increased competitiveness of colleges and universities, each institution seeking to purchase for higher and higher prices a greater share of the limited supply of high quality students and research capable faculty. Yet the marketplaces that support universities -- parents, students, faculty, legislators, donors, funding agencies, corporations -- all express a strong preference for the presence of these rare talents in academic settings. The issue for academics is not really whether faculty members should develop a broad portfolio of accomplishments in teaching, scholarship of all kinds, public service and civic engagement. Rather, the issue is whether universities can avoid concentrating on identifying and acquiring faculty whose skills will make their university or college campus most competitive. This perspective, ruthlessly businesslike though it is, provides a clear explanation of the behavior of colleges and universities and their academic guilds, and it highlights some characteristics of the academic environment that we might prefer were different.
Colleges and universities have few ways of defining and demonstrating their excellence other than presenting various measures of scarcity. The market assumes that if a campus attracts a large share of scarce, high SAT and high GPA students, its overall quality is better than another campus with lower SAT and lower GPA students. The market also assumes that a campus with a large share of the scarce faculty who consistently publish original research is a high quality campus. These indicators of scarcity are highly reliable measures, even if we can debate at great length whether what they measure is of greater intrinsic value than something else we do not measure as reliably.
Longtime observers of the academic scene know that original research talent is much more fragile than teaching or scholarship or civic engagement talent. Over a 25- to 30-year career, more faculty will sustain consistently good performance as teachers than will sustain consistently productive careers publishing original research. At the beginning, we do not know which of the recently tenured, research productive faculty will sustain that productivity for the next 25 or 30 years. The institution, understanding the importance of these research-productive faculty in validating their external competitive reputations, places extraordinary emphasis on improving the results of the tenure process by focusing intensively on the quantity and quality of published original research. The result is what the MLA observes: increased standards for published research productivity for tenure.
To some extent the excellent recommendations in the MLA Task Force report lose some of their persuasiveness absent a recognition of the powerful marketplace forces that drive all colleges and universities to emulate the competitive standards of the most prestigious research institutions. Whether we view the marketplace influence on college and university values as pernicious or not, we still must recognize that the primary participants in this marketplace are our faculty, students, alumni, trustees, donors, and other friends. Their preferences, expressed through their marketplace choices, reinforce the academy’s intense focus on original published research.
We would like to see the next MLA task force review the language of academic quality as represented in college promotion materials, in the endlessly popular commercial ranking systems, and in the references to quality visible in the popular culture of news magazines, movies, television, and Internet chatter. As is often the case, we are likely to find that the enemy of the good practices we recommend is us.
In one of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote, "Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." This sense of being a part of a time of incessant change animates the 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Begun in 2004, it is a rich, important document for anyone who wishes to reflect upon the contemporary rivers and streams of change of the academy.
I come to the report as a dean, specifically a graduate dean of arts and science in a large research university. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, I am no emperor. I find it a privilege to be a dean, even though the job has tempered my habitual optimism with stoicism. To oversimplify, the report treats the theme of change in the profession of modern languages and literature in three ways: the structural changes in United States higher education since World War II and their consequences for the humanities, especially for humanities faculty members; changes in the granting of tenure and promotion that people feared might happen but that seem not to have happened, at least not yet; and changes that ought to happen if the profession is to be wise, academically and socially useful, and robust.
Among the most important changes that the report explores is the well-documented rise of positions, full-time and part-time, that are off the tenure ladder. Tenure is increasingly limited to research universities and more affluent liberal arts colleges. Yet again, the rich are getting richer. As a dean, I miss in the report a passionate yet logical definition and defense of tenure that I might use for several audiences --- the tuition-paying students who quickly turn to instant messaging in a class taught by a member of the Dead Wood Society, the trustees who wonder why academics should have job security when almost no one else does. I can make such a defense, and have, but if tenure matters -- and an implicit conviction of the MLA task force is that it does -- then the defense must emanate from all of us who believe in it.
One pervasive anxiety explored in the report concerns a student’s life after the doctorate. The MLA report estimates that of every 100 English and foreign language doctoral recipients, 60 will be hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. Of them, 38 will be considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of them, 34 will be awarded tenure. The report, unfortunately, cannot say what happens to the 22 who leave the institution where they were hired before the tenure ordeal. In my experience, some get recruited to another institution. Some drop out because they will believe they will not get tenure. Some take administrative jobs within higher education, and are judged as administrators, but still do vital scholarship and teaching. Some go on to non-academic careers, for which graduate school in the humanities still insufficiently prepares them.
As a graduate dean, even as I wonder about the 22 doctoral recipients who leave the institution that first offered them a tenure-track job and even as I celebrate the 34 Ph.D.s who do get tenure-track jobs, I feel that now well-honed guilt, anger, and concern about the 40 who are not hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. To be sure, some deliberately and happily choose not to go on in academic life, but others would prefer to become academics. Despite all the national studies, including this report, about the oversupply of doctorates in the humanities, self-interested, faculty-controlled graduate programs are still too reluctant to limit admissions, still suspicious about doing regional coordination of graduate curricula and courses, and still petitioning for more financial aid and more students to teach. It is vulgar to call this a case of “Bring in the clones,” but the phenomenon yet again reveals, I have sadly concluded, how much easier it is to act on behalf of one’s self and one’s family, here the department or program, than on behalf of more abstract and psychologically distant goods, here the well-being of potential graduate students and of the profession as a whole.
The MLA report’s signal contribution is the call, by an impeccable committee of leading humanists, for a serious rethinking of scholarship and scholarly inquiry, which would then have ramifications for the conduct of academic institutions. I can see nothing but good coming out of such a rethinking, to be undertaken both nationally and locally, faculty member by faculty member, department by department, and institution by institution, as each articulates its particular role in the academic and social landscape. These roles will and should differ. Each will be important. The royal road to national prominence can take a number of routes and be paved with a variety of materials --- from yellow bricks to high-tech composites.
