Fanning the Flames:
Tenure and Promotion and Other Role-Playing Games

Janice R. Walker

University of South Florida


Recently, many of us interested in online scholarship have argued that online work should be evaluated in the same way as traditional forms of academic scholarship (tc102996.log). However, to look at online work in the same way as we do more traditional (i.e., print) work just does not make sense. Derrida, according to Jay David Bolter in his landmark book, Writing Space, "concluded that a new form of nonlinear writing was possible, and this new writing would entail a new reading of earlier texts" (116). Mikhail Bakhtin said that "Any style is inseparably related to the utterance and to typical forms of utterances; that is, speech genres" (945, 947), and he reminds us that changing to a new speech genre necessarily entails questioning our preconceptions of style (949). I think he would agree that forms of electronic writing are new "speech genres," and, therefore, require new ways of reading and writing and new ways of evaluating. Ultimately, then, we need to redefine "scholarship" in terms that recognize this as a new genre and that, perhaps, value process as much as product.

At the 1996 Computers and Writing Conference in Logan, Utah, Gail Hawisher said that "e-spaces"are often seen as "subverting dominant power structures." However, she continued, the view of e-spaces as "democratizing utopias" is unrealistic; e-spaces can just as easily mirror, or reinscribe, existing dominant power structures. For instance, the MLA Committee's "Evaluating Computer-Related Work in the Modern Languages: Draft Guidelines Prepared by the MLA Committee on Computers and Emerging Technologies in Teaching and Research" has prompted schools such as Seth Katz's to review tenure and promotion guidelines to take into account the online work being done by faculty, but in ways that only recognize online work in existing terms. The MLA guidelines state that

faculty members should be prepared to explain what theory informs their work, why their work is useful to the discipline, and the evidence of rigor and intellectual content in their work.

Further, the guidelines make it clear that "the criteria for evaluating computer-related work will be based on existing criteria and the traditional categories." While this is indeed a step forward -- allowing for recognition for purposes of tenure and promotion of electronic work that can be made to fit existing criteria, albeit in electronic forms -- these guidelines do not adequately address the need to change the criteria in the face of change in our definition of writing itself.

Consequently, we are left with three choices: first, make our electronic work somehow "fit" into existing guidelines and be able to justify it along traditional lines; second, do what we're doing now and not have it count for purposes of tenure and promotion; or, third, change the definitions of what is "valued" to fit what we're doing.

Guidelines such as those proposed by Bradley University attempt to force online work into traditional categories. However, trying to make what we do online fit existing definitions of what is valued for tenure and promotion won't work; we should not simply mirror existing structures in cyberspace. For example, how do we justify publications such as Rhetnet along traditional academic lines? But changing the definitions to include things like "experimentation," real-time conversations, "play," and even "failure" might be far too utopian an ideal to be realistic. As Judy Anderson notes, "You don't go barging into an expensive restaurant and make a huge noisy scene, and you rarely wear your evening dress to Joe's Bar and Grill" (Tuesday Cafe). But "barging in" to an (in)expensive restaurant is just what happened in Selma, Alabama, by a group of people who could no longer tolerate simply "lurking" on the fringes of a community because the very fact that their skin was black negated the possibility that they could ever fit in -- and who didn't necessarily see fitting in as a desirable goal anyway. Is it desirable, then, for us to attempt to "fit" into existing definitions in the academy in order to effect change? Women's studies, Black studies, Marxist studies -- all of these once-"fringe" groups are now accepted members of the academy. But by lending them the perceived credentials of the academy, in many ways we also have defused them. Now, as insiders, members of the community, they can effect change from inside; however, many members of these groups may no longer want to risk making a scene in the "fancy restaurant" of academe, where tenure and promotion committees hold out to them the rewards of "fitting in," of submitting to the power structure and keeping their fancy dress gown of dissension within appropriate bounds. We in computers and composition may be facing this very same dilemma: we want the credentials of the academy, but, at the same time, many of us would like to continue fanning the flames of change by experimenting with new forms of writing and scholarship online.

Tenure itself is under attack by many conservative groups who (rightly) see it as defending controversial and often radical ideas. These groups have been calling for a "back-to-basics" approach to education in which students learn to use computers, yes, but they do not want to grant tenure to professors for "playing" with computers. The purpose of tenure in the academy traditionally is to protect those who express unpopular ideas, and, by definition, then, since tenure protects the expression of what is "unpopular," that is, what the public does not like, tenure itself must be "unpopular" in the eyes of many. What we are doing here in cyberspace is radical -- as unpopular inside the academy as outside it. So we should rightly fall under the very definition of what tenure is designed to protect. But tenure protects conservative ideas just as much as radical ones. Therefore, to get academic credit ("value") for online work, many of us are simply emulating the more traditional off-line work and putting it online.

Since part of my argument is that real change comes from the outside, I am writing this "paper" as a non-paper -- an electronic writing because electronic writing is still outside the purview of what most tenure and promotion committees see as "valuable" scholarship. I want this hypertext to "speak" not only through the text, but also through the links and sound files and wiggling toes and bot scripts and, yes, even through the errors. In other words, I hope my reader will get lost!


J. Walker, 1997.
Last modified 21 February 1997.