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Archive for the ‘The Publication Gauntlet’ Category

The goal of being on the tenure track is to receive tenure and there is lots of available advice about how to do that. There is less information available about what happens when tenure is denied. Even when our colleagues are denied tenure, it can be hard to find out the details while respecting the fact that they likely do not want to talk about the situation. For these reasons, recent guest posts at Historiann and a blog started in May by Jennifer Diascro are intriguing (and often frustrating and devastating).

“Hannah” at Historiann recounts her experience with a Dean who seemed to be against her case from the start, despite the support of colleagues, and her successful appeal the next year. Diascro, who had been previously tenured at the University of Kentucky, details her experiences with tenure denial at American University where the messages she received from her colleagues leading up to the tenure decision directly contradicted their recommendation. Hannah’s account is interesting, but Diascro’s is even more illuminating due to her willingness to post many of the documents from her tenure case at AU.

Both stories have (eventual) happy endings, which probably makes their authors more willing to share their experiences but makes them no less illuminating.


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At my previous institution, a few peer-reviewed publications and evidence of continued “scholarly activity” (such as conference presentations) were enough for tenure. These publications could be on any topic in any publication as long as it was peer-reviewed. At my current institution, the picture is considerably less clear.

The major change is in what counts and how much. As at many institutions, all peer-reviewed publications are not created equally. Nobody is expected to publish in ASR or AJS but things like impact factor are considered. The type of research also matters. As one colleague stated, publishing in outlets like Teaching Sociology is like a cherry on top of a sundae, but it isn’t the sundae. They also like to see progress in these areas, so one high-profile publication followed by three lower-ranking publications is not as desirable as the reverse would be.

All of this makes the publication gauntlet that much more daunting. There is also uncertainty, though, about when one wants things to be accepted and published while moving along the tenure track. The third-year review, for example, is less of a formality and essentially the same in practice as the tenure review (requiring the exact same documents). This means that publications are essential for passing the third-year review but there are cases in which individuals with a few publications at this point neglected to tell the tenure and promotion committee about a paper that had been recently accepted so that it would be seen as “new” at the tenure review.

The final issue that I’ve encountered is a lack of information about what actually counts as “published.” Accepted papers do not seem to have the same weight as those that have actually been published (indicated in the fact that they are not requested as part of the review). “Published,” though, encompasses a wide variety of things today. Some journals have long lead times before publication in print, others have long lead times but “online first” availability in the meantime, and others have short lead times (or even all-online publishing) but questionable impact factors.

Together, these factors make a process that I breezed through at my previous institution much more stressful (I haven’t even had time to work on my time machine!).


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The other day I shared Terry McGlynn’s recent post at Small Pond Science, “The tyranny of the 9-month position,on Facebook, wondering if those outside of the sciences would feel the same way. Like most full-time faculty, I’ve been on nine or 10-month contracts since starting my first tenure-track job but, perhaps unlike my colleagues in the sciences, haven’t often given it much thought. Like me, my colleagues in the sciences are expected to get much of their research done in the summer. Unlike me, however, they are also expected to supervise student research that ties them to their current location even if their need for lab equipment does not. This sort of unpaid summer supervision is essentially a requirement for tenure. For me, working with students would look good but would likely also slow me down, so I am able to choose to do this some years and not to do it other years.

Because of the problems McGlynn details that are associated with unpaid summer work, it seems that colleges and universities would be tempted to switch to 12-month contracts. Not, mind you, that they would suddenly give everybody a 33% salary increase, but that they would admit that the nine-month contracts of the past were bullshit and align the contract period with reality. This seems like a simple fix. Change the terminology to reflect what people have been doing anyway and everybody should be happy, right?

Probably not.

At my previous institution, where I had a 10-month contract, the Provost liked to remind faculty that they were actually under contract for the first half of June and that, as a result, it was not unreasonable to require attendance at on-campus meetings after the spring semester had ended. Faculty, especially those outside of the sciences (who were going to be there anyway), did not like being told where they needed to be while completing their summer work (even if they would typically have been doing their summer work on campus) because time without students is sacred.

Imagine this alternate sequence of events:

  • Faculty in the sciences who are expected to do unpaid work in the summer call for more pay or at least a 12-month contract that recognizes their summer work as part of their typical duties. A school certainly isn’t going to offer 33% of one’s regular salary for the summer months and isn’t going to give the scientists different contracts than everybody else (making their pay look artificially lower) so, instead, changes everybody to 12-month contracts. Things continue as normal for a few years, with scientists staying on campus for their summer work and everybody else working from home, working from other locations, or just not working.
  • Eventually, the millionaires on the Board of Trustees start to wonder why faculty are receiving 12 months of pay for nine months of work and the administration decides to formalize summer workloads, requiring proof of “scholarly progress” to remain in good standing. The administration also realizes, though, that more summer courses would increase revenue and offers these to faculty in lieu of scholarly progress. With all faculty on 12-month contracts and many faculty teaching in the summer, the administration begins requiring committees to meet in the summer as well to deal with the issues raised by the now 12-month academic year.
  • The faculty complain. The millionaires on the Board of Trustees tell the faculty that these moves are necessary to remain competitive in a challenging economy and that since faculty are under contract they should be on campus working like those in other industries. The millionaires on the Board of Trustees spend their summers in Europe, “working” remotely, as faculty used to, but do not recognize the irony of their situation.
  • Life has not changed for the scientists, but it has become appreciably worse for the rest of the faculty. The rest of the faculty blame the scientists for ruining their lives. The air conditioning does not work correctly in any campus building except the administration building.