More specifically, the MLA report urges us to ask why the monograph has become the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, “the gold standard.” Why not the essay, or a series of linked essays? Why not other forms of scholarly achievement? And why must the dissertation be a “proto-book?” Why indeed? Is there any other form that the dissertation might take? I once had a conversation with a leading Renaissance scholar shortly after I became a graduate dean. “What is the most important reform in graduate education?” I asked. “Change the dissertation,” she said. Surely what matters about the dissertation is less the exact format than a form that displays what this capstone activity must display: respect for past work coupled with originality, independence of thought, and the capacity for sustained inquiry. Rhetorical flair would be nice, too. I have also argued for some years that the humanities graduate curriculum needs a vigorous overhaul, offering more common courses that programs share, including some introductory courses that would comprise a general education for graduate education. Among them could be, at long last, a required course in the ethics and history of scholarship.
Moreover, because of those new communications technologies, much scholarly inquiry is now being done digitally. Some of the most important work about and in digitalized scholarship is appearing from university presses, an invaluable resource that the task force correctly praises and for which it seeks more institutional resources. Yet many departments are clueless, all thumbs in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, in doing evaluations of digital scholarship that respect peer review. Of the departments in doctorate-granting institutions that responded to the MLA’s survey, 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent have no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This finding is similar to that of another useful study, here of five departments, including English-language literature, at the University of California at Berkeley. It concludes that what matters most in judging scholarship is peer review, but e-publishing is still tainted because peer review does not seem to have touched it sufficiently. Scholars are willing to experiment with digital communications. However, for nearly all, the “final, archival publication” must still appear in a traditional format. Only if faculty values change, the Berkeley report correctly suggests, will scholarly communications change. Deans may propose, but faculty actually dispose in questions of academic and curricular values.
The MLA report rightly argues that the academy tightly couples the canons of scholarly accomplishments with the awarding of tenure and promotion. In brief, a faculty member gets the latter if s/he respects the former. Even as the report asks for a re-evaluation of these canons, it offers a series of recommendations for the administering of a transparent, fair tenure and promotion process. For the most part, these are sensible, and indeed, I was surprised that they are not already installed as best practices at most institutions. Of course, if possible, institutions should give junior faculty start-up packages if the institution is to require research and publication. Of course, “collegiality” should not be an explicit criterion for tenure, because it might reward the good child and punish the up-start. However, a dean cautions, because tenure is forever, at least on the part of the institution, it is legitimate to ask how a candidate will contribute to the institution’s long-term well-being.
From this admonitory dean’s perspective, the report strays into boggy ground in its brief analysis of appropriate relations between someone up for tenure and the external letters that a tenure dossier now requires. “Candidates,” it states, “should have the privilege and the responsibility of naming some of their potential reviewers (we recommend half)." Candidates, the report further argues, should be able to exclude one or two figures whom they believe might be prejudicial. This is a really bad idea. If tenure candidates were to have this power, the dispassionate and collective objectivity that is the putative value of peer review would be lost, and self-interest would fill the vacuum. Moreover, the temptations of cronyism, which external letters were meant to squash but which still flourishes among tenured faculty, might appear in a junior guise, accompanied by various modes of ingratiation with the powerful in a field who might then write a sweetly affirming letter.
Strangely, sensitive though the MLA report is to the growth in the number of non-tenure track jobs, and to the meaning of this growth, it is less radical than it might be in imagining the role of full-time, non-tenured scholars within an institution. The report argues, “The dramatic increase in the number of part-time non-tenure-track faculty members puts increased demands and pressure on all full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty members in many areas for which the casualized work force is not -- and should not be -- responsible: service on department committees and in departmental governance; student advising; teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses; directing dissertations; and, less concretely but no less importantly, contributing to intellectual community building in the department and outside it, in the college and university….” But surely a qualified non-tenured faculty member should be able to be a significant academic citizen. Surely the report does not mean to construct such a hierarchy of faculty members with the tenure-track faculty as the philosopher kings and queens and the non-tenure-track professors as credentialed drones. If the report had more fully defined and defended tenure, it might have explored more adequately the distinctions and the overlap between not having and having tenure.
Let me not end with caviling and quibbling, but instead reiterate my respect for the conviction expressed by the task force about the profession’s relation to change. It concludes, “It is up to us, then, the teacher-scholars of the MLA, to become agents in our academic systems and effect changes that reflect and instantiate appropriate standards of scholarly production and equity and transparency for our colleagues, our institutions, and our society.” Or, if a mere dean might revise the language of both a strong committee and an emperor, we neither helplessly observe nor flaccidly drift in the rivers of time. We shape their banks. We dam them or divert them or find new springs with which to refresh them. We build our rafts of thought and boats of words and navigate them. Bon voyage to us all.
Catharine R. Stimpson
Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a past president of the Modern Language Association.
The requests begin in August and, mercifully and hopefully, cease in January. The request can be in the form of a telephone call, email, letter, or, in the worst of circumstances, an overnight delivery package. The recipient of such requests should be honored; as such a request signifies one's status in the pantheon of accomplishment in the academy. However, the normal first reaction evokes the Mark Twain story about the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail -- "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon have walked."
And what high honor would most intelligent academics decline? The dreaded request for an external letter of evaluation for an individual being considered by his or her college or university for promotion and/or tenure. I do not know the exact history of the expectation that candidates for promotion and tenure be evaluated by professionals in their field from outside the candidate's university, but by the early 1980s such letters seemed to be a normative component of promotion dossiers. Those who send and receive such letters know the basic format: evaluate the candidate's scholarship, place the candidate among his or her peers in the field of expertise, and state whether the candidate would be promoted and/or tenured at comparable institutions.
It was a combination of the zeal of youth and quest for professional recognition that filled me with glee and self-satisfaction the first few times I was asked to prepare an external evaluation. Twenty years later I view the prospect of "external evaluation season" with the same joy I experience when I go for a root canal procedure.
It is not that the actual task of reviewing a colleague's scholarship and preparing a letter of evaluation is so onerous -- it is not. What I simply hate is the nearly complete professional disrespect that has become a routine part of the process. The following, in no particular order, are my pet peeves:
The unsolicited request. Granted it is not every time, but at least two or three times a year an overnight package arrives containing a letter requesting an external review, a CV, and a four-inch stack of papers, offprints, and perhaps even a book (which I am supposed to then return).
The "do it yesterday" request. From the deadlines that accompany the request, I assume that my colleagues at other colleges and universities assume I am just sitting around reading The New York Times waiting impatiently for the opportunity to evaluate a colleague. Not very likely. It is incomprehensible to me that the individuals who select external reviewers, probably because of some perceived stature in the field, then go ahead and assume such a person will drop everything to prepare a careful and thoughtful evaluation.
