As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field.
This actually seems to be a not-uncommon approach in some liberal arts colleges. I’ve heard from people at several institutions in which everybody — biologists, philosophers, psychologists, nuclear physicists, education scholars, art historians — has identical scholarship requirements for tenure.
If you’re not working at one of these places, I imagine you’re thinking, “WHAT? That’s absolutely nuts!”
If you happen to be working at one of these places, then my experience is that you’re probably thinking, “SIGH, yes, this is nuts.”
If you’re a Dean or Provost at one of the places that has a single tenure bar for everybody, then I bet you’re thinking, “This might sound untenable at first, but there are pragmatic historical and political reasons for this.”
Let me be a person to tell you that those reasons might be very pragmatic , but they are are holding your institution back and whenever outsiders look in, they see that you’re not taking scholarship seriously, nor treating your faculty fairly.
I get it. You can’t trust small departments with senior faculty to develop field-specific guidelines, and dealing with people who believe that this policy is somehow egalitarian is a pain the butt. But here’s the thing, academia is very different from field to field.
Here is what can happens to your faculty if everybody faces the same bar:
- For some small fraction, the bar is set at a reasonable place (on par with colleagues at comparison institutions with similar teaching expectations and support for research.)
- For some professors, the bar is absurdly low, because they’re in a field that publishing a peer-reviewed paper is pretty easy to do with a relatively small amount of work.
- For other professors, the bar is absurdly high, because they are in a field in which a decent publication takes a ton of work.
- For other professors, the bar is just nonsensical. In some fields, journal publications just aren’t considered the important part of being an active scholar.
From my understanding, for computer scientists, the closest equivalent to a journal article would be presenting a peer-reviewed paper at a conference. A computer scientist who doesn’t present competitively selected talks isn’t considered to be an active scholar in the field (at least I think so, please let me know if I’m wrong!). In my field, the opposite is true. You could give as many conference talks as you want, but if you’re not publishing peer-reviewed articles, then you’re not considered to be an active scholar. In many corners of the humanities, journal articles aren’t taken nearly as seriously as books, whereas having a book in the sciences doesn’t count for that much. And if you’re a studio artist, then having work in the right kind of show matters.
I can’t imagine how we can find the units for find equivalencies among art shows, journal articles, and conference papers. You just can’t invent a rational model. We shouldn’t pretend that we can compare measures of scholarship among all fields in a small liberal arts college. If we want to treat scholars fairly, then they need to be evaluated relative to their peers in the own fields.
Work is considered legitimate because of peer-review. Yes, my colleagues in Anthropology and Religious Studies are peers, as educators and fellow scholars. But my scholarly peers are at other institutions, because in small campuses, we tend to hire one of each kind. In my department, for any person there are probably only 1-2 people who really can put one’s publication record in context. The rest of the folks just don’t know the journals and can’t really follow things. The stretch to evaluate work within my own department is do-able, perhaps. But the stretch among departments? No way!
I’m not positioned to claim that it’s harder to publish a journal article in (say) membrane biochemistry than in (say) the sociology of food. Because I am neither a biochemist nor a sociologist. I think an attempt to create a singular scholarly standard for both would be like comparing apples and radiators. But then again, there are things to be learned from the scholarly field of bibliometrics. The most recent email from a Small Pond reader that prompted this post included an attachment of an article that involves a comparison of the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and so on. Clearly , the numbers show that it’s mighty absurd to use a single bar across disciplines. Do we want to ignore the expertise of the faculty in their own field? That’s kinda disrespectful, isn’t it?
If everybody coming up for tenure has the same bar regardless of their field, then the people on college-level tenure committees are tasked with kafkaesque job of evaluating someone’s academic performance with an arbitrary indicator that has nothing to do with their specialty. The college-level committee can do its best to trust the department to evaluate the discipline-specific scholarly record, but if they have nothing to do with setting the bar, then they don’t have much say over the level of quantity or quality of scholarship that the person will
The only way a single bar for everybody makes sense is if you don’t care about fairness or whether faculty on campus are viewed as legitimate scholars to outsiders.
If you want all of the faculty on campus to be respect one another as scholarly peers in different fields, then a single bar as a minimum threshold will undermine that aim.If the institution has a single quantitative set of expectations for scholars in different academic disciplines, this makes a mockery of faculty expertise. In a community of scholars, it’s must be hard for some folks to view everyone as peers, when it’s common knowledge that some people are being subjected to lighter expectations.
If the institutional goal is to make sure that everybody is an active scholar who is as productive as can be reasonably expected, then “productive as can be reasonably expected” needs to be quantified for each discipline, or it should be measured subjectively.
It’s not my place to tell every small liberal arts college how to cook up their tenure expectations. But here is a menu of ideas. Are you one of those campuses that is not soliciting external review of tenure files? That’s a good start. Have you asked department to develop standards? Have you consulted with comparison campuses to see what their tenure expectations are for each department? Have you put the scholarship of teaching as a valid category, so that publication in pedagogical journals is valid? Do all departments have an external review, even though not subject to discipline-specific accreditation? When departments go through external review, have the reviewers been specifically asked to evaluate and remark on tenure criteria?
I haven’t put in a tenure file in a place like this, and my bar has been set at the department. (In my first tenure-track position, it was one paper before tenure.) If your bar is a college-level or a university-level measure, what has this meant for you? Has it reduced or added stress, is it more difficult or less difficult than it should be? What changes would you like to see? You can comment anonymously by leaving the ‘name’ and ’email’ fields blank.