The incentive structure for research faculty at institutions of higher education in the United States and beyond hinges on knowledge creation through traditional research outputs (e.g., peer reviewed articles, books, conference presentations). Research faculty are awarded reappointment, tenure, and promotion based on a criteria of high productivity in research, teaching, and service. This is not new.
What counts for reappointment, tenure, and promotion (RPT)?
Over 60% of early career faculty strongly agree that they make research publishing decisions based on what is perceived as important for reappointment, tenure, and promotion (RPT). And for the most part, peer reviewed journals and books are what is valued. This doesn’t leave much room for public engagement, which is often categorized under ‘service’. Service is arguably the least important of the three pillars of academic professional responsibilities for tenure-track faculty.
But I am not here to argue against the rules of RPT; it is a vital (albeit, très imparfait) part of the system. (there are bigger conversations about the use of metrics in evaluation that is outside the scope of this post, but must be mentioned for fear of flogging). What many scholars suggest is an expansion of the RPT evaluation criteria that highly values public engagement. This can improve working conditions for many faculty, and it better aligns with universities missions and the public good.
Scholars are eager to make an impact beyond the academy. One third of respondents agreed that societal impact should be a key measure of research performance for RPT. The sands are shifting. And the world is desperate for it. But this can be difficult if operating within a system that does not reward (read: promote) public engagement. Public engagement is already challenging enough without the systemic barriers.
This is an understandable frustration.
So we’ve outlined some strategies to help as you build your narrative for annual review and/or your dossier for tenure and promotion. (and congrats on making it this far – both in this post and in your professional journey!)
Making your case for reappointment, tenure, and promotion
How can you present your public engagement efforts in your annual review and/or your RPT dossier? A few ways to strengthen your case is to provide ample of information and data about the type of public communication you’ve completed, the barriers of entry established by the publisher, and how you define and measure impact.
Type of communication
The type of public communication is an important factor. A blog post versus an op-ed versus a policy paper carry different weight. The depth of the impact and the rigor involved may depend on the type of communication published. Public engagement can be many things for different scholars and disciplines, so I won’t put a “one size fits all” recommendation here. A discussion behind your decision to opt for this type of public communication is warranted as it is evidence of strategic thinking. Reasons may include audience access, timing, collaboration with the publisher, etc.
Barriers of entry
Barriers of entry are the standards put into place by the publisher/producer. What standards are established to ensure the communication is rigorous, well researched, and well communicated? A publication like the New York Times and the Washington Post are going to have higher standards than a Medium or a personal blog (where you can publish without a gatekeeper). Include these standards to emphasize the rigorous process of publishing or interviewing with the outlet as you develop your narrative.
What does reach look like to you? Is it retweets, comments, views, clicks, or something else? And what about impact? Changed behavior? Is it influencing policy and laws? Whatever it may be, it is important to establish what impact looks like before you get started. This will give you a better sense of how to measure. Discuss this thought process in your materials.
How can you quantify your public communication(s) reach? And you know how much the academy needs to quantify things. The inclusion of metrics is already a part of RPT materials, for better or for worse. If you are online online, a few options could include social media engagement rates, retweets/posts, clicks, views, comments, etc. Twitter and Facebook have engagement metrics that may be a bit more valuable compared to, say, views. There is usually a “formula” used to calculate engagement rates, etc. (reader beware: the quotes around formula are doing some heavy lifting). I wouldn’t bet my entire reappointment on these, though.
A number of quantitative metrics services (altmetrics) might also serve you well in making your case for impact. Sites like PlumX, Altmetrics, and Impact Story can track your research beyond citation counts. Check with your university library to see if it holds an active subscription.
Requesting letters of support is appropriate if the your public engagement is more direct such as working directly with policy makers or a board of directors. Provide guidance to the writer about the importance of your RPT dossier in conjunction with the importance of your public engagement.
The University of South Florida and the University of Arizona established university-wide standards for public engagement and reappointment, tenure, and promotion. Carnegie also offers an elective classification for community engagement. It might be worth checking if your university is classified and build this into your narrative (along with reference to the university’s mission). These are great starting points for inspiration on how to position your narrative as you prepare your documents.
Some scholars and organizations like Imagining America and the American Sociological Association published tips and advice for including engaged scholarship in your RPT files. Others, like HuMetricsHSS, promote a values-centered, holistic and systemic approach to evaluation based on the university and the scholar’s value system that could be of use.
As with anything related to your academic career, have ongoing (and documented) discussions with your unit head during your annual review. This will help to gauge support and feedback on your public engagement as well as advice on how to build it into your RPT narrative.
And if you are stuck, schedule a free strategy session with us. We’d be happy to talk through the public engagement RPT approach with you.