Read everything the person ever wrote. The sending along a four-inch stack of reprints is just a waste of your money and my time. Most of us are just not going to read all this stuff, especially if we are given a short time frame. If the candidate is stellar and worthy of promotion, at least to professor, we have probably read the good stuff already.
The "reminder." Sometime close to the deadline, if you have not yet submitted the evaluation, the requestor will inevitably send a reminder that the review is due "Friday." Yes, I know the deadline is approaching. I also know you want it Friday to reduce your own anxiety -- it is not like someone is going to spend the weekend reading my thoughtful prose. But the reminder would not be as aggravating if it were not for...
The complete lack of courtesy after the review has been submitted. Here is my scoreboard for this year. Seven requests for external reviews; five reminders, zero acknowledgements that the review was received (even though all were sent overnight -- granted, because I was at the deadline), zero thank you's; and in most years, zero follow-ups reporting that the individual had been promoted or tenured (I don't expect to hear about negative decisions).
OK, so now I have vented. But that will not eliminate the process of impolitely seeking external evaluations. So, now let me propose some minor suggestions for infusing common, professional respect into the process:
Ask the reviewer if he or she has the time and would be willing to prepare an external review.
Think like an academic. Send the request and set a deadline that fits the academic calendar. Never send a request in November and expect a response by December; never send a request in March and expect a response by the end of the semester.
Prune the pile. Ask the candidate to select no more than three (3) of his or her best publications or the like.
Provide a pre-paid overnight mail label. Hey, if you want me to invest my time to do the review, at least invest $19 so you will get it back.
Acknowledge receiving the review. An e-mail or postcard would be just fine.
Say thank you. A note or even an e-mail would be fine. I will admit that some colleges can go a little over-the top. Years ago the University of Notre Dame paid me $100 for a review. That seemed a bit too much. However, one university just sent a colleague of mine a $20 gift certificate to Borders as a way or thanking her for her review. I believe my colleague will truly now look forward to doing external reviews for that institution.
I would strongly advise universities and colleges that seek external evaluations to consider all of the above suggestions. Otherwise, before too long, your requests will evoke the same response that telemarketers get from most people they call, and your response rate will be about the same as those of telemarketers.
Richard J. Gelles
Richard J. Gelles is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
Submitted by Hank Brown on March 26, 2007 - 4:00am
Tenure is to higher education what Latin is to romance languages: essential to its fabric, not widely understood by the public and in danger of becoming anachronistic.
Yet tenure is as vital to the success of higher education as Latin is to the structure of our language. But in its current form, the age-old process of promoting and retaining quality faculty members is in danger of going the way of Olde English.
The first step toward an effective tenure system is examining and strengthening what exists. Subsequent steps should look at how it might be improved. It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so. Much of the scrutiny we are under is of our own creation. Colleges and universities have been less than forthcoming with the public and legislators about tenure, leading to the suspicion that higher education’s primary focus is protecting its own rather than guaranteeing the highly effective and productive teachers and researchers that students and taxpayers deserve.
I am president of the University of Colorado, which like many major public research systems, has struggled to ensure the centuries-old concept of tenure is relevant and effective at a competitive, contemporary university system. Our university found itself in the midst of a crisis in 2005 when a firestorm erupted over a tenured professor, Ward Churchill. Questions about tenure were a small but important part of the controversy, causing some of Colorado’s elected leaders to contemplate intervention into and oversight of tenure.
If there was a silver lining, it was that the episode galvanized faculty leaders and the Board of Regents into action. The university in March 2005 launched a comprehensive, systematic review of all its tenure-related processes, from point of hire through post-tenure review and dismissal for cause. It proved to be perhaps the most thorough tenure review effort ever undertaken at a major American university system, and the 40 recommendations adopted from the year-long process are leading to a clearer, more robust and more rigorous tenure system.
The University of Colorado’s experience may be illustrative to other institutions considering tenure reform, or at the basic level, a tenure-processes audit. While some may see the effort as a hill not worth climbing, much less dying on, the journey was worth taking for us. Here’s why. Public confidence in academic tenure, much less its understanding of the concept, is dropping. To reduce this downward trend, we must be transparent in our processes and straightforward in our explanations of why tenure is necessary and how it works. These steps are crucial to tenure’s future, just as tenure is crucial to the academy’s and America’s long-term well being and international competitiveness.
The university’s Board of Regents, after consulting faculty governance leaders, appointed an Advisory Committee on Tenure-Related Processes to conduct a thorough review of processes for awarding and maintaining tenure. Three regents, faculty from each of the university system’s campuses and a graduate student comprised the committee. A provost from one of the campuses chaired the committee. The regents were clear that they wanted an independent review they believed was critical to the integrity of the process. Retired Air Force General Howell M. Estes, III, who was well regarded in the state and familiar with complex undertakings, but who importantly had no prior experience with or opinions of tenure, was asked to lead the independent review.
The review was conducted in four phases: planning, data gathering/report writing, feedback/evaluation, and implementation. Two separate groups (internal working group and external working group) worked independently, but on parallel tracks. The internal group comprised 14 veteran faculty from across the system; a nationally known consulting firm formed the external group. The groups received the same charge but worked independently.
Four goals guided the process: to rebuild public confidence in the university’s tenure-related processes and tenure in general; to ensure students receive the best possible education by hiring, developing and maintaining a nationally acclaimed cadre of tenure track faculty; to maximize the university’s investment in its faculty; and to provide clear, understandable explanations to the public and university community on the importance of tenure and the university’s tenure-related processes.
They reviewed all tenure-related processes and how they were being implemented. The two groups conducted nearly 160 interviews with those involved with awarding tenure or conducting post-tenure review. The university’s processes were benchmarked against those at 19 peer universities and 10 schools of medicine. The external group performed a confidential audit of 95 randomly selected tenure files, the first time tenure files had been opened to independent scrutiny in the university’s history.
The internal and external groups came together for the first time to write the report in December 2005. While the separate groups came to many of the same conclusions, they also tended to fill in gaps for each other.
