Public Writing and the Junior Scholar

Full writing junor scholar

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By Sarah E. Bond and Kevin Gannon

What is the value of public outreach for an early-career scholar? Does it help or hurt your chances of getting, and keeping, a tenure-track job?

A recent advice column in The Chronicle — "Which Publications Matter at Which Stages of Your Career?" — argued that junior colleagues are devoting too much time to op-eds, blog posts, and other types of "less than impressive" public writing not published in top-tier academic journals or written in service to monographs or grant proposals. Instead, it said, they should "be calculating" about which publications will actually lead to tenure, and which won’t, and focus more on the former.

That advice certainly applies to faculty at major research universities or elite liberal-arts colleges (like the one where its author teaches). Trouble is: Most faculty positions aren’t within that small (and getting smaller) slice of academe. Compared with those lavishly resourced institutions, the rest of higher education evaluates faculty publications through a fundamentally different set of lenses.

Lower-tier liberal-arts colleges, teaching-oriented universities, and community colleges — where the vast majority of academic jobs are found — have long championed the need for their faculty to pursue public outreach together with effective teaching. So telling graduate students to eschew public-facing writing and outreach in favor of "impressive" or "legitimate" publications is the wrong advice for the many job candidates who will end up employed outside of the select circle of wealthy institutions.

In fact, even some departments at R1 universities are starting to use public writing and outreach in tenure cases, as an indicator of a scholar’s impact. We believe that the very survival of academe is, in part, predicated on encouraging both graduate students and junior scholars to engage in activities that speak to and for the public.

The Boyer model. Many liberal-arts colleges use the Boyer model of scholarship, or something very close to it, as the evaluative criteria for faculty publishing. The Boyer model — in its framing of four types of scholarly domains such as the "scholarship of teaching and learning" and the "scholarship of application" — speaks most directly to the missions and interests of these types of institutions. They emphasize engagement and service, and their faculty are expected to perform — and are rewarded for — scholarly work that fits within that mission. Some departments at these colleges might remain exclusively wedded to the traditional "scholarship of discovery" (Boyer’s term), above all else, but they are outliers swimming against a more powerful institutional tide.

Even places that don’t explicitly embrace the Boyer model are, in important ways, informed by a similar philosophy — one we might call "scholarship as teaching." Its guiding principle: Scholarly work is meant to be public-facing and aimed at wide consumption.

Colleges without a lot of prestige capital value scholarly work that readily engages a broad audience and that attracts the type of attention (including donations to fund-raising campaigns) they need to survive in our current environment. In that type of institutional climate, when candidates for hiring, promotion, and tenure have their tenure dossiers considered, they will almost certainly find their scholarly output assessed in significantly different ways than at elite campuses. This approach to scholarly work actually privileges the very venues that a narrower definition of scholarship rejects as not impressive enough: digital projects, online writing, mainstream opinion and creative work, and the like.

For too long, academe treated such work as lesser-than, as not prestigious enough to "count" for "real" college faculty members. Considered in terms of impact and reach, however, this scholarly work — and make no mistake: it is scholarly — resonates far more widely and deeply than much of the traditional (and in large part literally inaccessible) projects prized by a more-limited view of "legitimate" scholarly activity.

Assessment and equivalence. The word "assessment" hangs like an omnipresent rain cloud over almost every faculty or committee meeting in higher education today. Every strategic plan, departmental review, or tenure committee is expected to have a set of metrics, categories, and printed rubrics for assessment that allegedly ensure standardized (and objective!) academic excellence.

As we broaden our notions of what counts as scholarship, academics must find effective ways to assess these pivotal forms of outreach — whether it’s public writing, community initiatives, or open-access digital projects.

It can seem more difficult to evaluate those things than it is to count how often a traditional journal article has been cited by other academics. How do you compare a public talk at a high school with a presentation at a scholarly conference? In the narrative about scholarship that still dominates many research universities, public talks and other community projects are often discounted when measured next to peer-reviewed articles or monographs because people assume it is easy to talk to high-school students about the intricacies of the First Crusade and much harder to write a journal article about it. (People who say that usually have never tried to hold the interest of high-schoolers.)

The best research allows academics to speak to multiple audiences. The work of the professoriate should not simply replicate the traditional forms of publication for assessment’s sake, or just because other tenured professors had to jump through those hoops to achieve their own status at a research-focused institution. Instead, we can — and should — look to outreach and open-access writing as engines for change in a society where people are increasingly skeptical about higher education’s worth.

