Wednesday, July 25, 2007


"I've Done Everything You've Asked Me To Do!"

One of the less lovely aspects of my job is talking with faculty whose promotion applications have been denied. There's usually some bitterness, occasionally some self-awareness, and, in a few blessed cases, a pragmatic approach to determine what would make a successful application the next time.

And there's a lot of defensiveness.

The most common defensive line is “but I've done everything you've asked me to do!”

Well, yes. And that's the problem.

The structure of tenured faculty jobs is such that direct supervision is remarkably light and rare, compared to most other jobs. (Keep in mind, I'm talking about community colleges here. I'm not so familiar with the logistics of, say, running a research laboratory.) While a full-time professor here is absolutely working a full week, much of that week is unstructured. I don't especially care if a professor does her grading in her office, or at home, or at Starbucks. (In my grad school days, I did some of my best grading at the laundromat.) Three in the afternoon, three in the morning – whatever works, as long as it's done well and promptly. I don't care if a professor decides to switch gears on a research project to take it in a more promising direction, and I certainly don't need to be asked permission. Class prep takes the time it takes – as long as the class itself is good, I don't much care if the professor spent a month on it or just improvised. As long as some really basic minima are met – I expect faculty to show up for class, to keep office hours as specified in the contract, and to attend a few meetings each semester – the rest of the job is really what the professor makes of it.

In the popular imagination, that equates to slacking off, and we've all known some people who've exercised that prerogative from time to time. But creative work requires a certain amount of autonomy, and even a certain amount of slack. I'm fine with that, as long as the end result is strong.

When promotion time rolls around, I don't ask how many hours a week a professor spent doing, well, anything. I ask what she achieved. If she achieved a lot, I'm a happy camper. If not, not. If she happened to work so efficiently that she also had time to maintain a fulfilling personal life, great. If not, then she has some choices to make.

(That's not to deny that exceptions exist for medical conditions, various personal emergencies, and the like. But the basic default assumptions stand.)

Against this background set of assumptions, a statement like “I've done everything you've asked me to do” simply misses the point. If I had to ask, you were already failing.

In a way, a structure like this is almost guaranteed to generate neuroses, since so many of the expectations are unwritten and imprecise. A naïve professor could easily stay out of trouble, do everything he was asked to do, and then come up short at promotion time. It's hard to specify in advance exactly what would be 'enough,' since creative work is, by definition, fluid. My faculty know the general areas that the college cares about, but I really leave it to them to figure out how they'll make their own contributions. I give feedback if asked, but I don't make a point of checking up on people. They're professionals, as am I. I'm not the guy with the stopwatch and the clipboard, and I don't want to be.

In a way, it's almost Calvinist. I'm looking for evidence that a given professor is the sort of professor who doesn't need nagging. If they nag me for specifics as to what that would look like, they're defeating the purpose.

At its best, the system leads to a variation on the wisdom of crowds, in which a cluster of autonomous, educated people develop more and more interesting projects than any one person (say, a dean) could have thought of on his own. Some of the most successful innovations during my tenure have emerged in areas that never would have crossed my mind. That's a good thing.

But the folks with the most ingrained trade-union mentality live in constant paranoia that anything not spelled out to the letter is designed to get them. If I didn't nag them to attend conferences, then how can I complain that they didn't go? I'd flip the question around. If they have to be asked, then what's the point of tenure? If they aren't professionals but are actually line workers, then I'll need the powers of a foreman. (At that point, they usually change the subject.)

My philosophy of management, which I've outlined publicly and repeatedly to my faculty, is that I try to set the background conditions against which people can do their best work. If the best they do with that is to fulfill the minimum, then I know what I need to know. If you want to be left alone while still drawing a full-time salary, you need to produce something to make that trade worthwhile. If you don't, I don't want to hear that it's my fault for not nagging enough.

