Friday, August 9, 2013

What is tenure for?

Rob Jenkins has an interesting piece at the Chronicle of Higher Ed on whether blog posts ought to count more for tenure. I'm a big fan of academic blogs, and I think outlets like The Monkey Cage and all the others linked to the right are important for disseminating knowledge.

But blogs are not peer-reviewed, and so they should not count (for much) when it comes to tenure decisions.

Tenure exists to solve a problem. It might not be the best or only solution, but it should be understood for what it is. That problem is ultimately that you want the material that is being taught in your classes to be what the experts in the discipline say is correct, and not what some political, religious or ideological leadership thinks.

Problem: Who is in charge here?
I teach at Georgetown, an at least nominally Jesuit institution. I lecture on abortion politics in my political parties class. My students would like to believe that what I tell them is what the scholarship says, and not what the Pope might like me to say about abortion. The same goes for any articles I write, public lectures I give, and even this blog. Fortunately, Georgetown takes scholarship seriously, and makes no effort to control course content in this way. But the idea is not unheard of. We don't want schools to fire academics when their research findings turn out to be unpopular.

Solution: Academic freedom
So, how do we solve this problem? We prevent Georgetown from firing me over the content of my teaching or research. I can be fired for neglecting my job, or other misconduct. Tenure is not the same thing as lifetime employment. But a tenured professor shouldn't be fired for teaching material within their area of expertise, even if their administration or other political superiors disagree with it. The only constraint I have on my publishing is the peer review process.

Problem: Who is an expert?
Problem solved. Give faculty academic freedom and they won't feel beholden to the opinions of their employers. But that just creates a bigger problem. How is the university (and by extension, my students, or you, gentle reader) to trust me when I say that these are the things that my discipline says are correct or important? I am supposed to know better than the president or the trustees, at least when it comes to American political parties. But if I know better, who can judge me?

Solution: Tenure
The answer is, my colleagues, both in my department, and more importantly, across the discipline. When I started here, I had a Ph.D., which at least guaranteed that I met some minimal standards of expertise. But that was the probationary period. For tenure, the university compiles a comprehensive file on the candidate's accomplishments, including most importantly, letters from outside experts, who can vouch for the candidate's contribution. Tenure decisions are based on all that information about whether or not the candidate knows what they are talking about.

What does this say about what kinds of things should "count" for tenure? It says that what counts are those things that indicate expertise in the field. A blog does not indicate expertise. Anyone with a computer connection can write a blog. (We know.) This is also why teaching is not as important as research. Someone who knows just a little bit about a subject can get good course evaluations if they make their class entertaining enough. Interviews with the media don't count for much, either, because journalists aren't always the best judge of who is really an expert. Peer-reviewed publications are the best things we have to provide information about expertise.

In short, tenure gives you a platform, and some protections in how you use it. But you can't use the fact that people do listen to you to decide whether or not they should. If you say something that is true but unpopular, we don't want you to lose that platform.

Of course, there is a lot of mission creep with tenure. If you're going to make it hard to fire someone, you might want to make sure that they are not only an expert, but also good at their job. Are they good in the classroom? Are they good departmental and university citizens? For these questions, contributions like blogs do matter, in a very small way. Which is why these other things generally count for something in tenure cases, just not very much.

And there are plenty of problems and perverse incentives with the peer review process. But if blogging solves those problems, we need a better argument than just saying that what is widely read is best. Proposals to reform tenure should not lose sight of what tenure is for.


  1. As someone at a land grant institution (and one that takes it seriously), it seems to me that blog posts, media interviews, working with community groups, etc serve an important outreach and service mission to the University. We make take that more seriously than some, but we still don't weigh it very much for tenure and when it does count, it is counted as service. The upper administration here is quite happy when we are quoted in major media outlets. Some of that is that I don't think that all of them understand what political science is, but that is partially our fault for not educating them (yet).

  2. Part of the point here is that there is a difference between "is important and valued" and "should be part of what counts for tenure."

  3. If I concede your point about blogs, can I address some of the more troubling questions you post raises for me?

    1) If academic freedom is the answer to ensuring that the right things get taught in the classroom, and tenure is the answer for ensuring that the right people do that teaching, where does that leave those who haven't yet been through the tenure review process or who aren't even on the tenure-track? Do they not have academic freedom? SHOULD they not have academic freedom (since they haven't been sufficiently vetted)? If we're not there yet, we must rapidly be approaching a point at which the majority of teaching even in four-year colleges and universities is being done by folks in one of these two situations.

    2) If the end goal is right teaching, shouldn't we be troubled by the fact that actual teaching is such a small part of the evaluation process? You suggest that anyone "who knows just a little bit about a subject can get good course evaluations if they make their class entertaining enough." But that point raises a host of others. For instance, if student evals aren't a good indicator of right teaching, why don't we institute more rigorous peer teaching evaluations to match the peer research evaluations? What good does it do students to be taught by experts with poor teaching skills? Wouldn't they potentially benefit more from good instruction by someone who met only the "minimal standards of expertise" indicated by the PhD? It seems that tenure prioritizes only one half of the two-sided problem of right teaching, ensuring expertise but not teaching effectiveness.

    As I said, I'm happy to concede the point about blogs. But that's mostly because it seems such a narrow question in what should be a much more troubling debate. What say you?

    1. These are interesting questions. Obviously, the subject of how to run a university is larger than one blog post.

      1) Most schools establish greater oversight over the teaching of non-ladder and non-tenured faculty. That's why it's called a probationary period. The responsibility to hire and fire falls on the tenured and tenure-line faculty in that department, who in turn tend to protect untenured faculty decisions, but also take responsibility for them.

      2) I don't think anything I've said suggests that teaching can't be incentivized. (And I'd say that teaching is _one_ of the end goals. The university has many missions.) Your question is predicated on the claim that substantive expertise is different than teaching skill. My post is based on the same claim (although I don't think it's true that the vast majority of faculty are good at research but bad at teaching). The concept of academic freedom is designed to apply to the content of academic speech, not its style. Tenure isn't based on teaching skills, but promotion and compensation certainly could be.

  4. In the most recent Teaching, Research, and International Policy survey (TRIPS) of international studies academics, I believe around two-thirds of respondents said blogging should count as service. Now, this was an international survey and tenure decisions are made by departments and colleges (not subfields), but I still found it interesting.

    That, to me, is right. Done well, a good blog is service to the discipline, department, and institution. It should be treated as such, but with the proviso that service is typically the smallest part of a tenure case.

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  6. A nice response from Justin Esarey here:

  7. I think this is mostly right. However, the tenure decision doesn't evaluate "expertise"--it evaluates original contributions to the field. One can be an expert and make no original contributions. The problem with blog posts is they don't establish original contributions quite as easily as peer-reviewed work does (which is supposed to require such a contribution before it can be published).

    But does that mean blog posts *can't* make that sort of contribution? Given the growing role of unpublished work--and even blog posts--in other fields like physics and economics, as well as the well-known biases and problems with a lot of peer-reviewed publications, it seems like the standards might need to be reevaluated at some point. Maybe not yet, but I feel like that day is coming.


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