reputation and scholarship

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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.

3 TrackBacks

Moral Hazards in Higher Education from Connectivity: Spike Hall's RU Weblog on October 2, 2003 12:55 PM

Summary: Moving from a teaching to a scholarship culture. Read More

mamamusings: reputation and scholarship I read what Liz had to say and understood every single word of it (though from a different perspective), perhaps. What about the concepts of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit? Author Note: I had written something abo... Read More

mamamusings: reputation and scholarship

I read what Liz had to say and understood every single word of it (th

Read More



For a moment I thought Paul Goodman's Community of Scholars would be a suggestive text to consult. However its emphasis is on the teacher-student relationship.

"Profess" is a verb that is found in both "professional" and "professor". I wonder if you could sell your colleagus on sholarship as a type of service for the profession.

On reputation and quality:
Scholarship as track record creation. Demo or die. Publish or perish. AND if you demo crap... or publish rubbish....

Good luck, Scholar Lawley!

This is hardly a problem unique to RIT--any program with research-related tenure has to have some way of quantifying it. I recently attended an informational gathering held by our university tenure and promotion committee. They basically count your peer-reviewed publications. That's it.

This year, they added to this by asking dept. chairs what the top 10 journals in their field were. I assume this means that publications in those journals will be "scored" a bit better.

Someone in the meeting asked about impact measures (ISI can provide these for individuals as well as articles and journals), but the committee said that this was just too messy. They take a look at your CV, look at previous CVs that have gained tenure in your field, and add up the peer reviewed pubs. (Obviously, this only applies to the hard and soft sciences. The Arts, Humanities, and Professional schools have their own criteria.)

When I was looking at tech schools I wanted to apply to, RIT was at the top of the list with Drexel and VT. I ended up going with Drexel primarly because their co-op program seemed to be a little more well developed and well known and considering where it placed me...I'm happy. However, the teaching staff at Drexel seems to be far more interested in the research and publishing aspect than they are in the actual teaching aspect.

This makes many classes quite difficult to work through and teachers often very hard to reach. I hope RIT doesn't drift too far from their primarly teaching methods, I have alot of friends who go there and speak highly of it. I must admit I stumbled upon your weblog (not even quite sure how) but its a delightful glimpse into another world.

"I hope that we´┐Żll eventually come through this transition period and get to a point where our faculty see scholarship as an opportunity rather than a burden."

I have to agree with this.

Still, I can imagine that the shift in emphasis would be profoundly unsettling to those who do not currently have an active research agenda. After all, it's not so easy to just come up with a research project. It takes time, and it generally involves building upon previous work. So this must be scary to those who have not been actively engaged in research for several years.

What these faculty probably need is some "development" time: ie., a semester of reduced teaching that allows them to begin to explore a new research area. In other words, reduction of someone's third quarter load from 3 courses to 1 course doesn't mean that the faculty member would be able to easily and seamlessly produce a journal article or a conference paper. Some sort of "transition time" is probably required.


There are some disciplines that grow at a relatively sedate pace. Philosophy, Music, Art. Yes there are current new ideas but the core knowledge-base is not a moving target; i.e., it grows at a sedate pace and mainly at the edges.

There are others--Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Biotechnololgy, Neurosurgery,etc. -- which are moving so fast that to blink is to miss a raft of patentable innovations.

So, I do understand that in fields such as Computer Science there must be some mechanism for keeping admittedly popular and arguably effective instructors up-to-date with core content of their classes. Hard to do when the core content is moving quickly down unforseen paths.

One approach: expect scholarly productivity and trust that a general updatedness will follow scholarly output. Advantage: there are higher ed models for accountable individual scholarship. Provosts understand, gypsy deans get it. Disadvantage: scholarship doesn't translate, necessarily, into core expertise in area of instructional responsibility. (Nor does scholarhip, even in exact core area of instructional responsibility, translate into effective leadership/instruction/nurturance of students-- but that's another argument.)

Another approach: expect industrial involvement as primary means for maintaining up-to-date core instructional knowledge base (paid internships -- continuing part-time involvement, etc) to continue even while a full-time faculty member. [Criteria of job relevance to nature of instructional duties would have to be applied; marketing dept at Intel for a structured programming instructor just wouldn't do]. Advantages: Pay may go up, connections in industry maintained -- can be used to benefit students, but, most centrally, the cutting edge skills that were bright and shiny at time of initial employment will stay so (given core of industrial duties overlap instructional topic). Disadvantages: some restructuring of normal industrial career expectations might have to take place...different career path, different expectations than 100% employees but industrial benefits [broadened viewpoint as to public need for product, enhanced knowledge base because of cross-fertilization imported via faculty member/technologists, broadened sense of societal expectations, pay-off in terms of influx of quality new employees from places like RIT, etc] will more than compensate for any difficulties caused by 'outsider' participation.
Provosts may not understand, gypsy deans may not get it. Administrative inservices necessary before they will sanction.

My Radio permalink is fouled up for the 10/2 entry listed under trackbacks.

Just go to my weblog at and then open up 10/2. There you will find my entry.

Sorry, it shouldn't be this hard.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 1, 2003 7:26 PM.

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