Monday, October 31, 2005

On Un-Articulated Standards

Here at Wheaton we did a lot of hiring starting about five years ago, so we have several large "classes" of junior faculty who are going to be coming up for tenure soon. Even though Wheaton has a very good record for tenuring faculty (only two denials in the years I have been here, though that's slightly misleading, since a lot of people don't come up for tenure at all if, after a few years, things look bleak--i.e., your research comes to a screeching halt when you come to Wheaton). Due to this "demographic" fact, there is a lot of discussion going on (mostly sub rosa) about standards.

Most of the junior faculty I've spoken to are very frustrated about the lack of formal, articulated standards. 'I want to know exactly what I am supposed to do,' one said. 'Just come out and tell me: "you need one book, two reviews, teaching evaluations in the range of x-y... whatever it is, just tell me."'

The senior faculty, and in particular the department chairs and the tenure committee, are unwilling to do this. When I started at Wheaton and asked about the research standards for tenure, I was told 'Probably about an article per year or a book, but that can vary.' When I pressed, I was told that 'We don't want to set a formal policy, because then if a very good person comes along who for whatever reason doesn't meet those standards, we'd have to deny tenure when we don't want to."

Now I know that this was meant to be comforting: there was wiggle room, the colleague was saying. Don't worry so much. But that's not what I heard. I heard: "There are no fixed standards, so the committee can find an excuse to deny you tenure no matter what your research or teaching accomplishments are."

I think junior faculty are hearing the same thing. Rather than seeing the lack of clearly articulated standards as a safety valve, they interpret this fuzziness as a very real danger to their tenure. But for the junior faculty this open-endedness generates the feeling of always being on a treadmill. At the time of my tenure I had one book published, one under review (I got my contract two days after my tenure), seven articles, a software program, a grammar book, a couple of reviews and the beginnings of a new journal. I still didn't feel that could be certain that I had done enough. I think most of the junior faculty would prefer to be given a set of clearly articulated standards, as difficult as they might be.

But I am pretty certain that the tenure committee would not create any fixed standards and that the faculty as a whole and Wheaton's AAUP chapter would try to strike down such standards if they were articulated. Many faculty would see such standards as the creation of the administration that would put at risk faculty control of the tenure process (at Wheaton we are possibly unique in having no administrative veto within the tenure committe: there are 7 members of the committee, 5 faculty plus the President and Provost. You need five positive votes to get tenure, so theoretically the faculty can over-rule the administrators. Of course the President and the Board of Trustees have ultimate veto power, but that has, as far as I know, never been used).

The trade-off between flexibility and predictability (and fairness) is difficult to judge, but personally I would favor high but articulated standards rather than the current flexible but fuzzy process. I know for a fact that the members of the tenure committee take their jobs very seriously and that the faculty as a whole take very seriously the task of electing a good tenure committee, and the process could not be more thorough. But it is not objective, and not at all predictable (except that I've predicted every tenure case correctly since I've been at Wheaton), the way it would be if there were clear, articulated standards.

Now the process could never be completely objective, because we have no agreed-upon metrics, and to a certain extent I don't want some kind of seemingly objective but actually still fuzzy metrics to be adopted (i.e., each page in a journal from this list counts as 1.5 pages of the journals from this other list; numeric teaching evaluations divided by departmental average divided by ratio of grade-point-average to college mean; service on committee X equals Y number of points, etc.) Such systems are always gamed, and they very often outlive their usefulness (for instance, supposedly due to its being founded only in the 1970's, the journal Anglo-Saxon England isn't on the Dean's approved list of first-tier journals at certain institutions, even though ASE is obviously the flagship journal for Anglo-Saxon studies).

The current process works if people trust the committee and trust the process. But that very trust is eroded by the paranoia (which is in a sense justified, if only because so much is on the line for junior faculty coming up for tenure) that is generated by un-articulated standards. It is difficult situation that has no obvious solution, which is a bitter pill for my junior colleagues to swallow and this very stress-filled time in their lives.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

But then are you really anonymous?
or, a question of propriety

[UPDATE: The consensus seems to be that people do this their anonymous reviewing. I'm still not sure that I am going to, if only because I really don't feel like combing through seven years of email to remind myself what I've reviewed. But maybe I will get a hankering for vita completeness at some point.]

