Conference on College Composition and Communication Logo

Dean #1

Harrison Spenser: Case #5

Characterization of Institution

Research II University

Characterization of Department

M.A. granted in Tech/Prof Comm
M.A. granted in English
B.A. granted in English

How would Harrison Spenser's case turn out in your department?  At your university/college?

Probably the same, department and university. However, it is possible that Spencer would have received a positive vote from the P/T Committee. I'd put the odds at 60/40 no/yes. His publication record of 2 refereed articles and 6 book reviews, with maybe a couple of other articles under initial review, would not be enough for tenure. Good paper record, yes. Also problematic at my institution would be his uneven teaching and why he showed no efforts (encouraged and to some degree monitored by the department) to improve his undergraduate teaching. Apparently it improved enough by 6th year to be competent and that improvement would be noted positively. The research would point toward a negative. Service is great.

There was no mention of external review, which is required at my university. With even slight care, external review would have materially changed this outcome. External review can be very helpful to committees reviewing candidates whose specialties they don't know or understand. The senior composition/computers faculty at other institutions who end up reviewing such cases are usually sensitive to issues that Spencer faced: overload of administrative work, classification of grants as service instead of research, and so on. With luck they would also be candid about his publications and where they stand in the computers 'n' writing firmament, which is good and promising but not fabulous. For a P/T committee, these reviews (3 are required at my university) would give Spencer's work considerable credibility, not only by praise and evaluation but most importantly by placing it in context.

There is also no mention of departmental or institutional standards for scholarship. Like many English departments, they are reluctant to specify what they expect, but they "know it when they see it." Books and articles in refereed publications are the easiest to see in that fog. My college, which includes fields outside the usual arts and sciences, has a definition of research that embraces creative work and professional practice as well as grants, research, the scholarship of teaching, and traditional humanistic scholarship (like the book on medieval rhetoric). That doesn't mean there aren't major holes and misunderstandings, but it's a start. The umbrella standard is "peer reviewed and distributed to appropriate audiences." So I would immediately ask, what is the evidence for the grant proposal being peer reviewed?

My college within the university also explicitly values collaboration, though the definitions are pretty loose. You can't be tenured for demonstrating collaboration unless you also are judged a "very good" teacher, satisfactory in research, and satisfactory in service. Spencer's collaboration would help his case.

My college is very decentralized in P/T decisions, without a college P/T committee (not even in an advisory role to the dean). Thus the departmental decision--committee and chair in agreement--would likely stand all the way to the Provost. That is, AS LONG AS the sequence of annual reviews indicated that Spencer was warned that refereed publication was the standard by which he would be judged for tenure. He was, at least in his 3rd-year review. The Dean might possibly investigate why the tenure case was not unanimous in the committee. In addition to Spencer's own tenure file, the five-year sequence of peer review letters, chair's letters, and annual reviews would be key to establishing if the 6th year tenure review was rational and defensible. On the other hand, let's say my department's committee voted yes 5-2 and the chair recommended no. (That's unlikely because this chair was elected, and probably would go along with the peer committee.) A split vote between the P/T Committee and the chair, especially one with little experience with this candidate and possibly a grudge, would prompt close analysis of the case by the Dean. Barring other factors, the college recommendation would likely support the peer committee. The Provost analyzes carefully using a prescribed format but in recent years has upheld the college's decisions.

What are the Department Chair's responsibilities toward Spencer?  Which did he fulfill?  Fail?

There are two chairs here. The chair who hired Spencer seems typical to me. There was much to do, and he let Spencer take on everything. In that he both offered him the opportunity to develop professionally, and also failed him. The chair of any department is in a unique position to help new tenure-track faculty set professional goals that also fit the department's goals. This chair failed in the first responsibility, mentoring Spencer. I don't mean socializing him into the department, but formulating some sort of professional plan and agreement on goals.  The most obvious omission of many was not formalizing the contribution of the grant for software development to Spencer's research/scholarly effort. That should have been put into writing in specific terms, and if possible making explicit that such work was equivalent to (a certain number of) refereed publications. Spencer funded five faculty for three years. Whether it's software or Shakespeare, that impact is hard to ignore. Spencer should have been given milestones in this effort, too. This is not a one-year effort any more than a book is. If he'd lost the grant, would there have been consequences as far as the department or his P/T was concerned? As it was, he met milestones and devoted much time and energy to its success, including a contract that might lead to patents for the university.

