What Counts in Academia

As readers of my blog know, I’ve had a recent interest in the concept of craft and the slow movement. Part of that interests appears as a critique of academia. While I probably don’t buy the entire “slow academia” philosophy (at least as it has been articulated in some recent works), I have begun to see many of the problems in modern academic life and culture as problems in professionalization. Last week, I participated a bit in a conversation on Facebook spurred by a post from a very well regarded colleague that centered, in part, on what counts in one’s academic career. The specifics of the post are less important, than thinking about the language of “counting” in academia and its relationship the the larger professionalization project in American academic life. 

First, a requisite “checking of privilege”: I recognize that I can openly discuss what counts in academia because I am a white, male, tenured, professor in the humanities. I have a privileged position from which to judge a professional system that despite my own professional mediocrity, has benefited my own place within academia. I recognize that my critiques will ring hollow especially when directed at individuals for whom the the last 70 years of professionalization has benefited directly. At the same time, my right to critique the system is profoundly compromised because whatever its flaws, I am both within the system and as a white, middle aged, affluent, “classically educated” male, I am one of the architects of the current system. There is nothing to say that my criticism of the system will do anything more than change the finish line or adjust the boundary markers without changing the fundamental assumptions that allow the system to persist. As a result, I’m in a Catch-22. My position is sufficiently compromised that my critiques are not to be trusted, but at the same time, I’m in a position to produce what I perceive to be meaningful changes to the system. I’m going to try to articulate some things in this post that will invariably offend people. 

I have to admit to being a bit depressed by the discussion of what counted. I get, of course, that academic culture is increasingly dominated by an assessocracy whose primary goal is to produce comparable measures of performance across campus. In many ways, this is a noble goal and in keeping with the late-19th century trend toward professionalization. We can thank this process for making academic positions part of the middle class, for example, by recognizing that the university faculty who were preparing their students for professional careers where themselves professionals. Professionalization also contributed to academic protections around research, academic freedom, and the development of tenure, and these shaped the contours of academic publishing ranging from footnotes to plagiarism rules, academic societies and conferences, peer review standards, and even the prominence of the mighty monograph. These professional standards undermined the “old boys club” and opened the university to students and faculty on the basis of academic accomplishment rather than patronage or wealth. This, in turn, held forth the prospect of transforming faculty ranks by making academia more welcoming to women, immigrant groups, and minorities. Within the university, professionalization refined university curricula to keep it abreast of changing professional expectations, developed accreditation standards, and attempted to level the campus playing field between traditional humanities departments and new professional and vocational disciplines. In short, the modern university is the product of professionalization of academia.

Counting was a key element in the process of professionalization. In my discipline, history, one of the earliest conversations held among members of our newly christened professional organization, the American Historical Association, was whether to include avocational historians. The issue revolved around whether their work counted as professional history (despite the towering figure of George Bancroft and his New England compatriots whose vision continues to shape our views of the American past even today). Professional standards like citation and formal attribution practices seem readymade for counting and a created a basis to judge the significance of a work within the field and the skill of the scholar by a standard at least theoretically independent of their identity. At the same time, this approach formed a foundation for impact factors and other methods of citation counting used (and derided) today.

The industrial model of the university that sought to recognize both disciplinary authority in their given fields while also streamlining and standardizing university education for a generation of students coming of age in the professional and industrial era reinforced professionalizing trends in academic culture by promoting a model that sought to use professional standards as way to find new institutional efficiencies. It is hardly a surprise today that university administrators seeking to streamline the industrial education machine look to ways to compare departments from a wide range of disciplines across campus. Counting is fundamental to these efforts and whatever reductionist tendencies we see in these approaches to understanding the (in)efficiencies in university structure, we can also understand the historical roots of these models.

The question of what counts is almost always framed by what counts for tenure or promotion, and these metrics, at their best, reinforce professional standards in a discipline, work to mitigate personal (or disciplinary) biases at the university, and help scholars focus their energies as much toward institutional as individual goals. At their worst, however, we find ourselves pinched between overly rigid (or overly vague) guidelines, our own professional aspirations, and the changing professional expectations of our disciplines. 