The report they produced noted that tenure processes do many things right. But the caveat was that they were not followed as rigorously as they need to be, either in granting tenure or in post-tenure review. The latter activity was particularly problematic. Accountability for faculty performance was lacking, documentation of individual faculty strengths and weaknesses was insufficient, and there was no meaningful system of incentives and sanctions.
New policies for junior faculty mentoring and tenure and tenure-track faculty professional development were implemented to enhance the success of faculty contributions to the university.
The university’s dismissal for cause process was also found wanting, particularly in its inability to conduct and conclude processes in a timely manner. Separately, concerns were raised about the lack of policies to address the circumstances under which tenured faculty should be removed from the classroom, especially in those situations when students are being adversely affected.
The advisory committee did a good job of recognizing and reporting on the parts of the process that need improvement. It made 40 recommendations that range from periodic audits of tenure files by external groups to shortening the dismissal for cause timeline (to less than six months; by contrast, the Churchill proceedings have taken nearly two years and are ongoing). But the process did not stop with recommendations. The advisory committee reviewed each recommendation with an eye toward practicality, budget implications and relative importance. Recommendations were labeled desirable, important or critical.
With the report in the public domain, feedback was sought from internal and external constituents. Faculty assemblies on each of the university’s three campuses weighed in, as did the public, particularly state political leaders, who had tenure on their radar screen in light of the Churchill controversy. His case proceeded under the old rules, but the shadow it cast informed changes to the process.
With a report filed and public input gathered, it would be easy to deem the process complete and get back to business as usual. This would be dangerous. Implementation is key, and if it is not accomplished effectively, all will have been for naught. An effective accountability system is imperative.
While the university’s system-wide faculty council has adopted the recommendations and changes have been made and approved into Regent Laws and Policies, it will be up to academic leadership to ensure that there are incentives in place to recognize good performance and consequences for poor performance. It’s early on in that process; each campus is busy developing specifics.
The university is working to keep the issue high on the priority list and to keep the discussion of tenure alive. Presentations about recommendations and changes have been made to faculty and academic staff across the system. A Web site is being developed to provide clear, concise definitions about tenure for internal and external audiences. The university is committed to annual reports on tenure to the public. It will publicize aggregate data on who applies and gets hired, who receives tenure and who does not, as well as summary results of post-tenure reviews. The reporting will be within the bounds of personnel rules.
The advisory committee has established several measures for what success will look like, including:
Routine independent audits of processes.
Faculty leaders’ understanding of the recommendations and commitment to them.
Accountability in all tenure-related processes.
Clear communication to the public.
The jury will be out for a while on the success of the endeavor, but early signs are positive. Faculty and academic administrators across the University of Colorado system are embracing the proposed changes, as is the Board of Regents.
The process the University of Colorado engaged in is an important first step toward ensuring tenure remains relevant and effective in tomorrow’s universities. Yet it is only the first step.
Discussions must move beyond tenure processes. We must now examine the tenure system itself, future career pathways for our increasingly diverse and mobile faculty, and standards of performance in a global academic marketplace. There may be alternative models to explore. Those discussions must involve a variety of stakeholders who focus on one key question: How do we create and maintain a rigorous and competitive tenure system that best meets the needs of our students and our publics, and best positions America for long-term success? Tomorrow’s students and the next generation of Americans deserve nothing less.
Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado system.
Now that I have successfully achieved tenure at an R1, I feel the need to speak about what I have learned in the process. Some of this drive to write is because I want to share important lessons, but I also am compelled by the frustration and fear my junior colleagues share in facing the lack of clarity in expectations for tenure. (NOTE: I am writing this with my field in mind, which is an article-driven, empirically-oriented, positivist-dominated field.)
This lack of clarity is endemic to the nature of a process that is both institutional and extra-institutional, discipline-specific and interdisciplinary. That is, candidates are reviewed by people in their disciplines who are outside the school, people within their department or school, and people in the larger university. Each set of these folks has their own standards, and then there are differences within each group as well. (In one of the programs where I used to work, every member of the tenure committee outlined completely different standards and approaches to evaluating a candidate for tenure. That was not reassuring!)
To wit, my department values a variety of scholarship (theoretical, empirical, pedagogical, conceptual, etc.) and expects outstanding teaching in addition to one's ability to publish. Our expectations regarding publications are clearly quantified, although there are unspoken expectations regarding the high quality of publications and venues. There also is nothing in our written standards about single or co-authored articles or a need for external grant funding.
Within the larger discipline, however, there is a higher value on empirically-oriented articles, particularly articles that address the main topical issues in our field, and many R1 scholars would consider a lack of single-authored articles an indication of a lack of ability. Further, in the frenzy for funding at all R1s, some scholars would consider a candidate without external grant funding to be a failure and untenurable. While we send external readers a copy of our standards, reviewers read tenure files with their biases firmly intact.
These issues become more complicated at the college and university levels, where people in a variety of disciplines try to interpret candidates' work from their own disciplinary perspective. Scientists think nothing of articles with four or more co-authors, while those in the humanities may struggle to value articles over books. Further, some academics simply fail to value others in different disciplines. My friends who have served on university tenure committees tell me it is not uncommon for people to make fun of candidates' research areas, methods, and even the names of journals in different fields. Sometimes, when people on these committees find they have little to say about the candidates or their work, they find it easier to nitpick (e.g., "Why didn't the candidate publish an article in 2001 or 2003, and then publish 3 articles in both 2002 and 2004?").
What I take away from these many differences is that it is important for candidates to think about all of their audiences and be as proactive as possible in addressing the concerns of each. Some of these concerns can be addressed early in one's career:
Make a plan for how many articles or grant proposals you want to write each year. Return to the plan a lot, updating it with successes, failures, and amendments. And keep your eye on the tenure clock at all times.
Always be working on something: initial write, rewrite, grant prospectus, etc. I try to work on several things at the same time -- then, if I hate the article I am writing, I move to the prospectus and work on that. I convince myself that I am being rebellious and decadent (not writing what I am supposed to be writing), while still getting work done.
If you are doing a research project, map out the articles that can come from that project. Try to get at least three articles out of each project, either through a division of findings/topics or a mixture of conceptual and empirical pieces.
If you have to write grants for tenure, consider working in groups. Ask to join an ongoing project or ask someone senior to assist with your project. No one said you have to be funded all by yourself!