A couple of weeks back there was a lot of discussion about Daniel Drezner's denial of tenure of UofC (my guess is that one factor was probably that he wasn't socially mal-adjusted enough). In reading up on the situation, I came across Drezner's vita (it's linked to the page above in pdf form) and noticed that at the end he lists the journals and presses for which he does anonymous review. I've been wondering about that (obviously not obsessively, just off and on) since then.

I'm sure there are differences field to field, but it seems to me if I say that I review for journals x, y, and z and presses m, n, and o that much of the veil of anonymity is removed. I myself have figured out who my reviewers were for various articles and books (Hint: when you are an anonymous reviewer it is probably a bad idea--and certainly bad form--to criticize someone for not citing one of your articles that hasn't appeared in print yet, and in any event is shows a lack of class to criticize someone for not citing you), and I'm sure people have figured me out occasionally.

I guess the idea would be to illustrate that you are involved in your field and respected by the academic community enough to be called upon to do anonymous review, but it seems to me similar to the same kind of resume-padding that happens when people list the societies they belong to. I guess listing anonymous review duties is a little more important, in that it shows that you're active in the field, but it seems like a bad idea to me. However, if it is standard practice and I'm hurting myself by not doing it, then I will try to dig up references to all the journals and presses I've done work for over the past eight years (what a fun job that will be).

So, do others out there put their anonymous review activities in their vitae?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

All I need now is a nice garret window, a sputtering coal fire, and consumption

I've been out of commission for a few days with horrible, stabbing pain in my ear and jaw. On Monday I was actually sitting in my office grading papers with a hot pack on my head and thought, "Isn't this just pathetic and Victorian?"

Since when do 37-year-old adults get ear infections? I can't even remember having an ear infection as a child. Arghhhhh.

(I'm grateful that neither of my kids got this; better me than them).

Am now getting things under control thanks to geniuses who thought to combine an antibiotic with a ß-lactamase inhibitor. Blogging should return soon.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Problem Worth Solving

Scott Nokes concludes this very worthwhile post by asking:
"How do we [literature faculty] re-connect with the public? How do we encourage quality research over quantity? How do we move from philosophy-lite to depth of thought? How do we re-concieve literary studies to allow a re-naissance?

These are big, important questions and not likely to be answered in one or a few blog posts (though perhaps some kind of open-source process could be attempted). But I have a suggestion for a starting point (keep in mind that my kids were sick all last week, and just as they got over the virus, they gave it to me, so I am both sick and exhausted after chasing them around all day--library, goose-chasing, climbing the 'Whomping Willow," catching butterflies and swordfighting until someone was cracked across the bridge of the nose with an insect net. Also, I have, at last measurement, a 102 fever).

One problem with literary study, at least in the minds of the many scientists and engineers with whom I'm friends (and in one case, married to) is that it seems not to be going anywhere. Physics has a goal: a unified field theory. Biology has a goal: to explain life from molecules up through ecosystems. Chemistry has a goal: to be able to understand the workings of all possible molecules (and figure out what that set is). Even Mathematics has goals, though some of them, such as "really understanding prime numbers and why they are distributed the way they are" makes my head hurt thinking of how you'd go about it. Engineering is almost entirely about measurable goals. But in English, my friends say, you read the same texts over and over again, for hundreds and hundreds of years. And you come up with one theory that replaces another theory that replaces yet another theory. That's good, in that it keeps you and your future grad students employed, but it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

[I'm deliberately leaving out the counter-argument of medievalists who point out that, after a book like Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform, we are moving towards a better understanding of the period. My friends and colleagues are reacting to the interpretive side of English, not the philological or literary-historical.]

