Monday, June 09, 2003

Thoughts provoked on tenure (guest posting) 

John Bruce has written several comments on our blog and elsewhere, but recently has had trouble using our comment facility (HaloScan has been up and down some over the last week.) Regarding my posts here and here on the Jim Miller/Smith College tenure case, he has some thoughts that I decided warrant a guest post. I've edited only for insertion of links where I can. My comments later tonight in a separate post; I must run to an appointment now.
I was interested to see the information on the Miller tenure case at Smith at the SCSU-Scholars site. I've noticed that the comments facility seems to be sometimes available there and sometimes not, and I simply don't know whether this is related to Critical Mass's decision to disable comments (though since it is her blog, this is her right).

I would note, though, that Glenn Reynolds links to a David Warren column on blogs, wherein Warren refers to the comments section as a "cross-examination" of the blogger. It's clear that in my case, attempts at "cross-examination" sometimes win "awards", such as at Invisible Adjunct, sometimes draw posts, as they did from Jack, on how refreshing it is to be disagreed with on a thoughtful basis, and sometimes apparently are a major reason for disabling comments.

One hates to resort to well-worn phrases, but it appears that one person's thoughtful cross-examination is another's trolling, and I simply don't know which applies in your case. {I hope this post proves I don't think you a troll, John. -- ed.}

However, pleased as anyone must be with the outcome of the Miller tenure case, I think there are related issues that ought to be addressed in academic blogs, and so far as I can see, simply haven't been. Here are some but not all:

1. King notes that there appear to be general assumptions at Smith that 3-5 published (presumably peer-reviewed) articles are needed for tenure. This goes to an issue I've raised in various comments in various places: what is wrong with an institution publishing such policies with a view to transparency in these cases? There can certainly be a discretionary component to the process as well -- but why not simply make basic criteria clear? Wouldn't this reduce misunderstanding in such cases?

2. The discussion of the Smith/Miller case occurs simultaneously with the AAUP's debate on censure for the University of South Florida for adverse action against Sami al-Arian, a tenured faculty member now in jail pending trail (I believe this is the situation) for conspiracy to commit terrorism. It doesn't appear that academic blogs that I've seen are raising this issue, pro or con, though it has appeared on The Weekly Standard . The AAUP clearly takes an absolutist position on tenure and academic freedom -- all or nothing, your tenured faculty member may be the moral equivalent of John Gotti, but his entitlement to tenure continues. What is the opinion of the academic blogging community on this matter? Is the apparent absolutist position of the AAUP evidence that the tenure "game" is being run entirely on behalf of those currently tenured, and steady, if gradual decline of tenured positions in the academy is not of concern? If not, are opinions on how the AAUP might work to make tenure a more attractive option to universities worth addressing in blogs?

3. The academic blogging consensus appears to support the idea that tenured status is a more or less unquestioned good, and indeed something of an entitlement. This despite unclear or ambiguous criteria for the tenure decision at most universities, and as was posted earlier at SCSU insufficient information to make a clear observer's conclusion in the Miller case. And while we know a little more about Prof. Miller now, we still don't know how his revised qualifications match Smith's tenure criteria, however they may be defined. A reconsideration may have the same result next year; is it the principle of academic blogging to support the candidate in every publicized instance if the candidate meets some measure of attractiveness or non-conformity?

4. There seems to be a sense of disquiet among many academic bloggers that there are serious problems in the academy. Favorite subjects include the apparent ability of radical feminists and other fringe opinion groups to dominate campus discussion, or restrictions on campus on conservative speech. A perennial, as we see above, is controversial cases of tenure approval. Yet I find it hard to shake the feeling that academic bloggers by and large feel that "if this particular problem can be fixed to my satisfaction, I will be happy." If I can get tenure (or if the current preferred victim of denial can have his case reversed), that will solve the problem. If we can get some kind of affirmative action so more conservatives can get tenure, that will solve the problem. If I don't have to listen to militant feminists (or socialists or vegetarians) on campus, that will solve the problem. Aren't problems in the academy much more systemic and widespread than that? I hate to raise this point, but the publications listed by the blogger on the Critical Mass site -- an Associate Professor of English publishing apparently for academic credit on a subject like early plastic surgery -- seem to me to be part of the problem. Assuming early plastic surgery and body image are acceptable subjects for academic attention, should we be considering fields like sociology or psychology as more appropriate? She may feel the problems in the academy will be solved if we can somehow turn down the volume on militant feminism, but the problem of English professors studying topics not very clearly related to their field (and let's move on through folklore, myth and ritual, the anthologized works of Stalin, electric automobiles, etc.) will continue, and quite possibly contrbute to the declining status of the humanities.

These are just a few suggested areas where the academic blogging process is imperfect and might benefit by welcoming intelligent cross-examination.