Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bad News, Good News

Eric Selinger

First, the bad news. My application for promotion to Full Professor was (gasp!) turned down by the college committee at DePaul--and not just turned down, but soundly, firmly, grimly, unequivocally trounced. Not enough publishing in peer-reviewed venues, not enough leadership in committees and DePaul undertakings: come back, they said, when you've fixed those flaws, and you'll have a proper case.

(They also decried my treatment of poor Mr. Wickham, but with respect to that other, more weighty accusation, I believe they will acquit me when they are acquainted with every particular of the transactions.)

Now, as you can imagine, I'm quite disappointed, and not a little humiliated. But there's good news buried in the rubble. The negative report said not one word against the unexpected turn my research has taken, from poetry to popular romance. As far as the committee was concerned, the topics of my work were just fine. I just needed to get things published--and to do so in peer-reviewed venues, the coin of the realm, academically speaking. The work I've been doing on conferences (Princeton, PCA, Brisbane) is all very well and good, but it's no substitute, as I probably should have known.

The nice thing about missing out on a promotion, as opposed to tenure, is that nothing really changes. I still have my job, my benefits, my future in the profession. All my current projects will keep chugging along; if anything, they'll have a bit more steam. Had I known I was headed down the wrong path all these years, I'd have set some different priorities: less NEH work with teachers, fewer lesson plans online, more traditional publishing, more time in the trenches of some committee, etc. But I'm pleased to know that the biggest, most dramatic turn in my work--the one that brings me here, to Romancelandia--has plenty of support, and is being met with the same high expectations from my school that my work on poetry has been.

OK, 'nuff griping. Back to work.


  1. I heard that about the academic world, that it was all about publishing articles.

    Why is that?
    Is writing articles a more effective form of teaching than conference appearances?
    I'm confused (clearly).

  2. I'm going to be generous, Kimber, because it does me no good to pout.

    No, it's not more effective. But it's much easier to assess. Articles in "peer-reviewed" journals have been vouched for by folks who (presumably) know the field, and can tell if your work has merit. Conferences are vetted much less rigorously, or at least some of them are, so there's no way to judge whether the work you presented was top notch or just something you tossed off on the way there.

    I had plenty of articles, and they were quite long and substantial, but they were all published in the same literary journal, without peer review. Now, I'm a peer reviewer myself, and I know the quality of my work--bu they can't take my word for it, or simply that of my colleagues in the department, I guess.

    There's an organizational dynamic at work here, you see. The department has a bias in my favor, which the college committee wants to correct. The college is also being conservative because their positive votes can be, and have been, overturned by the review board above them as being too lenient. Better to stop me now, embarrassing me and my department, than let me pass and have me be turned down by the next folks down the line, which embarrasses me, my department, AND the college.

    It's all quite understandable. I'm just mad at myself for not having figured out all this in advance, as I did when I came up (successfully) for tenure!

  3. Did you come up early? Folks round my neck of the woods do not like that. We are also finding that budget woes have created a certain atmosphere not entirely conducive to salary-increasing promotions.

    I am glad to hear that nobody blinked at the turn your research has taken. That *is* good news.

    I'm certain we'll be toasting your promotion within the next year or two!

  4. Kimber, on the whole an academic's status among other academics doesn't depend on her/his ability to teach. In a report published by the Higher Education Academy and GENIE at the University of Leicester on 20 February 2009

    Key findings from the survey of staff conducted for the research include:

    * Over 90% of academic staff think that teaching should be important in promotions
    * Most academics feel that the status of teaching is low in comparison with research. They also say that research is important, and that it is by and large given appropriate status and suitable emphasis in appointments and promotions
    * Academics in more research-focused universities are less likely to be satisfied with the importance their institution attaches to teaching in promotion decisions

    To become an academic you need to produce original work (i.e. a thesis) that meets academic standards. A thesis isn't just judged by the student's supervisor. It has to be deemed to meet standards accepted by other academics too. It's the same with articles. The crucial thing is to publish them in "peer-reviewed" journals i.e. ones where each article is sent out to (usually two) academics who will assess its merits and decide whether it's good enough to publish.

    Depending on the conference it might, or might not be difficult to be accepted, but some people, even at prestigious conferences, may present papers which aren't very original, which seem incomplete, or which the academic only finished writing over breakfast (and it shows!), or a number of other things. This means that the quality of conference papers is not assured.

    Peer-reviewed journals, on the other hand, guarantee quality and if they consistently publish low-quality work, they'd begin to lose their reputations, and academic libraries would stop paying to buy copies. Journals don't want to go bust because no-one's buying them, so they've got an incentive to reject sub-standard articles.

  5. And then there's articles like this: "Scholarly output rises; undergraduates are disengaged. “This is the real calamity of the research mandate -- 10,000 harried professors forced to labor on disregarded print, and 100,000 unwitting students missing out on rigorous face-to-face learning,” Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, writes in a new paper on relieving research expectations in the humanities."

    You're doing amazing things to build up an entirely new academic field--an opportunity that comes along once or twice in a generation--and it's not considered worthy because, OMG, you're actually interacting with people and building a scholarly community rather than sitting in your academic ivory tower, writing solitary articles to be sent out to be published in peer reviewed journals two years later.

    I'm not bitter or anything, though.

    I'm so sorry, Eric. And I really hope this doesn't mean that you'll pull away from the romance community that you have by-and-large created whole-cloth.

  6. Thanks for the support, Sarah! I'm trying not to be bitter, myself; if anyone's to blame, it's my incredibly supportive department for assuming that the rest of the college would see my record as generously as they do, and I can't be altogether sorry for that.

    Clearly we need to appoint a Devil's Advocate on the personnel committee!

    As for peer-reviewed publication, we do need them to build the field, and as they come, they'll attract more scholars. I've been meaning to get some pieces out--just put it a little too far south on my list of priorities.

    But pull away? Hardly. Building this community has been a labor of love for me, and the response I've been getting from romance colleagues to this news repays that effort and then some.

    Hmmm... maybe I should change the YouTube song to this one!

  7. Eric, I'm really sorry to hear you missed out on your promotion and I wholeheartedly second Sarah's hope this won't mean you'll be pulling out of the academic romance community, which indeed you have such a big part in creating and maintaining. I can honestly say that if it weren't for the listserv and PCA 2007 (to which you invited me on the listserv) I probably wouldn't have been able to convince people at my university to allow me to write a PhD on popular romance. For someone in my position - a graduate student still at the early stages of peer academic assesment - it is the very existence of the international academic interest and momentum of romance scholarship which you have helped establish that bestows a certain academic credibility on the field, and therefore my own work. If it wasn't for PCA, the listserv, conferences like the ones in Princeton and Brisbane, the soon to be launched IASPR and JPRS, etc. people like myself would have an even harder time convincing other (more traditional) academics of the value of our work. So, while I find it absolutely horrible for you that they turned down your application, I hope you know that the value of what you have done and are doing for our field is immense and not something which can be reflected in dry stastics and publication lists.

    That said, I'm delighted they didn't comment negatively on the turn towards popular romance in your work.
    Also,maybe the field in general can learn something from this situation. I indeed believe that trying to publish more in peer-reviewed journals - generally academia's most valued form of output - is a goal we as a field might set ourselves; it is one of the ways, I think, in which we can build up undisputible academic credibility for our field.

  8. Eric, I'm sorry about this. I have no doubt you will be successful in the process in a very short time.

    I agree with Laura's take on it, especially since we're talking about a college-wide committee. In my field, conference papers are almost always *expected* to be early drafts of articles (it's often considered bad form to present a forthcoming or already published article at a conference). If the committee made an exception for you, however warranted, it would be more difficult for them to resist cases from other disciplines which were less worthy. And if there's one thing that personnel committees are, it's risk-averse.

    I do think that your departmental colleagues should have had a better sense of this. In my department we have several people who have served on these committees and we depend on them to tell us how a promotion case is going to look at the next level. In fact, we pay attention to the junior cases years before they come up to head off potential land mines.

    But it is really good to hear that the subject of your work was not met with skepticism or disapproval.

  9. Thanks for writing, Sunita! You're right that the department could have done a better job forewarning me, but they seemed quite blindsided by the results. Standards are changing, from the top down, and a candidate who would have sailed through five years ago won't pass muster now: that's the message that we're all taking away from this.

    The junior cases were all approved this year, which is a relief. It would have been much worse for any of them, obviously. And I'm going to put myself forward as one of the new mentors for junior faculty. Obviously I've got warnings to give, and a tale to tell!

  10. Eric, I want to add my voice in commiseration and support. As a non-academic who works in a science library, and as a graduate of a prestigious university, I've been dimly aware of this issue for years--but this is the first time I've seen the toll it takes on someone I "know," even if only in cyberspace.

