Tenure as a Risk-Taking Venture

I want to offer some context about my particular experience with tenure and promotion, because George Mason University (GMU) has a new tenure policy that allows candidates to go up for tenure either on the basis of “genuine excellence in research” or “genuine excellence in teaching.” In either situation, the other criteria are also held to a high standard (for example, “genuine excellence in teaching” also demands “highly competent research”).

I went up for tenure on the basis of my teaching — really, the scholarship of teaching and learning, as I have long treated my teaching as an object of study and scholarship, which I should share publicly and which others can contest, build upon, or simply learn from. Among Mason’s other criteria for genuine excellence in teaching is the question of impact. Specifically, the criterion is worded this way: “Evidence of teaching and learning impact beyond the classroom.” This statement is followed by a number of possible examples. But what I want to emphasize is that the form (or platform) by which the impact is made is left intentionally open-ended. Books, articles, blogs, talks, digital projects, teaching portfolios — all of these could count as evidence. The criteria is indeed platform agnostic.

I don’t mean to say that my tenure case was straightforward because GMU had this policy. In fact, I believe I was one of the first professors to approach tenure through this route at George Mason, and certainly within my department. I was a test case, a guinea pig. Therefore, as strong as a candidate as I might have been for “genuine excellence in teaching,” I wanted to make sure all the other aspects of my tenure case were unassailable.

This is where my case gets especially interesting, as much of my research with literature, new media and videogames has taken unconventional forms. To name one example, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 is a book from a university press (MIT Press), which I’m sure made all the people on my committee go Yay! But it’s also collaboratively written with nine other people — and not as individual chapters each written by a separate author as in an edited collection, but as a kind of wikified hive mind in which it’s nearly impossible to say who wrote what, a fact which I’m sure made my campus RPT committee go Wha? Furthermore, its methodological premise rests upon a close reading (Yay!) of a single line of computer code (Wha?). I’m not sure how to generalize from this example in a way that’s useful to others, other than to say if you do do unconventional work, do it with verve and confidence, and work with a good team.

As for the digital work in my research portfolio, it ranged from peer-reviewed essays in electronic journals to playful remixes of other people’s scholarly works to blog posts that I argued (following Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s work) were subject to post-publication peer review. In these examples and the others I could share, the key principle is, again, impact. And what’s important for any candidate is to demonstrate that impact, with evidence.

What counts as evidence of impact deserves a post of its own. For now, I’ll say that everything worked out for me and even turned out better than I had hoped for. I am fortunate to be at an institution that pays more than lipservice to innovation. For example, in my dean’s recommendation for tenure he explicitly mentioned the impact of my blogging, and he noted:

…because Dr. Sample openly engages readers in comments, this constitutes an effective and new form of public intellectual work. For these new types of publications, whose spontaneity is their hallmark, prior review must give way to subsequent analysis, and in this Dr. Sample has excelled.

Even better was my provost’s recommendation for my tenure and promotion. While I had gone up for tenure on the basis of genuine excellence in teaching, the provost recommended (and the president approved) my tenure for both genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research — a welcome recognition of the digital scholarly work I have done and will continue to do.

As I said, I’m fortunate to be at George Mason University. It’s an impressive research institution that is open to new forms of scholarly communication and places a premium on teaching where it counts. That said, I wouldn’t recommend my own particular tenure path to most people yet, unless they like risk. I took a gamble. I pursued what I wanted to pursue, and in a way that made the most sense to me. But it was a gamble. As I wrote in my tenure portfolio, “I have staked much of my scholarly worth in new modes of digital writing, collaboration, and publishing.” It paid off for me, and I hope that by writing publicly here — and elsewhere, in future blog posts — I can help to lower the stakes for the generation of faculty members behind me.


Originally published by Mark Sample on September 29, 2012.


About Mark Sample

Mark Sample teaches and researches contemporary literature and new media in the Department of English at George Mason University. A vocal practitioner and critic of the digital humanities, Professor Sample has contributed to Hacking the Academy (University of Michigan Press) and Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press). He also has a collaboratively written book forthcoming from MIT Press, which combines critical code studies, software studies, and platform studies, as well as more traditional forms of literary and textual scholarship to understand creative computing on the Commodore 64. Professor Sample is a regular contributor to ProfHacker, a feature at the Chronicle for Higher Education that focuses on pedagogy and scholarly productivity. He also writes for Play the Past, a collaboratively edited scholarly blog that explores the intersection of cultural heritage and games.