The MLA on Tenure

Inside Higher Ed had a story on Friday about a Modern Language Association study on tenure and promotion. The study group just released its final report (available for download here. Given that I'm waiting to hear the results of my own tenure case (a decision could come at any time, starting this week), there's no way I can let this pass without comment.

The report makes a number of specific recommendations, helpfully summarized by Inside Higher Ed:

The panel -- the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion -- urged departments to:

  • Create "transparency" in hiring and promotion, so that junior faculty members know what is expected of them and are not surprised by changing expectations as their tenure reviews approach.
  • Define scholarship broadly, including the "scholarship of teaching," scholarship produced by teams, and work that is not presented in a monograph.
  • Accept "the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media," ending the assumption that print is necessarily better. (And to the extent that some professors and departments don't know how to evaluate quality in new media, "the onus is on the department" to learn, not on the scholar using new media, Stanton said.)
  • Focus on scholarship, teaching and research -- and not collegiality -- as criteria for tenure.
  • Consider their missions in setting standards for tenure, and to consider whether they are adopting research-oriented missions that don't reflect the reality of the kind of institutions where they work.
  • Limit the number of outside review letters sought in tenure reviews, pay those who provide them, and limit the kinds of questions asked so that they are appropriate for the institution and the position.
  • Improve the process by which junior faculty members receive guidance on their careers.

This is a really mixed bag of stuff. What was really striking to me was how many of the things on the list are either not applicable to my discipline (the MLA only considered English and foreign language departments), or are already done by my institution. On the disciplinary issue, in science "scholarship produced by teams" is the norm, and almost nobody produces monographs.

As for matters of local policy, we have strict policies about the make-up of external review committees (three external reviewers, at least one from a small college, and at least one from a research university), we have standard language for the letters requesting a review, and we pay the external reviewers a small sum for their time. I'm frankly a little horrified at the idea that these aren't common practices-- I didn't know how good I have it...

Some of the other items are good, but subject to fairly tight constraints. Transparency is good, for example, but there's a limit to how clearly you can spell out the expectations for tenure. You can't really give junior faculty a checklist to work from, because there will inevitably be problems. If you say "You must publish at least three articles to get tenure," somebody will churn out three completely worthless articles in The Slovenian Journal of Things Nobody Cares About, and demand tenure. If you say "You must publish at least three articles in reputable journals," you'll get somebody who publishes three good articles in reasonable journals but is having sex with his students, and he'll demand tenure.

About the best you can do is to spell out clear procedures for how the reviews will be conducted, and make sure that the candidates coming up for review understand the process. As frustrating as it may be to the candidates (and believe me, it's mighty frustrating) the exact standards for what counts as "enough" research will need to remain somewhat nebulous. (I'm happy to say, by the way, that Union does a good job with this in general. They're spectacularly good relative to at least two other insitutions that I know of, but can't discuss.)

I would, however, enthusiastically support efforts to improve the guidance given to tenure candidates. If nothing else, it's good for junior faculty to have somebody to pester with questions about the process (and bitch to about the inevitable stress, but other junior faculty are good for that...). And it's definitely good for departments, colleges, and universities to think carefully about the standards they're applying, to make sure they're appropriate (though I suspect it's damnably difficult to get any sort of consensus).

The one suggestions that strikes me as a really bad idea is the suggestion to entirely remove questions of collegiality from tenure decisions. I don't think it should be a major consideration, but you're talking about making someone an offer of lifetime employment. They better be able to get along with the rest of the department, or you're looking at twenty or thirty years of strife and misery.

The concern here is probably that "collegiality" is used as cover for denying tenure to politically controversial scholars, and the like, but the thought of taking it out of the mix completely is pretty scary. But then, this may loom larger for me, given that I'm at a small college-- if you're at a huge university, with fifty faculty in your department, you can probably get away with having a few malcontents running around. When the total size of the department is ten or twelve people (or even less), it's really important that they be able to talk to one another.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. There are some good comments on the story over at Inside Higher Ed, and I'd be interested to here what ScienceBlogs readers think, as well.

