Sunday, September 20, 2009

What counts?

I'm on my department's personnel committee (DPC), which is the committee responsible, among other things, for evaluating our colleagues' annual merit in the big three areas of professorial activity: teaching (which also includes advising, directing theses, and that sort of thing); professional activity (a huge category and a large part of the subject of this post); and service to the department, the college, the university, the profession, and, at our public university, the community (this is anything from doing things like serving on the DPC to being on faculty senate to organizing a professional conference to serving as a peer reviewer for a press or journal to judging a public speaking contest for the region).

If find that my students, even my graduate students whom I've beaten over the head with lessons in 'how the profession works' in my research methods class, are often surprised to learn that we're "graded." They shouldn't be, because of course all professionals have some sort of review practice, but I think the surprise comes in part from that myth of the professorial life, that we all get to do our own thing with little oversight. While it's true that on a day to day basis, we manage most of our own time (we generally don't pick the time slots and classrooms for our courses, though) and pursue the professional activity we want (ideally, but the limits on that are part of the topic of this post), and request (note: *request*) the courses we'd like to teach and pursue that teaching in the ways we see fit, at least once a year the chickens come home to roost and we have to show what we've been up to. And then we get graded for it. In my institution, we get graded on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest, in the three categories mentioned above, and then those scores are weighted by a set of percentages that we determined in consultation with the department chair a whole year before, and voila -- we get a final score that determines what tiny merit raise we'll get, *if* there is a merit raise in the current contract. (And in case you're wondering, my percentages are 40% teaching, 40% professional activity, and 20% service, so when someone tells me my "job" is to teach, I can accurately say, "No, that's only 40% of it," though in reality it takes more time.)

Anyway, having been on the DPC for the past two years, I find that the question of what counts for each of the big three categories is a contentious and vexed question. It matters only slightly in terms of the monetary rewards for it (though those tiny raises do have exponential value since they add to one's base pay for subsequent raises), but I think it matters a great deal in terms of how one defines a department, an institution, and a field or discipline. Our department, like those at a lot of smaller institutions, includes people in a variety of fields and disciplines. We have literary scholars of all kinds, creative writers, linguists (including applied linguists who work on issues of second language acquisition), and rhetoric and composition specialists. Even on this level the kinds of "professional activity" that counts has to differ. Poets don't necessarily do peer-reviewed scholarship (unless they are also literary scholars, which of course, can be the case), and some of the linguists and rhet-comp people are in fields where journal articles are the norm of scholarship, and rarely books. Meanwhile, the rhet-comp people and the applied linguists work in fields where their "professional activity" and their "teaching" and sometimes also their "service" overlap in substantial ways because often the subject of their expertise is the classroom and the way people learn to write or learn a language there. So when they give a talk to new faculty about pedagogy, is that teaching or service? If they get a grant for revising the composition curriculum, is that teaching or professional activity? For that matter, I have a hard time separating my graduate student advising from my graduate director administrative service -- what activities go under what categories?? To some extent, debate over these issues can be resolved by simply going with how the person in question listed the activity on their annual report, where we have to account for the last year's activity in those distinct categories. But then what happens when two different people list similar activity in different ways and it affects their scores significantly?

Oy. It's enough to make your head spin, and that's before you get to some of the thornier issues. There's long been debate in our department over what counts for professional activity and how much it counts, particularly when someone starts publishing in a new field, a field that was not part of the advertisement for the job they were hired for, or that was not part of their letter of offer (no matter how long ago that may have been). Say, for example, we hired a Romanticist 15 years ago and now that Romanticist has been publishing quality poetry in serious places, and that poetry was part of the reason why he was a Romanticist in the first place and informs his approach to Romantic poetry? Or say that he still teaches all the Romantic lit classes, but publishes poetry exclusively and has let scholarship in Romantic lit slide. Or say I decide I'm more interested in popular culture medievalism and start publishing on that. Or my interested in gender studies and masculinity leads me to write about post-medieval masculinity. Or heck, let's take a more likely example from my own work -- what if I start publishing on 16th century texts (traditionally that's the Renaissance/early modern period)? Now I know that some of the texts that I've already published on are technically or arguably or theoretically part of the early modern period as well as the medieval period, and so such a move would be a pretty logical outgrowth of my scholarship and expertise. But would my colleagues see it that way? Should any of these above hypothetical examples count for professional activity?

