mamamusings: October 1, 2003

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Wednesday, 1 October 2003

reputation and scholarship

RIT is in the process of a major shift in institutional culture, moving towards a stronger emphasis on scholarship rather than a nearly exclusive focus on teaching. While scholarship has always been mentioned in our tenure policies (see #3), the reality has been that it was the least critical piece. We have full professors in this department who have never published a peer-reviewed article or book, and associate professors who would be hard-pressed to tell you the name of an academic journal or conference in their field of study. The primary criteria for tenure and promotion have traditionally been teaching (with student evaluations weighted very heavily, along with breadth and depth of teaching topics), teaching-related activities such as curriculum development, and service—committee work, academic advising, and activities (like consulting, or pro bono provision of services) outside of the institute.

Over the past several years, our president has been working to change the culture of RIT from a single-minded focus on teaching to a greater blend of teaching and scholarship. On many levels, I’ve felt that this is a good thing. I believe that research and scholarship are critical to keeping the professoriate intellectually alive, and that without it our teaching creeps dangerously close to training. It’s hard to convince students that they should take scholarship seriously if we don’t model that behavior for them.

But while in theory this new approach has great value to all members of the university community, in practice it’s never that straightforward. RIT’s revenue is almost completely tuition-driven. No tax revenues (except for NTID), and not a large enough endowment to provide much breathing room. So every hour that a faculty member doesn’t spend teaching is that much less revenue. And IA will be pleased to know that RIT has really held the line on adjunctification, with a very low adjunct rate and a policy to create non-tenure-track lecturer positions (with decent salaries and benefits) rather than increating the adjunct rate.

As a result, until this year, everyone in my department has taught a 9-course load—three courses per quarter, three quarters per year, most classes with 30 or more students. That doesn’t leave any time at all for scholarship, so to move towards increased scholarship means something had to give.

When the institute passed new scholarship guidelines last year (here, in section 5), based in large part on Ernest Boyer’s reformulated scholarship definitions from Scholarship Reconsidered, it opened up an opportunity for our faculty to renegotiate teaching expectations. As a result, we’re about to implement a new “portfolio” approach that will require untenured faculty to take a “blended” approach—teaching 7 courses per year, and in exchange doing a specified amount of scholarship.

But in that “specification” lies the problem. It’s difficult to specify scholarship in discrete quantities, and to operationalize those specifications effectively. It’s particularly difficult for faculty hired before this shift began, but who are not yet tenured—and there are a lot of them. Between 1988 and this year our department grew from 18 to 51 faculty, and only 20 of us are tenured. Many recent hires were brought on because of their teaching skills, or their experience in the IT industry. Only nine of them have PhDs. Fifteen of them received their master’s degrees from RIT, where our focus is on preparation for industry careers, not academic careers.

Now we’re saying to these folks that the rules have changed. When we hired them, we said teaching and service were really all that mattered. Now we’re saying they have to be scholars, as well. And while we’re providing fairly broad guidelines for what constitutes scholarship (it’s not just academic journals and conferences), we are expecting them to be able to figure out what scholarship is.

What’s happening, alas, is that most of them are seeing the scholarship emphasis only as a bean-counting exercise for tenure and promotion, rather than as an opportunity (facilitated through lower course loads) to expand their intellectual and creative abilities. And as a result, the focus seems to be on process rather than product, quantity rather than quality. To someone who’s not familiar with scholarship, there’s no difference between Academic Exchange Quarterly and Harvard Educational Review. Both are peer-reviewed, therefore both are “beans” to be counted and put into the tenure jar.

As I was driving home today, I was trying to think about how to explain the difference between these to someone putting together their plan of work for the upcoming year. The key concept that’s missing from our scholarship documents and implementation plans is reputation. It’s not just that something is peer-reviewed. There’s more value to the faculty member, and the institute, and to our students, in my being asked to be a speaker at SuperNova than in my being asked to speak to the local PTA. There’s more value in my publishing an article in Wired than in publishing one in the local free-at-the-grocery-store computer rag. There’s more value in exhibiting my work at SIGGRAPH than in putting it up on the college web site. It’s not that there’s no value in those secondary options, but if I have to focus my energy on one or the other, the choice is clear.

Reputation is hard to quantify, and it’s particularly difficult in a field like IT, which spans so many traditional disciplines. And it’s even more difficult when you (quite appropriately, I think) expand the boundaries of “scholarship” to encompass a broader range of activities. But at the end of the day, scholarship really is about reputation. In a professional field, your “peers” may not be editors of academic journals—they may be other programmers, artists, or even bloggers.

I don’t know how we’ll solve this. I hope that we’ll eventually come through this transition period and get to a point where our faculty see scholarship as an opportunity rather than a burden. I wish I could convey to more of them how much joy I take in the research I’m doing, or how good it feels to get an invitation to speak at a conference. But I don’t know how to bridge the cultural gap, to help them make that difficult shift from teachers to scholars. And I fear that if they don’t bridge that gap—and quickly—there will be trouble aplenty when our “bubble” hits the needle of the tenure process in two years.

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna