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.