This reminds me of the kind of conversation I have with my students. If I give them requirements for a paper (margins, number of sources, number of pages, etc.) and they still end up with a D+ because the paper's crap, they still come to me and say, "I've done everything you've asked me to do!" I end up putting a note in my assignment handouts telling them that handing in an assignment on the correct day with the correct number of pages does not warrant an automatic high grade. Their ideas (and the way they express them) count too!

I like your point, "If I had to ask, you were already failing." I shouldn't have to tell my students to avoid citing a popular magazine or that "please write 8 pages" does not mean you can hand in 4.

I know you're not talking about students here, but this came to mind when I read your post.
Interesting that DD associates a lack of understanding clear objectives with unions, but Kait switches to students. My suspicion is that in the case of DD, he would insist that the professor make very clear to the students not just what the minimum formal requirements for a given paper are (length, citation model, margins, etc.) but also some guidance on what sort of thinking, analyzing, and writing must be in the assignment for it to receive a good grade. Hypothetical DD response: "It's part of doing your job to make clear your expectations clear to your students."

Shift now to the dean-faculty member model. DD does not speak at all about the responsibility of deans to make clear to faculty what sorts of reasonable assumptions are involved in a faculty position. Do you actually say the things in your post to new faculty, or it is just implied, assumed knowledge? Do all new faculty members arrive at your CC with the same level of practical training in academia you suggest must be the case?

I know that there are certainly cases of entitlement in academia. But the most paranoid faculty members I know (none of whom are unionized, I should add) are all untenured. Deans or other administrative personnel who dance around _minimum_ requirements for tenure are seen as jerks by many of them. Managers need to adapt to the level of preparation with which their employees arrive on the job in the same way professors must adapt to changes in technology and HS training that mean that some very smart, well-scoring and high-achieving students arrive in college without a sense of writing a good paper.

It would also seem that leaving minimum tenure requirements mostly unstated might be asking for legal challenges, but then we all know how colleges big and small push individual faculty members with grievances around with threats of smearing their names to other colleges.

I understand that a good deal of the requirements for tenure need to be judged in subjective terms (sort of sounds like grading a paper, doesn't it?), but these requirements and the subjectivity of their judgment need to be made clear to faculty members involved, even if in the form of a print out of a blog post during new faculty administration.
Ever since the Bush administration re-triggered my once finely honed analytic debate skills, I notice what is said, not what someone might read into what was said. Hence "I've done everything you've asked me to do" includes the case "I've only done exactly what you've asked me to do, no more, no less".

DD appears to be talking about the latter case, but that does not absolve him of his mentoring duties as an administrator.

The analogies to teacher-student relationships are apt. I learned a lot about being a better graduate student from my experiences teaching recitations as an undergrad and graduate student. A common (yet to me incomprehensible) complaint in the "student engagement" survey data is a lack of feedback on grades. Faculty are owed a similar level of feedback or DD is not doing his job. A rejection of promotion or tenure should not be a total surprise, particularly at a CC. (There are cases at a research uni where votes at a higher level have come as a surprise, one of them in the science blogs a few years ago.)

This posting makes me quite glad that I am not in DD's college, although I find his advice to be quite useful. He needs to take some of it himself. Consequently, I'm adding this blog post to my list of items to include in my "jobs" series. Lack of good feedback is probably not unusual and can be a challenge on the tenure track.
What DD says makes sense to me, as long as there's some mentoring at the beginning of the career to help a new prof understand what possibilities there are and how to sort through priorities. Grad school, as we know, generally doesn't prepare one for much beyond knowing the subject.
Does anyone know how common and effective new faculty mentoring programs are?

I would agree with several posters who have commented that a negative performance review or promotion result should not come as a complete surprise. If it surprises the candidate's immediate supervisors, then those supervisors, in my view, have been negligent in maintaining some awareness of--and responses to--the candidate's record of productivity and effectiveness. If a similarly negative result surprises the candidate, then s/he has been negligent in the pragmatics of self-assessment and "timely progress toward promotion".