If you work in teams, work out a deal in which some of the articles will be single authored and some will be jointly authored.
Mix up the lead authorship for the jointly-authored articles so you can be lead author on one or more of them. It makes a difference!
Send your articles out to a variety of venues; don't publish in just one or two places. Pay attention to the status of the journal ... all journals are not considered equal. Ask around about a journal before you choose it. (Ignore this by year four -- start focusing on quick turnaround!)
Get to know senior scholars in your area: ask their advice and input on your research.
Go to your professional conferences and present or attend sessions on your research area. Introduce yourself to the speakers; they may eventually become your outside reviewers.
Take on leadership/participatory roles in your professional organizations, especially in organizations related to your specific research area; again, people will get to know you and you will be earning a "national reputation."
Be sure to ask around about outside evaluators before you select them. Some people who may seem very nice at conferences can sink you with negative or weak comments. They tend to get a reputation, and you can find out a lot from others who have gone up for tenure before you.
When selecting readers, see who has published in the same venues where you publish. Outside readers will not fault the quality of a journal in which they were published!
I also think it is important to note that you don't need to go about getting tenure the most traditional way. We all know how to get tenure: consistently publish in the top journals on federally funded, mainstream research on ONE mainstream topic using impressive methodology. Write most articles by yourself, but have a few that are written with others. Don't completely screw up your classes and serve on some committees. Brown-nose your way to being well-respected and liked by the best and brightest in the field.
The issue is ... we academics are a testy bunch of people, often driven by a passion for specific kinds of research, teaching, and service, and we don't usually follow rules too well. This certainly applies to me. I am a feminist lesbian academic who adopts a constructivist approach to research. This subject position makes me an outsider in many ways. Further, I ignored the advice to research an area that was (a) recognized as legitimate and (b) readily fundable, choosing to focus on topics that I cared about. While this cost me insofar as receiving funding, I believe I have been more productive because I was passionate about the topic area. I knew that to get the respect of some of my colleagues, I had to publish in the biggest journals, and I needed to publish a good number of articles. Nonetheless, I also ignored the advice to focus solely on articles; I co-edited a couple books along the way. I knew they would net me little in the way of tenure, but I saw a gap in the literature (and in teaching) that needed to be filled. I would argue now that the books did help raise my profile and introduce me to many scholars in my area of expertise, while making a clear contribution to the field. As you can see, most "minuses" can be turned into "pluses" if you learn about the game.
The gf has often told me that part of my success in getting tenure was really in understanding the game. I think that is true. I hope that, as a tenured faculty member, I can help others to do the same, in their own way. As I told a colleague of mine, we need to help junior faculty identify the best (unique) ways for each of them to achieve tenure.
So, if you like writing conceptual pieces, write the conceptual section of a colleague's empirically-based article. If you want to focus on teaching, not matter how much they tell you to phone it in, then turn your class experiences into a pedagogical article. If you enjoy service as a mentor to community youth, turn it into a research project. Make your own way and find what works for you! And if you find you don't want to play the R1 game, for God's sake, get out and go somewhere more to your liking. Don't wait until the tenure year. No matter what they told you in your grad school, there are many ways to be an academic!
Now that I am on this side of the untenured/tenured divide, I have to admit to feeling a little abashed. I don't feel that I have accomplished something so amazing in getting tenured. I suppose I have written some good pieces, along with some more average ones, and I have done some interesting research, but I have not done anything especially extraordinary. As I have written before, the "accomplishment" of tenure feels rather nebulous. But I do know that I feel much less stressed, and that is worth a LOT! In fact, I highly recommend it.
Lesboprof is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a public university in the Midwest.
Conventional wisdom among tenure track faculty members is that nobody was ever denied tenure for being a bad committee member or not getting elected to the strategic planning committee. Service -- by which we mean service to the college through participation in faculty governance and on institutional committees -- before tenure is often seen as subtracting time and energy from the teaching and research that gets an instructor promoted and recognized by peers off campus.
But this is wrongheaded and unrealistic. It not only undervalues service, it denies the realities of the typical college’s needs. Service can be rewarding and, more importantly, it is the way faculty can most effectively shape teaching and learning.
Yet this is the area that is least discussed in graduate school, for which no training is typically provided, and that the interview process rarely brings up. Furthermore, while tenure and promotion evaluations pay homage to the trinity of "Teaching, Scholarship and Service," service surely gets the least amount of attention. It is very rarely rewarded either monetarily or in terms of prestige. In fact, the view of some faculty is that service is to be given grudgingly, if it all.
In liberal arts colleges, advising, club sponsorships, determination of academic policy and the execution of that policy require deep commitments of time from faculty. Many tasks, such as organizing pre-law advising or guiding students through graduate applications -- assignments many large universities fill with a staff member -- are elements of service for faculty at smaller colleges. Organizational realities may encourage this on the one hand, but on the other, there may also be better student outcomes in having a teacher-scholar actively engaged in these roles.
Many faculty feel pulled in multiple directions by trying to balance teaching and scholarship, but most recognize that both elements of the academic life offer unique rewards. Too often, the rewards for service are overlooked. In service roles a faculty member can utilize and continue to hone valuable skills such as organization, leadership, policy development, writing, critical thinking and analytical ability. Many, if not all, of these skills are used in the classroom and in research, but the results are often different when they are applied in service. An excellent writer who has labored through years of graduate school may well be appreciated by her students and by peers in her scholarly field, but her carefully crafted prose may also serve all her faculty colleagues, as well as current and future students, when she drafts important policies while serving on the Academic Planning Committee.
How important is institutional service, and does service truly improve educational outcomes? It is possible to imagine a college where faculty have no service role. Issues such as college governance, curriculum development, determining degree requirements, participating in resource allocation decisions, playing a role in admissions, participating in tenure and promotion decisions could be left to professional academic administrators while the faculty role would simply be to teach and do research.
We believe, however, that active faculty participation in institutional governance is not only the historic right of the faculty, but also improves educational outcomes. Such faculty involvement is critical even when it’s painful. And some do find it punishing, such as a senior faculty member who bargained: “if you promise that I would never have to serve on a committee again I will gladly teach an additional course every year.”
