Rethinking humane indicators of excellence in the humanities and social sciences

Changing Behavior by Changing Incentives

Changing Behavior by Changing Incentives

It’s our last day at Triangle SCI, and I’ve been contemplating overnight the feedback the #HuMetrics team got yesterday afternoon from our colleagues.

In our presentation of what we’ve been doing this week, we attempted to sketch out, using the activity of mentoring, how actions that we wanted to reward (as assessed by what our team member Stacy Konkiel calls a “basket of metrics”) would inspire the behaviors we want to instill to reinforce the values we’ve identified  —  equity, openness, collegiality, quality, and community  —  to create a more humane scholar and academy.

It was gratifying that most of our colleagues in the room did think our five values were spot-on. But the devil is always in the details. Maybe it was our choice of the example of “mentoring,” an activity not well-recognized already as a scholarly activity, that derailed the conversation, which seemed to shift from values we wanted to instill to focus primarily on “we don’t need more evaluation” and “we already reward that work,” neither of which seemed to address the issues we in the HuMetrics group have been looking to tackle this week. Yes, we’re already subjected to evaluation of all kinds. Yes, many colleges and universities have worked hard to balance research, teaching, and service. But what we’re arguing we need to do this quite different.

We are arguing for culture change that rewards unrecognized “silent” labor  —  which is most often undertaken regularly by women and minorities while their white male colleagues focus on (and are abundantly rewarded for) their “research”  —  as well as a culture that levels the playing field for all scholars and all students. Culture change is hard when the status quo is not only reinscribed but reinforced by what is rewarded. In the academy now we have rewards based on the products of scholarship that often not only permit but encourage less than stellar behaviors. (Publish often in recognized venues and we’ll let you be a jerk in department meetings  —  when you show up at all.) We want to argue that there’s much more to scholarship than publishing regularly in high-impact journals. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. But it nevertheless seems to me that the unspoken argument behind much of yesterday’s feedback was that people were fine with our rethinking how we measure scholarship as long as we limited that thinking to that one area  —  publishing  —  alone. Sure, let’s reward peer review, it seemed to me to be the tacit argument, since that’s an important part of the publishing process that goes unrecognized. But mentoring or conference planning? Maybe not so much.

What concerns me is that such a focus on publishing once again merely reinforces the notion of a scholar that privileges her one activity over all her others. As Christopher Long has urged us to consider throughout this week, we need to create an environment where the scholarly life, in all its activities, is not only permitted but nourished and thus becomes a life well lived. How can we get there? We on the HuMetrics team welcome your thoughts.



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