Friday, May 22, 2009

Faculty Review System FAIL?

One of the issues that our AP&T committee is trying to get a handle on is how we can make sure that our criteria reflects the current and changing models of scholarship occurring both within the library profession and the academy.

In Talk About Talking About New Models of Scholarly Communication, Karla Hahn, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communications at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), helps to define scholarly communication. It is:
.. knowledge transmission—even if it is simply passing information from one brain to another through speech, e-mail, submission to a database, the display of an image or video, or through a formal writing and printing process. In contrast, scholarly publishing is a subset of communication activities mediated through the use of a durable medium to fix knowledge
The traditional definition of scholarly communication is the publication of monographs and journals. This has served as a useful model since traditional publication can be clearly distinguished from other communication practices. Our library faculty as a whole conforms to this conventional definition of scholarly communication. Even so, a growing number of our faculty feel that new models of scholarly communication are not only just as valid as the traditional forms, but are critical for real-time knowledge transmission.

The obstacle to pursuing new forms of scholarly communication appears to be a rewards systems that still places a major emphasis on traditional publishing models. Yes, we need to be careful not to rebalance priorities in a way that devalues traditional scholarship. We also need to strike a balance so that alternative forms of scholarly communication - scholarly activities in general - are supported and rewarded as scholarship, but not at the expense of traditional scholarship.

The University of California's Office of Scholarly Communication issued a paper entitled Faculty Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Scholarly Communication. They observed:
The majority’s lack of motivation to alter behavior appears to be connected... to the tradition-bound tenure and review process... the current tenure and promotion system drives them to focus on conventional publishing activities...Assistant Professors show consistently more skepticism about the ability of tenure and promotion processes to keep pace with or foster new forms of scholarly communication.
The groundswell for changes in how scholarly activities are defined and evaluated is growing. The thinking is that scholarly activities must not be judged on traditional review and distribution methods but according to (appropriate) standards for significance, excellence, and impact. The problem is that no one can seem to get an agreement on what those standards should be. At what price?

Boyce D. Watkins, an assistant professor of finance at Syracuse University is reacting to Syracuse's decision to deny him tenure and let him go by saying he had been led to believe that the university's standards for judging faculty publications had changed, putting less emphasis on refereed journals. Watkins points to SU Chancellor Cantor's efforts to encourage more faculty engagement with the public and interpreted Chancellor Cantor's call for "scholarship in action" as giving him the green light to focus on publishing and publicizing his work in the mainstream media.

As a growing number of scholarly activities depart from established academic patterns, review committees simply do not know what to do with them. Since they don't fit neatly into one of the three legs of facultyness - teaching , research, and service - such activities are commonly classified as service. This generic classification is, of course, problematic since all emerging forms of scholarly communication are being dumped into this category and assessed as service, not as scholarship.

When it comes to review time, as Professor Watkins experienced, innovative scholarly activities are not given the weight they deserve. We simply fall back into a practice of classifying activities in one of the three legs, even as those classifications no longer make sense. We then fall back into the thinking about traditional communication models as being the only ones that really have any value.

As UC observes, committees need to begin treating value as intrinsic in the work and its use, rather than predetermined by how it is classified. Review committees need to remove this presumption in the evaluation process in order not to prejudge what they are evaluating. Scholarship other than publication needs to be assigned a greater value. The teaching and service categories need be renovated to make contributions in these categories a potential basis for tenure or promotion.

After all, where will the motivation to become more innovative scholars, to be involved in more interdisciplinary endeavors, or to engage in new activities come from if faculty must conform to rewards systems that reflects a bygone era? (see: Copyright Law) Faculty review cultures and processes which have been perfected for traditional scholarship need to be replaced with structures optimized for digital scholarship.

Are we really trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here? Can we really expect to break out of the existing paradigm of how we define and assess scholarly activities if we limit our thinking to fitting into the existing system?
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