By In Academia Comments (9)

Performance Evaluations in an Entrepreneurial Work Culture

As summer comes to a close and we get ready to return to the classroom,
I've been thinking more about the different shapes my colleagues'
summers have taken, about how much we've written and how much real
holiday we've taken.  As a philosophy department chair, one of my
responsibilities is chairing the department's annual performance
evaluation committee and each year I'm struck anew by how hard some of
my colleagues work. I feel humbled by how much very high quality work
some colleagues publish.


We rank in all three areas of responsibility–research, teaching, and service–but my comments here are just about research. I don't feel personally hard done by our system. For the most part I accept my lot as a middle of the pack publisher in a very high achieving department. But as I think about the range of performance in the area of publishing, I'm also struck by how entrepreneurial academic workplace culture is. At least in the area of research, post tenure, our jobs are what we make them. Hard working colleagues set the bar for a top grade in research very very high. Many, perhaps most, of the top achieving people have no outside interests. One has been known to say that he regards all music as a distraction, as a waste of time. Some of these colleagues are single and childless. All of them write papers on vacation, if they vacation at all. For those who work in the United States, in any field, this might be considered normal. But outside the US, people take holidays, spend time with their friends and families, and have hobbies and interests outside work. Many private businesses require employees to take holidays and some of those employees have the sort of work that doesn't travel well to the beach. But the flexibility that is a wonderful aspect of a academic life–I can get started on a paper while watching a child's rugby game–is also a downside. Sometimes I feel I ought to get started on that paper while I'm watching a child's rugby game. And it's not just my children's interests that get in the way of writing. I'm also an avid road cyclist and that takes up time too. I wouldn't have it any other way. I lead a rich and active life, full of diverse interests. This also means I'll never get the highest score in the area of research. Mostly that feels okay–if we did "life evaluations" I think I might come out tops–but I do wonder at the cost of our entrepreneurial work culture and if we're well served as a community by standards set by those who choose to write singlemindedly into the night through summer vacations.

9 Responses to Performance Evaluations in an Entrepreneurial Work Culture

  1. John Turri says:

    Very nice post, Samantha.
    Being single, childless, and uninterested in cultural activities will certainly free up lots of time for research and writing. And, other things equal, this will result in greater scholarly productivity and success.
    Yet in some fields, particularly value theory, I wonder if the more rounded and leisurely approach might not promote greater scholarly success, at least in the long run. And I’m not talking about the potential for burnout (though it is there). Instead I mean that, humans being what they are, experiencing first-hand a wider range of activities, values, roles, responsibilities, etc., will tend to promote a greater appreciation for the nuances of value, which in turn will promote more insightful work (though its value might not be appreciated in time for the departmental review).
    And just to be clear — I’m not saying that people need to have children, or go to music festivals, or climb Mt. Everest during their sabbatical, etc., in order to produce insightful work in value theory. Some people might be able to cultivate these insights easily on their own. I know plenty of people who do very good work absent all that.

  2. David Shoemaker says:

    Good stuff, Samantha. I just have a few small comments. First, it can’t be just that the colleagues to which you refer are setting this high standard solely in virtue of working single-mindedly through vacations; it’s got to be as well that they’re good at what they do, that they’re good philosophers with good ideas, etc. That is, presumably productivity alone isn’t what’s rewarded; it’s quality productivity that counts.
    Second, I assume as well that evaluations are done with a formula that includes basic categories like “falls below expectations,” “meets expectations” and “surpasses expectations,” and I assume these colleagues are fitting in to the latter category. If that’s the case, it’s unclear that they’re actually setting the relevant standards (rather than, well, surpassing them).
    Third, I’d think we’re not the only form of work in which single-minded devotion to the form is what yields the greatest success (or perhaps nabs the best work-related rewards). Somewhat jokingly, Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind, but less jokingly, I’m sure the journalists, chefs, and athletes without the well-rounded lives also tend to get the highest “evaluations” too.

