On the work of the university: Ken Calhoon reflections on metrics

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies, Beethoven only nine. I have written
none, but I offer these thoughts on metrics. I apologize in advance for
the naiveté, as well as the pathos.

On September 14th, at the beginning of the current academic year,
University Provost and Senior Vice President Jayanth Banavar hosted a
retreat for “academic leaders” in the EMU Ballroom. The highpoint of the
assembly, in my view, was Jayanth’s own (seemingly impromptu)
description of the research of David Wineland, the Nobel Laureate who
recently joined the UO’s Department of Physics as a Knight Professor. In
a manner that suggested that he himself must have been a gifted teacher,
Jayanth provided a vivid and accessible account of Wineland’s signature
accomplishment–speculative work aimed at increasing the computational
speed of computers by “untrapping” atoms, enabling them to exist at more
than one energy level at a time. With a humorous gesture to his own
person, Jayanth ventured that it might be hard to imagine his body being
in two rooms at once, but Wineland had figured out how, in the case of
very small particles, this is possible. My own knowledge of quantum
physics is limited to the few dismissive quips for which Einstein was
notorious, e. g. “God is subtle but not malicious.” In any event,
Wineland’s work was made to sound original and impressive. Equally
impressive was the personable, humane and effective fashion in which
Jayanth, with recourse to imagery and physical self-reference, sought to
convey the essence of his fellow physicist’s work across all the
disciplines represented in the room–and at the University.

I was inspired by the experience of seeing one person so animated by the
work of another. However, my enthusiasm is measured today against the
discouragement and disaffection that I and so many of my colleagues feel
at the University’s current push, without meaningful debate, to
_metricize excellence_–to evaluate our research in terms quite alien to
the values our work embodies. As a department head with a long history
at this institution, I must say that I feel helpless before the task of
breaking our work down into increments and assigning numerical values to
them. It can be done, of course, but the resulting currency would be

Over the course of my thirty-one-year career at the University of
Oregon, I have presided over quite a few tenure and promotion cases and
have been party to many more, both as departmental participant and as a
member, for a two-year stint, of the Dean’s Advisory Committee in the
College of Arts and Sciences. I am also routinely asked to evaluate
faculty for tenure and promotion at other colleges and universities,
where the process is more or less identical to ours. In past years I
have been asked to write for faculty at Cornell, Harvard (twice), Johns
Hopkins (twice), Washington University, University of Chicago,
University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota (twice), Penn State,
and Irvine, among others. I mention this not to boast–god forbid!–but
to emphasize that institutions of the highest standing readily recruit
faculty from the UO to assist in their internal decisions on
professional merit and advancement.

For such decisions at the UO, department heads solicit evaluations from
outside reviewers who are not only experts in the relevant field but are
also _well placed_. They are asked to submit, along with their review,
their own _curriculum vitae_ and a biographical sketch. Reviewers are
instructed to identify the most significant scholarly contributions
which the individual under review has made, and to assess the impact of
those contributions on the discipline. They are also asked to discuss
the “appropriateness” of the publication venues, and also to
“contextualize” their remarks with regard to common practices within the
discipline or sub-field. They are asked to compare, “both qualitatively
and quantitatively,” the work of the individual under review with that
of other scholars in the field at comparable stages in their academic
careers. Finally, the outside reviewers are asked to state whether the
research record under consideration would meet the standards for tenure
and promotion at their home institution. These instructions, which
follow a template provided by Academic Affairs, differ little if at all
from those I have received from other universities.

In response to these requests, we typically receive _narratives_, often
three and four pages in length, in which reviewers–in accordance with
the instructions but also with the conventions of professional
service–not only discuss the candidate’s work in detail but also
_contextualize_ that work in relation, for example, to the evolving
nature of the field, to others working on the same or similar material,
not to mention the human content of that material. (I am usually asked
to review the work of scholars working on the history of German
literature and thought, as well as literary and film theory.) Looking
back over the reports I have authored, I see that they contain phrases
like “body of work,” “breadth of learning,” “intellectual energy,”
“daunting command,” “surprising intervention,” “dazzling insight,”
“staggering productivity,” etc. These formulations are subjective. As
such, they are consistent with the process whereby one mind comes to
grip with another. I am inclined to say that this process is particular
to the humanities, but Jayanth Banavar’s lively and lucid presentation
of David Wineland’s research would prove me wrong. _It conveyed

