Tenure: Assessing the Quality of a Candidate
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on Wednesday, Mar 31 2010
One of the greatest concerns for junior faculty is the acquisition of tenure. Most American universities characterize tenure in terms of three vital components: teaching, scholarship, and service. While these components are clearly distinguishable, it is important for tenure candidates to consider them as a whole, not as fragmented and mutually exclusive aspects of faculty life. As one of my colleagues puts it, “Traditional scholarship is a form of learning, and its publication is a way of teaching peers in a field . . . [and] teaching is a form of scholarship. [But] it also makes sense to say that scholarship and service are simply forms of learning. Therefore, a faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service activities may be closely related, and this should be recognized in the position description and faculty evaluation procedures.”
The trickiest part of the tenure process is the actual evaluation and/or assessment of the quality of teaching, research, and service of a particular tenure candidate. Often, tenure and promotion committees as well as faculty and administrators reduce quality to quantity. Thus, the primary standard becomes how much teaching is conducted, how many articles are published, and how much service a faculty member performs. In these cases, quality is hardly ever truly assessed. Thus, “teaching” universities value higher teaching loads and service requirements and “research” universities value higher scholarly expectations and reduce teaching and service load to bare minimums.
Regardless of the “teaching” or “research” university caricature and their respective tenure and promotion committees and policies, the question of quality teaching, scholarship, and service still lingers in the background. Yet, there are no easy answers. Consider, for example, the issue of quality scholarship. I will never forget that during my doctoral studies, one of my classics professors was not promoted to full professor on account that he had not published enough peer-reviewed articles or monographs. It was widely known that this professor was a brilliant classicist. When asked why he had not published enough, he pithily responded, “I don’t like to publish crap!” In short, he would rather publish a few, high quality pieces than a high volume of mediocre publications.
Is it possible for a candidate to ensure both a sufficient quantity of scholarship that is also of a high quality caliber? Can faculty teach lots of courses with lots of preps and do so with a high degree of pedagogical quality? There seems to be a trade-off at some point but I am not sure at what point such trade-off occurs. And, then there is the thorny question of determining quality. Quantity standards are easy to develop. But how does one determine quality? Is journal or press ranking the gold standard? Is the preferable standard the number of citations one’s work receives? Is it positive book reviews? This question is no easier in regards to teaching or service. Is quality teaching assessed solely through student evaluations (God forbid!)? Should peer or chair evaluations of teaching be the gold standard? What about self-assessment techniques?
Perhaps the best one could hope for would be a triangulation of various assessment methods. In such a scenario, the quality of a publication would be assessed through an index composed of journal and press rankings, number of citations, and the quality of reviews garnered. Teaching excellence would be assessed through an index composed of teaching evaluations, peer and supervisory evaluations, and self-assessment techniques. Then, tenure and promotion committees could develop quality index rankings to determine the merit of a faculty member’s teaching, scholarship, and service.
I am not convinced that such quality index rankings are a good or desirable option. The entire metric approach to assessing quality is, frankly speaking, both scary and dehumanizing. But are ambiguous standards and subjective decision-making processes and rationales any better? I have witnessed how the latter also induce fear and dehumanization.
Thus, where do we go from here? In my own experience, committees must balance both the objective-metric approach and the ambiguous-subjective approach. Likewise, it behooves tenure candidates to guide their teaching, scholarship, and service along the lines of objective metrics with a great deal of sensitivity to the ambiguities in their own institutional procedures. And, lastly, it never hurts to teach, publish, and serve as much as possible. Quantity, whether we like it or not, is often a tenure candidate’s most helpful option.