Don't Let Scholarship Keep You From Getting Tenure

I have seen a number of excellent teachers get passed over for tenure. The reason? No scholarship.

Colleges and universities vary in their expectations for faculty publications. Some schools require 3-5 peer-reviewed articles every year while others require only 1-2 conference presentations over a six-year period. But the majority of schools have some minimum requirement for faculty scholarship. Still, exceptional college professors submit their tenure portfolios without any evidence of activity in their fields.

I can understand the perspective that says, "I'm the best instructor in my department. There is no way they would reject my tenure application because I didn't publish an article." But departments do exactly this. They aren't happy about it, either. I know because I have chaired many of those decisions. Exemplary teaching and service records, but not a scrap of research or scholarship.

Don't let that happen to you. 

Sermon About the Importance of Scholarship for College Faculty

I enjoy telling others what they should do, but I realize that it is no fun listening to sermons. So I will try to keep this brief. If reading this is too great a strain, then skip to the suggestions below.

Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose teaching style inspired among others Malcolm Knowles (inventor of "andragogy"), wrote much about education. In an essay on university teaching in Science and Philosophy, Whitehead explains that the instructor must be engaged in research so that their students see how the discipline is alive. The lectures are not just empty words and dates and figures, but an ongoing process of discovery. Whitehead also observes how student curiosity helps facilitate this process in the instructor/scholar. Students ask creative questions. Students bring fresh perspective. When doing so with a living and active scholar, the students see how their contributions affect the discipline. The situation is full of hope!

I, too, think scholarship is essential for all college and university faculty. I can think of no better way of getting a finger on the pulse of your discipline. Conducting research in your field, which includes creative writing for a particular literary audience or performing for a musical guild and so on, brings new energy to the classroom.

The process of working on a project, as well as receiving sometimes disappointing criticism from peer reviewers, allows instructor/scholars to sympathize with the plight of their students who are asked to write essays, conduct experiments, and so on for unblinded review.

How to Begin 

Open Up To Multiple Forms of Scholarship

I once interviewed at a school that had a very specific definition of what counted as scholarship: a peer-reviewed publication in which data had been collected and analyzed. That is to say, the school adopted the perspective that only empirical research counted as scholarship. Fair enough. At least they made this expectation clear to prospective candidates. It is little surprise that philosophy departments are now indistinguishable from the neurosciences. 

Unless your school rigidly defines what counts as scholarship, I think it is best to open up to the variety of forms that scholarship takes. It isn't all just double-blind experiments. Ernest Boyer describes four types of scholarship that will work for our purposes:
  1. Scholarship of Teaching: What works inside the classroom? What are important learning objectives? Is there a new teaching strategy that is helpful? What do students think of the new online course platform? And so on. Document what you are doing in your classes, and how that seems to be working. These are practices you are likely already doing. Why not share what you have learned with others so that they don't have to make all of the same mistakes that you made? I have a lecture on this subject.
  2. Scholarship of Discovery: This is the double-blinded experimental ideal.
  3. Scholarship of Integration: Are there any insights from your disciplinary field that have helped you better understand teaching and learning? Maybe a sociological theory about gender helps you understand a classroom process or the use of gendered pronouns. Etc. Integration recognizes disciplinary cross-over. 
  4. Scholarship of Practice: Maybe you do administrative work at your university, such as assessing general education outcomes. Rather than keep the results to yourself, you can publish them for other faculty who are assessing gen ed outcomes. For a while, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published a journal called Peer Review where they shared articles like this.
Graphic from Their descriptions really aren't that helpful.

Determine Which Types of Resources You Enjoy Reading (or Listening to)

A good way to find the best kind of scholarship that would work for you is to find what you already enjoy reading. If you like reading books about teaching, then maybe you can write an article or essay where you summarize how you have integrated all of these materials and applied them in your classroom. 

If you enjoy reading a small but significant area of scholarship in your field of expertise, then maybe you can attend their annual conference and give a presentation where you apply their approach in a creative way. You can even give an interactive presentation where you ask the audience for feedback on an idea you have. Conferences are great for stoking the fire of creativity. Many scholars are also eager to mentor younger or less experienced faculty, particularly when doing so might help support their area of interest.

Set Time Aside to Work or to Think Creatively About Your Discipline or Your Teaching

The amount of time necessary to write an essay or article or even book isn't as long as you might think. Even setting aside one hour every week to work on a creative essay would probably result in around 4-8 essays every year. I actually think it would be possible to write the first draft of a book in one year using that approach, although I am unwilling to test that myself.

Share Your Work

The final step is, of course, sharing what you've done. This is how scholarship works: it has to become public, which is how others can learn from it.

It is my opinion that unpublished scholars are more worried about the review process than is necessary. They look at the essay draft or book draft and think that nobody would ever read it let alone agree to publish it. I get it. I had and sometimes still have those feelings. But once an article or book is published, nobody will know how terrible the first draft looked or how many revisions were necessary.

If you are still too worried about getting a letter that your article or essay was rejected, then apply the psychological principle of paradoxical intention. Give yourself an arbitrary goal of how many rejection slips you can collect. Say 20. In the next year, write five articles without worrying about getting the published. You are only interested in getting them rejected. Submit them to the best journals in your field. When the rejection slip comes, read the feedback thoughtfully and then either revise/resubmit to another journal or simply submit it to another journal. And so on. You will be surprised by the outcome.