We anticipate that undergraduate students may not be aware of, or sensitive to, the specifics of self-assessment, and so we provide frequent benchmarks, feedback, grades, models, mentoring, etc. I would certainly be unhappy if a new hire, a 3rd-year review, or a tenure candidate was anywhere near as naive--I would argue that part of professional competence on the part of a candidate is being able to assess his/her ratio of success, just as it is part of the supervisor's professional competence, as several have said, to provide tools of assessment for the candidate.

Something I have not yet seen in the comments, however, is something I have taken to include in all my own mentoring, both in-house and remote, at both the graduate - student and the not - yet - tenured professional levels. That is, simply put, the candidate's responsibility to be effective, approachable, collegial, advocate for his/her teaching, service, and creative activity. In the world of academia, almost no-one has time to keep up with colleagues' achievements in a consistent or informed way: not their awards, their new creative works, their grants won, their students' accomplishments. We are all simply too busy to keep track of our colleagues' professional development, no matter how much we might wish to. Yet it is essential, for our own individual professional advancement, that colleagues (on tenure, promotion, and budget committees, for example) should be aware of our accomplishments.

This means that each candidate must take time to develop skills at conveying his/her achievements. There are a lot of different ways to do this, and many are even tactful and un - self - aggrandizing. In mentoring, I make sure to talk about, assist with, and demonstrate such "outreach to colleagues" (examples of how at this post: I have found it not only fosters a much friendlier collegial atmosphere, but also makes it much easier for committee members and superiors to arrive at accurate, well-informed, and positive evaluations. YMMV
This whole post makes me nervous. As a blue-collar academic, I find way more unspoken rules than other people do; I also stumble more. Weak and poorly-elucidated tenure guidelines at my particular university act as a guard against getting sued. The whole thing sounds as if it's being presented in this "Self-starter! Work hard! Get stuff done!" way, but it seems shady and butt-covering to me.
Thanks for that link, CJS.

However, one thing your link tells me is that you are at a university, where new faculty are much more likely to come in from a post doc than directly from grad school. The things you list were skills I was taught as a post doc. No one told me as a grad student that I should keep a calendar that maintains a convenient record of items that belong in my annual review materials, or how early certain things have to be done.

At a CC, we are much more likely to see new faculty who have never been in that kind of apprentice role (and not all post docs are told about the instruments of torture). A mentor (or several) can be crucial to the success of these otherwise excellent proto-faculty, and the Dean is one of those people who must convey clear expectations of the college's standards.
Good conversation, thanks. In fact, while I am at a university, neither I nor the vast majority of my (Fine Arts) colleagues came in from a post-Doc. In fact, I was hired into the tenure-track 4 months after I defended.

Of course I recognize that neither my experience nor my discipline may be typical. But much of what I'm talking about I did in fact learn on the job (though again I'll acknowledge provisos: I had been teaching as adjunct at my university while finishing exams, writing the diss, and preparing to defend).

Thanks again
Since I’ve been on the receiving end of a bad tenure decision and work as a grievance counselor, so while my work setting is very different, there are some important similarities.

Oftentimes, when a candidate for tenure is turned down, the administrative ambiguity concerning P&T is deliberate—If there’s nothing specifically THERE it soooo much harder to file a grievance. For example, at my institution, The major criterion for P&T is “impact on the field.” How is this determined? By soliciting external evaluators to assess a given candidate’s scholarly. This opens up the process to all manner of weird outcomes because the administration will ignore internal reporting and focus solely on these outside letters.

In my own case, on research production: I was fine—but I got shot down because one outside evaluator didn’t like my agenda (queer politics and public schooling). I had 9 outside evaluations that were fine, one that was toxic, and glowing internal reports. And on the strength of a skunk I was turned down.

It took years, endless hours, the help of my local and sympathetic colleagues, and me just being a bit pull with the administration (yes, I was willing to go after various administrative legs), but eventually the decision was overturned.

