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.