Required Reading

A Review of the MLA Report on Evaluating Scholarship

By now, most of you will have read — or at least read about — the report of the Modern Language Association's Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. If not, you can find it at http://www.mla.org/tenure_promotion. It is well worth reading in full, all 80 pages of it.

From the perspective of scholarly publishers, Part I, "Revising the Meaning of Scholarship," is the most compelling section. Parts II and III deal with the responsibilities of hiring institutions and the mechanics of the tenure review.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the task force's work. After years of debate about the "crisis in scholarly publishing," finally, a thoughtful group of scholars has moved beyond the now-familiar laments about declining sales of monographs, strapped library budgets, and vanishing subsidies for university presses to ask the hard questions: do we really need all those monographs? Are there other, equally valid, ways to evaluate faculty for tenure? Are tenure requirements becoming unrealistic? The fact that one of the largest and most prestigious scholarly societies has framed the questions and offered hard-hitting recommendations is especially welcome. It increases the odds that the academy will pay attention. Bravo to the leaders of the MLA who initiated this project and to the task force members who accomplished it! We scholarly publishers are in your debt.

The central theme of the report is concern about the future of junior faculty and, by implication, the future of the profession. The task force studied the percentage of newly minted PhDs hired into academic jobs; the percentage of those jobs that are tenure track; the requirements for attaining tenure, variations in requirements among different types of institutions, and changes in requirements over time; and the nature of the tenure process itself. Among the most interesting conclusions are the following:

  • Publication requirements for tenure have been increasing over time, especially in colleges and masters degree granting institutions, most of which now emulate PhD granting institutions in requiring a book for tenure. Increasing numbers of institutions require a second book or significant progress toward a second book.
  • Despite these increased expectations and the widespread perception that publishing a monograph is getting harder to do, most junior faculty are meeting the stiffer requirements. The percentage of candidates who attain tenure hasn't diminished over time, although there is a great deal of anxiety that this situation will soon change.
  • BUT—the proportion of faculty in tenure-track positions is shrinking as institutions increase their use of part time and adjunct faculty. The biggest threat to aspiring literary scholars, beyond the generally lackluster job market, is the trend toward hiring non-ladder-rank faculty. Escalating tenure requirements are a major concern, but not—so far—a barrier for those who manage to get into the ring in the first place.

Notwithstanding these conclusions, the task force did not shy away from recommending changes in the current system, even to the point of challenging the accepted definition of "scholarship." The report argues that scholarship should encompass teaching and service to the profession as well as research. "Scholarship in the humanities," the report states, "constellates three activities: research, interpretation, and reflection. Research is not to be equated with scholarship; it is a component of scholarship....Furthermore, scholarship should no be equated with publication, which is, at bottom, a means to make scholarship public, just as teaching, service, and other activities are directed toward different audiences. Publication is not the raison d'etre of scholarship; scholarship should be the raison d'etre of publication." (pp. 23-24) Following from this definition, the report argues for "multiple pathways to tenure." Institutions should establish tenure standards commensurate with their missions and values. The monograph should not be the only route to tenure. (See recommendations 2 and 3, p. 70 and in the executive summary.) The report also recommends that institutions recognize the legitimacy of scholarship published in digital format (including collaborative work) but, thankfully, understands that digital publication is not a solution to the economic challenges of scholarly publishing. (See recommendation 4.)

The report offers a perceptive analysis of dissertations and their role in launching the careers of junior faculty. The primacy of the monograph has ensured that dissertations are viewed as "larval monographs"—the first step in the book-for-tenure process. But the trend toward digital publication of dissertations may make it even more difficult to get that lightly revised dissertation published in book form, thus adding to the pressures faced by beginning faculty members. If the revised dissertation is no longer publishable, will departments require a second, entirely new book-length work for tenure? The Task Force argues instead that the dissertation itself and the graduate curriculum should be reconceived.

There is much more in the Task Force report. Twenty recommendations cover every aspect of the tenure process, in addition to the publication requirements. For publishers, however, the report's compelling message is the need to reconsider the standards for tenure and, in particular, the elevation of the monograph as the so-called gold standard in literary scholarship.

The big question, of course, is—what next? Will this report make a difference? Or will it join the ranks of so many other task force reports, set aside after a brief flurry of attention? Coverage in the press has already sounded a note of skepticism, and rightly so, given that tenure decisions are highly decentralized, and the importance of "standards" and "reputation" in the academic world will make it difficult for any institution to take the first step. But I am optimistic. This report may follow the typical academic task force model in its length and proliferation of recommendations, but do not be fooled by the package. The task force recommends very significant changes and backs them up with serious, thoughtful analysis. With the weight of the MLA behind them, there is hope for action.

The Task Force surveyed 1339 departments in 734 institutions divided among three categories: PhD-granting institutions, masters degree institutions, and four-year colleges. In addition, they interviewed deans, department chairs, and other senior administrators and solicited comments from MLA members.

David Nicholls, MLA Director of Book Publications, will chair a session at the 2007 AAUP Annual Meeting to discuss the Task Force's findings and recommendations. The session will be held Friday, June 15, 10:45 AM to 12 Noon, at the Hilton Minneapolis.

Lynne Withey
Director, University of California Press