But the ambiguity is deliberate—and in the vast majority of grievance cases, penalizes the grievant. The dice are loaded against the candidate, by design.

Here’s the kicker: Ambiguous P&T requirements are supremely bad pedagogy. If you don’t specifically ask for something, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t happen. The “read my mind” school of professional development does not work for many people. If this were a public school, the principal would be canned.
I'm nervous, along with the blue collar academic above. it seems that what's really being assessed is one's ability to internalize the unspoken rules...? or perhaps the extent to which one already has...thereby privileging people who have some prior familiarity with the culture (i.e. not me and the blue collar academic here)? the game is who navigate the particular academic culture the best...?

honestly, what comes to my mind is if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair....
I have to say, as a grad student in English, this whole conversation is making me hyperventilate a little bit ("I have to sell my accomplishments to people"?). No one in my department is telling the grad students about this aspect of professional life, and in fact they're all pretty closemouthed and reserved about what goes on in the department apart from how they do their research (which they are doing a good job of mentoring and demonstrating for us).

If I were to be hired at DeanDad's CC, I sure hope he or somebody would sit me down and explicitly spell out the assumptions of this post and the requirements or types of requirements for tenure and promotion. In fact, being a more hands-on than abstract person, I'd really appreciate showing me some models for a strong promotion case: "See Prof Superstar? Perfectly in line for promotion. Prof Slacker, on the other hand, is looking very iffy for retention."

To continue back to Kait's example, as someone who never had to write an essay while in high school, I had to bomb hard in that first college paper ---- that whole first quarter, actually. _After_ I got a wake-up call that sheer smarts wasn't going to cut it, I still needed a good explanation of what the "right forms" were. Then, once I knew all the "rules," I did just fine. But I did need the rules explicitly mapped out for me, and I needed a second chance in those classes after I totally got it wrong.
I just had a random conversation the other day with a group of untenured folks from various R1 universities about these sort of unwritten. I hadn't ever thought explicitly about how much marketing and PR does factor into how well we do in our job. Things like: making sure people in your College know who you are and what you do (e.g. attending symposiums, presenting at them, etc.), figuring out how best to convey what you do in a way that everyone can grasp (and respect and find intriguing), being in your office enough that people don't start to wonder where you are (or worse, who you are), making yourself indispensable to your department/College/colleagues (carefully selecting which service duties to accept), knowing which committees to avoid and which to actively seek a seat on, etc. etc. I did learn some of this from my assigned faculty mentor, who has helped me see how teaching, research and service is only part of the equation. "Collegiality" is how I think of the unwritten rules part.
People have differing levels of tolerence for ambiguity. If you have someone who needs more explicit structure, they will not do well in the "I know it when I see it" school of assessment. But I think what's interesting about this post is that we have DD struggling with assessment strategies (a few months ago) and then talking about indignant people who get denied the promotion they deserve now.

I assess quite a few applications for the program I run and invariably have people who don't get accepted who feel they should have. Some cry, others yell but the ones that do eventually get in sit down and ask "what went wrong" and really listen to the answer and do some (or all) of the things that I suggest. My role is to teach them how to work the system.

As someone mentioned above, the outcome of a tenure review should never be a surprise. We assess our faculty every two years before they get tenure and notify them if they are getting off track. I think you need that kind of feedback as a new professor if you are going to survive.
c'trix: What you call "collegiality" only matters if you're collegial to the right people. You can be a good and decent person across campus, but if the one person you need on your side doesn't see it, and doesn't agree, that's the ball-game.

I'm already at the point in my young career where I've seen what I've thought should be slam-dunk tenure decisions go wrong, and I don't have a good idea why. And of course, if the expectations aren't clear, then it's very difficult to meet them. "Everything you asked me to do" becomes the only possible guide I have to go by, and I have to look at the real possibility that I'm investing my energies in endeavors which, as important as I believe they are and as important as my peers tell me they are, won't do me a bit of good when the final decision comes down.

