Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYAfter well over a year, my application for promotion to Professor finally concluded last week, with the disappointing news that my appeal of President Florizone’s negative decision was unsuccessful.*

I am well aware that compared to the precarity of so many others working in academia, my troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they are troubles, nonetheless, and when you’ve given over 20 years of your life to an institution — a commitment that has had significant and often negative consequences for every aspect of your life, especially your family life — and when you have always brought your best self to the job — then the conditions of that job, the return you get for that commitment, hardly feel trivial. Those of us with tenure, also, have the security to advocate for the academy to become the kind of place we think it should be, which in my case means a more open, flexible, and publicly engaged place. If we don’t use our privilege to instigate change, we are wasting it. That this process ended in failure for me is a personal defeat, but one that I think also says something about the hope I know many of us share that academia will evolve.

I have thought a lot about what I can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) say in this public space about this process. I haven’t been completely silent about it up to this point, but I pretty much kept to generalities while the case was ongoing. I’ve gone into a bit more detail on Twitter since I received the appeal committee’s judgment, but though tweeting is a good way to let off steam and lay out preliminary arguments (and also to be reminded that you have allies), it doesn’t allow much deeper reflection or provide any sense of closure. That is what I need, and that’s why I’m writing this post — that, and because for almost a decade this blog has been a site for reflecting on my academic as well as my reading life.

screamIt is tempting, of course, to use this opportunity to lay out my whole case, to rehearse the ups and downs as my application went through its nine (nine!) stages of review, and to air my specific grievances as well as parade my allies and advocates. Militating against that self-indulgent impulse, though, is the conviction that even if it were professionally appropriate to expose all the parties involved in that way, nobody really wants to read that 10,000 word screed. Besides, I’ve done a lot of relitigating of details in the past 16 months. It will do me more good to pull back a bit, to get out of the weeds and try instead to articulate what seems to have been the fundamental problem, which I now think can be aptly summed up as (to borrow a phrase from Middlemarch) “a total missing of each other’s mental track.” I won’t name names or quote at length from any submissions, and I’ll try to avoid special pleading — though I can hardly be expected to hide which side I’m on! It will help me to write about it in this way, I hope: it will exorcise some of the frustration and bitterness I still feel. And then I will be done with it — publicly, at least — and I will do my best to gather up all the energy that has been dispersed among these professional and psychological hindrances for so long and rededicate it to the ongoing task of becoming the kind of literary critic and semipublic intellectual I aspire to be.

I’ll put the rest below the fold, so that if you come here for something besides academic self-flagellation, or you don’t have much patience for the professional troubles of someone in my position when the world seems to be falling apart (a reasonable attitude!), you can move on more quickly.

A first brief point: there are a number of criteria for tenure and promotion at Dalhousie. The three most important ones are teaching, service (to my discipline, to the profession, and to my university), and scholarship. At no point did anyone conclude that I had not met the necessary standards in any respect except the last — though in some cases the assessments certainly struck me as ungenerous or narrow-minded (different does not necessarily mean lesser!). It was especially disappointing to see my record of excellence in teaching treated so perfunctorily, but it wasn’t really surprising: everybody knows that whatever they say about teaching in their promotional materials, when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion universities care most about research and publication records — and that’s where my application ran into trouble.

anthologyYou might think that this too should not have been surprising. Certainly any academic from Canada or the U.S. looking over my c.v. will quickly recognize that my publishing record is not typical of someone seeking promotion to Professor. Specifically, though the quality of my peer-reviewed academic publications (as measured by the selectivity and prestige of their venues) is pretty high, the quantity, as one reviewer’s letter said, is “slender”; another called it “modest.” Folks in English are particularly likely to notice that there’s no second monograph (for better and for worse, English has long been a book-centered discipline). From this point of view, my c.v. might well look weak.