It would surely be less time consuming for the faculty if they could shed their committee work, but the quality of education would surely suffer without the insight of the faculty who are in daily contact with students. How many times have faculty heard an administrator or trustee say something like, “Why doesn’t the faculty just do ____?” Fill in the blank with any one of the many impossible things people who do not teach think it is possible for faculty to “just do.” (To be fair, faculty in some fields could make the same criticism of their colleagues in other departments: “Why don’t the English faculty just teach those students how to write [in one semester]?” is our personal favorite.)
Though many colleges and faculty members might not see it this way, institutional service can be viewed as a way to improve education and keep professors involved and connected to their colleges. Albert Hirschman’s classic work Exit, Voice and Loyalty offers an interesting insight on the topic of how different kinds of social mechanisms promote quality outcomes. Hirschman points out that economists have historically focused on “exit” as a corrective instrument. Exit is the logic of competition. If a college doesn’t produce good outcomes, students will leave. The pressure to keep students from leaving will force the college to pay attention to the desired student outcomes. (This is the argument for school vouchers in K-12 education.)
Hirschman identifies “voice” as an alternative corrective mechanism. There may be circumstances in which desired outcomes will be restored faster and better if customers or employees of organizations have the opportunity to speak openly or complain about the ways in which the firm or organization fails to produce quality outcomes, instead of just taking their business or services elsewhere. Simply put, a college or university will produce better educational outcomes for students if it provides its faculty with the opportunity to express their views and participate in decision making on matters of curriculum, enrollment management, promotion and tenure, etc.
Service is not misuse of faculty energy. The system of higher education depends on it. Each faculty member has already been the beneficiary of the service given by faculty at their own alma maters. Every professor in the world owes a huge debt to faculty unknown to them who helped create and sustain conferences, journals, professional associations, and who acted as peer reviewers and received precious little credit for it.
Liberal arts colleges need to see service for the vital element it is and credit faculty accordingly for using their time and talent in this area. Faculty participation in college and university governance contributes significantly to the quality of higher education in the United States. The evolution of a system of higher education that does not accord significant voice to faculty will surely erode educational quality.
And the importance of service to individuals, to institutions and the academy at large, makes it imperative that colleges and universities create a climate that encourages faculty to serve committees great and small.
Jim Lakso and Jim Tuten
Jim Lakso is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., where Jim Tuten is assistant professor of history and recently completed a five-year term as assistant provost.
Two years ago, the University of Colorado found itself at the center of a national scandal involving one of its ethnic studies professors, Ward Churchill. His characterization of 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” rightly provoked condemnation from commentators across the country.
But Churchill is in the headlines today for something other than his opinions -- this time, because of Colorado’s attention to his scholarly record.
Despite having only a master’s in communications, Churchill’s Colorado career was put on the fast track -- landing him both a tenured professorship and chairmanship in ethnic studies. In subsequent years, charges of research misconduct began to surface. And in 2005, his university chose to ignore those allegations no longer. Having first made clear that Churchill was not being punished for his public utterances, the university launched a meticulous investigation centered on specific charges of scholarly misconduct. That is, it did what any institution claiming to care about academic standards must do. For this Hank Brown, who became president at Colorado after the scandal broke, deserves great credit.
To Brown, accountability is a crucial component of academic freedom. In recommending that Churchill be dismissed, Brown noted that the university’s policies define academic freedom as a set of privileges and correlative responsibilities -- the latter often ignored in academic discourse on the topic. Academic freedom, he wrote, is “the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it. … Within the bounds of the definition, however, ‘faculty members have the responsibility to maintain competence, exert themselves to the limit of their intellectual capacities in scholarship, research, writing, and speaking; and to act on and off the campus with integrity and in accordance with the highest standards of their profession.’”
Noting that academic freedom entails both individual and institutional accountability, Brown observed that taxpayer-supported institutions have particularly binding obligations to the people. “The public must be able to trust that the university’s resources will be dedicated to academic endeavors carried out according to the highest possible standards,” he wrote. “Professor Churchill’s conduct, if allowed to stand, would erode the university’s integrity and public trust.” Churchill’s conduct, said Brown, “clearly violated the University’s policies on academic freedom.”
Of course, Churchill and his defenders claim that Colorado’s two-year investigation was an assault on academic freedom because it arose from a public scandal about Churchill’s speech. Churchill’s lawyer even suggested to The Rocky Mountain News that “[a]ny discipline is wrong” in this case. But to suggest that notoriety somehow exempts Churchill from scrutiny is risible. Scrutiny should be applied to scholarly work – as a matter of practice. And Brown -- himself a public figure -- has rightly pointed out that public figures cannot escape accountability by hiding behind their fame.
Crucially, disagreement on this very point is dividing the American Association of University Professors. As Inside Higher Ed has reported, Margaret LeCompte, an education professor who is also president of the Colorado AAUP chapter, calls the Churchill investigation “an opening wedge in the concerted effort to curb academic freedom and tenure.” But Jonathan Knight of the national AAUP’s academic freedom program has defended universities’ right to investigate allegations of faculty misconduct.
Historically the custodian of academic freedom, the AAUP is struggling to clarify, for itself and others, what academic freedom is. And that struggle centers on accountability -- which, unfortunately, explains much of why the AAUP is encountering such difficulty. Roger Bowen, the outgoing general secretary, has vocally defended the notion that academics should not have to answer to anyone but themselves. “It should be evident,” he has written, “that the sufficient condition for securing the academic freedom of our profession is the profession itself.”
This is a far cry from Brown’s conception of academic freedom as part of a public trust. It’s also a far cry from the AAUP’s own foundational 1940 statement on academic freedom, which defines it as a set of “duties correlative with rights” and which sees academic freedom as the means by which colleges and universities serve the public trust: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher … or the institution as a whole.”
Colorado has acknowledged that its system of peer review and professional assessment failed in Churchill’s case. It has taken steps to repair that system. And it has urged academics across the country to learn from its example. As Brown observed last March, “It is imperative that we in higher education take the initiative to examine ourselves. There are many lawmakers at the state and federal level willing to intervene if we do not do so.”
Noting that “much of the scrutiny we are under is of our own creation,” Brown urged academics to recognize how their reluctance to be accountable to the public has produced “the suspicion that higher education’s primary focus is protecting its own rather than guaranteeing the highly effective and productive teachers and researchers that students and taxpayers deserve.”