Well, I think there are worthy problems that we should be attacking. Some of these have been sloughed off to the dreaded realm of the Linguists: chased out of mainstream literary studies by Babara Hernstein-Smith and Stanley Fish in their jihad against Stylistics (some day I need to write a post about how the establishment rewards people like H-S, Fish and, in medieval studies, Larry Benson, who launch an attack against some new approach that makes the establishment uncomfortable). But others just aren't being dealt with at all.

The biggest, it seems to me, is the philosophical problem of enumerating formal criteria for determining the ‘meanings’ of words or works. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and the host of other contemporary critics who have followed them have argued that there is no way to determine if a particular interpretation is correct (i.e., you can't appeal to the author's intent, you can't get outside the text). And yet criticism proceeds apace. Stanley Fish attempts to solve this conundrum without contradicting the French post-structuralists by arguing that meaning is determined by “interpretive communities,” groups of individuals who are socially and culturally authorized to confer ‘meaning’ upon utterances, interpretations and literary works.

Fish’s argument is deeply unsatisfying because it is merely a kind of anthropology of interpretation. Give him his due: ‘interpretive communities’ with varying memberships and degrees of political power do obviously help constrain or enable various meanings: convince enough Anglo-Saxonists that your interpretation of a text is correct, and that interpretation gets taught to a generation or so of students.

But Fish’s argument does not account for the differing formal characteristics of texts that might serve to limit the flexibility of interpretive communities in conferring meaning. For instance, no matter how powerful an interpretive community might be, it is hard to imagine that community being able to establish the meaning of Beowulf as a discussion of lemurs, elm trees or porridge. The free-floating meaning that Fish accepts is limited not only by the power of the interpretive community, but also by the text itself [I have an essay that discusses this problem in relation to Tolkien in this collection, which should be out any day].

To me, these formal, textual limits (whatever they are) are far more interesting than the fact that interpretive communities can constrain or enable various possible interpretations. And it seems to me that trying to figure these out is the kind of thing that literary scholars can and should do. I also don't know exactly how to go about doing this (so I'm not yet flacking my own work here), but I'd sure like to. If we can steal some terminology from Daniel Dennett: the number of interpretations of Beowulf that can be sustained by the text is Vast, but that number in comparison to the number of interpretations that can't be sustained by the text is Vanishingly small. And yet the great majority of proposed interpretations (i.e., those upon which the interpretive community can act to authorize or rule out of bounds) stay very much within the boundaries of the first space.

My hunch is that any possible solution to the problem will have elements of Wittgenstein in it and might also explain one of my major questions about Borges' "Library of Babel": how would the intelligible books in the library be arranged? I also think that we'll end up talking about replications and inheritances and the connected facts that a) there are infinitely more ways of being dead than being alive and b) all living things are descended from other living things, not from dead things (to translate into literary studies: there are infinitely more un-convincing interpretations than there are convincing interpretations and convincing interpretations probably arise out of previously convincing interpretations) -- but is coming close to flacking my own work, so I'll stop).

This obviously isn't the only problem (or perhaps even the most pressing problem) facing literary studies, but I sure would like someone to solve it. And I think efforts towards understanding the interaction of formal characteristics with "interpretive communities" and their desires would be much more easily communicated to (and taken seriously by) people outside of literary studies.

So, all you hotshot graduate students reading this, hurry up and solve this problem, ok?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Gigging for Binaries

[UPDATE: I composed and posted the next post before I'd read the insightful comments below and a post by Scott at his site. I hope to be able to develop a response tomorrow, depending on how the grading / installing new kitche faucet /re-gasketing woodstove goes]

Comments on this post and also a previous post (and isn't it sad that I can't find it on my own blog?) have argued that although there is much to criticize about literary theory, at least the analysis of binary oppositions is a valuable tool.

