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Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

By (November 20, 2016) No Comment

ns-dalhousie-universityAfter well over a year, my application for promotion to Professor finally concluded last week, with the disappointing news that my appeal of President Florizone’s negative decision was unsuccessful.*

I am well aware that compared to the precarity of so many others working in academia, my troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they are troubles, nonetheless, and when you’ve given over 20 years of your life to an institution — a commitment that has had significant and often negative consequences for every aspect of your life, especially your family life — and when you have always brought your best self to the job — then the conditions of that job, the return you get for that commitment, hardly feel trivial. Those of us with tenure, also, have the security to advocate for the academy to become the kind of place we think it should be, which in my case means a more open, flexible, and publicly engaged place. If we don’t use our privilege to instigate change, we are wasting it. That this process ended in failure for me is a personal defeat, but one that I think also says something about the hope I know many of us share that academia will evolve.

I have thought a lot about what I can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) say in this public space about this process. I haven’t been completely silent about it up to this point, but I pretty much kept to generalities while the case was ongoing. I’ve gone into a bit more detail on Twitter since I received the appeal committee’s judgment, but though tweeting is a good way to let off steam and lay out preliminary arguments (and also to be reminded that you have allies), it doesn’t allow much deeper reflection or provide any sense of closure. That is what I need, and that’s why I’m writing this post — that, and because for almost a decade this blog has been a site for reflecting on my academic as well as my reading life.

screamIt is tempting, of course, to use this opportunity to lay out my whole case, to rehearse the ups and downs as my application went through its nine (nine!) stages of review, and to air my specific grievances as well as parade my allies and advocates. Militating against that self-indulgent impulse, though, is the conviction that even if it were professionally appropriate to expose all the parties involved in that way, nobody really wants to read that 10,000 word screed. Besides, I’ve done a lot of relitigating of details in the past 16 months. It will do me more good to pull back a bit, to get out of the weeds and try instead to articulate what seems to have been the fundamental problem, which I now think can be aptly summed up as (to borrow a phrase from Middlemarch) “a total missing of each other’s mental track.” I won’t name names or quote at length from any submissions, and I’ll try to avoid special pleading — though I can hardly be expected to hide which side I’m on! It will help me to write about it in this way, I hope. And then I will be done with it — publicly, at least — and I will do my best to gather up all the energy that has been dispersed among these professional and psychological hindrances for so long and rededicate it to the ongoing task of becoming the kind of literary critic and semipublic intellectual I aspire to be.

I’ll put the rest below the fold, so that if you come here for something besides academic self-flagellation, or you don’t have much patience for the professional troubles of someone in my position when the world seems to be falling apart (a reasonable attitude!), you can move on more quickly.

A first brief point: there are a number of criteria for tenure and promotion at Dalhousie. The three most important ones are teaching, service (to my discipline, to the profession, and to my university), and scholarship. At no point did anyone argue that I had not met the necessary standards in any respect except the last. It was disappointing to see my record of excellence in teaching treated so perfunctorily, but it wasn’t really surprising: everybody knows that whatever they say about teaching in their promotional materials, when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion universities care most about research and publication records — and that’s where my application ran into trouble.

anthologyYou might think that this too should not have been surprising. Certainly any academic from Canada or the U.S. looking over my c.v. will quickly recognize that my publishing record is not typical of someone seeking promotion to Professor. Specifically, though the quality of my peer-reviewed academic publications (as measured by the selectivity and prestige of their venues) is pretty high, the quantity, as one reviewer’s letter said, is “slender”; another called it “modest.” Folks in English are particularly likely to notice that there’s no second monograph (for better and for worse, English has long been a book-centered discipline). From this point of view, my c.v. might well look weak.

