How a Plan Evolved
Michael Bérubé discusses the thinking behind an MLA committee's new approach to tenure and scholarship -- and urges departments to take the reform ideas seriously.
In May 2002, Stephen Greenblatt, then president of the Modern Language Association, wrote a letter on behalf of his colleagues on the Executive Council that reverberated throughout departments of English and foreign languages. Drawing on conversations with university press editors and the members of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing (whose report was released later that year), Greenblatt noted that “university presses, which in the past brought out the vast majority of scholarly books, are cutting back on the publication of works in some areas of language and literature” and that “certain presses have eliminated editorial positions in our disciplines.” As a result, Greenblatt warned, junior faculty members whose departments require a book for tenure and promotion might be at risk, due not to any shortcoming in their scholarship but to a “systemic” crisis. “Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.”
Greenblatt’s letter circulated widely in the profession. Within the year, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an association that includes Big Ten universities, decided that there was, in fact, no crisis in scholarly publishing. But university press directors continued to insist that their budgets were being trimmed, that university library purchases were down, and that they were compelled to publish cookbooks, or books about regional flora and fauna, to absorb the losses associated with your average scholarly monograph. Meanwhile, junior faculty members became even more worried about their prospects for tenure, while a few opportunistic departments took the occasion of the Greenblatt letter to raise the quantitative standards for scholarly production, on the grounds that if the monograph was the “gold standard” for tenure and promotion at major research universities, then clearly the way to clamber up the rankings was to demand more books from young faculty members.
For the next few years, debate spun off in a variety of directions. Greenblatt had mentioned the possibility that universities might provide “a first-book subvention, comparable to (though vastly less expensive than) the start-up subvention for scientists.” My own institution, Penn State, had a mixed reaction: When, as a newly elected member of the MLA Executive Council, I discussed the letter with my dean and with my colleagues, I was told that Penn State would not consider reverting to the bad old days in which assistant professors without single-authored books were considered for tenure -- but that the College of Liberal Arts would provide $10,000 in start-up costs to every newly hired junior faculty member, to be used for (among other things) book subventions. Across the country, however, the subvention suggestion drew a good deal of criticism. For some observers, it smacked too much of vanity publishing: If we are now in the position of paying presses to publish our work, critics cried, then surely this is a sign that our work is worthless and that the once-high scholarly standards of the discipline had been eroded by feminism and postmodernism and cultural studies and queer theory and Whatever Else Came to Mind Studies.
Remarkably, these critics did not stop to reflect on the fact that scholarly monographs have never sold very well and were kept alive only by the indirect subsidies thanks to which university libraries were able to purchase large numbers of new books. Since new monographs were no longer subsidized by academic library purchases, the MLA argued, it only made sense to support the production of monographs some other way -- particularly since many of the least “popular” monographs are produced not in the fields of queer theory and cultural studies but in medieval studies and foreign languages, fields whose precarious place in the system of academic publishing can hardly be blamed on their trendiness.
Likewise, many departments balked at the idea of “lowering” their tenure standards by relying on modes of scholarly production other than monographs -- things like journal essays, scholarly editions, translations, and online publications. Any move away from the monograph, these critics argued, would necessarily involve a decline in scholarly quality. This argument, it seems, is quite common among professors in the modern languages. It is also quite strange. Less than 30 years ago, the monograph was generally not part of the tenure-and-promotion apparatus: The book-for-tenure criterion is a recent blip in our history. And most academic disciplines, from sociology to linguistics to anthropology to philosophy, do not require books for tenure; yet tenure committees in those disciplines somehow remain capable of distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship.
The anecdotal information was piling up, and so were the critiques and countercritiques. The MLA wanted to figure out what was really happening, so the Executive Council created a Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion in 2004. We spent two years sifting through evidence, statistical and anecdotal; we commissioned a unprecedented study of the tenuring practices of 1,339 departments in 734 different institutions over the past 10 years; we read studies and reports on tenure and the production of scholarship over the past 40 or 50 years; and almost to our own amazement, we completed our report on schedule earlier this year.
The survey contains good news and bad news: The good news is that there is to date no “lost generation” of young scholars whose careers have been thwarted or blighted by the system of scholarly publishing. Tenure rates since 1994 have not changed appreciably, even as many institutions have demanded more published work for tenure and promotion. But there are other factors at work, long before the tenure review. MLA studies of Ph.D. placement show that no more than half, and often fewer, of any given year's Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions in the year they receive their degrees. Information is sketchy for career paths beyond the first year, but what information is available suggests that, on average, something on the order of 60 to 65 percent of all English and foreign language Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions within five years of receiving their doctorates and an estimated 38 percent are considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of those 38 percent, 90 percent -- or 34 of every 100 doctoral recipients -- are awarded tenure. In other words, for a variety of reasons, many scholars simply drop off the tenure track long before they are reviewed for tenure and promotion; most of the people who stick it out do so in the belief that they have met the requirements. One might say that the tenure and promotion glass is 90 percent full -- or 66 percent empty, thanks to all the attrition along the way. But it seems clear that the people who are considered for tenure today have become so accomplished at meeting expectations that by the time they are reviewed, they are ready to clear almost any bar, no matter how high it is set. Thus, even as the system of scholarly publishing remains distressed, the scholars themselves seem to be finding ways to cope.
