It usually happens in a moment of unguarded enthusiasm. A junior member of faculty begins to speak with increasing excitement about an innovative new avenue of scholarship only to stop short, pause, and say: “but, of course, all of this will have to wait until after tenure”. As a Dean, I have heard this often enough to consider it symptomatic of a broader structural problem with the tenure process in higher education. When tenure becomes a barrier to innovative scholarship, it is time to revisit the process.
The faculty is the heart of any college or university; when they are dispirited, the educational mission is impoverished. High standards of widely recognised excellence are, of course, vital to our work as faculty. But this work is diminished if the metrics by which we identify excellence are neither varied nor nuanced enough to do justice to the most exciting and transformative scholarship of which our most talented faculty are capable.
To redress the regressive nature of our current tenure practices and the metrics that inform them, we might integrate two initiatives into a holistic strategy. The first is an approach to tenure and promotion in which structured mentoring plays a key role; the second involves developing an array of values-based metrics capable of empowering our faculty to tell more textured stories about the impact of their work. If our values don’t drive our metrics, our metrics will distort our values.
Too often tenure is seen as an end in itself, measured by blunt instruments like journal impact factors and citation rates, rather than what it really ought to be: a milestone along a longer path to intellectual leadership. My colleague, Bill Hart-Davidson, has developed a mentoring framework that distinguishes between horizons, milestones, and stepping stones to structure conversations that enable members of faculty to chart their pathways to intellectual leadership in concrete, specifiable terms.Too often tenure is seen as an end in itself, measured by blunt instruments like journal impact factors and citation rates.
To begin, each faculty member is invited to take a broader view of their professional goals by situating them along a career horizon. Attending to such horizons requires us to consider the trajectory of our careers. What contributions do we hope to make? What legacy do we hope to leave? A horizon orients us toward what is possible; it asks us to consider the wide arc of our efforts. Because horizons are, by their nature, elusive, an orientation toward horizons will remain abstract and ineffective unless we are able to articulate milestones that indicate good progress along the way.
Historically, milestones were piled along routes traversed by those who had travelled the way before us. In this sense, a milestone is not determined by the idiosyncratic peculiarities of any given traveller, but by a broader community of fellow travellers. Identifying milestones of scholarly accomplishment requires us to engage the markers of achievement established by our predecessors, even if our course of research leads us into undiscovered territory. Milestones thus orient us and connect our work with the work of others who recognise the significance and impact of the path pursued.
Since, however, milestones are reached one step at a time, establishing specific stepping stones – concrete actions within our power to accomplish within a short timeframe – enable us to advance along a path that might seem daunting from a broader perspective. Structured and regular mentoring conversations, in which specific stepping stones are identified within the context of widely recognised milestones along a path toward a broader career horizon, would reshape the tenure and promotion process in ways that might enable it to become a catalyst of innovation and invigoration.
Mentoring, however, is only one of many important activities that enrich scholarship but operate below the radar of our most widely recognised metrics of academic accomplishment. Ironically, an activity critical to the production of innovative scholarship – attentive and imaginative mentoring – itself remains largely unrecognised as a contribution to scholarship that might lead to tenure. The suggestion here is not that one ought to be able to earn Helpfully advancing the work of others through thoughtful peer review is integral to the growth and development of the very best scholarship.tenure based exclusively on one’s accomplishments as an effective mentor but, surely, if we could discern a way to measure the impact of mentoring it could be recognised as an important indicator of success along a path of intellectual leadership, an indicator that might at once strengthen a tenure dossier and enliven the tenure process itself.
If the metrics we use are to be capable of empowering innovative research along diverse pathways of intellectual development, they must be rooted in values that enrich the scholarly endeavour and in practices that enhance the work produced. This is precisely the approach we are taking in the HuMetricsHSS initiative, a Mellon-funded project that seeks to create and support a values-based framework that will enable scholars to tell more textured stories about the impact of their work. What distinguishes the HuMetricsHSS initiative from other research evaluation frameworks is precisely that values-based approach, the promise of which lies in the diversity of practices it is capable of uncovering and the breadth of objects in which we might find those values expressed.
The HuMetricsHSS initiative aims to identify and explore indicators of excellence embedded across a wide spectrum of scholarly objects from articles to syllabi, from annotations to helpful reviews integrated into published pieces, from the mentoring of students and faculty to the planning of conferences and workshops. By broadening the scope of what we understand as a contribution to scholarship, we will be better positioned to empower faculty to identify indicators of excellence along more diverse pathways of intellectual leadership.
If, for example, publishing an article in a particular journal were identified as a milestone along one’s path, perhaps a stepping stone might involve serving as a peer reviewer for that journal. Helpfully advancing the work of others through thoughtful peer review is a different kind of scholarly contribution than publishing new research, but it is integral to the growth and development of the very best scholarship. Developing ways to track and measure that helpfulness would allow collegiality to be more widely recognised as an indicator of intellectual leadership and as an important way to enrich and advance the reach of human understanding.
An approach to tenure and promotion rooted in structured mentoring conversations about how to chart a path to intellectual leadership will be enhanced by a nimble and varied array of values-based metrics that empower faculty to tell more textured stories about the impact of their work. If we are able to implement such an integrated strategy, we will be better positioned to encourage, in good faith, our junior faculty colleagues not to put off their best, most exciting work until after they are granted tenure. We owe it to them and to ourselves to reshape the tenure and promotion process so that it becomes a catalyst for the most compelling and transformative work of which we are capable.