Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Local Scrip and Hard Currency: The Academic Life

    I spent last weekend at the major annual conference in my field -- a national, nay international nerdapalooza of the highest order, and one of the major events on my yearly work calendar. Sunday night I caught a red-eye home and went straight from the airport to work. (This means that I have now grown up to be like Clark Kent in the sense that I have changed my clothes at the workplace.) After teaching, prepping, and meeting with students for five hours or so, I had a long department meeting and then a little committee work to take care of. It pretty much defined the split that runs down the middle of the typical professor's career. Between the beginning and end of my teaching day, I had moved from one group of colleagues to another (with no overlap, since like many academics today I am my university's only professor in my field), and at the same time moved between two different sets of ongoing conversations, two different sets of professional demands, and two different sets of professional rewards.

    One of the evergreen questions for academics (and academic bloggers) is how to balance research and writing with service obligations like committee work. The question can only be answered by recognizing that service and research are rewarded very differently. It is not simply that one activity is rewarded more than the other. The rewards are of fundamentally different kinds. In either case, professors are rewarded down the line for their track records instead of immediately for single acts, but the kinds of reward given for a record of strong research are very different than those given for a strong record of university service.

    Successful research is the easiest part of a professor's record to evaluate from the outside. Books, articles, grants, and awards are fairly easy things to point to, and the nature of peer-reviewed scholarship means that professors bring those things to their universities from outside. The faculty member's research abilities are constantly being judged and confirmed by third-party experts: federal grant agencies, editorial boards, academic presses, professional associations, and the outside reviewers who are asked to evaluate a professor's research in tenure or promotion cases. There is a measure of subjectivity in all of this, but it still involves multiple evaluations from independent experts. That gives the deans something that feels solid and reliable when it's time to make personnel decisions. And because your scholarly record and reputation are judged from outside, they are things that you can take to other universities; another dean will see pretty much the same things your dean sees and your scholarship goes with you if you take another job. If you have an NSF grant, you can take it to another school. If you've published a book, anyone can read it. This means that your reputation and track record as a researcher constitute a kind of professional hard currency. It has a value that can be independently confirmed and that stays relatively stable from place to place.

    On the other hand, the labor that professors put in making their departments and universities run better can not be transferred to another employer; all that work you did to reorganize the undergraduate curriculum is only valuable to the school where you did it. Moreover, those efforts are not evaluated or confirmed by any neutral observers, so no one at another college will ever feel as certain about your skills as an organizer or conciliator or departmental advocate as they feel certain about your research productivity. People will say what a great colleague you are, sure, but people at another school would be fools to bank too much on that. They won't really know how you are to work with until they're working with you. Therefore, the reputation and goodwill you build up within your college or university through your efforts to make it run more smoothly is a kind of local scrip, a currency that can only be spent in the place where it was issued; it's like having an account at the company store.

    (Now, the obvious thing that I've been leaving out is teaching, which needs at least one post of its own. Teaching is at once the most important part of a professor's work and the hardest to measure. The best existing measurements can do is suggest whether a teacher is generally succeeding in the classroom or not; you can tell struggling teachers from popular teachers, but not pretty good teachers from very good ones, or the merely unpopular from the genuinely incompetent. This has profound effects on academia works, but for now I'll stick to three points. 1) Everyone is expected to teach well; 2) contrary to popular mythology, teachers who cannot demonstrate competence (wherever their school sets that bar) get denied tenure or blocked from promotion: and 3) teaching excellence by itself can't advance your career. You're in trouble if you can't teach, but to get ahead you need to teach well and show strength in another area.)

    The obvious conclusion that some people draw from the hard currency/local scrip distinction, although it's seldom expressed in the terms I'm using, is that you should amass all the research-based bullion you can and not bother with the local store credit. Weasel out of all the committees and meetings you can so you can spend more time in your lab or study and at high-profile conferences in your field. Certainly, there are plenty of people who have taken that advice to heart. Every faculty member knows them. But it's more complicated, because it's very hard to do your job without at least a little local scrip to spend.

