By Julia Cline and Amanda Richey
The Age of Technology has changed academic life in a number of ways. Research is faster, sharing is easier, and information is readily available. Technology is responsible for affecting the ways professors at Furman and around the country publish their work, whether their work is peer-reviewed or published on non-traditional platforms such as blogs and newspapers.
But because tenure status is largely based off published works, technology has created a lot of questions surrounding what should be factored into status decisions, blogs and newspapers included.
Tenure status for professors is primarily decided by the Faculty Status Committee, a committee of Furman full-time professors from multiple disciplines who have been peer nominated to serve on the committee. Currently, the committee looks for a number of qualities in professors who are being reviewed for tenure, including excellence in teaching, commitment to the university by serving on committees and attending department activities, and demonstration of scholarly activities through publications, performances, and conference presentations.
At this point, the key for scholarly publications, in particular, is that they are peer-reviewed and printed in traditionally recognized academic journals. Dr. Diane Vecchio, Chair of the Faculty Status Committee, explained that while blogs and non-peer-reviewed publications certainly round out a candidate, these types of publications do not carry weight in final decisions.
However, some professors are exploring the potential scholarly benefits of publishing in non-traditional outlets. With the constant availability of information over the Internet, professors have unique opportunities to communicate to a different audience than would typically read a traditional academic publication.
Philosophy Professor Aaron Simmons is one such professor at Furman who engages in and encourages such non-traditional scholarship, which he said complements more technical work.
“As a teacher, I want to communicate difficult ideas in accessible ways,” Simmons said.
By occasionally publishing on blogs, Simmons said believes he is able to reach a public audience and make a greater impact in the “marketplace of ideas,” much as he said strives to do more locally in the classroom.
Academics have the “responsibility to speak truth and spread ideas,” Simmons said, arguing that non-traditional online publication outlets can be a significant resource in reaching this goal.
Education Professor Paul Thomas also publishes in non-traditional mediums and said he agrees that these mediums for academic work can be an important part of an educator’s career.
“Even though publication in a peer-reviewed journal gets you a lot of credit [in academic circles], very few people will actually read it,” Thomas said.
This is one of the biggest reasons Thomas gave for why he publishes regularly in op-eds and on his blog, where the audience can include thousands of readers. Thomas argued that this wider potential audience can have more of an impact in spreading information and even in changing policy.
Simmons also pointed out that although he is the author of academic books and peer-reviewed articles, he can often reach more readers and new audiences by posting on a blog rather than engaging exclusively in traditional scholarship written for other specialists.
He also thinks that doing academic scholarship geared toward a broader audience can serve to bring research and teaching together in constructive ways.
While these professors see the benefits of non-traditional mediums for academic work, they have questions about how their work is recognized and acknowledged in certain professional circles.
Despite such important resources and opportunities available in non-traditional publication formats, Simmons said he thinks that such work should only be a piece of the overall scholarly activity.
“It is important for academics to speak to scholarly audiences … but finding ways to make such work available and accessible to a broader audience should also be a priority in one’s academic life,” Simmons said.
Thomas asserted that Furman appreciates exterior publication in newspapers or on blogs because “it gets the Furman name out there” but that such work isn’t necessarily encouraged.
“It is important that faculty make a case for themselves,” Thomas said, about why they choose to publish in more public but less accredited mediums.
But Thomas said he was optimistic that the university is transitioning to a more accepting environment for professors to publish in non-traditional mediums as a complement to publication in peer-reviewed journals.
Many other professors at Furman are engaging in non-traditional scholarship, and that fact seems to leave the university with with crucial questions: how much should such scholarship count toward obtaining tenure? Should scholarship geared toward wider audiences count as much as peer-reviewed publications in academic journals? Should it be judged as a complement to such traditional work as Simmons and Thomas believe? Should professors be seeking incentives to publish outside of the academic circle to spread knowledge and complement other disciplines?
It is likely that universities around the country will need to start addressing these questions and deciding how these types of publications will factor into tenure status. Furman has already been engaging in this discussion for several years through faculty seminars, workshops, and listening sessions.
Simmons argued that, whether or not the criteria for tenure decisions at Furman and across the country radically changes in light of such conversations, these conversation are vital to have as a wide range of academic techniques becomes part of a broader culture.