Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Dreaded Annual Report

One of the great chores of the year is writing an annual report. What makes this necessary at Zenith is that hideous phrase: “merit pay.” I will get back to the concept of merit pay in another post, but let’s begin with the task at hand, since when I am not grading or watching "The Tudors" or handicapping the Kentucky Derby, I am dreading the moment when I must write the Annual Report. The only thing worse is being a chair or a dean and having to not just write a report, but read everyone else's.

Writing an annual report begins with the notion that you can actually remember what you did in the previous academic year, and why it was important. This is an art in and of itself, and the only reason I am half good at it (since I have a horrible memory) is that my father, years ago, possibly when I was a teenager, impressed upon me the importance of updating one’s curriculum vita regularly. Therefore, when I do something, or when there is a change in the status of something I have written, as it floats from desk to desk out there, I try to go back into my vita and alter that entry, noting the date on which said change occurred. This means that theoretically I can go back and track my scholarship and committee assignments simply by looking at the dates and noting down everything that occurred after July 1 of the previous academic year.

Are we done? Not so fast. How about teaching? Well, should I have taught a new course (which I did this spring), it would be noted in the report, with special emphasis if my efforts responded to a curricular need articulated by someone else -- an outside review committee, a program, or (ahem) the chair or the dean. Teaching the same old course, even in a revised form, isn’t necessarily so meritorious, in my view. How about number of students taught and advised? Well, that is tricky. I have never noticed that the extraordinary number of students I have taught and advised in the past has moved Zenith to give me a bigger raise, although I did once get a teaching award that came with a nice check. In fact, past salary letters have tended not to mention teaching and advising except in passing, and there is a real reluctance at all levels to discuss the fact that some of us teach a great deal more than others of us. So then you have to say to yourself, Will emphasizing my teaching cause people to take me *less* seriously as a scholar? I know this is hard cheese, but my answer is, under most institutional circumstances, yes. So I make sure that, while my teaching is fairly represented, that this section isn’t any longer than the scholarship section.

But don’t puff up the scholarship section with your aspirations. One thing I am absolutely clear about is that going on and on about works in progress is not worth the time, and projecting when articles and books will be finished, while important to you, is something that anyone in authority will take with a grain of salt. Yes, you should count up your research trips, describe them briefly, and say what they have contributed to ongoing projects, in part because reassuring both your chair and your dean that you are using your research money to good purpose is probably the least you can do to ensure a healthy research budget in the interim years before the next book comes out. But anything that has not left your house (book proposals, drafts of manuscripts, conference proposals) – and worse – anything that has not even been begun, should not be part of the report. It looks – well, desperate, in a way. All of us, if we are being honest, know how many slips there are between a great idea and actually sitting down to do the research and write a draft that can be sent to readers.

So here are some Do’s and Do not’s, drawn from my experience as a chair: other chairs, former chairs, and administrators should feel free to add their own in the comments section for our greater edification, particularly when my advice is less applicable to institutions different from Zenith. Or wrong.

DO say what your class enrollments were, particularly if you over enrolled and there is a great demand in your field. There is no point in hiding it if you are working very hard in the classroom and, particularly if you are not yet tenured, alerting your chair to how popular (or overextended) you are is not entirely wasted.

DO NOT expect anyone to reward you for this. My experience is that over enrolling is something that younger teachers (or faculty who see teaching as a political commitment) do because it is flattering to be appreciated, because it is work that has immediate payback and because sending students away is an emotionally difficult task that people only learn to do more easily as they age and as they are allowed, post-tenure, to deploy their energies in a more self-conscious and self-protective way. Over time, particularly post-tenure, it is not unlikely that you will come to be regarded as a masochist (and not sufficiently scholarly) for over enrolling. You will not be seen as you see yourself: as someone who is taking one for the team and putting your students first. Most of all, in your annual report – DO NOT compare your teaching load to those of other colleagues who seem to be teaching less. Even if you are right to be aggrieved, this isn't the way to address it.

DO note down every single piece of committee work you did.

DO NOT overemphasize the importance of committees that met once or twice, that did not require any kind of intensive work, or were purely symbolic in nature.

DO call attention to all talks and scholarly presentations you gave.