The arguments of Churchill and his misguided defenders do -- regrettably -- arise from a basic conviction that academics should be free from accountability. They involve manipulating the term “academic freedom” in ways that undermine a concept of foundational importance to the academic enterprise. They amount to an attempt to turn the concept inside out -- morphing what was originally a cluster of interlocking privileges and responsibilities centered on the public good into a justification for the false idea that academics have no obligation to the public at all. Finally, they stem from the profoundly mistaken premise – which Brown rebuts in his letter to the Board of Regents – that input from the public, from constituencies such as alumni and trustees, violates academic freedom as well. Why else would Churchill and his defenders absurdly claim that Brown’s advisory role with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni -- which ended a decade ago -- invalidates his opinion?
Far from being an “attack” on academic freedom, Colorado’s handling of the Churchill affair is, in fact, in defense of academic freedom. And if Churchill and his defenders win the day, their perverse redefinition of academic freedom will result in an immeasurable setback for that concept -- not to mention the academy itself.
As the decision-making process winds down in Colorado, Churchill’s career hangs in the balance. But so does the integrity of academia.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a First Amendment lawyer.
The case of Professor Ward Churchill has received considerable national attention over its two-plus year run. With the next act to be played out in the courtroom, the talk shows will soon be on to other things.
But the ripple effects for higher education will be much longer lasting. The University of Colorado Board of Regents on Tuesday accepted my recommendation that Professor Churchill be dismissed from the faculty for engaging in serious, deliberate and repeated research misconduct. The reaction to the regents’ decision from the university’s constituents has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet in the higher education community across the country, things are a bit more unsettled.
There are those on one end of the spectrum who believe Churchill is free speech martyr who was persecuted because of statements that flew in the face of prevailing winds. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think he is a charlatan, selling snake oil while disguised as an academic. Perhaps the largest group is the one in the middle, which recognizes that his academic misconduct sins were egregious, but remain decidedly uncomfortable that those sins came to light after he engaged in controversial speech.
The case’s implications for academic freedom are also compelling. The term being employed, particularly by those who either support Churchill or are concerned for his free speech rights, is that the decision to fire Churchill may have a “chilling” effect on academic freedom. That’s understandable, but holding Ward Churchill up as the poster child for academic freedom runs counter to the facts.
His own writing shows us why. His essay, "About that Bering Strait Land Bridge ... Let’s Turn Those Footprints Around," which takes archaeologists to task for holding to a migration theory, he writes, "Tailoring the facts to fit one’s theory constitutes neither good science nor good journalism. Rather, it is intellectually dishonest and, when published for consumption by a mass audience, adds up to propaganda."
Three separate panels of more than 20 tenured faculty, from the University of Colorado and other universities, unanimously found that important pieces of Professor Churchill’s research and writing met his own criteria for intellectual dishonesty. The faculty members, to a person, agreed that he engaged in research misconduct and that it required serious sanction. The faculty found a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that included fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism.
The tenured faculty who reached these conclusions, like all faculty, have a significant stake in academic freedom. The bedrock of any university, particularly public research universities, is academic freedom. The scholars and researchers who investigated Professor Churchill’s work understood this relation to the work they did. They have the same stake in this bedrock principle that all academicians have.
If there is any real chilling effect in this matter, it is the threat posed to academic freedom by the types of serious academic misconduct in which Churchill engaged. Academic freedom exists only because tenured faculty can be trusted to act responsibly. When Churchill breached the obligations of trust imposed upon him, responsible scholars had no choice but to act.
Still, there are those willing to give his shoddy work a free pass because his intellectual dishonesty came to light after complaints about his controversial speech. There is no doubt that Churchill drew attention to himself when writing and speaking about 9/11 victims. It is also clear that allegations of research misconduct, unrelated to his 9/11 comments, were brought to the attention of the university.
Indeed, Professor Churchill invited his readers to challenge his work. In the introduction of his 1997 collection of essays, A Little Matter of Genocide, he writes, “I do believe that when making many of the points I’ve sought to make, and with the bluntness which typically marks my work, one is well-advised to be thorough in revealing the basis on which they rest. I also believe it is a matter not just of courtesy, but of ethics, to make proper attribution to those upon whose ideas and research one relies. Most importantly, I want those who read this book to be able to interrogate what I’ve said, to challenge it and consequently to build on it.”
The ethics of proper attribution and the basis on which his work rests were what the University of Colorado investigated after learning of potential research misconduct. His courting of public controversy on one occasion does not immunize him from adhering to professional standards in all his professional work. The university had an obligation to investigate serious allegations of research misconduct. Our policy statement on research misconduct prohibits us from turning our back on such allegations. Hiding behind the First Amendment is a smokescreen aimed at distracting people from the real issue: academic integrity.
In the final analysis, the Board of Regents of the university had little choice but to dismiss him. His acts of academic fraud were numerous, serious and intentional. Professor Churchill refused to apologize or correct his errors. He did nothing to indicate he would refrain from fraudulent research in the future.
Fraudulent scholarship violates the public trust and damages the profession. Faculty integrity is the cornerstone of any great university. The quality of the faculty’s work is at the heart of everything we in higher education do. To excuse the kind of academic fraud Professor Churchill engaged in would do irreparable damage to all universities.
Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado.
Like most young faculty members, I began my first job with my eyes on the prize six years ahead -- tenure. Even though I was coming out of University of the Elite and heading Rural College, I was under no illusions that it would be easy. Amidst the bucolic surroundings and relaxed environment of my new institution, I knew I would be buried under a 4-4 teaching load, the pressure to produce a book pre-tenure, and the usual service work and personal attention to students that small institutions expect.
I believed that I would need to prove myself to my colleagues every bit as much as I had had to prove I belonged in my graduate program. And since I was lucky enough to land the job ABD, I was even more concerned that my performance would be under close scrutiny. I felt I had to catch up with my colleagues. So I immersed myself in my work the way I had in graduate school -- as though my professional life depended on it.