What distinguishes the humanities from the sciences and many of the
other, empirically oriented fields is that _our_ disciplines are not
consensus-based. We disagree among ourselves, often sharply, on
questions of approach or method, on the validity and importance of the
materials studied, on how arguments or interpretations should be
structured or conceptualized. These disagreements may take place between
departments at different universities, or within a single department.
Disciplines within the humanities are in flux, and we suffer the
additional burden of finding ourselves in a social and cultural world
whose regard for humanistic work is markedly diminished. We often
scramble to re-define our relevance while the ground shifts beneath our
feet. To seek a stable set of ostensibly objective standards for
measuring our work is to misrecognize the very essence of our work.
These same standards risk becoming the instruments of this

In any case, the process of review for tenure and promotion, as
formalized by Academic Affairs and by the more extensive guidelines
which each unit has created, and for which each unit has secured
approval both by its respective college and by Academic Affairs, already
accounts for such factors as the stature of a press or journal, the
rigor with which books and articles are reviewed, the quantity of
publications balanced against their quality, and the impact which the
faculty member’s research has had, or may be expected to have. But why
the need to strip these judgments of their connective tissue? And for

_Curriculum vitae_ – “the course of [one’s] life.” When I was an
undergraduate (at the University of Louisville, no less), I was greatly
influenced by an historian of seventeenth-century Britain, Arthur J.
Slavin. The dean of the college, he had been a friend of the
mathematician Jacob Bronowski, recently deceased at the time, best known
for his PBS series _The Ascent of Man_. One episode of the series begins
with a blind woman carefully running her fingers over the face of an
elderly, gaunt gentleman and speculating as to the hard course of his
life. “The lines of his face could be lines of possible agony,” she
says. The judgment is subjective, but accurate: The man, like Bronowski
a Polish Jew, had survived Auschwitz, the remnants of which provide
Bronowski with a physical backdrop for the dramatic and moving summation
of an episode dedicated to the ramifications of the Principle of
Uncertainty, which had been formulated by Werner Heisenberg just as all
of Europe was about to fall victim to a despotic belief in absolute
certainty. “It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them
into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself….
This is where people were turned into numbers.”

I don’t mean to overdramatize the analogy, or even really to suggest
one. I am more interested in Bronowski’s general statement that “[all]
knowledge, all information between human beings, can only be exchanged
within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in
science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in _any_
form of thought that aspires to dogma.” The dogma we are faced with
today is that of corporate thinking, which is despotic in the sense that
it _mystifies_. We in this country are inclined to think that people who
have amassed great wealth know something we don’t–that they have the
_magic touch_. It is from them and their public advocates that we hear
the constant calls for governments, universities, prisons, hospitals,
museums, utilities, national forests and parks to be run more like
businesses. Why? (And which businesses? IBM? TWA? Pan Am? Bear Stearns?
Enron? Wells Fargo?) Why is the business model the presumed natural
guarantor of good organization? Why not a symphony? an eco-system? a
cooperative? a republic? a _citizenry_? Why is the university not a
model for business? Businesses certainly benefit from the talent we
cultivate and send their way, outfitted with the knowledge, the verbal
agility, the conceptual power that make up our stock in trade.

Our current national political scene presents us with constant images of
promiscuous, self-reproducing wealth. Within this context, which is an
extreme one, it is urgent that we as a collective _make our case_, and
in terms commensurate with our self-understanding as researchers,
thinkers, writers, fine artists, and teachers, not in terms that conform
so transparently to the prevailing model of worker productivity.

Those who maintain that inert numbers are the only means we have for
communicating our value have already been proven wrong by our own
provost. I call upon our president, our provost and our many deans to
bring their considerable talents, their public stature, as well as their
commitment to the University, to bear on our cause. Many of us, I’m
sure, are ready to support you.

With respect and thanks,

Ken Calhoon, Head
Department of Comparative Literature