As we’ve already noted, most of higher education is doing that already. Skeptics will argue that a broad definition of "what counts" as scholarship is the product of "lower quality" or "inferior" institutions. We reject that. In fact, an expansive definition of scholarship more accurately reflects the climate and trends facing higher education now, and begins to confront them.

For guidance on the best ways to assess these new forms of scholarship, we can look to the field of digital humanities, which began to influence academic-hiring practices more strongly over the past decade. Early on, however, an intense debate developed over how, exactly, to assess the worth, rigor, or impact of a digital project for the purposes of dissertation research or in terms of tenure-and-promotion applications.

A 2012 essay on the subject, published in the Journal of Digital Humanities, argued that if you try to compare digital projects with traditional ones, you end up misunderstanding both: "These sorts of questions are often misguided since they are predicated on comparing fundamentally different knowledge artifacts and, perhaps more problematically, consider print publications as the norm and benchmark from which to measure all other work."

The seeming troubles in assessing public outreach appear similar to the complaints that plagued the tenure files of early digital humanists. How was a traditional, analog-based, book-oriented professor on the P&T committee supposed to evaluate a tenure candidate’s interactive map or network analysis?

The best digital humanities projects (such as Colored Conventions or Mapping Inequality) hold public outreach as a core objective. Rubrics created to assess those digital projects can be applied to public-outreach writing.

Many teaching-oriented colleges are already doing that. They also have turned to some of the best and most effective practitioners of public outreach — librarians, contingent instructors, museum curators, and other people outside the tenure ranks — to assess this type of faculty work. Research universities can do the same: Instead of relying on professors from "like institutions" to evaluate tenure cases, when someone has produced nontraditional scholarship, universities can find evaluators from among the many academics doing outreach within a certain medium, such as blogging or working in public digital archives.

Academic organizations such as the American Historical Association and the Modern Languages Association have worked hard to formulate new guidelines on assessing digital research, demonstrating in the process that academic scholarship need not be beholden to traditional modes of publication. They might well serve as a guide to how we assess outreach in terms of medium, impact, and collaboration in ways that exemplify the trajectory toward the democratization of information and access.

The pedagogy of outreach. One reason that single-author monographs and journal articles are held as benchmark metrics of "success" at research universities in particular is, well, it has been that way for a long time.

The dissertation format was originally formulated to reflect the strong research ideals of the new German gymnasium envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When universities in the United States began to adopt the European model, they, too, created programs that required a dissertation from Ph.D. candidates. The first U.S. dissertation was a handwritten classical philology study called "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis," submitted to Yale University in 1861. Research was championed over teaching — and a cycle had begun.

Early dissertations reflected the intellectual ideals of that particular age. The needs and requirements of this era of graduate education and research are far different. Today, many institutions are beginning to incorporate outreach training and practice throughout their graduate programs, a practice also adopted by some professional organizations. Making nontraditional projects a part of graduate research — rather than an uncredited "side hustle" — puts front and center the importance of translating research to newer, wider audiences. It also decreases the pressure to produce niche research for for-profit publications largely inaccessible to the public.

Again, the shifts in emphasis underway in graduate education simply reflect the current practice of many two- and four-year institutions already. Think of it as a recalibration, rather than a rejection, of our scholarly mission.

Training graduate students in how to translate their own research for wider consumption will ultimately prepare students for reality, which is: Most faculty job openings are at institutions that value teaching and outreach more heavily than a published book or journal articles. Today only about 27 percent of faculty positions are on the tenure track; the rest are nontenure-track teaching jobs.

Many contingent faculty members will never get credit for the journal articles or books they were trained to publish. Being able to translate academic research for broader audiences and speak to the public about what it is we do within the academy is a valuable skill that will serve them much more faithfully than being able to speak to a small room of academics about the nuances of the subjunctive voice in Virgil’s Aeneid or the historiography of early capitalist development.

It isn’t that those aren’t important topics, but the imperatives and pressures of how we provide public access to them are what’s changing. It is true that the traditional definition of scholarship driven by upper-tier journals and prestigiously imprinted monographs still lingers in the hiring, promotion, and tenure rubrics at the upper echelons of academe. But that is an increasingly small portion of higher education and doesn’t represent the actual context for the overwhelming majority of academic workers.

Change is coming, and indeed has arrived from below, serving to begin to modify the criteria for what "counts" on the curriculum vitae. As we consider what advice we give about what work is appropriate or counts for more, we must remain cognizant of this reality. To not do so is an a priori marginalization of significant portions of both scholarly work and the people doing it.

Sarah Bond is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. Reach her on Twitter @SarahEBond . Kevin Gannon is a professor of history at Grand View University and director of its Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Browse his previous columns here. His Twitter handle is @TheTattooedProf 

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