Wednesday, December 9, 2009


each year professors are required to submit an annual report detailing how we've spent our time. we list the courses we teach, the students we supervise, the research we've published, the work we have in progress, the service we undertake, supplementary professional activities, honors and awards. it's an electronic form so you don't really know how long it is until you print out the 4 or so pages at the end of june.

once you've done this, your department chair provides a summary assessment.
you report, she evaluates, putting an increment recommendation (0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 or 2.5) next to your file. an increment is worth a certain amount of money, keyed to the salary scale, which in turn is keyed to rank. the chair sends the entire department's assessments "upstairs." in the case of a department like english and film studies, this involves literally moving papers from the third floor to the sixth, but in most cases it's metaphorical.

upstairs in the dean's office, an associate dean reads all the annual reports and summary assessments for a group of departments; in my case, five (about 140 files). i advise the chair if things seem unclear or if i think someone is being undervalued or overvalued. we meet, and chairs talk about the agony they go through weighing an assistant professor's apples against an endowed researcher's oranges.

even at this point, none of this is binding, because the faculty evaluation committee makes the ultimate decision. the faculty evaluation committee, FEC, is comprised of chairs plus an equal number of elected representatives from across the faculty of arts. associate deans have to be there too, but we are non-voting observers slash resource people. FEC reads every file - the binders by this point are unluggable - and arrives at the final decision of how many increments each case merits, in a scarcity context: increments are limited to 120% of the number of faculty members in arts.

that's the process, in a (five-month) nutshell.

people tell you FEC will be exhausting, but you don't really know what it's like until you've been there.
the big confab takes place during the first week of december starting at 8:30 every morning. the multi-day meeting is highly confidential. by friday afternoon, we emerge with an increment recommendation for all 400-some academic staff members.

people who have been through the experience typically say the following about FEC: "it's time-consuming, it's
expensive, it's difficult, and it's exhausting - but it's ultimately worthwhile, because it's fair."

i have been thinking about this all week, as i sit mute and unvoting in the same seat at the same table in the same room, day after day. that it's time-consuming and expensive can't be denied. yes, yes, biennial or triennial evaluations of tenured faculty - great idea (and you should vote for that faculty association any time now). but how is it exhausting? and is it ultimately fair? these are the questions i've been turning over this week.

i find FEC exhausting emotionally. i feel a wide range of hard emotions in sometimes quick succession: fear, rage, frustration, incredulity, envy, irritation, trepidation, resentment. people who've been around a while also find humor - which i admire, but can't get to. i feel that too, my rawness. i am not inured. there are things i don't want to know, things i don't want to witness. i feel uncomfortably complicit and want to be back outside. it reminds me of how i used to feel about doctoral candidacy exams. a PhD exam used to be all i could do in a day, would come home stunned and needing
to have a good cry before heading to bed at 9. i felt for the students, that was part of it, but mostly i cried with dismay at our inability to imagine things differently. what kind of anti-creativity turns an opportunity to engage with student work into a brute instance of institutional humiliation? students never fail, but they never have to, as long as they know they could.

(these days, i take candidacy exams as given: not my favorite part of the job, but a necessary evil. eh, what are you going to do? i register that as a loss.)

as for fairness: well, it depends what you mean by fair. if you mean procedural justice, which most people do, then FEC is absolutely fair: astonishingly so. cases are evaluated, not individuals; it's not personal; the year's work is under review, not your past, not your prospects, not your personality. most of the people in the room have their own files in the mix (chairs' are done by the dean), so there is a weird and radical democracy at work. i understand what colleagues mean by saying it's a fair process.

but if by justice you mean something other than a liberal process based on individualism - distributive justice, perhaps, or restorative justice, even retributive justice (which i am sadly not above); if you want the university to be a place that actively makes the world better; if you yearn for external markers to match your internal sense of what's fair; if you believe meaning is only made in complicated contexts, dissensual communities and vexed histories: if these are the things you value, then you would probably want something other than FEC.

i suppose at the end of the day - at the end of this day - i don't know where to find what's captured in this fragment of poetry, written about the changing light in long june days but relevant to december's dark as well:

because of course we all must try
and do our best to buoy one another
to know remember and hold dear
what it means to work by increments

1 comment:

jen alabiso said...

this made me miss you. because it's so full of you, and that's been missing from my life.

these three most recent posts made me think 2 things:
1) oy. no matter how, no matter why, no matter what - nothing really changes, much does it? *sigh*
2) you DO go to poetry too.

which means I'm as ADHD as they say.