This chair saw the value of the grant in "practical implications." Like many of us trained in English, he didn't know how to convert that into scholarly terms. I'd argue that is not his job, but the faculty's. It's his job to engage the faculty in that task. See the later comments on the P/T committee. Grants also bring collaboration and different relationships into an English department used to solo research, power relationships. See the next paragraph for more on that.

The first chair obviously liked what Spencer did and, typical of chairs, wanted to support the P/T committee as well. He wanted  everything. On a professional level, he failed Spencer by not reining in his own goals for the department or at least spreading them around. Instead he overloaded a junior faculty member without safeguards. He also failed to back up this junior faculty member who was supervising senior faculty on a research project. The chair should have been the one to negotiate with Spencer and Professor N (again, to set up goals if Prof. N could meet them) and then "fire" Professor N when the time came. On a personal level, the chair failed Spencer by not preparing for his own exit with some attention to the professional lives he'd left in limbo. He could have at least written a support letter to the P/T committee clarifying his view of Spencer's many administrative and (apparently) research contributions. The chair was laissez-faire to a fault. Elected, presumably, like the second one.

The subsequent chair did nothing overt for or against Spencer. By going along with the P/T committee's recommendation he covered himself. I think most chairs with one year's experience would do the same, regardless. What would you do about someone's record for five years, all pretty much of a piece in terms of review by the previous chair and the P/T Committee? Not much different from this guy, I'd argue. The slight he'd experienced at the hands of a junior faculty member is a consideration but minor. I don't think much of this guy, but in the circumstances, his actions contributed little. Chairs change all the time.  This one will see the lab and the software development project decline, and at first he'll cheer, and then he'll get depressed because his faculty loved the lab, etc., etc. And they'll hire another techie, having learned nothing.

What are the Personnel Committee's responsibilities toward Spencer?  Which did they fulfill?  Fail?

The P/T Committee Chair was probably at least 2 different people during this time. The committee recommendations seem absolutely typical to me. It has no means of judging the non-traditional work. It may be applying some vague standard in departmental bylaws, plus the collective wisdom and memory of seven senior faculty. I'd argue that there IS wisdom there. They want to see refereed publications, or the equivalent. They want to see new work, new refereed work. Did Spencer show them that? In the words of the car rental ad, Not exactly. So what do you expect? They warned him. They accepted the technology aspect of his work, the online articles. They ignored the grant. They ignored the time required for program development in computers and writing, both the lab and the distance ed. Now, if Spencer's grant had NEH stamped on it, would things have been different? I think so. But don't take that as a slur. Senior literature faculty (we don't know if there were compositionists on the committee, though we hope there were and that they were responsible for the "considerable discussion" of the tenure review) are comfortable with NEH. Let's look a little further, beyond "comfort." NEH awards are national, peer reviewed, and difficult to get. An easy call. What does the committee know about this grant? They could have asked for documentation about the granting process, and should have done so by the 3rd-year review.

In the interim reviews, they also should have made clear one or two goals that would show measurable progress toward tenure. There isn't enough info about the reviews after 3rd year to see if they met their responsibility.

The committee seems unclear in its own mind about the book contract or whether work pre-hire or based on a dissertation counts. The point is really moot, as Spencer seems to be doing everything but that. Still, it should be clear in writing, and ideally, the overall expectations similar from one year to the next.

This committee (and the chair) also ignore the issue of applied research. Apparently the teaching article was fine (online was not an issue). What of a grant that supports 5 faculty for 3 years? If the peer-reviewed grant had been for developing a regional Shakespeare festival, would that count as "distributed to appropriate audiences" and therefore research? Then why not a piece of published software that enhances the university's reputation? Or must all grants lead to traditional or online publications? A second issue, less defensible for tenure but worth airing, is serious administrative responsibility that works toward departmental and university goals. This department needs to meet -- its advisory committee, senior faculty committee of the whole, or maybe just the personnel committee -- and decide some things. If it decides solely for traditional contemplative scholarship, then it should hire people like Spencer only in non-tenure-track positions, or assign administrative responsibilities like these only to tenured faculty. There has to be some consonance between what the department does on a daily basis and expects from tenure-track faculty and what it counts toward promotion and tenure. I also think it needs to consider external review.

