Previously on "The Tenure Files:" One of Alison Porchnik's tenure reviewers calls her forthcoming book "competent," hardly a term of high praise. But the English department's tenured professors think that her scholarship, while not exactly "paradigm-shifting," is certainly "field-advancing," and vote unanimously to recommend her for tenure. What happened to Porchnik at the college level is the subject of today's episode in this continuing series on tenure and promotion from the institution's point of view.
At my university, once promotions are approved by departments, they are reviewed by the dean and the College Executive Committee. That committee consists of eight elected full professors, each representing one of the college's divisions. I was on the committee when Porchnik's case came up -- a year in which there were more than 30 promotions on the table: two other tenure candidates from the English department, as well as cases from math, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, chemical engineering, linguistics, cell and structural biology, German, statistics, East Asian languages and cultures, classics, and history, among others.
Looking at candidates in such disparate fields isn't like comparing apples and oranges -- it's more like apples and tofu. So the executive committee spends a lot of time educating itself about the different measures that these disparate fields use to evaluate excellence.
Some disciplines require books for tenure; others value article production; some value single-author publications, while for others, multiple authorship is expected. Sometimes the grant record is critical; in other areas external grants are unusual, or unavailable. In some fields it is normal to publish the dissertation. In others the dissertation is forgotten, and young scholars must move as quickly as possible into new territory.
But in all fields, excellence in research is what makes the promotion happen. My university requires the promise of national stature for tenure, and when one new member of the executive committee asked if that meant we were only looking to tenure stars, the rest of us promptly answered "Yes!"
But most junior scholars aren't stars yet, so we look for evidence that tenure candidates, whatever their field, have demonstrated the capacity to do sustained, independent, and original research or creative work on topics of significance within their fields. We need to know with confidence that they will be able to renew themselves over the course of their scholarly career, not shutting down once their promotion comes through.
Of course scholarship isn't everything, even at a Research I university like mine. We reject the canard that some people are scholars and others teachers and expect to see evidence of first-rate teaching from all candidates. And we look for good citizenship: After all, tenure brings with it not just job security but a lifetime of committee work.
In my experience, the dean and the committee always look for reasons to tenure, not for reasons to fire. Their tenure discussions seem balanced and fair, and while the committee may split over a particular case, I have never personally seen an instance where the committee was out for blood.
That said, I admit I was chagrined when the executive committee began to shoot holes in what I thought was the bulletproof tenure case of Alison Porchnik. Committee rules prohibited my presence during the discussion of her case, so I spent an increasingly uncomfortable hour sitting outside the dean's conference room, paging through back issues of The Chronicle stacked on a coffee table, while serious rumbles and an occasional swell of laughter filtered through the closed doors to stoke my fears that something was not right.
Finally I was brought back to the meeting and directed not to my usual chair but to the seat where department heads were grilled about weak cases. Everyone at the table had a tough question to ask me: Why promote someone whose book hadn't actually appeared? Why count a book coming from the dissertation that got Porchnik her job in the first place? What evidence was there that Porchnik's book would be well-received? Wouldn't it be better to have some published reviews? Was her contribution to the field all that significant? Wasn't she relying on theories that had been rejected by economists and psychologists? Wasn't she using methodologies that belonged to anthropologists, not literary critics? Didn't most of her other journal publications come from the dissertation and the book? Hadn't she had any new ideas since she was hired?
Sometimes department heads get angry when faced with these kinds of questions. I've seen some stonewall the committee, providing as little information as possible under fire. But I've also seen nationally ranked departments send us dossiers that call for clarification. So I put on an air of confidence, while wondering on the inside if I was just rearranging deck chairs.
Here's how I responded: Porchnik's extraordinary book, from a top press, would be out in two months. The book was so heavily revised and rethought that about the only thing it shared with the dissertation was its title (and it turned out the publisher's marketing division soon changed that title as well). External reviewers praised the work, as did the reviewers for the press that accepted it -- surely that would suggest a positive reception by the profession. (Besides, in this economic climate, what press would gamble on a dud?) The work covered an important new topic and would draw attention from scholars in several fields. Her blend of theorists wasn't intended to remake society or cure neuroses, but to provide nuanced insight into the literature she was studying. Porchnik did use some ethnography, as do many of her tenured colleagues in literature departments across the nation -- though she was certainly not pretending to be an anthropologist. (And weren't anthropologists returning the compliment and borrowing heavily from literary theory?) Two of Porchnik's most recent publications were entirely new work, one of them pointing directly to the next major project, which by anyone's definition represented a series of significant new ideas.
