I’ve recently had three opportunities to think about ways that scholarly activity is evaluated (and, therefore, valued) within the academy: first, as I compiled my sabbatical report and had to account for a year’s worth of productivity; second, when I was asked to serve as an external reviewer for a full professor-ship at a different university; and, third, during a retreat with the 2015 cohort of the 3M National Teaching Fellows. In all three contexts – as the one being evaluated, as the one doing the evaluation, and as a member of a group of educational leaders reflecting on the mechanisms of assessment in higher education – it struck me that, with some notable exceptions, we are going about the process of promotion, tenure and review ass-backwards.
When it comes to evaluating faculty performance, the one-size-fits-all model we use in many universities – roughly 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service – must be reimagined if Canadian universities are to “support and sustain an innovative, resilient and diverse society” of global learners in the 21st century (to quote a notice for a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant). The current formula for evaluating faculty performance not only fails to incentivize visionary approaches to higher education but also creates barriers to creative and collaborative design.
The scenarios are familiar across institutions: ask colleagues to join a new committee only to be told that if it isn’t a senate committee it “doesn’t count” towards service. Invite colleagues to create new interdisciplinary initiatives only to be told that, until they get promoted to full professor, any free time or energy must be directed to research. Urge colleagues to participate in professional development opportunities related to enhancing student learning only to be told that their efforts are best spent elsewhere.
You certainly cannot blame faculty for the state of affairs: they operate within the parameters established and enforced by their collective agreements. Failing to conform comes with consequences, including stalling at the rank of associate professor and other deterrents, financial or otherwise. The cycle is further reinforced when the individuals responsible for evaluating faculty performance are those who have successfully navigated the system themselves. In order to disrupt this system, we have to change the concrete ways we acknowledge, legitimize and reward scholarly activity.
Creating separate teaching and research streams doesn’t fix the problem: it only reinforces the system. The pervasive assumption is that these three spheres of scholarly activity are compartmentalized and mutually exclusive rather than cross-fertilizing and mutually en-riching. Furthermore, the division inevitably creates hierarchies that privilege research over teaching and service.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for easier pathways to promotion. The bar should be set to exemplary. If we change the way we think about how work is valued within the academy – or at the very least expand the current definitions of what constitutes scholarly activity – we can design assessment tools to encourage individuals to reach their optimal capacities for the greatest impact on diverse communities.
Paradigm shifts happen slowly. By changing each repetition ever so slightly, we can disrupt the “regulatory fiction” of assessment (an approach inspired by Judith Butler’s work on disrupting traditional and limiting gender norms through recitations). With this in mind, I wrote my sabba-tical report strategically: instead of merely listing my peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, I included activities such as public scholarship and community outreach, fellowships and awards for educational leadership, editing and publishing undergraduate research, new course proposals and senate reports, website and social media design, capital campaign fund-raising, non-peer reviewed articles, and a whole range of otherwise invisible activities that might be considered under an expanded definition of scholarly activity.
At institutions of higher learning, we become greater than the sum of our parts when we extend beyond knowledge transfer to knowledge mobilization, reward educational leadership and multidisciplinary collaborations, legitimize forms of scholarly activity such as advocacy and social justice, value scholarly work that extends beyond peer review, and recognize the creation of tools and resources that create change in communities, especially those at risk. In doing so, we fulfill our mandate of supporting and sustaining an innovative, resilient and diverse society.