What are the responsibilities of the Dean?  Which did she/he fulfill?  Fail?

No Dean's role stated here, but a Dean might ask the following questions:
At hire: Is the British degree equivalent to a terminal degree in the field (PhD)? (Apparently there was no issue with the degree.) Is a 2/2 load customary for research faculty in the department, or was this release time to set up and run the lab? If the former, Spencer took on an administrative overload in lieu of research. If the latter, he took it on to replace a course and would be expected to conduct research as well. As the lab required development well beyond teaching another section of ENGL xxx, was there a set of even informal goals to be met, and if so, what would be the rewards? A Dean might ask the Chair to make that clear to Spencer in the letter of offer or at the first annual review, in writing.

Mid-way: Is the department consistent in its judgments about books based on dissertations? Can it show evidence of that consistency? Does this faculty member know where the department stands on that issue? He is getting mixed messages about its value. In fact, he's getting lots of mixed messages. Is a book required? Or what? What proportion of the department's grant success is solely due to Spencer? Is the department monitoring Spencer's teaching? How? What help have they offered? Has he accepted help and taken opportunities to improve? Why is he pursuing so many activities that are not being mentioned in the P/T committee letters? Are these service? If so, he is taking on too much, and the Dean will mention that. Regardless of their value, if that is not what he will be judged by, why is he doing it?

Deans care about the broad strokes, the categories or classifications that make sense compared to the way other fields are judged: what did this person contribute overall? How can that be characterized? Does the overall profile show someone fully engaged and on track to be productive at a level of, say, at least some national prominence in his field in a few years? Is there a pattern of scholarly/creative activity that shows the clear movement from idea to peer review to publication (dissemination)? Is there some heft and weight in these activities, gravitas, "reach" in dollars, citations by other scholars, regional/national influence? In those terms, in five years Spencer has taught graduate students outstandingly, raised his teaching of undergraduates to competency, developed 2 new courses, developed a very successful computer lab for the English department, given a number of papers at competitive national conferences, published a modest 2 articles in refereed journals, had the roles in a national professional organization expected of a junior faculty member, competed successfully for a major grant that supported 5 faculty with release time for 3 years, led them collaboratively to develop a copyrighted, publishable type of software, developed the department's first distance learning course (and published a referred article on it), and served on a state committee on distance education. A dean will not go against the department's will, as long as the process is clearly documented and the department showed the candidate its expectations. However, in this case a dean might have pointed out that instructional technology and distance education are university goals and that this profile looks like someone in applied psychology/human factors who was recently tenured in the psychology department. (The imaginary psych professor had 4 more articles and no software contract.)

What are Spenser's responsibilities?  Which did he fulfill?  Fail?

What Spencer did right was his administrative work, his service, and his research/grants. He was very successful in most areas and he apparently kept good records, unlike many junior faculty. He was collegial almost to a fault. He wasted no time on unrefereed publications, and he never claimed that course Web pages were publications. He didn't whine, he didn't exaggerate his contributions, he didn't offer excuses for failure (rejections, poor student evaluations, etc.). He showed excellent project management skills. What he did wrong was to accept every challenge, never said no, never asked to have his responsibilities clarified in their role toward tenure, and never enlisted the support of people in his field to clarify his specialty to the P/T committee and chair. That is common enough, unfortunately, and the responsibility is shared--I'm not blaming him. Chairs can be very persuasive. Spencer apparently attended enough to his undergraduate teaching, but relatively late. At my institution faculty would usually be expected to be "very good" teachers by around the third year, so that they can concentrate on research, which (we assume) shows results more slowly.

At hire he should have asked, What are the scholarly expectations? What will a book based on my dissertation contribute? What is the standard for judging publications? Refereed, ranking of journals, book only, book in covers at time of tenure review, etc.? How do I document progress in unpublished work? (A lot of smart people are surprising dumb about keeping objective evidence of their progress.) What about grants? What is the standard for judging grants? (Number submitted, number received, dollar award, etc.) I know that faculty hate to be pinned down on this, but a few conversations can reveal a lot.