This understandable reaction, however, reflects tacit norms and expectations that at Dalhousie are contradicted (or so I believed) by regulations explicitly recognizing a wide range of activities as legitimate indicators of scholarly productivity. None of these regulations insist on either the exclusive or the primary importance of peer-reviewed academic publications for tenure or promotion. In fact, some of them — particularly the guidelines recently developed by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — appear explicitly designed to broaden the scope of acceptable ways faculty members can use their expertise for professional credit. On Twitter, I applauded the FASS regulations as “forward-looking,” and I expect many others who work, as I do, in the border territory between academia and the public sphere would agree with that assessment. I would not have applied for promotion in the first place if the policies had not appeared amenable to the range of work I’ve been doing. (Rather than quote at length from any of these regulations, I’ve attached the relevant excerpts here from the university’s Collective Agreement,** from the FASS regulations, and from the English Department’s guidelines. These are all publicly available documents, so if anyone thinks my selections might be tendentious, feel free to look them up and check.)

inconceivable-gifThe difficulty my application ran into is that while these written policies seemed — to me, to the colleagues who first encouraged and then supported my application, and to most of the external reviewers in my field called on to evaluate the file — to embrace diverse options for satisfying the basic standard for promotion (“scholarship [that] represents a significant contribution to his or her discipline or to the University”), at subsequent levels of review the unwritten rules proved to have more force. My conviction that the portfolio of work I submitted fully satisfied both the letter and the spirit of the university’s policies was met over and over again by variations on the argument that it really didn’t, because so much of my recent work is not peer reviewed.

To be sure, some lip service was paid to the value of my public writing and other projects: this work was called “legitimate,” “impressive,” and “ahead of the curve.” One committee went so far as to declare such extra-academic activities “imperative” — but they recommended against my promotion nonetheless (and I will eat my laptop if they ever deny an application with only a conventional record of academic scholarship but no evidence of meeting that so-called “imperative”). However, these gestures of approval were offset by objections founded in assumptions about, as one letter put it, “the standards commonly associated with the rank of a new Professor.” Many specific arguments were made on both sides about the composition and merits of my body of work, but in the end the naysayers always came back to peer review as the decisive factor. Without it, I was told over and over, it was impossible to assess the quality or originality of my publications. (As if blind peer review guarantees either, of course, and as if there aren’t other ways of determining quality … but I vowed to stay out of the weeds!) Someone fairly high up the decision-making chain told me emphatically that I was “just the sort of scholar” he wanted to encourage and support — but he too denied my promotion, on the grounds that “Dalhousie standards stress the importance of peer review.” They don’t, not explicitly (again, you can look and see for yourself) — but against this assertion, the final and inarguable standard invoked was “past practice.” The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.

To me, this certainly felt like a bait and switch operation. (To be honest, I still think that’s a reasonable description: how can you trumpet the importance of innovation and  impact and then, when someone takes you up on it, insist on the primacy of past practice?) A lot of the negative arguments also seemed to be made in bad faith — to justify a particular outcome — or to be hypocritical, or to show simple lack of courage. (I think in particular of the decision maker who, discussing a negative committee recommendation he could have overruled, urged me instead to “just apply again next year” when the committee membership would have changed.) However, although at some points individual players definitely could have turned things around, I am coming to see people’s positions as less about me in particular and more about their fundamental orientation towards the contemporary university. The documents that seem so clear to me turn out to be a kind of Rorschach test: depending on people’s view of the status quo, they perceived the regulations either as signalling a new and welcome direction for the academy, or as just an extension of its usual methods; they saw either a door opening to let in the kinds of work people like me are doing, or a door through which — with the right preconditions — scholars could, if they chose, let some of their conventional work out.

MmarchBookClubThat admittedly rather hair-splitting distinction is the only explanation I have come up with for how someone could look at, say, the FASS regulations, then at my file, and say “they don’t mean what you are doing.”*** Thus, for instance, I was told by one committee that the “normal” process for acceptable non-academic publishing would be to vet each idea first through the usual academic channels of conferences and journals; only once it had secured approval should it be made “accessible” and released to the public — and only under those circumstances could it be considered “scholarly.” To those of us active in the public humanities, that (unsupported) assertion shows a profound misunderstanding of how things work outside the ivory tower, as well as of literary expertise and academic specialization and their value in public discourse. It makes somewhat more sense if you understand “knowledge mobilization” as a hierarchical process through which a passive audience receives wisdom from the experts. As I argued in my February conference paper, I’m not sure that has ever been how critical authority works, and that might explain why the strongest resistance to my application came from people outside my discipline. Not only were faculty in English better equipped to actually read my essays and reviews and evaluate them (thus providing what in some circles is recognized and valued as “post-publication peer review”), but they understand better how our particular kind of expertise is likely to be useful to, valued by, or engaged with by the broader reading public, most of whom are unlikely to be interested in the very specialized arguments eligible for peer-reviewed publication. (It’s not altogether clear how much interest other academics have in these either, but that’s a different problem. Maybe.)

