Tenure and Professional Academics

Scott McLemmee’s commentary in Inside Higher Ed this week is very interesting because it tackles two issues that are potentially closely linked but typically distinguished: the practice of academic writing (in this case literary criticism) and the tenure process.

In the column, Scott interviews Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, who has recently published a book called The Character of Criticism (Routledge). A number of things emerge in the interview, in part because Scott does not shy away from some difficult questions and in part because Harpham has an interesting perspective on academia, professional (University sanctioned) academic work, publication and the tenure-process.

In short, Harpham advances a thesis about literary criticism that understands the practice as a personal investment, an engagement of one’s “character” with the text. In other words, on Harpham’s view, literary criticism is a deeply personal activity that calls upon the kind of knowledge that can only be developed through experience involving good judgment. Nonetheless, Harpham resists the view that literary criticism is, at heart, a vocation for the “amatuer”; instead, the whole task of publishing and producing work in the genre is necessarily sanctioned by the University institution–which brings us to questions of tenure. I quote from a section of the interview where Harpham addresses his experience at Tulane, acting as a member of a committee on faculty evaluations and rewards:

What I found over the course of that year and a half was that the contemporary debate on tenure was being driven by a variety of forces, including state legislatures hostile to academia in general, conservative academics hostile to elite institutions, high-powered researchers at those very elite institutions, and a great many ordinary academics who were doing lots of committee work and teaching and wanted to be recognized, with promotions and salary increases, just like those who were publishing regularly. “Flexibility” was the key phrase: universities were encouraged to reward flexibility, as individuals realized themselves in their various ways. Our committee found several problems associated with “flexibility,” each one of which we considered insurmountable….

In principle, I was not opposed to “flexible” rewards for faculty, but I thought that each institution had to decide what it wanted to be, and how its faculty should be expected to think of themselves. At the top research universities, flexibility is a very bad idea: All faculty should be seen as having jumped over the same bars. At flagship state institutions, it’s still a bad idea. But from there on down — and at Tulane, one of the questions we had to face was exactly where we stood — the issue was not so clearcut. Many colleges and universities may wish to reward superb teaching or loyal service to the institution with rank and salary increases….

Each institution has to come to a rough understanding of itself, leaving enough room for anomalous individuals to be judged on terms appropriate to their contribution. I’m afraid there is no substitute for the act of judgment exercised case by case by people who are presumed to be competent. Though that presumption can be challenged in individual instances, it must be maintained, because it and it alone ensures faculty governance.

It seems that indeed the issue of “character” is paramount not only for individual academics as they engage in their specific research interests but also for departments and faculties as a whole as they determine the goals and directions of their departments. Perhaps this is not an entirely satisfactory response, especially for a young academic seeking tenure at a research institution, but what it lacks in clarity and prescriptive precision, it gains in response to the real conditions of scholarship.

Something Lighter

Sometimes blogging feels like putting on a warm pair of slippers.

I recently came across a meme, through two sources, that quite simple warmed my heart. Scott McLemee and Adam Rosi-Kessel seemed to have independently discovered this vaguely “scientific” experiment on the speed of meme dispersion through the internet. Apparently, the results will be shared at the MLA–if that’s considered a suitably scientific organization. The researcher wants to quantify the rate and means of distribution of “memes” on the internet. He is tracking links to his blog entry via Technorati. The hypothesis is driven by the suggestion that widespread content on the internet is often generated in low traffic blogs, but then gets picked up by some higher traffic blogs before spreading across the internet and winding up at many different low-traffic blogs. Since I am sure that I am late to pick up on this and that I am a very low-traffic blog, I probably support his hypothesis.

In the meantime, I discovered a wonderful little story that reflects the experience of writing a dissertation (what I am supposed to be doing right now) better than I could have ever expressed it. The bit is called “Disadventure” and is written in the style of one of those old computer adventure games. What I love is the disembodied feature of the experience: user writes command “work on dissertation” over and over again, while computer responds with a variety of procrastination techniques. Nothing expresses the complete loss of willpower associated with the dissertation-writing task like this futile exercise.

Follow-up AA

So, the Supreme  Court is hearing arguments today in a case that could overturn Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, residents of Louisville, KY. are complaining that their children aren’t able to attend the schools of their choice because of that state’s efforts to racially integrate schools. NPR’s Nina Totenberg has her usual balanced and in-depth report on the issue.

In reality, this is not identical to the “affirmative action” issue in Michigan, but it is certainly of the same genre. Perhaps on practical grounds, racial integration at the primary and secondary school level creates a burden upon families that outweighs the benefits of forced integration. But have we, as a society, really reached the level of race consciousness that would allows us to reasonably return to the “separate but equal” standard of Plessy v. Ferguson without in fact increasing racial inequality? Some argue that is the case. I don’t need to remind anyone of the recent racial slurs of Michael Richards, but perhaps we need to be reminded of that LA police officers are again in the news for issues concerning racially motivated use of excessive force. Up for debate is the introduction of mandatory cameras on police cars to monitor use of force. This following some disturbing videos put on You Tube. Consider this one of a student being tasered for not carrying a library card.

Of course, these are separate issues, but they highlight the lack of race consciousness acrossed society and the need to continue to guard against our inherent prejudices. It seems that rolling back Brown v. Board of Education is premature.