(Please also note: The fewer senior faculty are around you, the more difficult it is to divine what tasks are worth the time for job security and which ones are spinning wheels.)

Look, we all know that we have dead weight around us. I don't think any of us are worried about the dead weight; we expect that they'll get their just desserts (and DD, I expect that's what you were on about in the first place).

I think we're worried about people who throw 80 hours a week into this vocation only to find that administration thinks that time would have been better spent doing something else that was never specified in the first place. I hope and expect that you can find those people in your own locale, DD, and direct them to spend their energies wisely before they do irreparable damage. Many of us don't have that kind of guidance.
Looks like I struck a nerve.

At my cc, 'promotion' and 'tenure' are separate matters, considered separately. Tenure involves a series of annual reviews, necessarily including one-on-ones between the dean and the professor. On my watch, nobody -- nobody -- in my area has been denied tenure. And it's not because I've chased them away, either.

What I was getting at in this post was the tenured faculty who drop promotion applications on my desk from out of the blue the day before the deadline, who haven't distinguished themselves at all, and who get indignant and try to palm off responsibility for their underwhelming records on my lack of nagging. No, thanks.

I'm bothered at some of the nastiness and insinuation in this thread, though. First Anonymous goes so far as to say that "we all know how colleges big and small push faculty members with grievances around with threats of smearing their names to other colleges." No, we don't. I've been in administration for seven years now, and I've never -- not once, not ever -- either done that, or heard of it being done. I have neither said, nor heard, anything even vaguely approaching that. It may happen somewhere, but it doesn't happen here. To say that "we all know" is simply false, and frankly, offensive.

But the certainty with which the false accusation is made is telling. Is that what you would do? Is that what you do with your deans? It's certainly how you seem to treat me. I think the term is 'projection.'

First Anon also resorts to the rhetorical trick of putting words in my mouth, and then accusing me of hypocrisy. Either fight fair or back off.

If a rejection of promotion -- and again, I've never rejected anybody for tenure -- comes as a surprise, it's because the applicant didn't pay attention to what I refer to in the post as my public and repeated reiterations of what I value, and also made no attempt to speak to me privately (which is remarkably easy to do).

Sisyphus' hypothetical conversation would be HUGELY unethical. "Prof Slacker is looking very iffy for retention." Can you imagine?

I'm offended, too, at the implication that I'm playing "guess what I'm thinking" with the faculty. (Or that this is about being "shady and butt-covering.") They know perfectly well what the criteria are -- they're spelled out in the union contract, among other places. What I won't do is tell them "go to this conference, publish in that journal, and get student evaluations of at least this number." I won't do that partly because the decision isn't mine alone and I don't want to make false promises, but mostly because it reduces the promotion decision to a transaction, which defeats its purpose.

That's the core of what I think so many people are reacting to.

Once someone achieves full professor status, there's no higher rank for them to shoot for. Therefore, if they respond solely or primarily to extrinsic motivation, once they hit the highest rung we should expect them to slack off. Which happens with dispiriting frequency.

I encourage constructive activity, both with public praise and with what funding I can. I publicize positive examples, and have some difficult conversations with some difficult people. But at the end of the day, if Prof X will only lift a finger if I tell him precisely what the exact minimum is that he could get away with to get a promotion, I'd rather not. I want evidence of intrinsic motivation, and that requires me to give people enough running room that some of them will fall down.
DD, I have several friends, at the grad level at least, who were intimidated in just such a fashion.

It does seem to be SOP a lot of places.
DD, I've read your blog for a LONG time now and recommend it as reading to administrators and faculty alike.

I couldn't agree with you more. Too often faculty want things explicitly spelled out (as in "if I check these 3 specific things off then I get such and such promotion"). From my perspective this is not something a highly educated, largely self-directed workplace should want. In fact I bet once it happened faculty would complain vociferously about lack of autonomy.

