Saturday, June 15, 2013

Public Outreach and Tenure Decisions

A recent tenure denial at Georgetown has gotten heaps of attention, in part because the candidate and the coverage seems surprised that appearing in the media did not help the guy get tenure.  While there are a variety of flaws in the piece (Georgetown is hardly a narrow-minded environment where only rational choice and quantitative work are accepted as worthy), I want to focus on the strange belief that media work would be expected to matter that much, arguing that it should not matter that much.  

Perhaps we should not be surprised at such expectations.  My mother thought my media stuff (not quite 600 appearances but over 200, I think) would help me get promoted/hired elsewhere a few years ago.  So, the reporter is not alone.  However, I would expect more from a reporter covering academia.

The reality is that media appearances does fit somewhere in the holy trinity of tenure applications: publishing, teaching and service--into that last category.  While formal rules might suggest some sort of equality, the reality is that at most places service is generally considered to be a minor part of the tenure evaluation.  We don't expect assistant professors to spend that much of their time to contributing to their department, university, community or profession, as developing a publishing record and teaching well takes priority (especially the former).  We expect those who are more senior to carry more of the load.  So, doing heaps of service before tenure is a bonus but not going to tip the case except when things are very, very close.  Doing absolutely no service, shirking all responsibilities, might hurt someone (hence no need for a collegiality clause).  So, doing heaps of media can only help improve one's service standing, which might matter just a bit.

But should media stuff matter more?  As someone who does a fair amount of it (television, radio, op-eds, interviews for newspapers/magazines), I don't think it should matter much.  Why?  Because the dark secret is there may not be much of a connection between media appearances and quality.  One gets contacted by the media because it happens to be that one's issue is hot and one happens to be ... around.  Yep, being around and then being willing to do it is pretty much all it takes.  Now, getting on Colbert as the candidate in question did is pretty special, but says more about luck and connections than about the value of the ideas presented.  Once one does do some media, one does get more and more opportunities because journalists/editors are ... lazy.  Once they have a reliable person who can talk in quick bursts clearly (still working on that) or being able to write in 750 words or less, one that can be reasonably articulate, they go back to the well again and again.  Oh, and one other factor--is the person going to say something that will support the reporter's preferred narrative?  My most embarrassing media experience was one of my first, where I went along with the narrative.  Oy.  Anyhow, media appearances are a matter of luck, opportunity and some willingness.  These are things that should not matter that much in making decisions about lifetime employment.  Yes, getting stuff published in the better journals and presses is partly about luck, it also has to do with the quality of research, the contribution to knowledge.

So, why should academics do media stuff, if not for getting tenure and promotion?  I have an urge to yell: that is what the money is for!  Grant money these days require dissemination.  I do think that we are obligated as scholars who "generate" knowledge to then share it.  But not everyone can or should do it.  Some people have work and expertise that does not relate to the events of the day or week or whatever.  Others are shy or nervous about being subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous editors, and I get that.  When one writes an article or book, one gets last cut, the last edit so that the words are yours.  When one does anything but live tv or radio, the news organization can cut, quote and present in ways that change the message, and that is problematic.  To me, given the controversies over the past few years (NSF funding, for example), it is imperative for some of us to do the media stuff to show that political scientists/scholars of IR can provide some insights, have value for society.  I also do it because I want to correct the misperceptions and misunderstandings out there even though I know that confirmation bias and other forces mean that people may not change their beliefs that much.

In short, do not expect media stuff or other service to carry the day for tenure/promotion. It is about the publications more than anything else (publish or perish is not a myth but a reality), that teaching can matter more or less depending on the place (one should could care about teaching well because it is a defining part of the job), and that service matters only at the very, very margins.  Be a good citizen both because it is right and because being a bad one might hurt, but don't expect it to matter that much for tenure.  You will have plenty of opportunities to do service when one is tenured.


Dan Nexon said...

Terrific post.

Anonymous said...

Being encouraged to concentrate on research in the early phase of one's career also promoted acquiring a sufficient depth of "intellectual capital" (aka actual knowledge and soem perspective on current events) to be a useful media source.

Steve Saideman said...

Indeed. Well said.