Thursday, March 08, 2007

On Tenure and Service

The ever thoughtful Tenured Radical has another post about tenure today. For some time now, she has been questioning the wisdom of the tenure system. Today, she has some astute observations on the way that service has become devalued by tenure committees.

When T-R first questioned tenure, I was frankly mildly shocked. I had always believed that this was a sacred cow of the Ivory Tower. After all, it was not all that long ago that I was compiling the massive lever arch files for my own tenure process. However, as I think about the subject more and more, I am beginning to think that T-R may be on to something.

What is very interesting is that T-R and I work at very different institutions. Hers is a good one. Mine is less so. Although the problems that T-R raises about the whole tenure process are almost entirely alien at my institution, I am beginning to realise that the system still produces huge problems, even at our less exalted level.

In the world of T-R's Zenith, the standards for tenure seem to be too high. We have the opposite problem, the standards are too low -- people have joked that a sandwich could get tenure with us. For us, this produces a problem of people who have managed to get tenure, despite having done remarkably little real academic work. It is no accident that many of our tenured faculty are folks who failed to get tenure elsewhere.

The problem this can cause though is that once folks have tenure, they have reached some kind of level state, from which they never wish to move again. They feel no pressure to publish, contribute to the profession, or be productive in any meaningful way. Some hardly even submit a thing. However, at the same time, these are often the same folks who will plot against the tenure cases of those behind them in the tenure pipeline. This is a problem.

One of the issues that T-R identifies is the importance, or otherwise, of professional service. It seems that once this was seen as a worthwhile use of time, and now it is viewed as only being useful, if it gets a person an advantage. Of course, such service is never a substitute for signs of intellectual life, but I think that the idea of service only having instrumental value is a sad way of thinking about things. It is just a bit too mercenary, to me to be fully tasteful.

I have always done quite a bit of service. Having certain technical skills puts me in a good position to perform certain roles. However, T-R's main concern was about refereeing for journals and the like. It seems to me to be a shame if assistant professors (and even advanced grad students) were only prepared to look over a submission, if they thought that they might get some advantage. I have always adopted a simple rule on such things. If the paper sounded interesting (I always ask for an abstract, if one is not provided), then I will review it. If it sounds like a bore, then I will turn it down. Of course, these choices are also moderated by the amount of such work I have done recently.

There is a theme here though. The folks I know who have been tenured, but then done little also tend not to do much referee work. I guess that they are not well enough known to get asked. In one case, there is an individual who only will act as a referee if they get paid. Thus, they referee a lot of text books. This is something I have done once and will not do again -- the rate of pay is appalling.

At the core of all these cases seems to be some nebulous notion of commitment to the life of one's discipline. People who will only referee, if it gets them an advantage do not appear to be fully committed to the wider project of scholarship. They are in the academic game for themselves, not for the life of learning. In this, they are rather similar to the people who make tenure and then become intellectual vegetables. This latter class of person's commitment stops at their pay check. To them the life of learning means nothing. They would rather spend their time redecorating their houses, playing golf, or whatever it is they do with their time.

I am still uncertain on what I think about T-R's proposals on the tenure system. I will at least advocate post-tenure review, for now. I may find myself agreeing with T-R over time. However, what I do think is crucial is that members of the professoriat commit themselves to the life of learning and act in a manner that is consistent with this commitment. If we let ourselves do otherwise, then we will become barely distinguishable from corporate drones. That would be a mistake.

The CP

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