“…The Cake Looks Nothing Like Its Original Ingredients”: Cooking Up My HuMetricsHSS Project

As a writing teacher, I often use Natalie Goldberg’s analogy of baking a cake to describe the process of writing. Goldberg’s version goes like this:

When you bake a cake, you have ingredients: sugar, flour, butter, baking soda, eggs, milk. You put them in a bowl and mix them up, but this does not make a cake. This makes goop. You have to put them in the oven and add heat or energy to transform it into a cake, and the cake looks nothing like its original ingredients. (Writing Down the Bones, p. 45)

Goldberg’s analogy is useful in all sorts of ways: it helps to think about procedure, environment, temperament, and the variations on a writer’s “key ingredients” — for instance; what kind of flour? Will non-dairy milks substitute? What about flavorings? And at the risk of pushing the analogy too far, I come back to this analogy again at the end of my Community Fellowship for HuMetricsHSS because it describes the outcome of this year-long project and the fits and starts of taste-testing the HuMetricsHSS values-centered framework on my campus this past year: the proposal I started my fellowship project with looks nothing like the final deliverable I created. Even more, Goldberg’s analogy also highlights an important point that I uncovered while making my way through my project of revising faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion guidelines: that is, if the cake looks nothing like the original ingredients, perhaps it is worth asking what ingredients are put into that cake. And if the ingredients are not good for faculty, perhaps it is time to change the recipe.

Too Many Cooks

I originally applied to the HuMetricsHSS Community Fellows Program with the intention of enacting a program to further enable opportunities for tenured faculty from marginalized backgrounds to pursue promotion to Full Professor at my institution. Given the gendered and racialized inequities at the highest ranks of academic personnel and my university’s recent anti-racist commitment to not only recruit but retain marginalized faculty, I thought that my project would be a welcome addition to the range of professional development opportunities available through my university’s faculty development center. However, while the idea was of interest to administrators, the lack of infrastructural support combined with administrators’ hesitance to offer professional development programming specifically for marginalized faculty posed significant challenges to my ability to continue on this project. Moreover, two associate provosts expressed disinterest in a program to help tenured faculty with their scholarly production, noting that faculty “should be doing this work anyway.” In their mind, the support available to faculty was sufficient and adding opportunities that focus on scholarly production would distract from other offerings in our menu of professional development opportunities.

Facing the challenges to university-wide implementation, I took these setbacks to my HuMetricsHSS colleagues, who suggested that I start smaller: why not begin with a division within the College of Arts & Sciences? This suggestion proved to be fortuitous in leading me to conversations with my Dean regarding the project. In our conversation, I shared the HuMetricsHSS White Paper, highlighting the ways that HuMetricsHSS aimed to change the culture of faculty evaluation through valued-enacted systems. To my surprise my Dean asked me instead if I would be interested in leading the revision of our College policy for faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion in the 2022-2023 academic year.

It was through the network of HuMetricsHSS fellows that I found advice on ways to alter my project approach, and in doing so, I found additional support through closer, more “local” offices. In reflection, what this shift in project focus suggests to be is that to enact a values-centered framework, it is critical to attend not only to the values that guide institutional systems, but also to the local exigencies that these institutional value systems create. For me, taking on the task of revising faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion policy was not an immediate consideration because I had not yet tuned into the concerns that our existing policies presented, despite being subject to this policy myself. It is a point worth noting that without a values-based approach to thinking about scholarly work writ large, it is all too easy to simply adopt the ways of thinking about faculty work and life that are inscribed for us in institutional policies. Recognizing this, I was all the more excited to lead the College policy revisions as my HuMetricsHSS project.

