Remixing the Tenure Tracks - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Because the way academia shapes its professors says everything about how those professors will shape the next generation of students.

By Barbara Fletcher

We think of college as the place where we send the next generation to prepare it for the future, a place that nurtures new ideas and propels society forward. All true — but it’s also worth remembering that the academic community of students and scholars is, quite literally, a medieval institution. And when you try to coax all that historical weight towards the fizzy speed of the digital age, academia tends to keep its foot on the brakes.

FACT FILE: Perks of Tenure

Once achieved, tenure is, well, pretty sweet, like an inner circle with special protections, usually for life. Tenure holders act as gatekeepers for teaching and research standards, and they can speak openly about educational and political issues, free from the threat of being fired for taking unpopular or controversial views.

The goal is intellectual independence.

Take for example the way the institution qualifies its apprentices — that is, how it turns its degreed scholars into full-fledged tenured professors. You’ve heard of tenure, usually in debates about whether it should even exist at all, or about the swelling ranks of non-tenured faculty leading college classes, but how does a would-be professor earn tenure, exactly? The biggest determining factor: how much and where they publish their ideas. Traditionally this meant hard copy publication to establish scholarly cred. But with academic publishing avenues disappearing, faculty on the tenure track face a significant challenge getting work printed in a format that’s acceptable to the powers that be. 

For a new generation of academics who operate almost solely in the electronic realm, that means digital publication better earn some respect, and soon, to keep the centuries-old tenure process viable. So far, most university departments have been slow to embrace the idea — after all, no one wants to insinuate that every doctoral candidate is just a few blog posts away from the brass ring that is tenure. 

Some sectors are acknowledging that the digital realm can be a home for rigorous, peer-reviewed scholarship, not just LOLCats. The Modern Language Association, which is the primary professional organization for humanities scholars, gets it. Recent guidelines recognize new media and digital formats as ”an integral part of the intellectual environment” and advise departments to redefine “traditional notions” of tenure parameters. The criteria for evaluating digital work covers everything from finding qualified reviewers to respecting intended medium. 

Dr. Bob Connor, a Princeton PhD and former president of the Teagle Foundation, which is a group committed to improving higher education, says, “Institutions should bite the bullet now” when it comes to peer-reviewed electronic publishing.” And while it “is still being resisted, [it] will come into its own as the costs of highly specialized print publication becomes ever more intolerable.” 

The scholarly cred of electronic academic journals may be recognized in some disciplines, but with a caveat. According to Lydia White, associate provost at McGill University, ”The crucial issue will be whether it can be demonstrated that online journals have the same kind of international impact and recognition and are subject to the same kind of rigorous peer review as more traditional journals.” 

One might counter that traditional academic publishing is not without its own shortcomings: The small number of journals that exist publish infrequently, the feedback cycle moves at a glacial pace, and the review process can be tinged by institutional (and sometimes personal) rivalries. Perhaps the “publish or perish” model could use a shot of digital democratization?

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Here are some trends in scholarly publishing — two linked to the university system and one more controversial — that are moving the rigid academic needle.

1. Downsizing Texts

Tenure-track scholars are expected to publish articles and books, so why not e-books that are somewhere in between? Professor Leonard Cassuto highlights two new approaches in the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE): a format called the “Palgrave Pivot” — or  “mini monograph” — weighing in at 30,000 to 50,000 words, and midlength e-books (20,000 to 40,000 words) from Stanford University Press called “Stanford Briefs.” The latter is expressly intended to speak to an audience outside of academe — now that’s progress.

2. Redefining “Scholarly Work”

The meaning of scholarly work and open access to knowledge is being explored by the American Association of University Professors, a 47,000-member national organization for academics. In a current call for papers on ”Electronic Communications and Academic Freedom,” scholars are invited to explore topics such as ”To what extent are social media such as Twitter and Facebook changing forms of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination, and what is the upshot for issues of academic freedom?”

3. About Those Blog Posts…

Even if online research is gaining acceptance, can the same be said for other, non-peer-reviewed, online activity? In some cases online presence and publicity ”might be counted as appropriate supplemental activities, provided that it can be demonstrated that these activities contribute to [the primary tenure requirements of] research, teaching or service,” White says. Rob Jenkins, associate professor at Georgia Perimeter College, raises the questions of audience and influence in a recent CHE entry, ”What’s a Blog Post Worth?” He asks, ”Which ultimately does more good: an article or monograph that is read by 20 or 30 people in a very narrow field, or a blog post on a topic of interest to many (such as grading standards or tenure requirements) that is read by 200,000?” If the post generates discussion, incites campus debate, surfaces in the news or ”helps to shape the national debate over some hot-button issue,” isn’t that a good thing? Another sign that blogs are gaining more acceptance: Dr. Cindy Royal, associate professor at Texas State, was recently asked to review the online materials — comprising mostly of blogs — authored by a faculty member in the department of journalism at Rowan University as part of a tenure package evaluation, a move she sees as “particularly forward-thinking.”

The rise of the “public intellectual” and an academic’s online ”personal brand” are hot topics in scholarly circles. Peer review unequivocally belongs in the tenure process and isn’t going anywhere. But there are new publication formats in town, and vast new audiences, and they’ve earned some respect. The winding corridors of long-held traditions will always have a few closed doors. But as digital media alternatives come knocking, more of those doors will need to open faster. 

Rebecca Moreno contributed to this report.

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