Building the Liberal Arts Faculty

Swarthmore, like many other small liberal arts colleges, gives a good deal of weight to teaching and research when evaluating a candidate for tenure or promotion, and only slightly less weight to the nebulous area that is often called collegiality--committee work, contributions to the college community and so on. How exactly this overall process or doesn't work at any college or university is a matter for another day and another column. Suffice it to say that my personal experience with Swarthmore's version of the system has been strongly positive to date.

My concern lies with the kind of intellectual development that any particular form of the tenure system encourages in any particular faculty. Some explanation of the system is called for at this point.

At Swarthmore, like almost all other colleges and universities in the United States, promotion and tenure advance through several stages. In general, the first stage is departmental, the second stage involves a joint committee of faculty and administrators, and the final stage involves approval by the top level of the administration and the trustees. There are numerous variations on this formula at different institutions, with more or fewer stages, or different weights put on each stage. Usually the tenure decision takes place in the fifth or sixth year of employment.

Most selective colleges will look for the candidate to have some kind of substantial publication or research completed, and to see some kind of indication of their continued scholarly activity in the future. (At the top research universities, in contrast, the amount of research required at the time of tenuring is larger, though there is sometimes a longer period allowed for assessment as well.) Tenure usually leads to a promotion to associate professor, the typical middle rank for tenure-track faculty. Promotion to full professor may come later, but at most institutions, such promotion is not guaranteed. Generally, at a liberal arts college, a candidate for a full professorship or even more competitively yet, an endowed chair, usually has substantial publications, a strong teaching record and a strong history of contribution to the college community and to their discipline. Plus they're usually old.

Many--though by no means all--liberal arts colleges weigh teaching more heavily than research universities, which is as it should be. When assessing research and contributions to the community for promotion and tenure, however, there is sometimes a tendency to dance to the tune that the research universities set. How is research typically assessed? First, the candidate's departmental peers examine his or her record, and in theory, look at both the quality and quantity of the candidate's work. In small departments, this examination usually produces an assessment which is at least somewhat nuanced, at least somewhat aware of the constraints and problematics native to the candidate's particular speciality or subfield. Sometimes, disciplines with particularly ferocious internal rifts (like anthropology) or especially large departments can produce a less, shall we say, sensitive assessment. At the level of the college committee, it begins to become more difficult to objectively review the dossier of faculty from many different disciplines.

How does a history professor assess the quality of research by a physicist? How does a mathematician assess the work of a specialist in Renaissance poetry?

As a result, most colleges and universities ask outside specialists who work in the candidate's field to assess the candidate's scholarship. In theory, this procedure gives members of the college committee (and members of the candidate's own department) a chance to measure their own assessment against those of scholars who are most familiar with the particular issues and debates at stake in the candidate's research.

Something like this stage is necessary. In this form, however, it suits the needs of the average research university better than a small liberal arts college. This default form of the tenure and promotion process tends to reproduce and reinforce strong specialization among faculty. Outside assessment is typically done by scholars who closely match the specialization of the candidate. Work which blurs disciplinary boundaries, challenges existing specializations, or addresses more general issues across the whole of a particular discipline is implicitly discouraged by the typical tenure process, both because outside assessment tends to adhere to the boundaries of defined specialties and because the initial evaluation of a candidate is done at the level of a single department and discipline.

A research university should encourage its faculty towards the further development of their individual specialities. In the typically large department found at most universities, there may be a number of faculty working in the same general field who need to differentiate themselves from one another to some degree. If there are three specialists in African history, for example, it makes good sense for each of them to pursue divergent research specialities. Faculty at research universities are also responsible for training graduate students, who need guidance from highly specialized advisors who know not only the particular literature which most closely supports the graduate student's project but also the research conditions which are particular to that student's work.

A liberal arts college, on the other hand, should be encouraging exactly the opposite path of development in its faculty. Rather than rewarding professors for their increasing detailed expertise in a highly specialized area of research, it should reward them for broadening outwards from their initial base of knowledge, reward them for forging connections between disparate areas of knowledge, reward them for extending their work as intellectuals beyond the campus and beyond academia.

How can we possibly ask our students to gain an appreciation of the whole structure of knowledge if we ourselves rarely glance beyond the confines of a narrow specialization? If our students have distribution requirements and the like, then so should the faculty.