DO NOT list the brown-bag lunch you gave for the majors committee in your “scholarship” section. No matter what you may have learned from students about your work in progress, this is a co-curricular activity similar to teaching, not an exchange with scholarly peers.

DO make sure that every manuscript currently active and on its way to publication is noted with accuracy. For example, “forthcoming” means that it has been accepted, there is a publication date, and the next time you will see it will be in what passes for galleys nowadays. “Accepted” means that the journal will print it, pending minor revisions. “Resubmitted” means that you have been invited to make revisions, that you have reader’s reports in hand that were the basis of those revisions, and that you do not know if it will be accepted. “Asked for revisions,” means that you have readers’ reports in hand but have not begun to redraft the piece. And “submitted,” means just that. You don’t know what the heck is up.

DO NOT, intentionally or unintentionally, mislead or obfuscate any of the above categories, even if a journal editor has given you a verbal cue that everything is going to be ok. Not only do you not know what casual conversation your work might come up in between a colleague and someone outside the university, but just because you have all the best intentions of submitting that article right after you finish your annual report, doesn’t mean you will. My father also told me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

DO be clear on where you are with your book, whether there is research left to do, and what your current timetable for finishing is.

DO NOT go on and on about a project for which no book or grant proposal has been submitted. It may be a really good idea, but you get paid for books and articles, not ideas that haven’t taken shape yet. And you don’t want to become known for being a person who spins yarns about projects that may or may not come to pass. Unless you are Charles Tilly, who really does publish constantly and must have multiple projects in the hopper at all times, there is something that seems mildly demented about listing three or four projects that are just a gleam in your eye as "works in progress."

DO report on the conferences at which you have presented. You may also wish to mention the conferences you have merely attended: this is called Being Engaged, and particularly if you are at a public university with a high teaching load, this can often represent a significant commitment of your limited time and energy even if you didn't give a paper. You should also note where you have submitted panels or presentations, and when you expect to hear about them.

DO NOT brag about famous people on your panel. “Gave paper at the Blah-de-blah Meeting on panel chaired by Dr. Fabulous” is just cheesy – and we all know that Dr. Fabulous didn’t agree to chair just because you were on the panel. In fact, resist the tendency to include famous people in your report *period*, unless you have actually been working in a formal partnership with that person. "Gave talk at the Institute for Advanced Study" is dignified; "Invited by Joan Scott to give a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study" is undignified.

And finally, when you get your raise, whatever it is:

DO put a portion of it in your retirement fund, unless you are basically living on your credit card already. My father's advice was half. But you might want to ask your own father.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for those tips. I am just finishing my 2nd year in a t-t position at a state university. The university is attempting to shift to a research 1 institution and in doing so has increased salaries (a bit) and lowered our teaching loads (although not for all departments). In any case I'm curious about 2 of your points and if they are specific to a Zenith-type institution.
1) your notion of forthcoming is different from what we agreed as a department--which is to say it's more like your accepted. This is a point of contention throughout the university and seems to not only differ by college (I am in the liberal arts college) but also by department. Because of some awful mess with a few pre-tenure cases we had to sit down and define these for ourselves in our department. I'm just curious where your definitions came from.
2) Because our university is trying very hard to be a research 1, we actually get rewarded by the powers that be if we are invited by Dr. Big to be on a panel etc. So, in our case we must note that so-and-so Big asked us. Is this still "undignified" or simply a university-specific need?

squadratomagico said...

This was a very interesting post -- I'm already tenured, but still have lots of questions about how to compose self reports.

I wonder if you could address a scenario related to the name-dropping cheesiness factor. I was invited to give a plenary address at a conference at a European university. This is the third year the conference has taken place. The plenary addressers in the previous two years were two European scholars who are much more advanced than me, truly among the very most eminent and well-known people in my field. This contextualizes what otherwise seems like a fairly boring presentation into a bigger honor.... but I agree with the principle of avoiding name-dropping. Any thoughts? [Sorry for the specific question & many thanks, if you choose to answer.]

The Combat Philosopher said...

This is fabulous! You should see the utter works of fiction that get submitted by fools around my place. I think that you should submit a version of this to InsideHigerEd. I believe that many people would benefit from reading this.

I think that the detailed discussion of pending paper status is highly useful (sorry Kim, I'm with the TR on 'forthcoming'). Also, the advice about vapourware projects needs special emphasis.