I am sure that this will eventually happen, probably everywhere and maybe with less blame for scientists. In the meantime, however, the desire to maintain the current academic calendar and refusal to be required to attend committee meetings in the summer among non-scientists likely prevents the change to a 12-month contract from even being thought of at most institutions. I guess I had better enjoy my nine-month contracts while they last!


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This year’s deadline for paper submissions to the American Sociological Association’s annual conference is tomorrow, January 6 at 3 pm. Like previous years, this deadline is ridiculous. Also like previous years, I am scrambling to “finish” my paper in time. According to the categories of ASA submission types that I made up five years ago, I am aiming for the “papers with promise” target and hoping that the promise will be fulfilled between now and August. Someday I will attain my goal of submitting a “completed research paper” that is ready for journal submission, but tomorrow will not be that day.

Edit: And here are some submission tips from Elizabeth Popp Berman at Orgtheory.

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A while back, Philip Cohen posted on some of the problems with the peer review system in sociology, sharing the story of a paper that underwent 13 peer reviews over several years in the publication gauntlet. Although the paper’s findings were essentially unchanged by this process, each reviewer apparently thought that the paper could be framed in a different, and better, way. As Cohen says:

Most (or all) of the reviewers were sociologists, and most of what they suggested, complained about, or objected was about the way the paper was “framed,” that is, how we establish the importance of the question and interpret the results. Of course framing is important – it’s why you’re asking your question, and why readers should care (see Mark Granovetter’s note on the rejected version of “the Strength of Weak Ties”). But it takes on elevated importance when we’re scrapping over limited slots in academic journals, so that to get published you have to successfully “frame” your paper as more important than some other poor slob’s.

Cohen also cites problems with the journal system and its speed and arbitrary nature, but I think that the issue of framing is particularly important because journal editors appear to be letting reviewers asking a version of the “why didn’t you write the paper I would have written?” conference question arbitrarily prevent the publication of otherwise-worthy papers. This is particularly problematic for graduate students and those of us who work at teaching-oriented institutions and don’t typically have numerous papers under review at once.

Cohen proposes an alternate peer review system, but barring major changes in the system, I think that editors can take immediate steps to address this issue. When somebody asks the “why didn’t you write the paper I would have written?” question at a conference, everybody else in the audience rolls their eyes and recognizes the problem. Journal editors need to be more forceful about recognizing these problems themselves, providing clearer review guidelines and ensuring that framing is not the single most important factor in their decisions.

Via: Scatterplot

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When students ask what they can do to improve their grades at the end of the semester, I often think, “Invent a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, and start [coming to class, proofreading your work, studying for exams, etc.].” Now, in my second year of a new job, a year away from pre-tenure review, it feels like this is the semester that I would choose to return to if things do not go the way I want in the tenure process. With a paper under review, several papers I need to lightly revise and send out, and new projects in the early stages, this is a pivotal moment for my success in the coming years, even as the semester quickly melts away and, as usual, I haven’t completed nearly as much on these endeavors as I had hoped.

I have, however, made one change that I hope will pay off in the future. I installed LeechBlock on my web browser to ward off my Major Procrastination Disorder and keep time from getting away from me. In a few years, I’ll let you know how it goes.

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A recent discussion on Crooked Timber centers on whether higher education is due for a scandal. Daniel Davies argues that scandals typically involve things that are taken for granted in one domain being discovered by the public. Given this, Clay Shirky suspects that low teaching loads might lead to such a scandal. He writes:

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

Shirky argues that recent events to increase teaching in the North Carolina system are emblematic of this sort of change.

The problem for colleges and universities is that as they have reduced teaching loads for faculty members, they have increased demands for research. Although I have a 3-2 teaching load and small classes, then, the demands for publication are much higher than at my previous institution where I taught a 3-3 load, where they were slightly higher than those at institutions with 4-4 loads (or higher). More publications are associated, somebody must assume, with more prestige (even if this is more closely related to endowments), making our institutions worth the high cost of attendance. I would argue, though, that publication expectations and teaching loads are out of alignment. I teach one fewer course per year than somebody in my position thirty years ago, but my publication expectations are an order of magnitude higher. As I wrote in my post on academic false consciousness:

Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it. … Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful.

It seems like the logical result would be to reframe the expectations of faculty at many institutions, increasing teaching loads and decreasing publication requirements. It seems that there is room for a college or university to find success by increasing teaching loads but maintaining small class sizes and drastically reducing publication requirements, making its message to parents that their children will always have small classes and never be taught by an adjunct. This sort of change, though, would require faculty and administrators to be on the same page. Anybody who has sat through faculty meetings can also attest to the fact that logic is not always high on the list of things that are on display.

In my view, the institutions that are going to successfully navigate the transition that higher education is undergoing will be those that can most quickly figure out who they are and how they can best fulfill their niches. Those who try to continually operate under the rules of the old system likely have bleak futures.

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