This understandable reaction, however, reflects tacit norms and expectations that at Dalhousie are contradicted (or so I believed) by regulations explicitly recognizing a wide range of activities as legitimate indicators of scholarly productivity. None of these regulations insist on either the exclusive or the primary importance of peer-reviewed academic publications for tenure or promotion. In fact, some of them — particularly the guidelines recently developed by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — appear explicitly designed to broaden the scope of acceptable ways faculty members can use their expertise for professional credit. On Twitter, I applauded the FASS regulations as “forward-looking,” and I expect many others who work, as I do, in the border territory between academia and the public sphere would agree with that assessment. (Rather than quote at length from any of these regulations, I’ve attached the relevant excerpts here from the university’s Collective Agreement, from the FASS regulations, and from the English Department’s guidelines. These are all publicly available documents, so if anyone thinks my selections might be tendentious, feel free to look them up and check.)

inconceivableThe difficulty my application ran into is that while these written policies seemed — to me, to the colleagues who first encouraged and then supported my application, and to most of the external reviewers in my field called on to evaluate the file — to embrace diverse options for satisfying the basic standard for promotion (“scholarship [that] represents a significant contribution to his or her discipline or to the University”), at subsequent levels of review the unwritten rules proved to have more force. My conviction that the portfolio of work I submitted fully satisfied both the letter and the spirit of the university’s policies was met over and over again by variations on the argument that it really didn’t, because so much of my recent work is not peer reviewed.

To be sure, some lip service was paid to the value of my public writing and other projects: this work was called “legitimate,” “impressive,” and “ahead of the curve.” One committee went so far as to declare such extra-academic activities “imperative” — but they recommended against my promotion nonetheless (and I will eat my laptop if they ever deny an application comprised only of conventional academic publishing). However, these gestures of approval were offset by objections founded in assumptions about, as one letter put it, “the standards commonly associated with the rank of a new Professor.” Many specific arguments were made on both sides about the composition and merits of my body of work, but in the end the naysayers always came back to peer review as the decisive factor. Without it, I was told over and over, it was impossible to assess the quality or originality of my publications. (As if blind peer review guarantees either, of course, and as if there aren’t other ways of determining quality … but I vowed to stay out of the weeds!) Someone fairly high up the decision-making chain told me emphatically that I was “just the sort of scholar” he wanted to encourage and support — but he too denied my promotion, on the grounds that “Dalhousie standards stress the importance of peer review.” They don’t, not explicitly (again, you can look and see for yourself) — but against this assertion, the final and inarguable standard invoked was “past practice.” The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.dalhousie

To me, this certainly felt like a bait and switch operation. (To be honest, I still think that’s a reasonable description of it.) A lot of the negative arguments also seemed to be made in bad faith — to justify a particular outcome — or to be hypocritical, or to show simple lack of courage. (I think in particular of the decision maker who, discussing a negative committee recommendation he could have overruled, urged me instead to “just apply again next year” when the committee membership would have changed.) However, although at some points individual players definitely could have turned things around, I am coming to see people’s positions as less about me in particular and more about their fundamental orientation towards the contemporary university. The documents that seem so clear to me turn out to be a kind of Rorschach test: depending on people’s view of the status quo, they perceived the regulations either as signalling a new and welcome direction for the academy, or as just an extension of its usual methods; they saw either a door opening to let in the kinds of work people like me are doing, or a door through which — with the right preconditions — scholars could, if they chose, let some of their conventional work out.

MmarchBookClubThat admittedly rather hair-splitting distinction is the only explanation I have come up with for how someone could look at, say, the FASS regulations, then at my file, and say “they don’t mean what you are doing.” Thus, for instance, I was told by one committee that the “normal” process for acceptable non-academic publishing would be to vet each idea first through the usual academic channels of conferences and journals; only once it had secured approval should it be made “accessible” and released to the public — and only under those circumstances could it be considered “scholarly.” To those of us active in the public humanities, that (unsupported) assertion shows a profound misunderstanding of how things work outside the ivory tower, as well as of literary expertise and academic specialization and their value in public discourse. It makes somewhat more sense if you understand “knowledge mobilization” as a hierarchical process through which a passive audience receives wisdom from the experts. As I argued in my February conference paper, I’m not sure that has ever been how critical authority works, and that might explain why the strongest resistance to my application came from people outside my discipline. Not only were faculty in English better equipped to actually read my essays and reviews and evaluate them (thus providing what in some circles is recognized and valued as “post-publication peer review”), but they understand better how our particular kind of expertise is likely to be useful to, valued by, or engaged with by the broader reading public, most of whom are unlikely to be interested in the very specialized arguments eligible for peer-reviewed publication. (It’s not altogether clear how much interest other academics have in these either, but that’s a different problem. Maybe.)