Some of my colleagues would adamantly say no. In fact, they find such professional turns deeply vexing and troubling. I don't agree and see such objections as being serious breaches of academic freedom. Now, on some practical level I can see why this would be a problem in a Ph.D. granting department, where you need experts in a given field to teach and advise the students admitted in that field on the assumption that yes, you do have a specialist in that field. But if said specialist starts devoting all her research time to another field, she's not really keeping up with the first field and so really isn't the best adviser for students who are themselves supposed to be becoming experts in that field. But we're not a Ph.D. granting department; we're an M.A. granting department, and our M.A.s don't come here to work with a given person, and they usually have a wider range of academic interests. Breadth suits their needs and their level better. And it's not a problem of a field-switch leaving us with a gap. We have some serious gaps in our faculty even without someone moving from one field to another; really, someone doing that is just shifting the gap, not creating one. Someone who seriously shifts fields has a wider range of teaching possibilities, and that's a good thing for us. And if they're doing serious work in their new field, then that's a measure of their expertise in it. Some of our colleagues keep going on about whether or not someone has "training" in something, but if you're "training" in your original field was 30 years ago, that training doesn't matter. It's all about being current in a field, and if you can get peer-reviewed publications in the top journals and presses your new field, or if serious creative writing outlets are publishing your poetry or fiction, then I say that's a measure of your "training." I have a bigger problem with faculty who think they can teach, especially at the senior or MA level, in any damn field they want. I think any of us can do the intro-level courses, but I think our students benefit from expertise in upper-level classes, and that's especially true for those students who we want to "Master" the field. I also think we endanger our chances of being able to hire someone in a field if we let someone not in it teach its courses. But then, as I've suggested, publications in that field are, for me, a sign of that expertise. Finally, we're not a high visibility institution, and in my view, anyone producing quality professional work (whether scholarly or creative) in quality outlets of professional standard in that sub-field, is bringing our department and university visibility, and so it's all good.

Frankly, I just can't see the big deal about this field switching in our context. And I also think it demarcates arbitrary divisions in the discipline that could potentially be harmful. I think as a larger discipline of modern language and literature we've too forcibly and artificially divorced the serious study of literature from creative writing, the study of language from literature, and the study of rhetoric and writing from traditionally defined "literature." I see the effects on our students when they can't tell me what's odd about the opening sentence of Jane Eyre, an otherwise first-person narrative that was originally published as an "autobiography" "edited" by Currer Bell: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." I see it when I do the whole "what is literature? what is literary study?" song and dance in my grad research class, and despite all my moves to the contrary, they conclude by insisting that they can say this is literature and that is not and that it's an objective quality held in the thing itself. Or heck, such a stark claim for what is literature and what is not threatened to derail a whole day's discussion in an NEH Institute I attended, as at least one of my occasional readers will no doubt remember, so it's not limited to first year graduate students anxious to define what they "have" to know.

I also think that such bounded thinking in evaluating professional work -- this counts for your professional activity; that does not -- replicates a behavior that drives me nuts across the profession: it's all about acting just like the elite R1s do. If they do it, it must be good, so we should act that way, too. Arrrgggghhh. I hate that. We have different missions, different student bodies, different constitutive faculty, even, so why should we be doing things exactly the same when it comes to evaluating our faculty members? And along with that comes mission creep, expectations creep and so on and so on.

And in talking about this with Bullock, he brought up the problems of interdisciplinary work, or of fields that have disappeared or have so changed how they work that it might seem that someone has shifted fields when it's really the field that shifted around them. Take, for instance the field of the history of the book. In some places that subject is taught and faculty are housed in the history department. But there are certainly English faculty who work in that area, and they might reasonably publish and present in a variety of disciplinary outlets, as would the historians. (In a recent forum on this topic in PMLA, one of the articles recounted a scholar getting his Ph.D. in English who was almost denied because his dissertation on manuscripts and book history wasn't properly a subject of literary studies.) And drama and theater studies cross back and forth between literature scholars and scholars and professionals working in theater departments. If a literary drama scholar were to direct a production, would that count for her professional activity the way it would for someone hired to teach directing and production classes? What then? How do you determine what "counts" in their professional activity? Why shouldn't we be more flexible in determining that?

But, having rather forcefully stated where I stand, I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. What do you think? What counts?


Erick said...

