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?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Making myself write

I'm trying to research and write an article. No big news there, since that's part of what I'm paid to do, and which I should be doing pretty much continuously. And, of course, I've done it before. But for some reason this one has me really stuck.

Part of the problem is that I keep veering off in all sorts of directions. Let's say the article is about, I dunno, an allegorical debate poem (it's not -- let's just pretend) with a 16th century manuscript date (again, I'm fudging the truth throughout this description) but assumed late medieval origins largely based on genre, content, and a few philological bits that people have been cribbing from its first editor way back when. And so everyone talks about it as a medieval text. But then it's in a early modern manuscript and there are all sorts of weird things about that manuscript. First of all, the other texts it has been bound with are pretty much ideologically antithetical to what everyone assumes is the orientation of this text. So let's say it seems, on the surface, to have orthodox religious politics for the late Middle Ages, but it's in a manuscript full of non-conformist Protestant tracts. OK, that's weird. And then there's a recent article that points out all sorts of codicological and paleographical evidence that the scribe was imitating print books in making this manuscript. Also weird. And so all of that makes me want to talk about my ideas about this text in terms of reception and reader response and appropriation and 16th century medievalism and the impossibility of a "right" reading and so forth. And if I do so, I really need to do more research on the related 16th century contexts -- book culture and anti-Catholicism as it affected book culture and 16th century medievalism and so on and so forth.

But wait, there's more. Even if we go along with the assumption that this text had origins in the Middle Ages and therefore think of it as a medieval text (although I'm not sure we should go along with them...but at any rate...), it's a weird text by itself. It's not like any other text in its genre; in fact, it's a unique sub-genre. And it's aesthetically bizarre, even in context of all that's already bizarre about late medieval aesthetics. And it's offensive to present day sensibilities (or at least, it should be), and the aspects that make it so offensive are the most written about aspects of the text. And so all of this makes me think I need to take this part of the ongoing scholarly conversation into account, even while doing what I said I want to do in the above paragraph.

And there's more, but I'm running out of ways to talk about it in made-up terms. But you get the idea. Every idea I think I have leads to a dozen more directions of research and thought. This article is like a Hydra on steroids -- cut off one head of ideas and a bajillion more pop up in its place. Argh. I've been toying around with this thing since the year 2-thousand-and-frakin'-3. And I've presented it at conferences in a few variations and gotten good responses to them all. Clearly, I need to stop the "I just need to read one more book" nonsense and start writing something. But I keep unhelpfully convincing myself that I'm not there yet, not ready to write.

So here's my solution: I'm going to pretend that this is a seminar paper and it's due on December 17, just like my students papers are. After all, I turned out decent drafts towards things in ten-week quarters when I was a graduate student, and here I've got a head start and 14 weeks. I think I might even give myself earlier deadlines for an abstract, preliminary bibliography, and annotated bibliography, just like I do with my students.

What do you think?


PS -- I started this blog 4 years ago yesterday. Happy blogiversary to me!