Friday, August 7, 2009

Contributing to Society vs. Earning Tenure

I mentioned in my previous post that we had quite the interesting -- in a bad way -- discussion at the meeting of the sociology of education section. What transpired may have been the most frustrating experience I've had in academia. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I try to choose my words carefully -- that I aim to provide measured responses to the issues of the day and see all sides of an issue. I think that's important, so I took a few hours, ate a good dinner, calmed down, and thought this through before beginning this post.

That said, I have never taken part in a conversation where academics were so narrow-minded, pompous, or downright illogical. Here's what happened:

Throughout the day there was much discussion surrounding ways for sociologists of education to get their voices heard by the mainstream media, to influence policymaking, and, generally speaking, reach a larger audience. In the last session of the day, one senior scholar pushed back against this theme, arguing that there was nothing wrong with doing sociological research purely for the purpose of advancing the field of sociology. A perfectly valid point, in my mind: while I often wish academia would make more of an effort to conduct practically relevant research and translate that research into a readily accessible format, this need not apply to every last paper.

Over the course of the next hour the discussion veered into the decisions of students and faculty to reach out to the popular press, write policy memos, run blogs, and so forth. In other words, commenting on their areas of expertise in places other than academic journals and books. The room was decidedly mixed on the topic, with some encouraging everybody to reach out to the nearest publicist and some expressing more reservations.

And then one senior scholar suggested that people wait until they have tenure to do such things. The argument was that one should focus on academic work until they established themselves in their field and then they could spend the next thirty years trying to make a practical impact. The statement is not completely without merit -- more experienced scholars should have more knowledge and expertise to share, so it makes sense that they would be the first ones a reporter would call. But that wasn't really the context of the statement. Eventually the conversation turned to tenure and working on non-academic research and commentaries.

Said one: "you're not going to get tenure by blogging." Said another: "you don't have to focus exclusively on academic research, you could have a pet or have a child, but that won't get you tenure either. You have to decide what's important." (quotes probably aren't exact, but I wrote down what they said at the time almost verbatim so they're pretty close)

In other words, the only thing that counts toward tenure is "academic research" -- articles that are published in selected peer-reviewed scholarly journals, or books with an academic focus. And, worse yet, contributing to society in any other way actually hurts one's chances of obtaining tenure. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I was flabbergasted.

Now, to be fair, I can see a strong argument for academic work being the main component when considering whether somebody should earn tenure. And tenure certainly shouldn't be a popularity contest -- (s)he with the most press mentions wins. But there is absolutely no reason why a narrow definition of academic work should be the sole consideration. Besides the fact that teaching and service ostensibly play a large role in the tenure decision at many institutions, I see no reason why all activity of an assistant professor shouldn't be taken into account.

What purpose, exactly, do faculty serve? I always thought they were there to do two main things: 1.) learn about the world, and 2.) teach others about the world. Why the heck would we interpret "others" to mean only the couple dozen people who read your article in a highly specialized academic journal? When a professor helps educate a wider audience they often provide a greater service to society at large than they do when they publish an academic article. And that should be taken into account. Professors should be encouraged to write op-eds, talk to reporters, write policy memos, and even blog. If all knowledge is concentrated in the hands of but a few professors, what's the point?

Where do these senior scholars get off making the judgment that contributing to their knowledge base is more valuable than helping society at large better understand the way the world works? I was more than a little distressed to hear such thoughts come out of the mouths of sociologists -- the same group that spends so much time studying things like stratification, oppression, and equality. I don't know what the explanation is for these thoughts. Are they jealous of those who get more press? Do they simply want young scholars to make it through the same gauntlet they did?

Oddly, it seemed that those who spoke about it being tough to earn tenure when communicating with a larger audience spoke as though there were some higher being or committee that made tenure decisions. But many of these people are the ones sitting on tenure committees making these decisions. They seemed to shake their head and say "this is the way the world is" even though they were perfectly capable of changing it.

