Must Read: HASTAC/MLA Rethinking Tenure Guidelines

Cathy Davidson has an excellent post up at HASTAC thinking about the meaning of tenure and ways of imagining valid tenure standards for an increasingly interdisciplinary future. Along the way, she announces that HASTAC will be working with the MLA on reimagining tenure guidelines, and that they hope to work with other disciplinary organizations as well.

But the key moments of her post come after that announcement, as she ponders what the basis for tenure decisions ought to be:

The basic question is not have you published that book. The fundamental question is, based on one’s first six or seven years in the profession, is one likely to be a lifelong, energetic, idea-filled, responsible, creative, innovative contributor to the profession, even when the Damocles’ Sword of tenure is no longer swinging above.


How in the world can a “floor” requirement ever predict future performance? That is, if you establish a quantitative measure, such as one book for tenure, two books for full professor, what in the world are you saying about future contributions? You achieve the measure and then you stop? Really? Is that the ideology of tenure?

The point of the tenure evaluation is supposed to be using a scholar’s past performance as a predictor of continuing performance — on some level, the existence of the first book is meant to stand in for all the future books that will follow. For too many scholars, though, the book requirement becomes a literal end in itself, a finish line that, once crossed, leaves the scholar without future direction or motivation.

So what if we were to say, forget the book, or whatever number of articles one were to set, and instead focus the standards for tenure on the demonstration of an active, ongoing research agenda? How many different forms might meet these new standards? What new kinds of scholarly engagement might we foster?

3 thoughts on “Must Read: HASTAC/MLA Rethinking Tenure Guidelines

  1. Your post – and Davidson’s comments – remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker a while back
    His analogy connects the scouting process for college football players and predicting who will be a good elementary school teacher: in both cases, past performances are NOT accurate predictors of what makes a good “pro.” We’ve all experienced (as students or colleagues) the tenured professor reading from crumbling yellowed notes -excerpts from that second book, perhaps? But how, in this era of ever-increasing reliance on data/numbers/ quantifiable material, do we create “measurable standards” that don’t involve counting pages, publications, conference presentation?

  2. Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? My sense of this is pretty schizophrenic: on the one hand, in the age of digital publishing, we potentially have access to a whole range of net-native metrics that can tell us about the significance that publications have for their fields, and so if we’re bound to “measurable standards,” there are lots of things that we can look at (hits, downloads, inbound links, comments, public discussion, and so forth).

    But on the other hand, I don’t want to see our standards become even more focused on quantities than they already are, in which (as I said in the peer review panel yesterday) one ends up bean-counting one’s way to tenure. If tenure is actually given as a marker of “promise” — your work over the last six years suggests that you will continue to be an active and invested member of our faculty — then some evidence of that work over the last six years will continue to be important, of course, but so might a range of other things. Like, maybe during your junior professordom you began an extensive digital project that will take fifteen years of shepherding to complete; maybe in that case having gotten a grant, completing a stage of the project, developing a plan for the project’s future, and generally being quite focused on its “completion” should suffice. In other words, we definitely want to see work that’s been done, but we also want to see a roadmap for the future, and clear evidence that you’re really on the path.

    The trick in evaluations that shift the focus from finished objects to an ongoing research agenda is going to be getting committees (and administrations) to learn how to read, rather than count. Ultimately, I think “measurement” is the wrong term in such an evaluation — what we need to be thinking about is judgment, something that we currently tend to want to erase by rendering objective or outsourcing, but that a really ethical engagement with the profession requires us to wrestle with.


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