I don't think Spencer would have gotten much more out of this faculty or chair, regardless of his own strategies or tactics. Some features of this case are, I hope, passe, but the attitudes and procedures still seem current. He was stuck with running the lab. He also was clearly drawn to technology (both in course creation and software development), so he was developing a new specialty. He was successful at that, but had to take a long, running start that compromised his chances for tenure. The complicity of the chair--well, Spencer was doing what he himself loved, apparently, and took the chair's "blessing" as affirmation.

The best thing he could have done for himself would have been to find a mentor, probably a senior faculty member in composition, or ideally computers and writing, at his own or another college/university. (Sounds like there was no one in the new comp/rhet program that qualified.) Even a little mentoring--a resume review, a few questions by phone once or twice a year -- would probably have helped. The issues are not strictly technology related, but refer more to work that crosses the boundaries of applied/pedagogical/funded, where research overlaps the other two areas of teaching/instructional development and service. I am personally very sympathetic to his case, as I've known some of the same problems. I think he would have been advised 2nd-3rd year to get that book or some articles underway and jettison 1) the curriculum development in medieval rhetoric (though it sounds counterintuitive, curriculum development is majorly time-consuming and he's already got a good graduate course) and 2) the C&W teleconference and MOO. (Sorry, guys.) In the scheme of things, organizing conferences is service to the profession. Definitely positive for the field, but I'd ask if the conference participants had a number of senior scholars able to write great letters for me at tenure time. Young fields have young, enthusiastic, but untenured folks.

The second best thing would have been to ask 2-3 senior faculty from other institutions to review his materials and write a letter, regardless of the department's requirements. Also ask the computer science faculty member on the grant to write. Ask beforehand if these could be included in Spencer's file for the P/T committee, of course.

If he can recover from the blow, and it's a serious one, Spencer will either:

1) get another tenure-track job at a university that will be eager to term him a technology expert, be tenured in two years on the basis of his software, a second major grant (this one from the Department of Education), and an article in Kairos, and in five years become department chair, probably of a hybrid department, but still mainly English. He has the skills to lead. 


2) work in industry for a while (the software company that gave him the contract), then develop a program in new media partnering a two-year college and a graduate-only institute in a major city, where he becomes a dean. Faculty work on contracts and there is no tenure. References to medieval rhetoric pepper Spencer's remarks to the board of trustees and the new media program's advisory board.

What went wrong?  What went right?

See above.

Additional Comments

In this case I see more failure at the level of departmental discussion of standards and procedures--faculty taking responsibility for articulating the basis for the department's actual work, reputation, and future, compared to a scholarly ideal of solo books and articles--than I find personal blame.

Spencer himself is a success story. He worked incredibly hard and learned much, in effect a new specialty that is much more marketable than medieval rhetoric, and apparently more interesting and fulfilling to him. This department failed him, but also gave him room to grow.

A personal opinion: The "outlaw" perspective in technology work and studies is energizing but also leads to our casting ourselves as victims of the evil, backward establishment. It doesn't work. We need to get out of that mode and look at other people (in lit, in senior positions, on P/T committees) as real people with brains. There are often reasons for what they're doing, reasons we can appreciate. I also will argue that technology itself is not so alien that it requires vastly different guidelines for evaluation. Composition directors and writing lab directors already have run interference on many of these issues, as have grant writers whose work doesn't lead to traditional publication. Relating technology work to known categories, where that makes sense, helps everyone understand. There are problems in the system, true, but it's a system of peer review. Like democracy, it ain't perfect, but the alternatives are abysmal.

Document and Site Resources

Share This On:

Page Tools:


Copyright © 1998-2017 National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved in all media.

1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, Illinois 61801-1096 Phone: 217-328-3870 or 877-369-6283

Looking for information? Browse our FAQs, tour our sitemap and store sitemap, or contact NCTE

Read our Privacy Policy Statement and Links Policy. Use of this site signifies your agreement to the Terms of Use

Document Owner

Organization Name

NCTE - The National Council of Teachers Of English

A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts