Monday, November 7, 2011

On Board Games and Tenure

When we lived in Columbus, we were introduced to the wide world of what I'll refer to as non-traditional board games. These games--often but not always European in origin--aren't your typical "roll the dice and move around the board" games like Monopoly and Life. These games frequently involve more strategy than luck and usually have an original twist to the game mechanic that makes them interesting for more than their social value. "Games night" has never been the same for us since.

One of the more unusual games we played was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the academic tenure process called "Survival of the Witless." It took hours to play, and we never successfully completed an entire game. This was partly due to complexity of the game--there were many components to keep of track of--but mainly it was because the objective was so difficult to attain.

I now believe that the impossibility of the game's goal was intentional on the part of the game designers. That goal was tenure, and I think the designers wanted to convey the impression that tenure was impossible to achieve through normal channels. More on that idea later; in the game, players tried to reach tenure status by publishing a book and earning the approval of each of the half-dozen diverse members of the tenure committee. Book publishing was the easier of the two tasks, and was accomplished by drawing a book contract card and a set number of chapter cards from the deck. There were a limited number of contract cards in the deck, though, so in larger games one or more players were unlikely to complete the publishing requirement. Influencing the tenure committee was also determined by card draws, and was tracked on a score board. Six committee members were randomly selected from the committee deck, and each committee member was biased in a different way. Other (non book-related) cards in the draw pile influenced the committee members favorably or unfavorably toward a player. For example, a player might draw the "hereditary academic" card, which meant that from that point in the game, the player represented a tenure candidate who came from a family tradition of university professors. Some committee members were favorably disposed toward hereditary academics and others were not. Other cards caused players to lose favor with all committee members through activities that made already-tenured professors look bad (for example, the "teacher of the year award" card, because no one on the committee wants to be upstaged by a mere associate professor) or to gain favor with one or more committee members (the popular "butt-kissing" card). Favor was tracked on the big score sheet on a scale of 1 to 10 and was constantly in flux, and only when a candidate had an approval rating of 10 with 4 or 5 (I can't remember) members of the committee AND had completed his or her book contract could s/he win the game.

We only played "Witless" twice. The first time I think we quit after about six hours of play. The second time was at a New Year's Eve party, and when it became clear that this game would also drag on interminably, my husband decided to try and win the game the other way. The rules stated that at any time, a player could choose to "go postal" and roll a die in an attempt to kill off, one at a time, the entire committee. If s/he succeeded, new members would be drawn from the deck, and the players would pick up where they were, hopeful that the new committee members would be more favorable. It almost worked. Steve rolled the die and successfully killed off four or five of the committee members. But the new committee wasn't any better, and we decided that we were more interested in popping the cork on the Ukranian red champagne as the new year approached.

In the real world of academia, if there is such a place, tenure is the ultimate goal for most graduate students and junior faculty. Tenure means a guaranteed job, a respected identity in the community, and--the holy grail for most of us--the freedom to teach what you wish, however you wish. It represents an arrival of sorts, because what the committee is saying is that you can now be trusted to teach your subject without having to submit your syllabus for approval and without having to submit to periodic evaluation. And although tenure isn't as impossible to attain as it is in "Witless," the process is lengthy and can sometimes be political.

But tenure is not the normal track for new hires anymore, for two reasons. First, the economic downturn has taken a toll on university budgets. To be sure, many tenured professors' salaries are funded by endowments, thus reducing the cost to the school, but it's more expensive to pay a new hire at associate or assistant professor rates for 10 or 20 years than it is to pay them as adjuncts, contractors who receive a flat fee for each course they teach. Adjuncts have to teach more classes than associate professors in order to earn the same money, and a heavier teaching load cuts into the research time needed to meet the publication requirement for tenure. The second reason for the decline of tenure is a shift in the general population's attitude toward it. In recent years, the concept of tenure--the idea that an institution can't fire a professor if s/he makes politically incorrect or unpopular statements--has come under fire, as a result of several widely-publicized cases of tenured faculty saying outrageous and objectionable things (e.g., the University of Colorado professor who compared the financiers in the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann). The notion of teachers who aren't accountable to anyone doesn't sit well with modern students or the parents who pay their tuition bills, either. A recent edition of "Inside Higher Ed" reported the case of Steven Maranville, who was denied tenure by Utah Valley University for using teaching methods that his students disliked. The case is troubling: the "objectionable" techniques--group projects and Socratic dialogue--had been observed and approved by Dr. Maranville's superiors, who described him as a "master teacher." Only the students, who apparently just wanted to be lectured and left alone, complained. Additionally, the university had all but promised Dr. Maranville, who had already earned tenure at another institution, tenure within a year of his hiring. After being fired by Utah Valley, Dr. Maranville took a considerable pay cut to start at the bottom at a third school.

The Maranville case illustrates perhaps the biggest difference between the way the designers of "Witless" portrayed the tenure process in the late 1990's and the new reality that today's tenure-track faculty face (excepting, of course, the existence of the "go postal" option in the game). In the board game, the receipt of an award for teaching excellence counted against you; in the real world, student evaluations are taken seriously--sometimes too seriously. On one level, the desires of teachers and students are perfectly compatible; students want to take interesting and relevant courses as much as teachers want to teach them. And no teacher enjoys failing a student, no matter how poor the student's work. Good teachers want their students to be engaged in the material and successful in the course. But we also don't to give easy A's. We want to challenge students to wrestle with difficult material, to think and solve problems, and to do their best. Sadly, many of today's college students are used to earning top grades with minimal effort, and they expect their university experience to be no different. They resist instructional methods that are new to them, and they think they know how to teach better than the teacher does. Saddest of all, some university officials and tenure committee members seem to agree with the students, forgetting that a teacher is, by definition, an expert. Dr. Maranville's case is, alas, not the only one of its kind.

I'm not saying that a Ph. D. in a non-education field bestows a professor with the ability to teach well. In my 20-plus years as a student, I've been taught by some obviously brilliant men and women whose lectures were boring, unorganized, and delivered too quickly to take notes from-professors who would probably never win a "teacher of the year" award. So although I note the current trend toward weighting student evaluations heavily in a tenure decision with alarm, I am also not advocating the do-as-poor-a-job-as-possible-in-the-classroom approach found in "Witless." But at the end of the day, teachers, not students, generally know best how to structure a course and guide students through its content and toward its goals, and that reality needs to be upheld by faculty supervisors, whether or not the institution of tenure survives into the next generation of academics.