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Chair, Personnel Committee #2

Harrison Spenser: Case #5

Characterization of Institution

Research II

Characterization of Department

M.A. granted in Professional Communication
M.A. granted in English

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

Spenser certainly would have been tenured at this university.

What are the Department Chair’s responsibilities toward Spencer?  Which did she/he fulfill?  Fail?

Well, I think Harrison Spencer stepped into a trap. Here he is, a run of the mill academic who’s been scraping by with a series of one-night stands, and suddenly he finds himself saddled with responsibilities he has had meager preparation for. That is, he’s a student of medieval rhetoric hired for a new rhetoric and comp program but diverted by his dept chair into a taxing job requiring a combination of administrative and public relations skills. This would have worked out okay had he had more sympathetic overseers and not made the mistake of seeking rapport with the literature teachers by bringing two of them into his project.

This dept sounds like a pretty traditional one with a dept head eager for innovations, a tricky situation for Harrison, and I infer a lack of mutual regard between the comp/technology group and the literature faculty. The literature people have always thought of themselves as writing specialists, too, and they often regard the introduction of computers into freshman English classrooms as a preoccupation with gadgetry resorted to by teachers who deep down have little interest, really, in either reading closely or writing eloquently but who prattle about ‘communication’ and who may–or may not–have social goals in mind (e.g., huddling impressionable freshman together for some covert Gramscian war of positions).  But the fact is that most literature professors should drop their pose of mandarin haughtiness and accept that running through the Harbrace exercises on the comma splice is not the only path to a liberal education. The comp/technology people, on the other hand, should atone for their early arrogance in parading themselves as ‘writing specialists’ (I have been teaching college composition for forty-one years, even winning awards for it, and yet I was told recently that I wasn’t a ‘writing specialist’ because I didn’t belong to CCCC and read College English) by demonstrating that they have a great deal to offer (as they do) and getting on with their work without betraying any defensiveness around the mandarins. Volunteering to teach a sophomore literature course once in a while wouldn’t be a bad idea.

This is not an easy battlefield for a newcomer to prove his mettle on, and Harrison came naked to the fray. He was naïve to hope that he could “engage some of the literature faculty” by bringing them into his software project, where they sucked up resources reprehensibly, enjoyed their release time, and contributed little. Under a just chair, they would have suffered for their selfishness.

The chair bears a lot of blame for Harrison’s tenure defeat; knowing the P&T committee’s undue harassment of Harrison over publications (the committee were probably all literature mandarins devoted to Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University), the chair should have given him some breathing space. Even though Harrison was a dud with undergraduates, he seems to have had a real touch with graduate students, and a discerning chair should have capitalized on that, seeing Harrison as someone who if nursed along properly could play an important role in his vision of a technology-expanded program, both as an administrator and as a tutor/advisor to graduate students.

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

One suspects that the “fledgling rhetoric and composition program” was not really ready for its maiden flight in a conflicted department and that Harrison got caught with a P & T committee still dubious about the new program and not at all sympathetic to online publications.

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

And one wonders where the dean was while Harrison was running this gantlet of slings and arrows.

What are Spencer’s responsibilities?  Which did he fulfill?  Fail?

Harrison seems to have done much good work, only to have been exploited for his “low key affability and willingness to take on what needed to be done.” The two literature professors sabotaged Harrison and left him without the software publication that with any decent collegial support he should have finished early and been credited with. It was all downhill for Harrison from that point on, with his being asked to do more and more while being harassed about research. (Clearly, he should have been given more credit for his book, even though it was complete by the time he accepted his position.) He deserved more recognition for his reviews for Kairos and for his papers for RSA Online and The Journal of Online Instruction, as well as for his presentations; and the contract with Tallman Publishers should have clinched his tenure.

What went wrong?  What went right?

Clearly, Harrison should have been given more credit for his book, even though it was complete by the time he accepted his position.  He deserved more recognition for his reviews for Kairos and for his papers for RSA Online and The Journal of Online Instruction, as well as for his presentations; and the contract with Tallman Publishers should have clinched his tenure.

Addtional Comments

This reviewer has taught over thirty years in a state university, done four years hard time as chair of the university’s largest department, and served on numerous Personnel Committees, often as chair. His department offers master’s degrees in both literature and professional communication (he was the chair who pushed through the latter degree).

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