I have been having fun this summer. I'm eight chapters into a textbook I'm writing for one of my favorite classes, "Bible as Literature." There won't be much of a market for the book beyond the captive students who because of an accident in the college schedule find themselves in my class.
In fact, students aren't even a certain market when the teacher of a course wants them to read what he has written. At Snow College a faculty committee must read what I have written before I can require students to read it. It is one way to protect students from teachers who would profit from a captive audience. It is also a way to protect faculty from the embarrassment of poor scholarship.It must be this review by peers that is part of what makes us a profession. If I wish to offer a new course, faculty colleagues must review it. When I am reviewed for promotion, colleagues will visit my classes, review my publications, evaluate my committee work and give me an opportunity to present my case. They will then make a recommendation to the president.
When a tenure decision is made, it is the faculty who make the recommendation. It is like hiring again. After five to seven years, the college gets to decide a second time if it wants to hire a particular professor. With a tenure review comes a more thorough evaluation than can be made when a person is initially hired. The department makes an evaluation; the Advancement and Tenure Committee reviews the recommendation of the department before making a recommendation to the president.
There are some business people who would like the same option, a chance to make the hiring decision a second time.
At some colleges and universities, each new teacher is given a review committee that will contin- ually monitor the progress of the new professor in a very collegial way. It is like having a committee of mentors who both help and evaluate.
It is also the faculty who hire other faculty, and we regard it as the most important decision we make. At Snow College, we will spend almost as much money on a teacher over a long career as we would on a some buildings. Two career faculty members can easily cost a million dollars. Even though the cost is high, it isn't the most important issue. Faculty is what a school is, and quality control when hiring is easier than any other review along the years of a career. In the past there has been a bit of a tug of war between faculty and administration when faculty are hired. Often a president would ask the faculty hiring committee to recommend three to five people in no order of priority. Faculty, prizing their independence a bit, would always recommend three to five people in priority order. What can the president do about the slight insubordination anyway, ask for more recommendations?
The point is that in important personnel decisions, the administration of a college works for the faculty. It is not the usual top-down model of the private sector where the administrator takes responsibility for hiring, firing and training. It is part of what makes college employees professionals.
I welcome the review of my writing by colleagues. They are forthright, honest people, and if I can thicken my skin a bit, the end product will be better. The idea is to not take criticism personally. They are criticizing the writing, not the writer. Of course, there is my personal escape clause. I didn't write it to sell it. I write for fun, like some people collect stamps or garden or ride motorcycles. Of course, one of the problems with this is that my employers know that I don't write for money. When it comes to a contract, I don't negotiate from a position of strength.
The idea of colleagues reviewing my writing is just part of academic life, where peer review extends far beyond even hiring and promoting. When I submit a proposal to a conference, it is reviewed by faculty. When I present at a conference, one of the standard fixtures is a panel whose assignment it is to respond to the paper. When a paper is submitted to what academics call a referred journal, it is first reviewed by a panel of experts, and after it is published the writer can count on responses.
Once after I presented a paper at a conference about teaching remedial writing at college, I received copies of other research, thoughtful letters and an invitation to present the findings at another conference so that others could criticize my work. The research I had done at Snow College suggested that teaching remedial students in standard courses could be just as effective as teaching remedial students in special sections. I was impressed at the time that the response could have been emotional and shrill but instead was academic and constructive. The responses could have read more like the "dear sir you cur" letters on newspaper opinion pages. I was dealing with a very emotional issue.
What happened, however, was that replies and the criticism were thoughtful. Those who challenged the work cited other studies, suggested research flaws in my study and referred me to other articles. I got the feeling that those most critical of the research were still on my side. They wanted answers to important research questions as much as I did, and my flawed work, for them, was a step in the right direction.
The system of peer review isn't perfect but there may be something we can learn from it in the present political climate.
We seem very quick to indict people rather than ideas. We forget sometimes that even "bad," or at least flawed, people can still have good ideas.
As for the book I'm writing, I hope before it is published that colleagues from other schools will be gracious enough to read it like I have read pre-publication manuscripts for others.
Their critical comments on my ideas will make for a captive audience at Snow College that just might be a little captivated. They will at least know that what they are reading has enjoyed the scrutiny of others who have no vested interest other than a desire to encourage good scholarship.