Over my first year and a half, I worked very hard -- 70-80 hours a week on my teaching, as well as keeping up with professional activities. I was getting a sense of my reputation among the students. “Tough but fair” was what most said. “Best professor I have ever had,” said some. “Too hard!” said others. I expected as much. I kept a close eye on my assignments, student performances, and my evaluations, and as long as their work was good, a few students got A’s, and the positive comments continued, my growing reputation as the toughest professor in the department didn’t bother me. And even if it had, I wouldn’t have known how to teach otherwise.
But at my second-year review, I got a shock. My chair, Professor Fuddydud, said, “There’s a problem. I don’t know what it is. Just fix it.” Panic and confusion! I began searching my mind for what I could possibly be doing wrong. I approached senior colleagues for advice. Professors Queenbee and Bullykid told me that it was very important that my students know that I like them. Was that in my job description? Does tough love count? For lack of any other solution, I worked harder. I would make it impossible for them to say that anything I was doing was substandard. It would all be stellar!
By the time of my third-year review, I was feeling confident about my performance. My file was huge. In six semesters not only had I finished and defended my dissertation, I had prepared eight new courses from scratch with myriad tailored assignments and teaching aids, created a new concentration for the college curriculum, and spent hours mentoring students, including taking them to conferences and on field trips. But not to be over-balanced in the teaching area, I also had written nine articles and papers of various sorts, participated in over a half-dozen conferences and symposia around the country, served on college advisory boards, committees and panels, pulled strings from my graduate days to bring in important speakers, received five awards from top research libraries to work on my manuscript as well as interest from top presses, and got rave reviews from students and colleagues alike, inside and outside the college.
I wasn’t nervous when Fuddydud told me she wanted to meet so she could convey to me the sense of the department about my performance. Again what she said astounded me. But now she had pinned the problem down a bit more. I was working “too hard,” I didn’t know how to “prioritize,” and what I was producing was “too good.”
I couldn’t fathom what she meant at first. I pressed her for explanations and examples, but got only vague and unsatisfying answers. Clearly there was an issue of “fit.” I had heard about fit. When a department can’t or won’t be explicit about what they don’t like about a candidate for tenure, it’s about fit. So I didn’t fit well with the department, but I didn’t know why.
On paper at least, the fit looked great. I had all the requirements covered and then some. I got along well with my colleagues and had a growing following of devoted students. But as I pondered the few hints Fuddydud gave me and began to think seriously about the culture of the school and the department, the problem began to come into focus. It was exactly that I was exceeding expectations that was the trouble, especially in my teaching.
Then I took a good look around me and saw things clearly for the first time. I had colleagues who showed movies several times a week, some who routinely came to class 20 minutes late or not at all, and others who freely admitted that they prefer it when their students don’t show up. Students said that when Professor Slackjob assigned a 20-page paper, they usually wrote five pages and printed them four times. They got A’s and B’s.
When I had a class full of upper-level students who didn’t know how to cite their sources, I consulted with Fuddydud. She told me without compunction that she didn’t teach her intro-level students to cite their sources because she “just didn’t want to deal with it.” She explained that students should learn to adapt to a variety of professorial styles. I was suspicious. The responsibility would naturally fall to those of us who thought it was important. I found this interesting since some members of the department had accused me of placing the burden of teaching on them. My courses were too hard, they said, and too many students were defecting to their classrooms. I clearly only wanted to teach the “good students” and they were getting all the “stupid” ones. I supposed my style was not one to which students should be compelled to adapt.
So I thought I would try to fit in better. I compared my reading load and teaching style with that of Professor Queenbee, whose pedagogy I respected, who was popular, but who also had a reputation for being rigorous. The page count was the same. I couldn’t understand what the problem could be, so I resorted to asking a student why her peers objected to my reading assignments. “You expect us to answer questions about them!” she said in their defense. “Professor Queenbee just tells us what they say.” I guess I just don’t like my students enough to do that for them.
Students complained. Colleagues disapproved. I was a troublemaker.
In retrospect, I should have seen the bizarro review coming. Much earlier when I told Fuddydud that I usually worked weekends, her response was: “What do you want? Brownie points?” I guess merit pay was out of the question.
Fit is important for new faculty. It can mean a happy career or no career. To “fit” in academia means to conform to the culture of the institution. It is in your interest to assess it carefully before you take a job. The logical way to go about this is to read the institution’s mission statement, check out the web site, look at rankings, and talk to faculty members, administrators, and students.
But what you learn this way and what the true culture of the school is may be very different things. What I heard when I interviewed for the job was that Backwater prioritized teaching. It considered its aspirant peers to be the top liberal arts colleges in the country. All the signs indicated that these priorities and aspirations were sincere, and even if they weren’t yet realized, there was great potential. So I accepted the job because I was serious about teaching and wanted to devote my efforts to undergraduates.
And the department seemed serious about me. Not only did they hire me ABD from an institution known for its academic rigor, they made me an early offer that didn’t allow me to explore the nine other schools with which I had interviews. At the time, I felt I had made a sound choice. The fit seemed excellent.
But what most small colleges won’t tell you -- not even in the fine print -- is that teaching and students often really don’t come first. And for the professors, they can’t. Once upon a time teaching colleges taught and research institutions researched. But these days, with the market for students competitive, and teaching schools scrambling for recognition, they have shifted their priorities. Now they market what is measurable -- not good teaching, but big names and publications. They look to hire new faculty from top research universities who will embellish the faculty roster and bring attention to the school by publishing. And they can do this, because even job candidates who don’t really want to be at places like Rural College (although it is ranked quite well) are grateful to get a tenure-track position.
And here is where the problem is compounded. Small schools want books instead of teaching; and many new faculty -- even the mediocre scholars -- want to publish instead of teach. In the new small college, both win. Everyone looks the other way while courses are neglected for the sake of publications. What few devoted teachers will admit -- because to do so would be impolitic -- is that it is impossible to teach a 4-4 or even a 3-3 load effectively and publish a book pre-tenure without working “too hard.” What’s more, when you suggest that a small teaching college should prioritize teaching over publishing, what your colleagues hear you say is, “I am not good enough to publish.”
Sadly, many of the students also think they win in this scenario. They get good grades with little work. Once a culture like this is established, a new faculty member who is serious about teaching rocks the boat. And if she still somehow manages to excel in all the other required areas, she might be sunk. Unfortunately for the small schools, the best solution for her might be to jump ship.
Alison Wunderland is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of history at the University of Midwestern State.