by Judith Curry
There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.
At Scientific American blogs: Three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-tenure Women: On Being a Radical Scholar, by anthropologist Kate Clancy.
The broader context for this post is the challenges that female academics face in terms of raising a family, an issue that I have been very proactive at dealing with as Chair of an academic department. The part of Clancy’s essay that struck me particularly was the radical scholar discussion, which I excerpt:
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.
But I think it also means reflecting critically on what it takes to get tenure, and whether the way it’s done is the way it should be done. There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.
More institutions are recognizing that interdisciplinary scholarship is a good thing, and some are even able to hire people with joint hires among the social sciences and ethnic studies, or biology and engineering. Yet these institutions that know they want their faculty to be twenty first century scholars use the same metrics to evaluate interdisciplinary scholars as they use to evaluate traditional ones. From conversations I had at the conference, they don’t know how to retain these scholars, or support them, and so many feel adrift, or don’t make it to tenure. And these faculty are very often from underrepresented groups – every one I met at the conference, in fact, was a woman of color.
Then there is the added issue of measuring influence and impact in a twenty first century society. At an R1 institution like mine, the criteria for tenure are to publish ten papers (thereabouts depending on the discipline, a book and some papers if you’re in the humanities), have teaching that doesn’t suck, and more or less pull your weight in terms of service. It doesn’t seem like much, until you consider the weeks, months and even years of work that go into each of those ten publications: writing and getting the grants (a near-impossible feat these days, with both NIH and NSF funding rates around 5%), advising the students, doing the research, analyzing it, hitting innumerable dead ends, drafting and revising, submitting and resubmitting. Publishing ten quality papers is hard work, and is in many ways a fine way to demonstrate one’s contribution to a field, perspective, and the beginning of one’s trajectory as a professor.
But are peer-reviewed publications, read and cited by only by a select group of those peers, the best way to assess influence and importance? They are certainly no longer the only way. My 2006 paper on iron-deficiency anemia and menstruation has been cited by six other papers; my 2011 blog post on this paper has been viewed tens of thousands of times and received almost sixty comments between its two postings. Some anthropology blogs have been responsible for starting entire new branches of the discipline, others show an applied side of anthropology that helps us see the impact of this field in our everyday lives; some ground their writing in a historical and evolutionary approach or move us with their perspective on war and poverty, where still others are not only influential, but regularly get more hits than the website for our main professional association. Some use their blog as a service to the discipline, and a newcomer is dispelling myths about milk (full disclosure: both of those blogs are by collaborators, kickass collaborators in fact). This is by no means an exhaustive list.
I’m not saying every academic needs to be interdisciplinary, or every academic needs a blog. But some of us are committed to thinking about scholarship in a different way, or being public intellectuals. We want to put time and effort into influencing our fields but also inspiring lay scientists and future academics. That is its own kind of professional impact.
So how does one be a radical when radical scholarship is hard to measure with current tenure criteria?
Be that radical anyway. Be the scholar you think you should be, bringing your whole self to the table, finding your passion and making it your scholarship, and having a plan that will help you become a leader in your field.
Every single female academic I have ever talked to about tenure has admitted to having a back-up plan. If I don’t get tenure, I’ll be okay because I can stay at home with the kids. I can go back to school. I can get back into my art. I can write. I can consult. If we’re going to all have these back-up plans (which, true to our impostor syndrome, are often better-defined than our actual plan to tenure) why not put it to good use? Live our lives, do our jobs the way we think they should be done, and try to get tenure that way. We already know what we’ll do if it doesn’t work.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t pull up the ladder behind you. That shit just ain’t cool.
JC comment: I have been thinking about these same issues, and was delighted to come across this article, which I find to be exhilarating. Universities and academics in arts and sciences are “keeping score” in a 20th century manner. Many of the other academic disciplines are much more flexible in terms of what counts as scholarly output: for example, consulting counts in the College of Management; patents and design and real world solutions are counted in the College of Engineering; starting companies counts in both.
The issue of the impact of blogging is an interesting one. I’ll give some stats related to my own blogging and scholarship. Over the course of my 30 year academic career, I have published about 170 refereed journal articles. According to the webofscience, these papers have been cited a total of 5000 times, from 3200 different papers. My single paper with the highest number of citations (634) was the Webster et al. 2005 paper on hurricanes in a warming climate. Note: webofscience (behind a big paywall) is the gold standard for counting citations from refereed journals, producing citation numbers that are about half that obtained from google scholar. Now consider the stats for Climate Etc: nearly 3 million hits, and well over 100,000 comments over the course of one year. I suspect that my personal impact on the field of climate science has been greater over the past year than the preceding 30 years (although my impact during the past year would be diminished without the previous 30 years). And even if traditional scholars in the field want to ignore me, I am happy with “inspiring lay scientists and future academics. That is its own kind of professional impact.”
I guess being labeled a “heretic” and “turning on my colleagues” and taking to the blogosphere qualifies me for the title of “radical scholar.” I have been able to afford to do this since I am tenured and a few years away from being able to afford to retire. But what of the young scholars that Kate Clancy writes about? Perhaps 7 years of conformity to get tenure is not unreasonable; however, academia may lose its potentially most exciting scholars that way. There may be gender differences in the need to conform and get recognition from peers (I hypothesize that females are less interested in conforming and being blessed by their peers :))
IMO, all academics in the arts and sciences should be radical scholars. In the field of climate science, the forces against being a radical scholar are particularly strong, enforced by the institutionalized consensus seeking/affirming process. “Going emeritus” seems to be required to liberate academics from these shackles. This should not be the case.
How to change this situation? This article has motivated me see what I can do at my own institution (Georgia Tech). Georgia Tech gets 5 stars for dealing with the interdisciplinary issue, and maybe 3 stars for dealing with nontraditional impacts, in the sciences anyways. Communicating science is an emerging emphasis, so I think this is moving in the right direction. I would be interested in hearing from other university academics on this.