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The one suggestions that strikes me as a really bad idea is the suggestion to entirely remove questions of collegiality from tenure decisions. I don't think it should be a major consideration, but you're talking about making someone an offer of lifetime employment. They better be able to get along with the rest of the department, or you're looking at twenty or thirty years of strife and misery.

I agree with this.

Perhaps rather than congeniality, it could be phrased somehow carefully as being more of a plus than a minus.... The professor who causes too much pain, annoyance, and strife in the department is getting in the way of the department doing good science and doing good teaching, and that should be a valid reason to consider that this person isn't good for the college. But, yeah, it's touchy, because it's a criterion that's easily misused.

The whole "monograph" thing struck me as funny too. Indeed, I remember in my 2nd year being at a lunch meeting with a bunch of new faculty from across the University, and the Dean, and he said that "the book" was a big part of the tenure judgement. I knew I could safely ignore that....

There are issues in science. Different subfields of science have very different publication rates and publication types. What to a particle physicist is a "collaboratve" work than what it is to an atomic physicist, for example. We have this discussion at Vandy on the GPC when discussing how many papers a student ought to have published by certain milestones.

I know at Union that the "scolarship of teaching" is valued. At Vanderbilt, it's valued to a point. Really good teaching won't push you over the top, but really bad teaching will deny you tenure. Of course, given that, as far as I can tell, teaching is jusged completely from student evaluations, I'm not sure that they're really evaluating it right.

Re: transparency, it's amazing how much this differs from place to place. At Vandy, the tenure review committee membership is secret; that's in place to prevent lobbying. However, once the file leaves the department, it's a complete mystery as to where it is. You have no idea if it's passed various hurdles, if it's been sent back to various places for re-evaluation, etc., until you get the final word. And, based on recent tenures here, that final word doesn't come until April or May, after the end of the second term of the academic year. It makes me wonder if there are some ulcer docs at the Vandy hospital giving people kickbacks....

I do feel like I have a pretty good idea what is expected of me, although I suppose there's always room for surprises. I do have my differences with the validity of all the evaluation criteria, but at least I think I know what they are.


I for one would pay good money for a subscription to The Slovenian Journal of Things Nobody Cares About.

Actually, I would probably write a monograph or three for SJTNCA, given the opportunity...

You mean people actually get paid to slag tenure candidates' careers with their letters?!? That seems awfully weird. I always thought that was just part of the service to the community, similar to peer review of grants and manuscripts.

Years ago (well, actually three decades ago) when I was retained, tenured, and ultimately promoted to full professor at a college not dissimilar to Union, there was a 'collegiality' sort of criterion. It was the third of three criteria, the first two being teaching and scholarly activities, the latter construed fairly broadly. The third criterion was spelled out in some detail, and included such things as service on faculty committees, advising student organizations, and the like. And that latter criterion even took into account (though at a low-ish weight) things like membership on the township volunteer fire department!

I should note that over the years that third criterion has lost considerable weight, and if I were up for tenure now I'd worry a helluva lot more about publications (even in SJTNCA) and less to responding to fire or EMS emergencies on the campus. At the time I got tenure we had five faculty members on the fire department; now there are none because 'professional' concerns have become more salient in the college's retention, tenure, and promotion procedures, and require more time and effort from junior faculty. (I don't count since I'm now merely an Affiliated Scholar teaching just one course, not a full faculty member any more). One result has been an sad erosion of faculty participation in 'community' affairs.

As a relatively new post-doc (2003), armed with a monograph with a reputable publisher and no job, I suppose I ought to be a little mournful that the MLA is asking universities are trying to move away from the 'tyranny of the monograph' identified in the report, given all the time I spent writing mine. But what really worries me is the way in which some real scholarship - the stuff that genuinely takes a decade or more in the making - is systematically being ousted out of our institutes of higher education.

The decade-long "Big Project" hasn't been a possibility for working academics for a long while now, but the MLA recommendations make it even less of a possibility for the future.

My next book is a Big Project. It will be 600 pages long, and involve all sorts of flammable chemicals, archives scattered across the globe, regular trawls on eBay for hard-to-find Victoriana, and nothing - not even a university - is going to stop me writing it :-)