I’m not sure how these different points of view can be reconciled. More explicit policies might help — but which way would they go? I think my case shows how much the result of any attempts to “clarify” existing policies would depend on who was assigned the task of revising them, and then how much resistance they met from people on the other side. Given the evident force of presuppositions about how academic work is supposed to be done — and because policies for a  diverse institution can only get so detailed before they become counter-productively cumbersome and, implicitly, even more restrictive — it also seems likely that conservative pressure, including appeals to past practice, could always shut down people who saw openings (or even very explicit permissions) to work in innovative ways. That peer review was mentioned at all in the existing regulations, for instance, was used in my case as grounds for arguing it was meant to be the most important factor. And it seems pretty clear to me — based on how much translation and explanation I did about the way things work beyond their presumed academic norms — that nothing I could have said would have been enough to convince some people. (I say “presumed” because, ironically, there are plenty of unquestionably academic publications that are not blind peer reviewed, including book chapters, conference papers, and my own monograph, which was pitched and then submitted to an editor, just as most non-academic publications are.)

The truth is that big institutions change slowly, especially when the vast majority of people involved are heavily invested (for both good reasons and bad) in the status quo. The kind of change I thought had already taken place is, I think, taking place, or the written policies would look quite different and my application would not have been even as successful as it was. (For the record, five out of nine stages of review were decided in my favor.) But it is happening more slowly than I’d thought, and in scattered pockets with little collective visibility or influence, and against significant resistance. I was offended at the condescension of assessments that called my application “premature,” but now I think they were right — only not in the way they meant, which was that regardless of how prolific I have been in other ways, I should have waited until my record of conventional scholarly publication equaled what has traditionally been demanded. (In other words, as someone aptly commented on Twitter, apparently they expected me to sustain two writing careers at once.) My conclusion is not that I wasn’t ready for them, but that they weren’t ready for me.

In the meantime, I have been sent a clear signal that if I want professional advancement, I need to commit myself to a program of work I no longer believe has much value. I find this general conclusion — this recommendation to get back in the box — almost more discouraging than the many more specifically reductive, ungenerous, and gratuitously hurtful things I’ve heard about my work over the past 16 months. (Who isn’t more Margaret Oliphant than Virginia Woolf, really?) To me this is just one more sign that far too often in the academy we value the means over the end: apply for grants, go to conferences, publish in pay-walled academic journals — whether or not these are only, or the best, ways to accomplish your goals, or the university’s goals. At Dalhousie, for instance, our “primary objective” is supposed to be “the increase of knowledge and understanding.” This is a noble aim, and it’s one I intend to continue serving, but in my own way, on my own terms. If that means I retire without ever getting another promotion, so be it: an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?

One last thing before I close. Though I have ended up seeing some of my colleagues in a new and often unflattering light, I was fortunate to have some wonderful allies during this long and difficult process. My department chair provided exemplary guidance and rigorous as well as generous advocacy. Two colleagues with no formal obligation to do so took the time to read my whole rather large file, and they contributed brilliant letters of support: I will always cherish these for what I learned from them about my career as well as for their informed and passionate endorsement of a more open and public-minded approach to scholarship. Friends online and off, including my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly and many of my cherished “tweeps,” have also been regular sources of encouragement, as has my family. Thank you all so much: because of you, I never lost faith that whatever other people said, I was doing good work, work that had value, work I could be proud of. Now, it’s time to put this mess behind me and get back to it!

*For those unfamiliar with what this means, I have already passed two major professional hurdles: my tenure review and promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. As is fairly typical, these happened simultaneously, in the 5th year after my initial tenure-track appointment in 1995, so I have held the rank of Associate Professor since 2000. In North American universities promotion is not about filling a specific open position; it is simply a professional step you apply for when you think you have qualified for it. Professor is the next (and last) step in this hierarchy.

**A further complication to my case is that (through no choice of my own–it’s complicated) I am not in the Faculty Association, so while the standards of the Collective Agreement apply to me, the protections do not. I have certainly wondered if my case would have gone differently if I had had the backing of the union.

***One key committee simply ignored the FASS regulations — or at any rate did not cite them (at all). I guess that’s one way to “resolve” the difference between your standards and theirs!