A Change to Locally Sourced Ingredients

A central challenge in taking a values-enacted approach to the revision of the faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion policy is that the values inscribed into the current policy have a long history. Indeed, the policy was last updated twenty years ago, and therefore is the policy by which the majority of tenured faculty have been evaluated and successfully promoted. It was not universally clear, then, why the policy required revision. At the same time, faculty recognized that the twenty-year-old policy might not account for a whole range of changes in individual disciplines, most notably in terms of scholarly publishing. To begin policy revisions, I held listening sessions with College faculty. In the social sciences, recent interest in publishing for wider, non-specialist audiences was becoming popular among faculty members. In the humanities, defining scholarly accomplishment beyond the typical single-authored book in a traditional disciplinary press was also of increasing importance. And the relationships between scholarly production and government- or industry-contracted work complicated the definitions of scholarship among faculty in natural sciences. Our faculty in the arts continued to struggle with the institution’s definitions of artistic accomplishment, especially as it pertained to performance-based work. Across all divisions of the College, faculty noted the importance of community-engaged pedagogy and experiential learning — initiatives that received significant institutional support and encouragement — were excluded from existing evaluation measures. In sum, early discussions among faculty across the College suggested that despite their reluctance toward full-on revisions to the tenure and promotion policy, faculty readily agreed that the existing policies did not match the current state of scholarly work in all areas.

Importantly, at the end of these listening sessions, faculty tended to agree that the existing policy was not only misaligned with current scholarly practices, but that it was also incongruent with what faculty members were most concerned about in their work as teachers, as scholars, and as academic citizens. The initial appeal, therefore, of a values-enacted framework for faculty evaluation was that it helped faculty to begin to question why current tenure and promotion policy and practices were still being used. Discussions about the values that faculty ascribe to all areas of their scholarly work allowed faculty members to consider alternatives, to invent possibilities, to be creative in their approach to considering what revisions might look like. Indeed, with policies that change so infrequently, it is an especially exciting prospect to ask faculty what they care about most, what guides their decisions about scholarly work, and how well aligned evaluation policy and procedures are in reflecting their interests.

The process of revising the College policy of faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion was a highly consultative one. It began with listening sessions and continued with ongoing feedback sessions involving a number of invested parties: department chairs and departmental tenure and promotion committees, the dean’s council, the university’s council on diversity and inclusion, the College tenure and promotion committee, and individual faculty groups (including pre-tenure faculty). Feedback included anonymous and identifiable responses, online forms, open forums, departmental meetings, and more. Across these consultations, the values that shaped these policies took shape. These values, then, became the new ingredients upon which the policy was revised:

Inclusive Excellence. Chief among the values that guide the revision of the College policy is the recognition that diversity and inclusion are primary catalysts to transform the university’s culture as well as to ensure its growth and success. Understood this way, inclusive excellence is both a primary rationale for the revision of the College’s evaluation, tenure, and promotion policy as well as a sustaining goal to which faculty work must contribute. In fact, demonstrating one’s contributions to inclusive excellence in teaching, scholarship, leadership, and service became a centerpiece of the policy revision.

Care. The process of faculty evaluation, tenure, and promotion can cause significant emotional and psychological stress. These factors are exacerbated in part by faculty members’ experiences legitimizing their work to evaluators who are unfamiliar with the faculty members’ discipline(s), methodologies, and/or epistemic commitments. Imbuing evaluation policies with a principle of care centralizes the human experience of being evaluated. That is, the evaluation is not only of the results of a person’s work; rather, the individual cannot be separated from the portfolio of work.

Adaptability. A necessary part of revision was to allow for the principle of responsiveness to the varying roles that faculty members may take on over the course of their careers. Adaptability recognizes that faculty’s personal and professional development varies at different stages and therefore the kinds of practices in which faculty might engage will necessarily have differing emphases in their scholarly, pedagogical, and leadership responsibilities.

A New Recipe

Value-aligned approaches to faculty evaluation make sense when faculty begin to realize that an institution’s systems of evaluation, promotion, and tenure are inextricably linked to the people of the institution. Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that we are hired into these systems, they seem immutable, unchanging, and even valid. But tenure and promotion are, after all, what faculty make them to be. Values-aligned systems of evaluation, promotion, and tenure make sense because they more closely reflect not only the priorities that guide scholarly work in all of its forms, but also the energies and expectations for faculty in the roles that our institutional systems create for us. Revising policies for faculty evaluation toward a values-aligned framework may require a new recipe, a change in procedures, and more locally sourced ingredients to reflect the values of faculty who are evaluated and who do the evaluations. They may also require, a la Goldberg, a new kind of energy and heat to allow such policies to fully cook. The result, however, is a transformed way of thinking about faculty life that more closely resembles the ingredients faculty put into their scholarly work. And the resulting satisfaction that faculty feel with this new recipe: that is the proverbial icing on the cake.