Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Contributing to Society vs. Earning Tenure

Debra Viadero reacts to my piece on blogging and tenure by surmising that there's a "revolution brewing." That's probably too strong of a conclusion to draw based largely on my strong reaction to about an hour's worth of discussion among a group of faculty and grad students. But maybe she's right. In some ways, I hope she is.

As I made abundantly clear in the previous post, I don't really don't like the idea that doing anything besides publishing scholarly books and articles should hurt one's chances of tenure. And I'm still somewhat confused by those who say it should. Here's why:

I understand the argument that tenure should be based largely on scholarly publications. I don't necessarily agree, but I understand it. At the very least, it's the easiest way for somebody to prove that they're a scholar in their field.

But what I don't understand is the argument that faculty shouldn't reach out to the world at large and attempt to convey their knowledge. Indeed, in some circumstances professors have a social responsibility to inform others of what they know. Pretend, for example, that a city council proposed a beautification and tourism program wherein all sidewalks are painted blue. But a team of researchers has just conducted a study on blue painted sidewalks and found that they increase depression, cause cancer, and shorten lifespans (this is totally made up, obviously). If they were aware of the proposal and failed to inform anybody of their findings, they would be in the wrong. It would be like if you knew there was poison in cup of coffee but you sat and there and said nothing while somebody picked up the cup and drank it.

Obviously, most situations aren't this clear cut -- but the point still stands. In at least some circumstances, academics are obligated to report what they know to the general public. Even in less dire situations a lot of good can come from sharing a little knowledge. So not only do I disagree with anybody who argues that professors shouldn't waste their time with the outside world, I don't even understand what the rationale behind the argument is. Should they not risk wasting time on trivial matters when they could be publishing journal articles? Is that really more important than contributing to the betterment of society? Or taking care of one's children? Or feeding one's pet(s)? Guess what: writing academic articles should never be the most important thing in somebody's life.

And if there's no reason to discourage professors from spending time doing things other than academic research, I see no reason why what they do during that time shouldn't be eligible to contribute to their case for tenure.

1 comment:

Sara Goldrick-Rab said...

This afternoon Robin Juliano, senior staffer to Senator Kennedy's HELP committee, contacted me to request a copy of my ASA paper. She wrote, "I think it’d be helpful as the committee continues to work on persistence and completion policy in the higher ed reconciliation bill."

Hmm... what to do... what to do?