I was always led to believe that academia, perhaps more than any other field, values people who color outside the lines, develop new theories, propose new hypotheses, and change the way we see the world. So it seems more than a little hypocritical for such a group to allow only those who meet a narrowly defined set of criteria to enter their fraternity.

I don't know how many people in the room viewed it this way, but I'm sure it wasn't everybody. I wasn't the only person who voiced displeasure with this way of thinking, and other senior scholars seemed to be warning young scholars in a voice that was more cautionary than foreboding. Said one: "it's hard to write for an audience outside your discipline." Translation (I think): it will take a lot of time to prepare material for non-academic sources, so be careful about starting down this path. But, in my mind, this simply underscores the idea that we should reward, rather than punish, those who successfully reach out to a larger audience.

Beyond this, I don't understand why reaching out to a larger audience is frowned upon by some academics when colleges and universities go out of their way to encourage professors to do as such. We get an e-mail every time somebody from our department is cited in the news. The university sends out weekly e-mails that highlight any Vanderbilt research that was in the media recently -- and has an office that works very hard to get that research in the media. When Vanderbilt researchers appear in the press it's good for the school -- it helps earn not only prestige, but also more research dollars. If professors are supposed to serve the university, shouldn't they be publicizing their findings?

Let's look at a practical example. Eduwonkette was written by an ambitious grad student who thought she had something to offer to the conversation on education policy. In my mind, she was right. For over a year, she ran the best education blog around. She quickly provided insightful and revealing information about all sorts of relevant topics. She altered the course of the conversation in many circles -- in a good way. In other words, in a year or two she accomplished more than most faculty will in a lifetime. But now that she's an assistant professor, we're no longer graced with her presence. Did anybody at her new institution or elsewhere suggest that her time would be better served elsewhere? I have absolutely no idea. But if I were in charge of tenure in her department, I would have strongly recommended that she continue with the blog. Who cares if doing so cost her the time to write a couple more academic articles?

I guess the bottom line is this: there are more important things in this world than academic articles. Sure, we should judge professors by what they contribute to academia, but we're a smart group of people -- why can't we figure out a more meaningful definition of this phrase? We complain when students are reduced to a number (test scores), and yet we have no problem reducing professors to a number (of publications) as well. If academics want to be pompous and narrow-minded -- and irrelevant -- they should continue to discourage their peers from making practical contributions to society. But if they actually care about advancing knowledge, they should be rewarding those who do so -- even if it doesn't involve an academic journal.


Sherman Dorn said...

I would have loved to have been in that room, both to listen to and contribute to the conversation. It sounds like many of the participants may have been struggling with their own perceptions and understandings and also with the fact that they do NOT determine everything about tenure, despite their senior status. People work in departments, and one internal advocate or solid external review letter does not make a tenure decision.

I also think that perhaps it may not be wise to judge all of blogging by the work of Jennifer Jennings, who is an outlier in many ways in terms of pre-dissertation publications. I haven't spoken with her about this, but I would not be surprised if she shut down the Eduwonkette blog for practical reasons. Even if she IS Jennifer Jennings, there are only 24 hours in a day.

As someone who started blogging before tenure (and before most people knew what a blog was), my advice would be to spend time on stuff you love as long as you get to the stuff you need to do (there's also this stuff called teaching), and if you can combine the two, even better.

Roger Sweeny said...

I was always led to believe that academia, perhaps more than any other field, values people who color outside the lines, develop new theories, propose new hypotheses, and change the way we see the world.

It would be as accurate to say, "Jesuits, perhaps more than any other people, value people who color outside the lines, develop new theories, propose new hypotheses, and change the way we see the world."

Corey Bunje Bower said...

SD: Fair enough. I know that not all outside work is necessarily good work, I just think that one should be rewarded, rather than punished, for good outside work. And I still abhor the idea that young scholars should essentially shut their mouths for a decade or more until they've earned tenure. That strikes me as anachronistic and somewhat petty.