Oy, indeed! If you can tell me what our discipline does not include, I'll tell you what doesn't count. Me? I'd count anything and everything. As Augustine says, Everything that is written is for our doctrine. Something like that, right?

Dr. Virago said...

Ha! Indeed! I think I may use that line!

But what about the field-switching issue. What about the hypothetical Romanticist who becomes a Creative Writer, or even the Romanticist who becomes a Modernist. They weren't hired to do that -- but does that scholarship still count?

Thoroughly Educated said...

There's so much to respond to here, I don't think I can take it all in one comment, but I'll start.

I'm completely on your side on the field-switching question. When I moved to an R1, there were lots of aspects of the change of environment that I understood and anticipated, but one that I hadn't really confronted until I was there and in the midst of a mid-life, mid-career crisis was precisely the problem you point to about changing fields in a PhD-granting department. I've long had a hankering to work on a century that's, oh, about a millennium removed from the one I've mostly published on. What if I had made a serious move to try that other period? I got substantial resistance when I simply tried to do a different sort of work within the period I was hired to teach. I did see people in the department venturing far afield in their latest projects, but they were invariably very senior, usually people with named chairs of the Super-Duper Professor-At-Large sort. For junior faculty? Pretty much not on. I note with approval that there are is now one prestigious fellowship program explitly to enable youngish-mid-career people to train in a substantially different field so they can move their work in a markedly new direction. On the whole, though, I see the stuck-in-field problem as one aspect of the larger problem of the structure of academic careers: the expectation of loooong apprenticeship/probation followed by lifelong work in a single institution, as has often been noted, doesn't leave much room for self-reinvention. There are, of course, notable exceptions. I know people who have used a move into administration or the founding of a new interdisciplinary program or center as a way to make space to redirect their own research. But in general, the quandary you describe can exacerbate the kind of mid-career stagnation we've talked about in other contexts.

I'd contrast my experience of this in the R1 context with that in a low-profile, regional SLAC. That was an environment where research expectations had risen markedly in the decade or so preceding my hiring, but not in a way that looked to false models. The result was a department that was very supportive of everybody's research endeavors, of whatever sort. The important thing was to be actively pursuing something. The freedom on the research side was a happy byproduct of a culture that, correctly, valued excellent undergraduate teaching above all else.

Fencing Bear said...

I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, although happily my institution and my department are extremely open to our moving into different fields of research (e.g. I had one colleague who was hired in European history who spent twenty years researching a book on the American historical profession). One way to answer this, particularly if you are working in literature, is to point out that if the majority of the people whose works we study had kept strictly to the field (read "genre") in which they were "supposed" to be writing, we wouldn't be reading them as examples of literature now. As a medievalist, you could also point out how few of us study the work of the academics from the period that we study (read any Sentence commentaries lately?), but that there are whole fields devoted to the work of those who broke out of their contemporary boundaries. Academia will die if we insist on doing nothing but replicate the fields and the genres in which previous generations were working.

Erick said...

Dr. V., I look at field switching this way: it's better than doing nothing after tenure, which happens more often. The faculty who do nothing after tenure and teach from the same, yellowed note cards and the faculty who do not keep up in their original field but do branch out to do something else with their scholarly or creative energies will not be equals in the classroom, right? Neither may be right for the graduate classroom in their original fields, and that will be a shame and perhaps a problem for a graduate program, but the first will eventually be bad in the undergraduate classroom, too. What's more, the switch is almost never something that is utterly useless to a department, nor is it usually too far afield from the original field, and is usually close enough for useful cross-polination in the undergraduate classroom, anyway. As you say, switching only shifts the gaps almost every department already has. No big deal in my view. But my middle name might be Pollyanna.

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, it's interesting: I think when we think about these issues, we've got to think about the ways in which the glutted job market contributes to the ways in which people are expected to market themselves. The reality is that one has to lock oneself into a particular niche in order to get interviewed and ultimately hired, but that may not (and I'd say often does not) really reflect a person's full identity as a scholar. In some ways, the market demands a level of hyper-specialization and focus that is in fact antithetical to the *current* state of literary studies - i.e., what is most attractive to publishers and editors of journals, and what is really contributing new knowledge/insight to the field. Also, periods are shifting - you'll notice that many job ads now look not for a modernist scholar but for a 20th century scholar, or they advertise not for an Americanist or a British Literature specialist but rather for somebody who covers a period across national traditions. In some respects, I think that the controversies that you note in your post are about a shift from one way of thinking about the discipline to another.

