by Dr. Chris Winstead
Chris Winstead is an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Utah State University. He has been on the USU faculty for seventeen years. He was born in North Carolina (USA) in the late mid-20th century, then received a PhD in 2005 from the University of Alberta (Canada). Dr. Winstead was awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2010, and a Fulbright Scholarship in 2013, and currently plays backup guitar in a bagpipe band.
KK: This post began as a FB comment; I invited the author to expand it into a guest post. I hope it prompts reflection and dialogue. Feel free to comment at length!
Background: the fiction of performance assessments
I am tenured associate professor, and this time of year is tenure committee season. The hardest part of my post-tenure career is watching the repeated professional assassinations of my junior colleagues. Some tenure candidates sail through the process with mostly happy experiences. Others face a life-altering nightmare that persists for years and echoes in their psyches for decades.
While I truly love the activities of teaching, mentoring, conducting and publishing research, I mostly despise the way we treat and evaluate human beings in the academic system. We have developed elaborate rituals to cast an illusion of objectivity over what is fundamentally a subjective and often personal judgement.
In my opinion, the nightmarish tenure review process boils down to two unanswerable questions: First (qualitative) “prove to me that you’re not a fraud,” and second (quantitative) “are you even doing your job?” These questions are merely an invitation to an infinite regression of skepticism and verbal abuse, terminated only because someone on the committee eventually has to leave for a more important meeting.
If only one person initiates this regression, the process is drawn into a bottomless pit wherein the candidate must explain and justify their alleged deficiencies. The skeptic has no burden to justify their position. The candidate, however, must convince the skeptic – must defend without being “defensive” – must debate without suggesting that the skeptic is mistaken – must artfully dodge clever counterpoints like “so what?” or “no it’s not” – or must sit silently while all their efforts are whittled away to nothing.
Through all of this, there is seldom any interest in what the candidate actually studies. We only want to see countable units of output. “How many units” is a totally subjective question, but we pretend it’s objective and say “these are just the normal academic expectations,” even if no one has actually quantified norms in the field. I once tried to calibrate the review process with data and evidence, but was told the data was “inflammatory” since it insinuated that the evaluators were incapable of rendering sound independent judgements. I couldn’t argue with that.
This process has taught me how easy it is to discredit virtually any professional achievement. Suppose the candidate has a Nobel Prize. The skeptic responds, “Only one? There are others who got two. Also you shared it with several other people; did you actually do the work or are you just along for the ride? I see that the prize was for work you did before joining our institution, so we can’t consider it. Besides all that, your role statement doesn’t mention anything about Nobel Prizes, so it’s not worth anything here.”
Non-skeptic evaluators can do little to stop this. Tenure grants each of us a weapon, but not a shield. An overly positive assessment is viewed with suspicion, assumed to suggest some ulterior motive, conflict of interest, or just a lack of rigor. It’s a system where every evaluator has veto power. I can destroy anyone below me in the hierarchy, and no one can stop me.
A “happy” tenure experience simply lacks this regression. The unsatisfiable skeptic simply chooses to keep quiet. That seems to be the only difference. One happy candidate can sail through with half the output of someone who winds up in the pit. The rockstar winner is described as having “an impressive five whats-its” while the loser is a disappointment with “only ten whats-its.”
What are we supposed to be?
These bizarre exercises prompt me to a sort of existential reflection: what is this job? Is the tenure candidate doing their job? Am I doing my job? How is the job defined? What is tenure supposed to signify? Are we just bureaucratic employees defined by role statements and bean counts? On the other extreme, are we “priests of the temple of knowledge?”
I think administrators adopt either extreme as needed at any given moment. When evaluating “employee performance”, then it’s basically just a factory job. But when they want faculty and staff to volunteer in food service or COVID testing sites, then it’s a calling in service of the social good.
So what is it? Is it a “job”? And who gets to define the job? I expect an archetypal administrator would answer, “I decide. You work for me.” And if asked what the job is supposed to be, the administrator would answer, “to publish more papers.” More papers than what? “Definitely more than you’re publishing right now.”
But when the administrator switches gears to appeal to the alleged higher calling of academia, it implies that we don’t work for administrators at all. They don’t pay our salaries or define our mission, they are supposed to just “administer” things.
Enter the pandemic
These ruminations became very concrete issues when the pandemic arrived, It was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to fill all my usual functions. My grad students had all recently graduated, I couldn’t recruit any new ones, I was adapting to remote teaching, setting up a home office, while running back and forth to facilitate Zoom Kindergarten for my child – it was clearly a triage situation.
I needed to somehow remote-teach three lab-intensive courses. I could have chosen to jettison most of the lab instruction along with the usual pedagogical objectives; no one else would care if I did. The students would not know what they were missing. That would free up time to write some papers, perhaps.
I decided to focus my time on laboratory teaching rather than research. Here is my thought process: I work for a public institution, paid through public funds. If you ask any taxpayer or legislator to describe our purpose, they will usually say “higher education”. To the people who pay us, our job is to produce graduates, not papers. My university’s stated mission is to be “one of the nation’s premier student-centered” universities, and that we serve the public “through learning, discovery and engagement.” The mission puts students and learning first. That seems to decide it.
The months went by, some of the hardest I’ve ever worked, and I wrote no new research papers. When it came time for my performance evaluation, my Department Head ticked “meets expectations” in the teaching box without a word of discussion. He did not ask, “what did you do to maintain learning objectives during this unprecedented global emergency?” He did not ask, “What did you do to make sure every student could access and complete remote experimental assignments regardless of their home computer configuration?” Not a word.
Back to the big question
So what is an academic supposed to be? Is academia like a corporation, wherein we are white-collar bureaucrats? Is academia like a quasi-government branch, and faculty sort of like judicial appointees? Or is it more like a “partnership” as in a law firm or private medical practice? Does (or should) tenure entitle me to define my own professional role?
I’ve come to believe that the “true” mission of academia consists in producing, curating, and transmitting knowledge, three inter-dependent verbs of equal importance. The modern fixation on “papers” has sailed blindly away from that purpose. The millions of papers and citations are like unobservable particles in a balloon full of hot gas. We can see that the temperature is going up, the balloon is inflating, but metrics of hot air make a sad proxy for knowledge.