On the other hand, and this is the bad news, their coping mechanisms -- or, rather, the disciplinary practices that produce them -- seem to be rendering the system dysfunctional in important ways. For one thing, the press directors and librarians are not wrong: regardless of the fact that the campuses are not strewn with the bodies of young scholars turned down for tenure, the system of scholarly publishing is under severe financial pressure, and no one imagines that library and press budgets will be increasing significantly anytime soon. New monographs in the humanities now face print runs in the low hundreds and prohibitive unit costs. At the same time, over 60 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years, and the percentage of departments ranking scholarship of primary importance (that is, more important than teaching) has more than doubled since the last comparable survey was conducted in 1968: from 35.4 percent to 75.8 percent. Almost half -- 49.8 percent -- of doctoral institutions (which, because of their size, employ proportionally more faculty members than any other kind of institution) now require progress on a second book of their candidates for tenure.
So expectations are indeed rising, and most scholars are rising to the challenge. What’s the problem?
The problem is not simple. For one thing, departments are increasingly asking for books from junior professors without providing them the time to write books. It’s no surprise that 88.9 percent of doctoral institutions rate the publication of a monograph as “important” or “very important” for tenure, but it might be something of shock to learn -- it certainly was a shock to us -- that 44.4 percent of masters institutions and 48 percent of baccalaureate institutions now consider monographs “important” or “very important” as well. At the same time, 20 percent to 30 percent of departments -- at all levels -- consider translations, textbooks, scholarly editions, and bibliographic scholarship to be “not important.” About the digital age, most doctoral departments are largely clueless: 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating journal articles in electronic format, and almost two-thirds (65.7 percent) report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This despite the fact that the journal Postmodern Culture, which exists only in electronic form, has just celebrated its 15th birthday. Online journals have been around for some time now, and online scholarship is of the same quality as print media, but referees’ and tenure committees’ expectations for the medium have lagged far behind the developments in the digital scholarly world. As Sean Latham, one of the members of the Task Force, said at the 2005 MLA convention in Washington, “If we read something through Project Muse, are we supposed to feel better because somewhere there is a print copy?” For too many scholars, the answer is yes: The scholarly quality of the .PDF on your screen is guaranteed by the existence of the print version, just as your paper money is secured by the gold of Fort Knox.
The Task Force report recommends that departments and colleges evaluate scholarly work in all its forms, instead of placing almost exclusive emphasis on the monograph. We have nothing against monographs; in fact, a few of us have written monographs ourselves. But our survey suggests that an increasing number of institutions expect more publications for tenure and promotion -- and substitute measures of quantity for judgments about quality. Most important, we believe there is a real and unnecessary disjunction between the wide range of scholarly work actually produced by scholars in the modern languages and the narrow way in which it is commonly evaluated.
We hope it will surprise some people that our recommendations go well beyond this. We attempted to review every aspect of the tenure process, from the question of how many external letters are too many (in most cases, more than six) to the question of how to do justice to new hires who change jobs at some point during their time on the tenure track or who are hired to joint appointments (with explicit, written letters of expectation stating whether and how each candidate’s work at other institutions or departments will be considered). We have recommendations for how departments can conduct internal reviews, so that they are not quite so dependent on the determinations of referees for journals and university presses; recommendations for how to evaluate scholarship produced in new media; and -- though we acknowledge that it’s just beyond our reach -- a recommendation that graduate programs in the modern languages begin deliberating about whether it is a good idea to continue to demand of our doctoral students a document that is, in effect, a protomonograph waiting for a couple of good readers and a cloth binding.
And though our report is complete and (we like to think) comprehensive, we know there is plenty of work left to do. The Task Force believes that the tenure system needs careful scrutiny at every level. Perhaps most important, we need to recognize the fact that two-thirds of college professors in the United States now teach without tenure (or hope of tenure) -- that may well be the “lost generation” on our campuses today -- and that there are few avenues available for the evaluation of their scholarly contributions to the profession. We wrote the report, finally, with multiple audiences in mind -- younger scholars, department chairs, and tenure committees, of course, but also upper-level administrators, graduate students, and the higher education press as well. We hope that all these audiences will find something of value in the report -- and will try, in whatever ways possible, to work with the MLA to implement the Task Force’s recommendations.
Michael BÃ©rubÃ© is Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He is a member of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.
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