The administration should not play hide the ball and should certainly be around to advise, but some ambiguity and insistence on self-motivation and self-defining of goals is vitally important. Requiring the faculty to define this is not a matter of CYA so you can deny promotion on the basis of personal whims, but inherently a part of a professional job. I say this as a faculty member who once served on a ranking committee and listened to innumerable complaints from people upset because terms such as "excellence in their field" were ambiguous. There were multiple examples of such excellence, but the common complaint was "well that person does different things from me". Anyways, just letting you know that some of your faculty readers sympathize with you.

By the way, my wife and I talk about this all the time. At her job (filled with engineers and scientists), those who will never get a promotion are those who need to be told what to do. I know some people find it unfair, but what is highly appreciated are people who can (1)create new goals, (2)explain to others why they are important, and (3) then reach them. Hopefully, as teachers, we teach students these general skills (often by giving them checklists for standardized goals, but also by challenging them to create their own).
I honestly don't mean to sound rude or defensive here, but many of the comments here simply justify a status quo that works to the detriment of those who are outsiders. Privileging autonomy of time over transparency of expectation is another class-based assumption, one that many people value, but isn't naturally better.
Thanks for that important clarification, DD. Our college has only one "promotion", and that is to tenure. We (attempt to?) manage ongoing professional development via an annual process that was created to challenge long-term faculty to continue to develop their skills and courses (and class notes!). I am not in a position to know how well this works, however.

Two bits of advice:

The comments were triggered by what you wrote, not entirely by what you meant. They were also triggered by management techniques that might exist elsewhere in your college, if not in your part of it.

Promotion packets appear out of the blue? We meet with our Dean (officially, that is) twice a year. I would expect the Dean to ask me "are you planning to apply for promotion in Month" each year and discuss progress with respect to the published requirements. Think about it.

I'd also find a way to give an ethical comment to Sisyphus, such as "pay attention to what X is doing, maybe ask her to be a mentor." You can damn with faint praise.
DD, first Anonymous on this post here. First, I apologize if I was out of line in my comment. I didn't mean to suggest that you would smear a faculty member to another college. It wasn't, however, "projecting" in my case as you suggest, but rather describing something I have witnessed in at least one occasion at each of my academic stops so far: in college and grad school at large R1s (according to campus newspaper news stories) and at the SLAC where I currently teach (where it happened to a friend of mine). Had I been the dean in the latter case, I would have allowed the grievance to go through the appeals process, not used threats to force the faculty member in question to accept a settlement. That's what happened here. I am happy--and not really surprised (I actually think you're a good administrator, and I don't view all such people as evil by any means)--that you go about things differently. I'm glad it's less common than I thought.

Regarding the placement of words in your mouth, true, I did so, with qualifiers like "I suspect" and "hypothetical." Based on reading your blog for years, I made the assumption that you were in favor of responsibility in syllabuses and clearly stated objectives and policies for students, but I can only point to the following post to really back up that assumption: Was I wrong about the words I put in your mouth? You didn't really address the point in your response, and I'm actually interested in your opinion. That's why your blog is among the first things I read every day.

You're also right--and I apologize again--that you made it pretty clear in your original post that you were speaking about promotion, (implication: not about tenure decisions). I see the two linked in my mind and took my comments in a different direction, impugning motives along the way. I apologize again. But I did find your post an interesting springboard for thoughts about tenure decisions (as it seems, did others), which you didn't address until your response. I thought it was an oversight on your part, one that I thought you'd be interested in pursuing. Your response makes clear that the potential issues I had with your policy are not really there: you recognize the importance of mentoring new faculty members, give lots of early feedback in the tenure process, and both spell out minimum requirements for tenure and make clear the necessary and worthwhile subjectivity of judgments regarding the criteria.

It just wasn't clear from your original post, DD, and I, a prof early in the TT process (one of those paranoid people I mentioned), jumped the gun. Apologies again.
Anon -- Thanks.
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