I’m not sure how these different points of view can be reconciled. More explicit policies might help — but which way would they go? I think my case shows how much the result of any attempts to “clarify” existing policies would depend on who was assigned the task of revising them, and then how much resistance they met from people on the other side. Given the evident force of presuppositions about how academic work is supposed to be done — and because policies for a  diverse institution can only get so detailed before they become counter-productively cumbersome and, implicitly, even more restrictive — it also seems likely that conservative pressure, including appeals to past practice, could always shut down people who saw openings (or even very explicit permissions) to work in innovative ways. That peer review was mentioned at all in the existing regulations, for instance, was used in my case as grounds for arguing it was meant to be the most important factor.

The truth is that big institutions change slowly, especially when the vast majority of people involved are heavily invested (for both good reasons and bad) in the status quo. The kind of change I thought had already taken place is, I think, taking place, or the written policies would look quite different and my application would not have been even as successful as it was. (For the record, five out of nine stages of review were decided in my favor.) But it is happening more slowly than I’d thought, and in scattered pockets with little collective visibility or influence. I was offended at the condescension of assessments that called my application “premature,” but now I think they were right — only not in the way they meant, which was that regardless of how prolific I have been in other ways, I should have waited until my record of conventional scholarly publication equaled what has traditionally been demanded. (In other words, as someone aptly commented on Twitter, apparently they expected me to sustain two writing careers at once.) My conclusion is not that I wasn’t ready for them, but that they weren’t ready for me.

cassatIn the meantime, I have been sent a clear signal that if I want professional advancement, I need to commit myself to a program of work I no longer believe has much value. I find this general conclusion — this recommendation to get back in the box — almost more discouraging than the many more specifically reductive and ungenerous things I’ve heard about my work over the past 16 months. To me this is just one more sign that far too often in the academy we value the means over the end: apply for grants, go to conferences, publish in pay-walled academic journals — whether or not these are only, or the best, ways to accomplish your goals, or the university’s goals. At Dalhousie, for instance, our “primary objective” is supposed to be “the increase of knowledge and understanding.” This is a noble aim, and it’s one I intend to continue serving, but in my own way, on my own terms. If that means I retire without ever getting another promotion, so be it: an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?

One last thing before I close. I was fortunate to have some wonderful allies during this long and difficult process. My department chair provided exemplary guidance and rigorous as well as generous advocacy. Two colleagues with no formal obligation to do so took the time to read my whole rather large file, and they contributed brilliant letters of support: I will always cherish these for what I learned from them about my career as well as for their informed and passionate endorsement of a more open and public-minded approach to scholarship. Friends online and off, including my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly and many of my cherished “tweeps” have also been regular sources of encouragement, as has my family. Thank you all so much: because of you, I never lost faith that whatever other people said, I was doing good work, work that had value, work I could be proud of. Now, it’s time to put all this behind me and get back to it!

*For those unfamiliar with what this means, I have already passed two major professional hurdles: my tenure review and promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. As is fairly typical, these happened simultaneously, in the 5th year after my initial tenure-track appointment in 1995, so I have held the rank of Associate Professor since 2000. In North American universities promotion is not about filling a specific open position; it is simply a professional step you apply for when you think you have qualified for it. Professor is the next (and last) step in this hierarchy.