  3. Sam says:

    @David. Sure, but we hire well and my colleagues are very bright, successful philosophers. So you’re right that it’s not just working hard. They produce excellent work as well. Our actual system is bit complicated–the joys of working in a unionized environment–but we are evaluated in the context of the department’s publication record. I couldn’t claim, as chair, that most of the philosophers exceed the expectations. Expectations are set by looking at the work produced in the department over a period of years. So the higher achieving colleagues do rise the average and thus what counts as “falling in the middle.” We could collectively slack off and lower the bar! We could behave just like athletes who could all agree not to train and just show up for the Olympics every 4 years. (Not that, again speaking as chair, I’d recommend collective slacking.) We could make a pact to under achieve but of course someone would defect and we’d be off to the races again. And it’s not quite that sort of problem since we all individually benefit from being in a department that’s strong. And of course we’re not alone in having this sort of culture. Many fields have it. I just think we don’t recognize it and talk much about it and given how much we think and talk about other things, it seems worth some attention.
    I didn’t make this post about gender though I think in a culture that lands women with the lion’s share of household work, there are obvious gender implications. I also didn’t make it about having or not having families since some of the most well rounded academics I know don’t have children.

  4. Dale Miller says:

    As long as it is still possible to both meet publishing expectations and have a well-rounded life, matters don’t seem to have gotten out of hand. If the standards were set low enough that academics of typical intellect and energy could surpass them without giving work a high priority over other activities, then couldn’t outright slackers still meet them?
    If one has to be singleminded in order simply to meet expectations, though, then that is a problem. And this may very well be true for some people in academia, especially those on the tenure track.

  5. David Shoemaker says:

    Fair enough, Samantha, and I definitely appreciate the gender implications here (although again, philosophy–and academia generally–are definitely not alone in this). Nevertheless, I wonder if high-productivity researchers are the only “worrisome” bar-setters, then. I would imagine there are some professors who have a single-minded focus on teaching prep, and I suspect they would, as a result, typically get higher teaching evaluations than others. If so, folks who did this would raise the average on the teaching portion of the evaluation, making it harder for those others who “have a life” to keep up.
    I know you deliberately set teaching aside to focus on research. Do you have the same worries about teaching? I suppose here it’s harder to worry about costs, given that surely this sort of focus is very beneficial to lots of students, whereas sometimes I wonder about the benefits of research (other than to the researcher and a few others who’ll read his/her work).

  6. Samantha,
    You’re definitely right that academic life has an entrepreneurial culture, but it’s a kind of interesting cross between an entrepreneurial culture and a tradition work culture. There are minimum standards (tenure, obviously), but beyond that, we enjoy a lot of autonomy to direct our work efforts as we see fit. The only major constraint is our institutional culture. I couldn’t devote half my work efforts to research even if I wanted to, simply because my institution gives me teaching responsibilities that preclude that. But beyond that, I think we have a lot of discretion. Some will want to teach more, others to be world-class researchers, others to serve as department chairs, etc. There are societal reasons to wonder if this is a good idea, but I’ve always thought the fact that you can shape a career to your own interests is one of the genuine benefits of academic life.

  7. Sam says:

    Interesting. The rewards of teaching though seem to max out at a certain point. Once you’re getting near perfect teaching evaluations and winning all the major teaching awards there is a sense that there is no more you can do. There is no such comparable point when it comes to publication. You would always write more and sleep less!

  8. Em Ryall says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I agree with your comments about the ‘flexibility’ of our work combined with the pressures of research and publication. I try to save all my leave for the year up until the summer so that I can dedicate a bulk of time to getting on with some writing; and I still find myself answering student and colleagues emails despite my ‘out-of-office’ being on.
    However, I do try to achieve some balance with other aspects of my life, particularly through sport, but children?… yes, I fear that having any would definitely be detrimental to my work and career.

  9. Sam says:

    And what interests me especially about research is that we, collectively, are responsible for the push. In the case of teaching and service, the demands are external and institutional. We need to run so many committees, teach some largish number of students. But in the case of research we are assessed against what’s usual for our profession. Collectively we determine what that is. Mostly I think we’ve made good choices. We don’t–like some humanities disciplines–require a book for tenure. We don’t publish many, many short co-authored pieces, and while we value some forms of research collaboration, we don’t require it.