The examples of these pressures are legion. My colleague Eric Kansa has regularly inveighed against the pressures of academic culture that work against the systematic and consistent publication of useful archaeological data. Publishing data just doesn’t fit into the our standard models of evaluation (yet) and so often doesn’t count. The respondents on the Facebook thread bemoaned that even high impact publications for a non-academic audience do not regularly count toward tenure and promotion. The dull and dirty work of service to professional organizations often falls to the edge of how we’re evaluated for institutional service and is unevenly valued across our disciplines. Other forms of outreach, like blogging, social media rabble rousing, and even mentoring peers, directing an archaeological project, or running for public office, require commitments of time and energy, but do not fit within established or easily quantifiable standards of professional accomplishments.

In my own experience, this very blog has never “counted” toward my tenure or promotion, my work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota does not fit in a category on my contract or evaluation form, and my off campus service is “valued,” but never really counted. The irony is, of course, that my blog is a vital part of my academic reputation and it almost always features prominently in any professional introduction to my work. My publications at The Digital Press are some of my best work as a scholar and on level with my years directing my own archaeological project, cited regularly, and meaningful contributions, but they aren’t easily categorized or counted. 

The reasons for this are clear, of course. The counting culture has given rise to a gaggle of disreputable, open access, publishing ventures that prey upon faculty needs to boost various impact scores, produce publications quickly, and do work that’s counted. Creating a press to publish marginal work is fun in a “punk rock” or DIY kind of way, but it falls to the troubled margins of good academic practice. At the same time, most academics recognize that the pressures to publish in countable ways has even tarnished the gold monograph standard by flooding the market with works of questionable significance and value. Counting culture has winnowed the pool of scholars interested in collaborating (at least in the humanities) when solo publication carry more value than collaborative ventures, pre-tenure scholars willing to contribute their insights to professional organizations, and, some would argue, the instinct to pursue innovative career trajectories both in graduate school and in early career. At my most cynical moments, I wonder whether counting culture on campus has undone a bit of what tenure offers to senior scholars, the freedom to innovate, take risks, and explore new approaches to knowledge making. With merit raises tied to performance based formulae, doing work that might not count has direct financial consequences and, as a result, many of the most innovative scholarly moves are coming from individuals who are financially well-off, outside academia, or who just don’t care. This is hardly a diverse cross section of academia and seems to subvert both the intellectual freedom of tenure and ostensible goal of democratized professionalism. Moreover (and I’ll admit this is tinged with as much paranoia as jealousy), I wonder whether our scramble to do what counts, particularly in an era of increased competition and economic austerity, has intensified the value of informal professional networks that provide connections for publication, research, presentation, grants, and other perks that allow high performing academics to skirt both the risk of DIY and the stench of more marginal publication and professional practices.  

What is lost in all this is that most of us entered academia not to do things that count, but to do work that matters. As I read more and more on academic culture, I wonder whether the larger professionalization project hasn’t failed in some profound ways. The idea of counting to produce a level playing field in academia has, instead, created a culture where we reserve innovation to finding ways to put the round pegs of our varied professional lives into the square holes of institutional expectations, diversify our portfolios in the name of impact factors and risk aversion, and still lean heavily on non-professional relationships, the “old boys club,” or other shadow networks to advance our professional goals. I hope we still do privilege in our race to be counted things that matter.

2 Comments

  1. Soooooo change it. Change what “counts” in your department or at your institution, especially if, as you note, your blog is fundamental to your practice. If you are in a position of privilege (compared to untenured women and scholars of color, in particular), change the tenure guidelines. Bemoaning what “counts” or railing at the system doesn’t help anyone; change does. And it’ll help women and scholars of color, who tend to bear the disproportionate burden of service work and who have their contributions diminished. We changed our T&P guidelines to count blogging and a variety of other scholarly activities. It can be done, but not if our allies with admitted privilege don’t help.

    Reply

    1. Hi Kristina,

      I totally agree, but I think our job is much bigger. The point that I was trying to make in my post was that we have to rethink the whether “counting” is the way forward at all. I was hinting that the current model of professionalization which created a system of counting has probably failed and might, in fact, continue to fail to produce the results that we want. What we need to do is to encourage faculty to do stuff that matters and not worry about counting. Of course, your larger point that people like me who don’t need stuff counted to push back against a system constructed along lines that probably doesn’t promote our shared values (and probably does promote a culture of control rather than creativity).

      Bill

      Reply

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