So I just got my merit scores for last year and a couple of numbers really surprised me. I thought I had a shitty teaching year (I was way too afraid to even look at my evaluations!) but somehow I got a perfect score in teaching. Huh. Go figure.
Meanwhile, in a year that I thought was one of my most productive since my book came out, I got the lowest score I’ve ever received for professional activity. Now, part of it is that this particular merit committee was using really odd numbers. They were like that one weird professor who gives A- - and B+ + grades. And after looking at the other scores with the chair (yeah, we’re contractually guaranteed to be able to see our scores in context — transparency and all that) I think my score was the A- -. Or maybe it was the B+ +. So, OK, not a bad grade — as we constantly tell our students who bitch about A- and B+ grades! It was just contextually weird, given the context of my scores in other years.
But also — and more germane to the title of this post — I suspect (though I don’t know for sure, so I’m really just musing here) that my work this past year wasn’t valued as highly as work in other years, because it consisted mostly of editions of literature (a forthcoming, *major* anthology of the genre most of my scholarship is in, an anthology that has taken a *buttload* of work and is actually kind of groundbreaking — but I didn’t really explain that in my professional activity report and need to do so next year) and invited articles that are part synthesis, part original work for those kinds of guides/companions that we all find useful from time to time, and for special topics issues on the state of the field in my corner of medieval literary studies.
Here’s the thing: I think that the kind of work I did is a measure of my status in the field (or especially, my subfield of it) — the invitations were not from friends, largely, but from people who know my work, or people who have become professional friends because of my work. I also think that such work should be valued more broadly in the profession in general, not only because it takes just as much time, energy, talent, and expertise as the original research, but also because it’s freaking useful work. (And really, this post is directed at the profession in general, not at my colleagues in particular, because they’re just aping a norm that starts at the R1s and trickles down to us — a problem in and of itself, but one that needs to be addressed in a separate post.) Once the anthology gets into classrooms (and I think it will), it’s going to have more impact on how and what people teach and study in that genre than my original book ever will. There are texts in that anthology that have never been in a student edition before. It may even have an impact on the wider field, because, for the first time, it presents all of these texts in modernized spelling. And that’s going to be controversial, too. While that may not be an original argument, exactly, it’s an original approach with potential meaning for the future of the field and its object(s) of study, especially at the undergraduate level. And where do future scholars and readers of our fields come from if not from undergraduates who then decided they want to do and learn more?
Meanwhile, the article on my subfield for the companion/guide thingy is going into a multi-volume companion to all of British literature, not just one for medievalists. So it, too, has the potential to reach a much wider audience than my specialized book and articles on my area of medieval lit. And who doesn’t consult those kind of guides when they have to teach a survey or in a field that isn’t their own (which is more and more the case at universities like mine)? And *I’m* the one they picked to write the *one* chapter on how we understand my subfield today, a chapter that could potentially reach all sorts of people who sometimes have to encounter the texts of my subfield and then go and say stupid, out of date things about them because the last time they studied them deeply (if at all) was in graduate school before a bunch of ground-breaking, game-changing discoveries and arguments were made. But with my chapter, maybe they won’t say such stupid things! In fact, I kind of gently directed my chapter at those folks. (I’m being pretty oblique here, but I hear and read utterly out-of-date, totally over-turned conceptions about the genre I specialize in all the freakin’ time, and from other medievalists as often as not. Don’t even get me started on the early modernists.)
So, I’m not here to bitch to the world wide web of readers about my particular score. It’s materially meaningless, given that we don’t currently have merit raises. Rather, I want us all to consider the value of a greater swath of professional activity. Original research is highly valuable — that’s where our own expertise comes from and it’s where new knowledge and new understanding is generated — but so is the dissemination of that knowledge and expertise in other ways, to wider audiences. Keeping these kind of intellectual products in a rigid hierarchy — a Great Chain of Being of professional activity – is to misunderstand the complex ecosystem of knowledge and study to which they contribute.