To my mind, publications should "count" based on the quality of the outlet and on the impact - whether they were in the hiring field or not. On the other hand, faculty should show that they are keeping current in the field in which they were hired and they should teach in the field in which they were hired if that remains a department need. I don't think that it's impossible to balance or to give credit for those two competing things.

The problem occurs when your department hires a person to fill a need (say, to teach courses in 20th century British) and they just flat-out refuse to teach courses on the books, refuse to develop new courses in that area, refuse to do their job, ultimately. But as far as I'm concerned, in a non-PhD-granting department, exploring tangential research interests should be something that's encouraged, and doing so does not in itself indicate a failure to perform in the area in which one is hired.

owlfish said...

Generically, I'm all in favor of branching out, so long as one is still able to retain competence in one's core area. As others have already written, better a creative, active researcher than a lapsed one.

What's giving me second thoughts is having worked with a department which kept hiring people who branded themselves as a good fit, but whose interests were, in fact, somewhat removed from the area of hire. They needed jobs. They looked good. But they didn't last more than a couple years because of the mismatch. Now it's hard to say this is anyone's fault at all: the job market is competitive, they got the job, the department chose them, it's a pain to run serial job searches. It's not the same thing as branching out later, although it can have the same effects.

I suppose that, in both cases, it's a good chance - should a department take it - to reassess not just what a department wants to be, but, realistically, what it already is, what resources it possesses that might not be taking advantage of.

Horace said...

To take it from a cultural studies perspective, a lot of the rhetoric that we hear about disciplinarity and sub-disciplinarity is tied to economic resources, about knowledge production in a corporate (or even factory) model where the product can be managed, predicted, and marketed. In this case, the intellectual labor that we produce, via professional activity or classroom quality, constitutes that product, and a lot of the underlying logic of disciplinary enforcement (which takes place at the dissertation phase, the hiring phase, the annual review phase and the tenure-granting phase) is about reigning in intellectual production that cuts too radically across predictable boundaries.

This may not seem like seem terribly relevant to you romanticist poet, but inf act, that is precisely what is going on. "You are no longer qualified to teach the courses we hired you to teach" is a statement about that faculty member's exchange value in an academic system with limited resources, drying-up tenure streams, and an increasing pressure to quantify assessable classroom activity.

In fact, even your question, "What counts" reflects very directly, the translation of humanities work (a qualitative endeavor if ever there were one) into a quantifiable exchange value. While salary may only marginally be connected to those designators, there are other capital values encoded in them all the way up the institutional hierarchy.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The pedant in me has to say that the quotation attributed to Augustine appears first in Paul's Letter to the Romans 15:4.

I feel your pain, Dr. V. I'm embroiled in overhauling our protocols for evaluating teaching, which is (with us, anyway) an even more vexed question than evaluation of scholarship.

Erick said...

Oops! Paul, of course. Though, now that I think about it, given the content of the quotation, I kinda like both misquoting it and misattributing it, too.

dance said...

Wow. With you all the way, unquestionably. Never even crossed my mind that there were depts who would discount research out-of-field.

A point not mentioned, that may carry some strategic weight with deans if not colleagues: one of the reasons I *really* felt that I was in the best possible job was that I saw that it had room for me to grow--while the service need was teaching world history, it was clear that I could shift my upper-division courses around quite a bit, and therefore I expected to be contented there for 30-35 years. That kind of freedom makes people invested in the institution.

Dean Dad said...

Interesting post. At a cc, of course, we don't evaluate research, so if you want to look at a different century, knock yourself out. My big fear here isn't faculty who change interests; it's faculty who just stop trying.

In terms of "this counts and that doesn't count" for professional activity, though, you have to have some sort of rule. Otherwise, and I've actually seen this, you'll get people listing "canvassed door-to-door for my church" under community service. The boundaries should be relatively wide, I'd say, and open to discussion, and publicly available, but they have to exist.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

The R1 experience quantifies the More and More about Less and Less.

Everyone else should have more fun. Party on the dancefloor!

Of course I'm self-interested. I'm a medieval art and architectural historian stuck (at least a lot of the time) in America. If I couldn't think about Gothic Revival architecture in public I'd lose my mind.