Friday, 16 August 2013

Does Scholarship Matter?

Lately, I have been thinking about the value and perception of scholarship in academia. Specifically, I have been wondering how scholarship should be assessed in one's own institution and when applying for faculty jobs.

In the humanities, the monograph has typically been viewed as the highest standard of scholarship, and is often required for tenure at many colleges and universities. But this is not always the case, as I have discovered. I know of several liberal arts colleges where faculty members are granted tenure, and sometimes move up the ranks to full professor, without producing much scholarship in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles and books. It seems as though some liberal arts colleges even prefer that its faculty members do not spend much time publishing, believing that such efforts will take away from time and preparation in the classroom. At these institutions, teaching is seen as virtually the sole responsibility for its faculty. I have even heard some stories where accomplished scholars are passed over when applying for a job at a liberal arts college because they have too many publications. The perception is this: if a person has published a lot, that must mean he or she is a bad teacher, or at least does not spend enough time honing their skills as an educator.

At a regional state school where I teach, scholarship and teaching is deemed as important. I estimate that it would be very difficult for a faculty member in the humanities at UTC to secure tenure with very little or no peer-reviewed publications. It would also not bode well for a tenure-track faculty member at UTC to have terrible student evaluations, even if he or she had a solid publishing record. But what certainly seems to be true is that once you are in the system as a tenure-track employee, you have a very good chance of securing tenure, provided that you have proven to be a congenial member of the department, have a reasonably good track record of publications, and at least an average rating as a teacher. Further, once you are in the system, a certain number of publications (especially academic books) almost assuredly leads to promotion as an associate, and, eventually, full professor.

But what about people today who are in the hunt for a permanent faculty position? What must their cv look like to be an attractive candidate? There seems to be no clear answer. The standard response is that you should have a completed PhD, some teaching experience, and some publications. Last year, according to the bloggers on the academic jobs wiki, UTC received 386 applications for an entry-level assistant professorship in the history department. How in the world do you decide who to hire with that kind of applicant pool? Do you hire the person with the most publications, since presumably every viable candidate has a completed PhD and some teaching experience as a ta or instructor of record? Perhaps you should hire the person with the most prestigious PhD, from an Ivy League school. But what if you hire a person with a degree from Harvard or Yale only to realize that he or she is planning on upgrading to a Research University as soon as possible?

I have now published two books with Oxford University Press. The first is a revised version of my PhD dissertation and the second is an edited anthology of religious figures in the eighteenth-century transatlantic world. During the summer, I have been working on a third book, having to do with the transatlantic publishing of Jonathan Edwards's works. I will be identifying the various printers, publishers and intermediaries who helped publish Edwards's works within his lifetime, and after he died in 1758. As someone who is not yet "in the system" as a tenure-track faculty member, I now wonder if three books will hurt my chances if I eventually decide to apply at liberal arts colleges. Will I be seen as concentrating too much of my time on publishing, even if I have taught several courses with good student evaluations? For research universities, I wonder if it makes a difference if a prospective candidate publishes one book, versus two or three. Someone recently told me that a person with two books should really only apply for associate level positions, and not assistant professorships. Is it true that a person with more than one book is somehow perceived as being overqualified for an entry-level, tenure-track position? I hope that is not the case.

The current job market for humanities professors fascinates me because there are seems to be no uniformity. There continues to be people being hired (albeit rarely) as ABD candidates and with little teaching and perhaps no publications. Yet I also know prolific scholars who remain unemployed (True story: I once met an accomplished young scholar at a conference who wrote on his name tag, "Unemployed" without any further information). What's going on here? Why isn't there a uniform system for hiring humanities faculty members so that candidates can know exactly what they must do to find full-time employment?

It seems that the best explanation for these apparent inconsistencies is that candidates are hired based on "fit" within a department. While a person may look good on paper (have impeccable credentials), he or she may not be a good fit within a department if their expertise is the same as another faculty member or if their research and teaching interests are not compatible with the department's objectives. So, for example, if a department needs someone to teach courses on the Reformation, the search committee most likely won't hire an expert on the Church Fathers, especially if a member of the department already is competent in that field. Similarly, it is also unlikely that a religion department at a conservative Methodist college would hire a self-declared Calvinist.

The best advice that I have received is to continue doing what you love--teaching and research--and hope for the best. Since there are no guarantees that quality teaching and solid scholarship will translate into permanent employment in academia (especially in the current job market), the outcome is out of one's hands.

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