Monday, December 17, 2007
Profession 2007: “Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion”
What follows are some scattered observations about both the task force’s report and the various responses to it. (The Valve got a mention from Caroline Levine, incidentally, as one of the “[s]ites for intellectual exchange about books and ideas” (103) now proliferating on the Web.)
- "Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion": on the subject of book reviewing, the committee worries that "senior scholars" have largely jumped ship, leaving the decks to "graduate students or junior scholars in the field, who may not be sufficiently specialized in the subject or treatment of the book to draft anything other than a summary" (56). Understandably, the committee worries about the effects of this shift on the tenure prospects of young faculty. But allow me to make a very cranky and entirely anecdotal observation, based on what is no doubt insufficient experience (one year working at Modern Philology). During my time wielding a blue pencil, I found that faculty at all ranks were capable of producing mediocre to excellent reviews. However, the only true clunkers came from established scholars. And by "clunkers," I mean reviews dreadful enough that I could use them as spicy anecdotes during job interviews (leaving the scholars in question anonymous, of course): reviews loaded with grammatical errors, reviews that pimped the scholar’s own work and ignored the book purportedly under discussion, reviews that were almost entirely incoherent, reviews that appeared to have been written by freshmen. Junior faculty have professional reasons--beyond whatever sense of obligation to the discipline they feel--to invest themselves in writing serious book reviews. Senior faculty, not as much. Again, it’s not that senior faculty always wrote the worst reviews, but that the worst reviews were always by senior faculty.
- John Guillory, "Second Thoughts on the Notion of Raising Standards": Guillory, anxious about what he calls the "homogenization" of tenure standards across all university classifications, suggests that "the increasing imitation of Research I institutions by all other kinds of institutions in the Carnegie universe might in fact do quite the reverse of raising standards, might inflate the currency of scholarship--more books, perhaps, but less carefully written and less well researched, books written for tenure and promotion rather than out of passion and depth of insight" (80). I expect many sardonic comments about how monographs emerging from Research I universities are already "written for tenure and promotion"--in fact, the task force’s own conclusions suggest that even at RIs, that is precisely what has happened to the monograph since the 1960s. Nobody involved with the task force seems to have contemplated the likely psychological result of dispersing scholars trained to do research into teaching institutions, where (amazingly) many of them continue to be research-driven. Donald E. Hall is more on target when he observes, after noting that faculty anywhere who publish should be properly "rewarded," that "mandated monograph production is irresponsible in any context, and especially so at institutions that have heavy teaching loads and meager support for research" ("A More Capacious View of Scholarship" 85-86). And John M. Ulrich dourly reminds the writers that "research institutions should be encouraged to emulate the systems for tenure and promotion at those ‘other types of institutions.’ Why? Because those systems, by and large, already recognize multiple forms of scholarly activity as equally legitimate" ("Tenure, Promotion, and Textual Scholarship at the Teaching Institution" 120). While I don’t think anyone would have a problem with the argument that a scholar at the University of Chicago, teaching four courses per year on the quarter system, should publish more than a scholar teaching four courses per quarter, it’s nevertheless true that campuses like mine already have the kind of openness to textbook-writing, editing and translation that the task force recommends.
- "Disciplinary Societies and Evaluating Scholarship: A View from History": Stanley N. Katz rightly expresses bafflement that "historical editing and bibliography" (91) have been consistently devalued at RI campuses. The editors and bibliographers are frequently responsible for making our research possible in the first place! Moreover, even with the advent of new software and other technologies, editing and bibliography is time-consuming, exhausting labor (especially if the editor in question is working with manuscripts).
- "Tenure, Publication, and the Shape of the Careers of Humanists": Lindsey Waters reminds us that the monograph-for-tenure standard relies heavily on the scientist’s career model--"the exemplary figure is the mathematician" (96)--in which achievement frequently correlates with relative youth. By contrast, Waters argues, following Robert K. Merton, scholars in the humanities are generally "late bloomers" (96). This seems accurate to me. In fact, the scholarly career trajectory that preceded the Rise of the Monograph usually culminated in a Big Book--a book that was supposed to take a good chunk of the scholar’s working life. Now, both tenure and promotion requirements require Small(er) Books, making it difficult to devote oneself to a Big one.
- "Rethinking Peer Review and the Fate of the Monograph": Caroline Levine proposes that we decouple peer review from the academic presses, with "a panel of scholars [...] appointed or elected to act as peer readers of manuscripts" for every field (102). As Levine notes, we would have to control for the size of the field, but by separating peer review from publication itself, scholars could then "experiment with methods of publication and promotion to meet an array of needs and desires" (103). This strikes me as a genuinely interesting proposal, but I fear that it might be somewhat unwieldy in practice. To begin with, where is the field? There are Victorianists in Britain, America, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, and those outside the Americas do not necessarily belong to the MLA (for what I hope is a fairly obvious reason). If the "field" really means "the field as constituted by the constituency of the MLA," then it’s not really "the field"--even though there’s no other central organization in place that would allow a vote to be arranged and conducted. Moreover, I’m anxious about a) the number of MSS likely to be submitted to such a clearinghouse, and b) the number of panelists necessary to read them. Just how many 19th-c. Americanists would have to be drafted? I’m also worried about the inability to fine-tune manuscript submissions to at least reasonably appropriate scholars; if scholar A writes a book about the Reformation in Victorian popular culture (*cough*), then submits it to a panel consisting of scholars with no real interest in either religion or historical fiction, it’s not likely that the reports will be as useful as they could be. Ideally, a referee should know enough about the subject to catch errors of fact as well as pointing out lapses in logic. Last but not least, there’s the problem of $. Levine believes that most faculty will consider being chosen for this panel "an honor" (102); I believe that her estimate of human nature is considerably sunnier than mine. Faculty expect either $ or a book in return for refereeing book MSS--which, if done properly, takes a fair amount of time--so payment will have to come from somewhere. Her suggestion that the $ might come from a "reading fee" (104) will not, I suspect, go down altogether well, especially since the current budget climate is inhospitable to building such funds into many scholars’ compensation. (The $500 fee that Levine suggests  equals all of the travel money I automatically receive each year.) Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting idea, despite my qualms about the logistics.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Miriam, thanks for these detailed summaries.
Question—Do the responses to this report appear in one of those things that gets automatically sent out to MLA members, or do they appear in some some other publication? (I’m on leave this fall & not going into campus much—it’s quite possible I was already sent this, and don’t know it)
Online, I found what I think is the report itself here (PDF), but I’ve not yet found the individual responses by Levine, Guillory, Waters, et al.
You should get Profession as part of your MLA membership; the journal is online, but not free.