    Local scrip and hard currency buy different things, at different rates. Big things take hard currency, and sometimes lots of it. If you want to get tenure, you need research in the bank. If you want a promotion, or a year of research leave, or a job somewhere else, you need to be publishing. But hard currency won't buy a lot of the little everyday things you need, or will only buy it at a drastic discount and anger the barista who you've just forced to accept your out-of-town check. Want to get a new class approved by the curriculum committee? Need a teaching schedule that works around your child's day care? Hoping to recommend an excellent student for a departmental prize? A little local scrip buys those things much more cheaply than hard currency will, and sometimes to use your hard currency at all you have to be a huge jerk, making demands because you're a star who has this grant and that honor and blah blah blah. You need hard currency to buy the equivalent of a house or a car, and certainly to move to another town, but you need local scrip at the dry cleaner and the corner store. It's hard to get much done without it, and if you move to another town you'll just have to start piling up the new local scrip there.

    I spent last weekend banking all the hard currency I could, which is what national conferences are for. But in the meeting Monday afternoon, that counted for the grand sum of diddly plus squat. How much I had impressed this and that scholar in my field with whatever piece of evidence didn't matter. When I wanted to win a point in discussion, what mattered (beside the persuasiveness of my point itself) was the amount of local scrip I've saved up at my workplace: my reputation for being reasonable, the work I've put in on the department's behalf in various ways, and the degree to which my home-team colleagues have come to trust my professional judgment.

    By the same token, none of those things mattered in the least the day before; the fact that I do a lot of committee work back home doesn't change how other people in my field respond to my scholarship. And how those colleagues from other universities think about my work will eventually matter for me back home. The next time I go up for promotion, my university will ask outside referees about my reputation and the quality of my work.

    I got a semester's research leave, about a year ago, which was especially important because it allowed me to live with my partner (who works elsewhere) for that semester. That took hard currency: evidence that I had been a productive researcher and would use the leave to keep producing. But then I had to ask, at the last minute, to change which semester I would be on leave, because my partner had also gotten a semester's leave and we were now hoping to put together a whole year of full-time close-distance relationship. Making that switch inconvenienced various people and required switching around my teaching assignments pretty thoroughly. But people were very helpful, and my chair cobbled together the best and sanest new schedule he could for me. My chair and the deans were being very reasonable, but it didn't hurt that I'd been saving up my local scrip for a while; it's a lot easier to do favors for people who put effort into making the place run. It's also easier for my chair to accommodate my long-distance partnership, and help me make that manageable, because he trusts me to put in a good amount of service work.

    Hard currency without local scrip makes life much harder. But local scrip without hard currency doesn't get you anywhere. There's only so much of it you can spend, and some things simply aren't for sale in that currency. Local scrip might help you get a piece of lab equipment sooner rather than later, or give you more influence over what books in your field the library orders. But if there's no budget for equipment or library purchases, there isn't. Local scrip might increase your say in which job candidate gets hired during your next search, but if your school doesn't have the money to hire anyone, that's that. Local scrip might help your campaign to become department chair, if that's what you want, but if what you want is an endowed chair as the [Donor's Name] Professor of [Your Discipline], with the salary and perks that brings, it's all about hard currency.

    And, in the final analysis, local scrip only has as much value as the other locals give it. It can be arbitrarily devalued by new leadership. People can decide not to honor it, especially if one of you has been around much longer than the other. And it really never gains interest. You don't have to use it immediately, but you can't save it for long. You always need to be earning more through one service or another, or you won't have much left. Hard currency also loses value if you don't keep at it, but at a much slower rate. A patent is a patent. A book that's out of print stays in university libraries and keeps getting cited. And every once in a while, you might be lucky enough to produce a piece of research that actually gains in value over the years, something that influences the next generation of scholars and continues adding to your reputation. That kind of success isn't everything. It isn't even everything you need to get through Wednesday afternoon at work. But they can't take it away from you.



    A good piece overall, Doc, but I'll argue a bit with this part:

    This has profound effects on academia works, but for now I'll stick to three points. 1) Everyone is expected to teach well; 2) contrary to popular mythology, teachers who cannot demonstrate competence (wherever their school sets that bar) get denied tenure or blocked from promotion: and 3) teaching excellence by itself can't advance your career. You're in trouble if you can't teach, but to get ahead you need to teach well and show strength in another area.

    On one hand, if you allow that schools (or more aptly departments) set the bar for "teaching well" and "competence" differently, then the statement is somewhat meaningless. On the other hand, if you assume some reasonable bar that no department can set their bar beneath, then I'd suggest that you haven't seen the innards of many engineering departments. I realize you're writing from a liberal arts perspective, but it seems you have had some experience from my perspective, since you're mentioning NSF grants. I'm just not sure how much. It's always difficult to convey emotive intent correctly via the internet so please understand that this is a minor nit-pick and overall I found your piece very thought provoking.

    Thanks, VA.

    It is true that different departments have different standards, although I was also thinking about different colleges and especially different types of colleges having different standards. A small liberal-arts college is usually going to set the teaching bar higher than a big research university will, although your mileage will vary from school to school.

    And it's also true that engineers and other hard-scientists often get more leeway with teaching because some of their hard currency comes in the form of actual currency. They bring in big external grants, and schools take a cut of that grant money for "administrative overhead." Humanities types bring in fewer and smaller grants; even biggies like the Guggenheim or an NEH grant generally fund one faculty member's salary for a year, and the school's savings/profit from that will be in the low five figures.

    You're right that this kind of variation makes the existence of standards, if not meaningless, at least useless for someone trying to make a decision about programs. Everyone is applying some kind of standard, but it's almost impossible to see what that standard is from the outside.

    But even STEM faculty do sometimes run into career trouble because their teaching isn't good enough. I know much more about cases in the humanities, but I can say that science/technology/math/engineering professors can be denied tenure, denied promotion, or have tenure difficulties because of their teaching. I just can't tell you who, or where.

    If I'm free to talk about a case, I don't actually have direct knowledge of it, and I'm just gossiping. If I do know something for a fact, I can't discuss it. This is one of the reasons you've never heard of anyone being fired for being a lackluster teacher; no school who's fired someone for that reason is going to give that reason in public. If you want to fire someone because they haven't published anyting since the Clinton Administration, you can admit that, because publications are, by definition, public. No one can say you've hurt your former employee by revealing that they didn't publish a book last year. But if you call your former employee a godawful teacher, you've damaged their future employment prospects, exposed your school to a lawsuit, and made sure that the rest of your faculty don't trust you. Colleges want to get rid of teachers who don't clear the teaching bar, but they have all kinds of reasons not to humiliate them or keep them from getting a job somewhere else.

    (How would someone have direct knowledge of  the reasons someone was denied tenure, threatened with tenure denial, or refused promotion? You could have read the person's confidential personanel file, or participated in the decision to deny. You could have received a job application from someone who was denied somewhere else. And someone who was denied could have confided in you personally. And were I to receive information in any of those ways, it would fall squarely into the "I'm not saying jack about this," category.)

    How would someone have direct knowledge of  the reasons someone was denied tenure, threatened with tenure denial, or refused promotion?

    Fair enough, and although I have some friends who were denied tenure who were quite forthcoming about the reasons (and I trust them), I'll readily admit that it's going to be the rare faculty who admits that the reason s/he didn't get tenure was because his/her teaching sucked. That said, I've seen some extremely good teachers with great research publications and great service contributions (I'm not sure about grant moneys) not get tenure while I've seen poor teachers with excellent research publications and phenomenal grant writing skills get it. On the bright side, the department usually doesn't want them teaching too much, so they can spend more time bringing in grant money (which helps everyone). In one case, I know a professor who wrote a seminal text book (it's still the dominant text book in its subfield of computer science, which says a lot, considering how quickly this subfield changes) not get tenure because he didn't have enough journal articles. Although he had many (and in the best journals), it wasn't enough. That one was the straw that broke the camel's back for me and convinced me I'd never even want to try to join the tenure track race. (Kudos to those that make it and thrive, but I know my limitations.)

    I don't disagree that many poor or mediocre teachers do get tenured. One of the problems is that the bar is good enough teaching, and what counts as good enough might be pretty weak. Certainly, the good teacher with a weaker publication record being denied tenure is the classic tenure-denial story.

    My only objection, and it's a pretty small one, is the folk wisdom that says professors are never refused tenure over teaching issues. I don't know how often it happens, and likely no one else does because it's not public information. But it's not never.

    PS: My "How would someone know" wasn't meant as a challenge. It was meant as a lead-in to an explanation of why I myself can't/won't specify how I know certain things.

    That was exactly how I took it.

    Latest Comments