Happy Notes on TAH and Faculty Evaluation Blues

Edward R. Crowther, January 2010

Editor’s Note: Periodically, we have published in Perspectives on History articles on the TAH grants programs. While continuing in that vein, the following essay addresses an important and related issue—of the evaluation of faculty who participate in such programs.

Ours is an academic institution dedicated to scholarship,” he thundered, “and this simply isn’t teaching or scholarship.” Such was the response from a colleague to a promotion dossier that highlighted a long-standing involvement in Teaching American History (TAH) grants programs. In the end, from my view as a chair, a broader view of the merits of the dossier properly prevailed. Truthfully, good fortune probably best explains the happy occurrence, but I’d not be worthy of my title as department chair if I didn’t take some credit for shaping the desired outcome.

Adams State College, where I’ve worked for 21 years, and served as department chair for over 11, is a small, normal school that morphed into a comprehensive regional college after World War II. Its essential mission was teacher training, and with its growth, mission anxiety has often characterized its institutional culture. Professors in content areas like mine (history) balance the large teaching loads with a rhetorical emphasis on their scholarly duties that sometimes masks and, unintentionally, devalues what they actually do. Like most colleges, Adams State College evaluates faculty performance in teaching, scholarly activities, and service. And we are like a court judging obscenity in that we think we know quality performance when we see it, but we struggle with recognizing performance that falls outside of traditional classroom teaching and scholarly publications. For Adams State College, where does TAH grantwriting and related educational activities fit in our performance evaluation? To help my institution in developing a positive and consistent answer to that question, I’ve followed a two-tier track: one, engaging the actual process itself as defined in the faculty handbook; the other, through publicity, or as one colleague put it, “shameful self-promotion.”

In assisting our campus-wide tenure and promotion committees, who aren’t quite sure whether, in my role as chair, I’m a loathsome administrator or a long-suffering faculty colleague, I’ve found a couple of important avenues to help them arrive at a fuller understanding of the logical intersections of TAH participation and professional performance. The college Handbook, which is a faculty-driven document, and the Institutional Role and Mission Statement, rooted in our enabling legislation, gave me some useful tools to make the case that TAH participation is a proper professional activity for a faculty member. This seems obvious, but is often overlooked by the compiler of a dossier. Explicit alignment of TAH alongside the handbook and the statute by the applicant and in my own letters of recommendation and transmittal can clarify the importance of TAH participation.

While my department has been directly involved in Teaching American History grants programs, campus faculty have been struggling to define teaching, scholarship, and service and its proper role in evaluating faculty performance through ongoing revision of the faculty handbook. For a time, the handbook defined scholarship restrictively, to mean juried performances and refereed publications only, and as such, TAH activity was excluded. Now those restrictive indices remain, but newly added criteria recognize efforts in support of “mission-critical programs.” Since our statutory mission is teacher education programming, TAH activity seems to have a home here. I used the approval process to gain rhetorical support for that idea.

Secondly, as we worked on defining what it means to hold the rank of a professor at Adams State College, debate followed similar lines: clearly, effective teaching was de rigueur, but how much weight should go to traditional scholarship and how much should go to service? Since a substantial raise accompanies promotion to a full professorship, there was more than intellectual interest in this exercise. In the end, faculty could choose to focus on scholarship or service. And our service component included strong language endorsing grantwriting and administration, working with extramural entitities like public school systems, so that a faculty member whose primary nonteaching responsibilities have embraced TAH programs finds no institutional impediment in forwarding a dossier that is long on TAH service and a bit brief on traditional scholarly activities.

Perhaps the most useful way to integrate TAH participation into evaluation, retention, tenure, and promotion, is to demonstrate that it fulfills a welter of institutional needs.

Consider publicity, especially to alumni, community members, and politicians. When we travel or conduct on-site teaching institutes, we publicize our activities in the alumni magazines and web sites, as well as in local papers. At times, we’ve linked these activities to alumni functions. Because of our status as a “regional education provider,” we let state legislators know that we are providing professional development opportunities to teachers in their legislative districts, and our lobbyist is able to remind them of our work with their constituents during our state budgetary process. Print and web-based communication of TAH grant activities provides a visual demonstration of Adams State College’s outreach mission to service areas, links TAH to the ASC brand, and provides some institutional political capital to the history department and my colleagues.

We often deliver programming for academic credit, which produces a measureable revenue stream. Clearly this pleases financial officers, who look for such offsets during times of state funding cuts, but it also creates a demonstrable community of interest for faculty colleagues in and out of my department. By adding a small cash infusion from tuition fees to the general fund, a biology faculty member might be able to purchase a new computer program, and a colleague in my department might find some additional money for travel.

Institutionally, Adams State College has to report how content areas are “serving” the community, especially in collaborative programming with K–12. Many areas on my campus are deeply engaged in this mission, but when our TAH grant activity brings my department into contact with 100 teachers over a four-county service area, our singular involvement provides significant evidence that the whole institution is fulfilling its mission, which allows some other areas to focus on their own preferred professional and service endeavors. This also frees up some of my departmental colleagues to focus on more traditional scholarly and teaching endeavors, as well. In return they have been quite receptive to writing endorsement letters extolling our TAH faculty to campus tenure and promotion letters.

By showing that TAH is embraced by the handbook and by building political support in the larger campus culture, I’m confident when a TAH-rich dossier goes forward to tenure and promotion committees. In addition, my department has enjoyed recognition for its willingness to work with the public schools and other community resources like museums. And mostly my colleagues have continued to benefit and earn recognition for participating in TAH.

Edward R. Crowther is professor of history and chair at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. He can be reached at ercrowth@adams.edu.