A pole-vaulter at the top of his game, as it were.

For performers — and here I include laborers of all kinds — some sort of metric determines how well they perform. Those metrics could measure deals closed, races won, widgets cranked, bills passed, or articles published. Obedient laborers should respond with enthusiasm to performance expectations. When the quintessential sergeant says “jump”, the recruits are to say “How high?” At least, that’s how the saying goes. People, the idea is, should want to follow orders and please authority figures.

But then you have academics. We’re a notoriously ornery bunch. When admin says “jump”, we first must clarify our definition of the highly imprecise term “jump” before we challenge the accepted methodological approaches to vertical distance measurement and finally question the epistemological framework supporting the conceptualization of height. When admin says “jump”, we take to our blogs and write posts titled, “On Jumping: Toward a Post-Modern Understanding of Vertically Oriented Faculty Labor” (ibid.). And we congratulate ourselves on being so very critical and analytical of it all. The hubbub is discussed; the meetings are held; the crossbar remains in its elevated position.

But Dat Meeting Tho

This week, my institution’s provost met with the College of Liberal Arts for the first time since he came on board some 7½ months ago. (He opened the meeting with the exact tally of total days since his employment began. I confess to not realizing at the time the later relevance here of that datum.) In this meeting, he set out the university’s expectations for faculty publication caliber. Our university is currently an “urban research university” with dreams of reaching Carnegie R2 status by 2025. In this week’s meeting, the provost gave the first clear sense of tenure & promotion expectations anyone has uttered since I got here. For that alone, I found the meeting to be a relief. And what the provost said met my expectations, with one minor but surprising exception I’ll get to later.

It seems, though, that I might have been the only person in the room to leave that meeting with such a sense of satisfaction. I write these words less than 48 hours after the meeting’s end, and in that time I’ve had no fewer than six colleagues approach me to solicit my reaction and share their own. (In academic parlance, I dare say that, with an average of three citations per day, the impact factor of the provost’s presentation is statistically significant.) Each of my colleagues asked my reaction because they were worried for me. They understand that the provost controls whether I get tenure here. They know he can single-handedly make or break my career. When he says “jump”, I’m supposed to ask “How high?”

Known in Advance

During my interview process, I heard numerous times that this school wants to become an R2 within five years. Knowing that going in, I expected the tenure & promotion (T&P) guidelines to be in flux. What worked before would not work in the future. A school dedicated to teaching, as this institution has been since its founding, looks for faculty who care deeply about students and their development. By contrast, schools dedicated to research look for faculty who make a difference in their fields more broadly, gaining notoriety and reputation by doing work seen and cited by others. As an aspiring R2, this school needs to shift its focus from caring for the locals toward building a broader reputation. I’ve understood that from the start.

I also took that as a personal challenge. My previous institution was a private, religious liberal-arts school. Their focus, to take a kind and generous approach, is to broaden the perspectives of their students and provide opportunities for personal development. Their focus wasn’t on reputation or research; I wasn’t expected to publish widely or in particularly respectable venues. Instead, my work ended up looking inward and focusing on local matters. I kept publishing things, but not much, not often, and not where many people would see it. In short, I’ve fallen off the disciplinary map. I’ve not kept up with current research in the field or my own reputation. Going from that situation to a school aiming for R2 means I need to change my perspective and my habits.

My Reaction

So when the provost said we need to publish in journals ranked in the top two quartiles in our fields, I actually appreciated the clarity. I finally know where they expect new faculty to aim. Notably, he made no mention of frequency/quantity. We now know where to publish, but not how many times. Stay tuned for more, I suppose. But the sense of where they’ve set their sights helps me focus my efforts toward that personal challenge I described above. I know the goal (sort of) and can now work my way backward from there.

If this sounds a lot like teaching to the test, you’re right, it is. Hannah McGregor and I discussed this scenario in the Scholarly Communication episode of Teacher of the Ear. T&P standards tell faculty what they need to do for secure employment, and that becomes the laser focus of our work. As one of my colleagues advised me yesterday, “say no to anything that’s not on their list. That includes writing letters of recommendation for everyone.” She’s right, too — the T&P standards effectively become my job description, and recommendation letters don’t help my career. I need to use these developing guidelines to establish boundaries and focus on the work that exists at the intersection of what I believe in and what my institution says matters.