    During my undergraduate years, it was those professors who enjoyed teaching and were good at it whose names I remember and whose ideas still resonate with me today. The ones who focused only on research, brilliant as it might have been, left little impression. I'm sure this memory of college is true for thousands of former students, including many who have become famous in their fields. So often we read of them, as they accept this or that prize, thanking the teachers who inspired them--and that inspiration didn't come from behind a closed office door.

    As to those peer-reviewed journals, while I totally understand the need for them as explained so clearly in Laura's comment, their cost has become so prohibitive that increasingly fewer libaries can afford them. The number of subscribers is down so low that the publishers increase their fees to the point that even fewer libraries can afford them. The periodicals budget in my library (which focuses on the hard sciences) is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This while librarians are being laid off and scientists rely on interlibrary loan and electronic journals.

    You probably know about the Public Library of Science (PLoS)? This project is trying to establish open-access online, peer-reviewed journals that earn their way by asking the institutions themselves where the professors teach to pay for their faculty members' articles. This way, the colleges' faculties earn their credentials, and because the journals are open access the readership is potentially universal. I don't know if there's anything comparable in the humanities, though.

    Finally, like An Goris, I want to add a personal "thank you" for helping a new author of an unusual book find an audience. Your invitation to this conference gave me a much-needed morale boost while also raising my reputation with my publisher. I hate to see this act of generosity so poorly rewarded and I hope that your career will eventually get back on the upward path.

  11. You probably know about the Public Library of Science (PLoS)? This project is trying to establish open-access online, peer-reviewed journals that earn their way by asking the institutions themselves where the professors teach to pay for their faculty members' articles. [...] I don't know if there's anything comparable in the humanities, though.

    I think there are quite a few open access journals in the humanities, but the Directory of Open Access Journals was having technical difficulties this morning, so I couldn't go and check how many of the journals listed there were science journals and how many weren't.

    Our very own Journal of Popular Romance Studies, once it's launched, is going to be open access and peer-reviewed.

    I hope that your career will eventually get back on the upward path.

    I have every confidence in Eric and I'm sure it will. His choice of Icarus to illustrate the post was, in my opinion, rather pessimistic! Unless he was thinking of himself as Daedalus, and this particular application to the college committee as Icarus? If so, this Daedalus will have to find himself another Icarus for his next attempt at flying higher. Hmm. Can't resist a bad pun. Can I say he's a-maze-ing?

  12. I didn't want to leave your reference to "poor Mr. Wickham" without a comment.

    Don't worry, many of us know the truth of that man's impositions and betrayals. I'm sure once your letter of explanation is received all will be forgiven, and perhaps a very happy outcome will ensue.

  13. One last thanks here, Ann, for your vote of confidence--and for picking up on my little joke! Perhaps once I'm properly humbled, all will go smoothly. At some point soon I'll sit down and figure out which projects are the "low-hanging fruit," ready to be plucked, polished, and presented to some or other peer-reviewer. First, though, I need to get busy writing the pieces for Princeton and PCA! (Which, I suspect, will also be the first to go out somewhere, if I can figure out where to send them.)

  14. Just to add on a bit, as has been mentioned, peer-reviewed articles are one of the easiest things to evaluate. You don't have to know anything about the person, their work, or their field (well, ok, that's too strong, but...) to count the number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Those journals themselves are also often rated quantitatively with what's called an impact factor. The impact factor attempts to rate the importance of the journal itself to its field. Anyway, the point is that these things have quantifiable (dubious?) measurements.

    However, teaching is really, really difficult to evaluate without personal knowledge. You can use student evaluations, but we've all had teachers who weren't loved by students who taught us a billion things, plus teachers whom students like who are more enjoyable than informative. How does a college committee with only passing knowledge of a prof measure their teaching ability?

    A thought-provoking paper on this can be found at Prof. Clark Glymour's (philosophy, Carnegie Mellon) web page, which is ( The paper is entitled, "Why the University Should Abolish Faculty Course Evaluations".

    Anyway, I agree that teaching should be more important in hiring and tenure. My take has always been the following: If a university were to stop all research and just teach, the state and parents would continue to pay for the university to exist, albeit at lesser levels, but if the university were to stop all teaching and only do research, I think most institutions would collapse completely. And yet, I've been in my grad program for 5 years now (ABD at this point) and have yet to be given a single lecture or conversation about effective teaching.

    The theory is that most universities are "research universities", not "teaching colleges" like community colleges or liberal arts places.

  15. Eric, I think this one's more appropriate! Chumbawamba's Tubthumping. Much more alcohol!