But the committee wasn't done with Porchnik, or with me. There were questions about her future:
Was Porchnik's new project really all that far along? My answer: She had already written 100 pages of a 300-page book.
Was Porchnik so slow a writer that we could expect a book from her only every seven or eight years? My answer: There are no guarantees, but she seems on track to have her next book out in time to ensure an appropriate second promotion.
Would her continued presence on the faculty really improve the department's standing? Yes, and I elaborated on the connections between her work and that of other well-regarded faculty in the department.
Finally, there were questions about how the department handled the promotion:
Why weren't there more external reviewers from places like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale? Of course we solicit from the Ivies and from the top departments at major public universities, but they get so many requests that sometimes they turn us down. And the most qualified reviewers for a particular case may not teach at the most prestigious institutions: My best example was a Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist who wouldn't leave the third-tier southern campus he had landed at because it was a place where he could keep his boat.
Why didn't all of the reviewers say Porchnik was the best thing since sliced bread? Because readers, like committees, can disagree, and even the least energetic of Porchnik's reviewers strongly recommended promotion.
How could a department with as many tenured faculty members as ours unanimously support a candidate that the committee had so many questions about? The committee members didn't actually ask me this, but I could tell they were thinking it. So in conclusion I told the committee that the department had already considered all of their objections and found them not to be problems after all: Porchnik was a solid scholar, a dynamite teacher, and an amiable colleague who would indeed improve the position not only of the unit, but of the college and the university as well. If we had to search all over again, we couldn't do better than Porchnik.
I was sent away again while the committee resumed its deliberations. Thirty minutes later my rhetorical efforts paid off in a 4-to-1 vote for tenure; Porchnik's case squeaked on to the next stage, consideration by the provost's committee.
I had won the day -- or more appropriately, Porchnik had -- but I left the meeting worrying that the provost's committee might be even tougher to convince with a closely divided vote at the college. Curiously, no one on the committee wanted me to defend the other two promotion cases from my department, although I myself saw more potential problems with them than with Porchnik's dossier.
Although I've sat outside for all the promotions from my own department, I have participated in discussions of more than 90 cases in my terms on the executive committee, and each time I learn something new:
The head of a department once admitted that his unit's subfields are so specialized that he could evaluate a candidate's research only indirectly by considering the reputations of the external reviewers and the rankings of the journals where the candidate had published.
Another chairman grudgingly admitted that his department really didn't value teaching much. I asked him what would happen if an English professor presented the same teaching scores as the person from this unnamed unit. He said that he would raise serious objections: after all, English faculty members are supposed to be good teachers.
A chairwoman accused members of her own tenured faculty of bias toward a candidate. Since the department vote for this candidate is strongly positive, we urged her to rethink the charge.
A department head working in the same area as one of his promotion candidates could not explain the candidate's work; we had to turn to another faculty member, working in a different subfield, to answer our questions.
Germanists don't get credit for publishing their dissertations; linguists and people in English lit do. Many biologists like to work with yeast. Who'd a thought?
More significantly, despite the well-publicized crisis in academic publishing, we find that our faculty remains able to find appropriate publication outlets. Nonetheless, our college has begun to discuss the issue of measuring scholarly excellence in an age of publishing recession.
The executive committee usually completes its deliberations on tenure just before Christmas, and the dean then tells department heads to inform the candidates of his decisions. That winter most assistant professors got cheery phone calls. But two of them got a visit from their department head followed by a registered letter from the dean, informing them that their tenure was turned down along with instructions on the mechanisms for appeal.
I myself spent one very unmerry December week 20 years ago appealing my own tenure denial to the college. Perhaps it's a good thing that Christmas isn't one of my holidays. But I did get to tell Alison Porchnik that she could enjoy her holidays and not expect to hear any more about her promotion until May.
One department chairman I know likes to assure his candidates that they would never have made it through the maze of tenure without his intervention. Maybe so. But I know that while preparing a dossier and defending it to the executive committee is an important task, tenure always depends on a candidate's record, not on the spin I manage to put on that record.
I didn't tell Porchnik there had been problems with her own case, and I do believe that she got through on her own merit, not on my salesmanship. But I did caution her that she wouldn't be out of the woods until she passed the next level of review. I didn't need to remind her that I still might have bad news to deliver in the spring. She knew this could happen. Instead, I wished her happy Chanukah, and we let the rest go unsaid.