The Intersection of Interests

I have always said that teaching is more important to me than research. If you’ve heard any of my podcast episodes, you know that caring for, and listening to, students is pretty much my primary modus operandi. So how does an emphasis on teaching align with a school wanting to focus on research? It’s tricky, but it’s possible. I need to keep writing about teaching, but in places that get more visibility and attention. I need to write articles that frankly sound more serious than what I’ve written in the past. And I need to focus on doing work that advances the broader discussion of how we teach digital writing in higher education.

For now, the most important element is focus. I need to focus my work with more intentionality than I have in the past. My writing needs to target  a wider audience than my norm. And my classes need to differentiate me among my peers, both locally and nationally. (That was tough to do at my previous school, where I taught 60 sections of first-year writing and 2 classes in my area of specialization.) The provost’s meeting helped bring me some of that necessary focus, and I look forward to continued conversations and clarity in the future.

Post Scripts: What Wasn’t Said

A number of issues faculty worry about specifically didn’t get mentioned in this week’s meeting. I want to address those here, mostly to document the omission as a reminder to pursue further clarification over time.

Lecturers in Limbo

Half the people who asked my reaction to the meeting are lecturers — full-time employees who are not on the tenure track. Their work is intense, valuable, and highly precarious due to the lack of institutional commitment to continue their employment. A majority of the day-to-day activities of my department, as well as many of our special projects only run thanks to the concerted efforts of our lecturers. Really, calling them “lecturers” does a disservice to their emphasis on service to the department.

Yet lecturers received zero mention in the presentation. Listening to the provost, you wouldn’t know we have them. Is there a path available to folks in those positions that leads to more-secure employment? Would they qualify for the “teaching assistant professor” positions that were noncommittally floated as items to consider? Is there a way people blocked from advancement under the previous administration might have options to pursue their career goals here, or is this shift to R2 and emphasis on the quality of incoming faculty a warning sign that they should be applying elsewhere? If it’s the latter, my department will collapse. We need to develop a plan for our future labor needs, and we need to make sure our existing employees understand how they fit in before they start running away.

The Little Surprise

I mentioned above that the provost made one comment I didn’t expect. He actually said two things I didn’t want to hear, but one of them I fully anticipated. First, he said that textbooks don’t count toward T&P. That surprised me. A successful, broadly used textbook gets attention and shapes the way countless students learn a discipline. Sure, they’re not cited (so they have low impact factors), but they certainly have impact. But the provost drew a line, and textbooks fell on the losing side of it. Noted for future reference.

That little tidbit affects how I think of some work I’m actively doing. Students in my Intro to Writing courses are working on an open textbook called Good Ideas About Writing that I’m eager to put out into the world after this semester concludes. The provost’s statement simply clarifies that this project counts toward my teaching portfolio, rather than my scholarship. Again: Noted.

My Real Challenge

The provost did not, however, say anything about open scholarship. As that’s something I’m increasingly interested in, I wanted to get a sense of where he stood and what challenges lie ahead for me. I asked two clarifying questions during the meeting. Unfortunately, I used the wrong terminology when asking my question and didn’t get the specific answer I wanted. I asked about “open educational resources” when I meant to ask about “open scholarship”. There’s a difference there that, to drastically oversimplify, boils down to product versus process. I inadvertently asked about the product and learned that OERs don’t really count. I instead meant to ask whether the process of open scholarship — openly reviewed, not double-blind work — will count. That question is relevant to my work, my discipline, and my career, so I’ll most definitely seek further clarification.

One good thing I have going for me in the short term: A colleague of mine just received a promotion to full professor after doing a lot of open scholarship and publishing many times about the nature and importance of that work. She is, quite frankly, going to serve as a trailblazer for me in a local context. I hope to use her experience and reputation at this institution to help shape the conversation about the value, impact, and future of open scholarship. In the meantime, I’ll just need to keep my fingers crossed. And keep jumping.

What would "digital pole-vaulting" look like? This little figure of copper wires and metal cylinders is about to jump from the RAM chip using a soldering wire and show us.
Photo by Bert Van.wijk.iadf on Pinterest