[very quick rundown for all of you normal people with real lives who aren't up on the terminology: it's a major trope of post-modern literary theory that logical systems or structures in Western culture (philosophy, Christianity, constitutional democracy, etc.) rely upon the separation of the world into (artificial, according to the theory) binary oppositions, such as light/dark,male/female, white/black, self/other. De-construction is an attempt to force these binary oppositions apart by arguing (well, most of the time asserting) that the first, culturally favored terms are actually reliant upon the second, culturally dis-favored terms. This shown, presumably the logical structure of the "system" is called into question. So, for example, if the 'masculinity' of Christ is emphasized in the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Dream of the Rood" (Christ is an active warrior, not a sacrificial victim in the poem) then the cross itself is 'feminized' (I'm not mocking this particular argument; I think it is one of the best examples of the genre and actually points out something interesting about the poem). ]

I've deconstructed binaries with the best of them, and I can locate an abject, dominated Other with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. But I've begun to question whether the whole process is actually interesting. And my answer is no, no it's not interesting any more. Because all of these binary-opposition-deconstructions always map onto the same system: there's something powerful oppressing something not powerful but nevertheless relying upon it. Patriarchal / matriarchal, center / margin, straight / queer -- the analysis has created the exact kind of universalizing system that Derrida was trying to argue against (not that I care whether or not Derrida would be happy, but it is ironic).

My gut feeling (hey, at least I'm being honest) is that anything that is so easily applied is almost certainly wrong. Well, 'wrong' may be a smidge too harsh: anything so easily applied is likely to be operating at too superficial a level. It reminds me very much of biology back before Wright and Mayr and Dobzhansky: there's lot of hand-waving about the "superiority" of this or that animal in the struggle for survival. Read enough pre-30's biology and natural history (ok, I have weird reading habits for an English Prof.), and you realize that any adaptation of an animal could be (and was) read as some kind of superiority. It's only when you get population genetics and the oscillations of predator/prey relationships and cost-benefit analysis that you escape that very easy dead end and get work like that of Rosemary and Peter Grant, which moves "adaptive superiority" out of tautology by giving very specific, detailed, historical analysis of both individuals and populations. Then the discussion gets even more interesting, with "Panda's thumbs" and "spandrels," etc.

Likewise I think it is all too easy to go out and spear a few binary oppositions and then convince yourself that you've helped to expose the unworkable logic of whatever evil system that you're trying to undermine. The whole process now just makes me uncomfortable: I feel like we're waiting for someone to pop out of the bushes and yell "tautology!!!" (well, that's how we played it where I grew up).

It seems to me that what we have here is a whole lot of people grasping around, desperately trying to find a method, and this is what they've come up with. It's easy, it's self-aggrandizing (you're not just noticing an interesting coincidence in an obscure poem; you're undercutting several thousand years of philosophical domination), and there aren't a lot of competitors now. Marxism did have a method, but it got tangled and endlessly complex and there was always some weirdo who would challenge you on some point of doctrine. I think most English Professors were relieved no longer to have to deal with someone yelling in lecture "You're either a bolshevik or a menshevik, make up your f-ing mind" (quoted from memory from some literary theory book; I think it's Stephen Greenblatt).

Also, gigging for binaries actually isn't that different from some of the methods of New Criticism (the slime-fanged bogeyman of all theory people): New Critics could go on and on about the shifting patterns of light and dark, or the ambiguity (favorite word) and multiplicity of meanings of the A on Hester Prynne's shirt. At some level it's the same process: here are two things that appear antithetical; let me show how they are instead inextricably linked.

You can see how, with the very idea of "method" in disrepute (because it's part of the "hegemonic" half of some massive binary opposition) and thus complex methods not being taught, something simple like gigging for binaries would fill the vacuum.

Now the argument I used back what I was writing my dissertation was that how these things happen ( the center relying upon the margin even as it devalues the margin) is interesting. But I think even considering the quia has become tedious: as soon as I hear or read someone start in on the binary opposition thing I think "I already know how this movie ends" and my eyes glaze over.

I can't put my finger on when it happened, but it just isn't exciting the way it used to be. I think I need to move on. It's not you, binary opposition de-constructors, it's me.