Here lies the heart of the problem.

The typical tenure and promotions process that institutions like Swarthmore have more or less borrowed from their larger cousins focuses largely on formal markers of achievement: the publication of scholarly monographs and books, the successful completion of a scientific research program and the publication of the results, and so on. It does not typically assess the necessarily less tangible markers that are associated with the pattern of achievement I have just described.

Forging connections between different areas of specialization and different disciplines is a process which sometimes takes place within the framework of published work, but it is just as liable to take place in conference presentations, informal lectures, reading groups, email listservs, and so on. Broadening outward from an initial area of study is sometimes evident in formal research, but signs of a successful effort to do so are often more evident in teaching, in the design of departmental programs, and in the kinds of informal publications which may not earn a place on the typical curriculum vitae. Intellectuals who widen their activities to the communities around them may find that the most important benchmarks of that achievement are almost too ephemeral or seem too tangential to be formally listed in a portfolio.

I don't have any easy way to correct this problem. Measurement and assessment of this pattern of accomplishment will be difficult for any institution which commits to it. It's pretty easy to bullshit about this kind of effort: I suspect that almost any faculty member at any institution could whip up a superficially convincing pitch about how they fit this profile. Much of this kind of work leaves almost no permanent track behind it: by its nature, it is ephemeral. In contrast, formal publication of articles and books or formal scientific research is conveniently verifiable, concrete and quantifiable.

Even if a single liberal-arts institution should decide to find ways to encourage its faculty to broaden and connect rather than specialize, it will face problems in its relations in its institutional relationships with the rest of academia. Grant-giving bodies, for example, are reliant on the same networks of specialized scholars who are used to assess the tenurability of junior faculty, and therefore also tend to reward specialization. A junior faculty member at a liberal arts institution who attempted to broaden outward but failed to earn tenure might well find himself or herself completely unsuited for employment in another institution. If faculty who widen their intellectual identity put themselves at a major competitive disadvantage with regard to the wider world of academia, then encouraging them to do so will be a very hard sell.

Despite these difficulties, I am increasingly convinced that a liberal-arts institution needs to ask its faculty to grow in ways which diverge from the model provided by large research universities. It's possible that such encouragement could begin with small, modest gestures of support from an administration. (I should emphasize that Swarthmore, at least, is already trying or considering steps quite similar to these proposals.) Some examples:

Such steps will only take a liberal-arts college so far towards changing the developmental path of its faculty. Sooner or later, any institution genuinely interested in such a transformation will have to bite the bullet and develop a new model for tenure and promotion, a model which asks its own professoriate to assume responsibility for knowing, understanding and assessing the work of their colleagues across the entire breadth of the curriculum. At the same time, we need to stop relying as heavily as we do on external evaluations of our faculty's development.

In this new system, a college would have to redefine its internal understanding of successful publication, research and achievement and accordingly look to the whole of a scholar's interaction with a variety of intellectual communities inside and outside its boundaries.

Most problematically, this renewed commitment to a separate path of development for liberal-arts education would require the systematic rexamination of the departmental segregation of knowledge. Not just its role in the tenuring process, which would be difficult enough to reinvent, but in everything the college strives to achive as a community.

New hiring would need to be dictated less by a need to cover or represent particular subjects and disciplines, and more by an interest in recruiting intellectuals whose personal aspirations matched the institution's pursuit of interconnected forms of critical thought.

It's not inconceivable to me that in such an institution, one might have three or four scholars whose early specialized training might happen to be in the same field, whether it was South Asian history, the ecology of pastoralism, or Zoroastrian theology, if the scholars in question were each committed to their own evolution towards broader, public, linked forms of knowing and teaching. This is only duplication if you assume that like specialization produces like intellects, or a similar range of courses offered. In fact, no two minds are alike. The dominating educational vision of the research university has unfortunately gone a long way towards convincing us that the sum total of an academic's intellect, at least as it is valuable to the institution, is their form of specialization, no more and no less. As far as a liberal arts institution goes, the exact opposite is true: a highly specialized faculty member returns less value to the college both in terms of the prestige and general circulation of the research they conduct and the kind of teaching they tend to want to do.

In the liberal-arts college, we should be looking for and rewarding a very different understanding of intellectual development, and we can only do so if we begin to thoroughly reinvent how we record and reward that development.


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