15 thoughts on “Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

  1. Jeffry House November 21, 2016 / 5:41 pm



    • Rohan Maitzen November 21, 2016 / 7:54 pm

      I knew there was a shorter way to put all this! 😉


  2. Stephen Slemon November 22, 2016 / 11:58 am

    The citation index data for peer-reviewed scholarship across the humanities and social sciences suggests that much,and possibly most, of what we write to build up the tenure-and-promotion file never gets read. And then there are scholars like you: out there, visible, writing about literature, writing about the profession, locating and contributing to the debates that matter, bringing readers IN. Outwardness is inalienable to intellectual engagement: it’s how research and teaching get together. Only connect. You do that, and in this case, your university didn’t. So for what it’s worth, one colleague to another in the profession: I read you all the time.


    • Rohan Maitzen November 22, 2016 / 1:48 pm

      I appreciate that very much, Stephen – both your comment here and knowing that you are a regular reader. Thank you.


  3. Stefanie November 22, 2016 / 5:43 pm

    Ah Rohan, I am so sorry! How infuriating and disheartening. but if it helps, your non-academic readers think your work is really awesome 🙂


    • Rohan Maitzen November 22, 2016 / 9:15 pm

      Thank you so much, Stefanie – it does help!


  4. Karen Bourrier November 23, 2016 / 12:27 am

    Thanks for an honest look at where the academy is at right now in terms of valuing (or not valuing) alternative writing and publishing.

    On a personal note, it’s really wonderful to have a senior person in the field be open about the rejection we all face. I think there’s a culture of not talking about the many rejections we face (articles, conferences, not to mention jobs). I try to be pretty open about these in person, because I think it helps to hear that we all deal with it, but I’m not yet brave enough to tweet or blog them!


    • Rohan Maitzen November 23, 2016 / 10:49 am

      It has definitely meant staring down my own anxieties, not to mention my ‘imposter syndrome.’ But I agree that it helps us all to be a bit more open about all this. We lose the painful sense of being uniquely inadequate, and it increases (or should) the self-awareness and accountability of those making decisions about us.


  5. Arlene Young November 23, 2016 / 1:00 am

    Bait and switch, indeed. You are completely correct in your comment that Dalhousie isn’t ready for you–which means that Dalhousie hasn’t yet made it into the 21st century. Your work is outstanding and your contributions to Victorian literature and literary studies in general is forward-looking and vitally important.


    • Rohan Maitzen November 23, 2016 / 10:51 am

      Coming from someone of your experience and expertise, Arlene, that endorsement really means a lot. We don’t all have to do the same kind of work: that has been my refrain throughout. Our contributions can be of different kinds and still be valuable.


      • Arlene Young November 23, 2016 / 3:41 pm

        As Stephen Slemon pointed out, people actually read your work. And your work is impressive, in both its quality and quantity. Your work is always keenly observed, informed, wise, and articulate. Why would you want to be an academic clone? And why would any university want you to be a clone of other academics? Academia is full of them. Your work is more than valuable. You make a vital contribution to intellectual debate, which is surely what we all should be about.


  6. Carolyn Emmert December 1, 2016 / 10:08 pm

    Your work has reached more real people than any academic writing does. You share your expertise with those of us who are vitally interested in literature. What more should you be doing? Please don’t stop. You do what all real academics should be doing–sharing your expertise and enthusiasm with those of us who love books but have not been able to dedicate our working lives to studying them.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 2, 2016 / 10:28 am

      Thanks very much for the encouragement, Carolyn! One argument I made, quite passionately but apparently not successfully, to the appeal committee is that collectively, scholars in literary studies are producing not just enough but more than enough specialized scholarship — so much that even specialists don’t really try to keep up any more. While I absolutely am not calling for an end to that kind of work, what I strongly believe is that the discipline, and our institutions, can and should spare some of us to use our expertise in different ways. What, really, is the value-added of one more (or two more, or three more) refereed articles, in this context? If the specialized project seems urgent, or even just really interesting, to the scholar, of course it should get done and be supported. Over time, this is how new paradigms in our field take shape. But it makes no sense to me to compel scholars to do only specific kinds of work as if the form alone guarantees the value, or the quality.


  7. Janet Brush August 7, 2017 / 9:16 am

    I know it’s almost a year since you wrote this entry, but I’ve just recently started reading your blog. Most of the comments are, I believe, from academics; I am commenting as a student. After taking two courses with you – and about to take a third – I have only admiration for and appreciation of your teaching methods. As for your scholarly writings, I have read only a few articles and reviews. But your enthusiastic embrace of the new media – blogs, on line journals, e-books – is the way of the future and I commend you for that. Unfortunately, Dalhousie has not yet embraced the future.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 7, 2017 / 4:56 pm

      I really appreciate these supportive words from you, Janet.


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