On the Work of the University, from Prof Ken Calhoon

It’s not just Nobel Prize winning economists and the UK Research Councils who think the administration’s research metrics plan is a mistake. Ken Calhoon, head of UO’s Dept of Comparative Literature, provides a less mathematical but no less thorough dissection:

February 27th, 2018

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 counterfeit.

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 excitement.

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 misrecognition.

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 whom?

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,


Kenneth S. Calhoon, Head
Department of Comparative Literature
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-5242
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4 Responses to On the Work of the University, from Prof Ken Calhoon

  1. Dog says:

    “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. ”

    To some extent this can be done by the use of intelligent citation tracing where a contribution can be tied to the emergence of
    other publications – this is can be seen in the waveform of citations (i.e. a graph) where a publication lays relatively dormant for a few years after publication but then gets a strong uptake
    in citations over the next 5-10 years – in other words, the publication is later discovered to be relatively fundamental.

    Well an individual reviewer can accomplish the same thing, that
    reviewer is often biased or narrowly focused.

    In other words:

    smart contextualize metrics can be good

    Instead, we will use the stupid, inert ones.

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  2. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    And in his last 15 years, Beethoven wrote only one symphony. After eight in the previous twelve years. He went four years writing almost nothing at all. Productivity destroyed, deadwood. Pathetic metrics, except nobody had heard of such a thing. Lucky for us.

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    • Dog says:

      and I suspect Beethoven didn’t have to right annual reports.

      In the last 15 years I didn’t write any symphonies, just lots of
      annual reports that I had to fake is if they were symphonies of
      excellence so I could get a token merit raise …

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  3. Dog says:

    One thing I will add to Prof. Calhoon’s remarks:

    I have had limited but positive meetings with the Provost.
    From those I have the distinct impression that he is
    genuinely excited by real intellectual discovery, in most fields,
    and this is very much unlike most UO admins I have dealt with
    that simply want to turn that into PR.

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