The Combat Philosopher

Anonymous said...

It seems that some colleges are already calling for a boycott of US News & World Report.
Check it out -

Anonymous said...

Dean Dad said...

Well done. At a cc, it's safe to give more space to the teaching (and pretty much inevitable, given how much research can really get done with a 5/5 load), but otherwise, yup.

I'll just add -- don't end the report with the cri de coeur of "I'm so underappreciated, the administration should really double my travel money if it cares at all about quality education." That translates as "whine whine whine me me me me me." (And yes, I've actually seen this.)

Dr. Virago said...

TR, thanks so much for this as I'm about to go up for tenure next year (as well as doing the usual annual merit review).

But can I ask for some clarification and advice on two things?

1)Um, what if you accidentally understood an article to be forthcoming and said so in last year's merit and renewal reports? (Thing is, one editor told me so; then *later* I heard the other editor hadn't decided yet, when I thought editor #1 was speaking for both.)

2)What if the work in progress is represented by conference presentations and research trips -- shouldn't you discuss this not merely as conference presentations and research trips, but link it together to show forward progress on new projects?

And on another note, I'm sorry I've been so absent from you comments. I fell really behind blog reading this semester. I'm especially sorry I wasn't there to chime in when you needed sympathy, advice about anonymity, and so forth. (Speaking of which -- that German in your last comment section? It's spam. Robots place it without regard to blog content.)

Anonymous said...

I was referred to your blog through Wesleying and I find your posts to be very interesting.

What do you think of the new format of reading week starting in fall of 2009?

-a Wesleyan student

Tenured Radical said...

Normally I don't comment in my own comments (although I love it when other people do) but there are so many good questions I will.

My first piece of advice is if you have a department or universiy handbook that governs these things, consult it, don't listen to me.

Kim: I would say local knowledge is the best knowledge, but that said, forthcoming means, to most of us, there are absolutely no barriers to the book or article coming out (like a sudden health complication that prevents you from missing a revisions or publishing deadline of some kind. Or the editor spacing you out for a few months and not getting the revised piece back from the readers, or the journal having accepted too many articels in your field.) If there is any ambiguity as to the status of the mss., just take an extra sentence to explain exactly where it is at. As to the connections to famous people thing, I do think it is cheesy, but having gone to a grad school that made the same transition, it's a cheesy institutional process, and if that's what htey recognize, you should.

Squadra: same as above, and I'm enjoying your blog. If there is a reason particular to your location or to the conference, name drop for sure, but the fact is, people fib about this all the time, or claim close connections to people who won;t meet htem until they get to the conference, which is why I would never take it seriously as a department chair or dean.

Dean Dad should definitely be listened to on the sob story front and many others. And very often people who claim to be working harder than the average bear really aren't, although they may genuinely believe the tale of woe they spin. My trick for getting extra research money is to apply for it every time it comes around and never assume that because I got it in the last round I won't get it in this one. You certainly won't get it if you don't apply, that's for sure. Plus, it has been my experience that my extra teaching and administrative loads have been compensated for with research funds in this way, and no whining was necessary. Dignity whenever possible is the rule. You are also more likely to get research $$ if you don't treat administrators like Hell Spawn and do them favors when they ask you to.

Virago: Nice to see you back! Don't worry -- you have a book coming out, girl, and you've been busy.

I would provide an update on the article that explains the delay: chances are no one will compare this year's report with last, but you could take a sentence to explain that you had an oral commitment from one editor, while a second advised blah-de-blah, and this is where the article is at now. Actually, my partner once had an article accepted unconditionally, and then the editor had a breakdown, and two years later someone dug it out of a drawer and published it. This is to say -- what happened to you happens all the time. Just explain.

I would say that conference proposals and presentations represent tangible progress on a new project, and I would note the connections if I were you. It also gives your scholarship secrion a sense of what we call "trajectory."

Anonymous said...

Thanks much for this, TR, very helpful. Inspired some tangential thoughts here.

Anonymous said...

As a Wes student I have been amazingly dissapointed with the quality of teaching here. There certainly are some good professors, but there are many who simply don't care about their classes. Now I know very little about the strange world of professors, but doesn't it seem that at a small(ish) liberal arts school teaching should be taken into account in these annual reports? It appears that they are completely centered around scholarship that has no direct affect on the students.