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What Counts for Tenure?

I have one more post to make on this thread, which has taken me off onto a tangent, away from early Christianity per se and onto what it means to be a university professor at a research institution such as UNC.  That other post – hopefully tomorrow – will be about why tenure is absolutely essential for this kind of job, even if it is highly unusual anywhere else (unheard of, of course, in the business world).  But before then, I want to say one other thing about the tenure process, something that would not occur to most people and that in fact will be both surprising and, possibly, counter-intuitive.  It has to do with what “counts” as research.

Virtually every school on the planet will tell its assistant professors that there are three factors considered in evaluating a case for tenure:  research, teaching, and service.   The balance of those three factors, though, differs significantly from one school to another.  Some schools focus almost exclusively on teaching, so that research is not that big of a deal.   That *used* to be far more common than it is now: today, even at so-called “teaching” colleges, candidates for tenure are expected as well to be productive research scholars.  That’s not easy to do, if you’re in the classroom the whole time and/or establishing close relationships with your students outside of the classroom as well.  Some colleges have an “open door” policy, where professors are expected to be in their offices, with their doors open, welcoming students, whenever they are not actually teaching.  How someone like that can actually do any research is beyond me.

In colleges like that, though, even if teaching isn’t *everything*, it is the majority thing.   At most  major research universities, on the other hand, it’s not like that.  Most of the time, in those contexts, the candidate for tenure will be told that it is important to show strengths in either all three or in at least two of the three: research, teaching, and service.  But the reality is that it’s research.   The most affable, service-oriented, fantastic teacher in the world won’t get tenure without a demonstrated track record of research.

But what kind of research?   Here is what most people would not realize, or be expected to realize.   The research that counts for tenure is…


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Why We Need Tenure
The Academic Tenure Situation



  1. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  September 17, 2014

    This relates to something that keeps bugging me: People who keep claiming that historians write works which are too specialized and don’t appeal to the general public. Not everything is supposed to! Knowledge has to advance through detailed examination of evidence, which will usually be dry and narrow.

    At least last decade, one heard of teaching colleges that actually advertised that their faculty did no research, which in my judgment is not really a good thing. It does sound like a great way to create incentives that lead to the teaching of outdated material. I’m not sure no research would fly as easily today as a selling point, given the explosion of undergraduate research. At my institution, you have to list all the undergraduate research projects you have mentored. Historians, especially those whose work requires foreign language skill, look paltry next to those who can involve their students in lab work.

    I also like the zombie inaccuracies that crawl from textbook to textbook generation after generation, like the idea Hammurabi issued the first law code. Even if it was a law code and not a monument about how just he was, we found an older monument from Ur-Nammu in, I believe, 1915.

  2. Avatar
    hwl  September 17, 2014

    Is the situation somewhat different for assistant professors in the natural and social sciences at research universities like UNC? For example, I can’t imagine an assistant professor in mathematics or physics being penalised against tenure because he has published a textbook or a popular science book. For a start, it is incredibly difficult to write a book length monograph of original research in mathematics.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 18, 2014

      Different disciplines have different standards for tenure: in some, it is more about getting grants and writing articles, for others it’s more about writing books.

      • Avatar
        mdt4302  September 19, 2014

        My career is in the physical sciences and it more or less works the same way. You have to demonstrate the ability to do ground-breaking, thought-provoking, boundary-pushing research in your specific field and get it published in a top-tier, peer-reviewed journal. If you are unable to do that, you won’t get tenure, period. You will struggle to even earn your Ph.D.

        I’ve moved on to industry and the criteria for career advancement are sort of similar (demonstrating the ability to “drive science”) , but not such a heavy emphasis on publication.

    • Avatar
      bamurray  September 18, 2014

      From my experience in biology, I think it’s still the case that textbooks and popular books are likely to count against you in the sciences. Sean Carroll said something similar in his blog (he’s a theoretical physicist at Caltech) some time ago, as well. It’s true that, in the sciences, original research is much more likely to be published in journal articles than in books.

  3. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 18, 2014

    Was John the Baptist
    Equal to disciples at last supper ?
    And also in a nostic gospel jesus stated words similar to ” you will be the 13th ”
    So John the Baptist was just one level below jesus and one above 12 disciples ?
    Let me know if this could be pointed in the direction of truth ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 18, 2014

      I’m not sure what you mean by “equal.” And the answer to your question would differ, depending on which ancient Christian you were talking to.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  September 18, 2014

        Equal as in Jesus’s views as in any one that sat at last supper, did he have a special connection with John the Baptist for example when jesus heard the death of the baptist he left and dropped everything and left in a boat.
        Did he ever show an emotional connection that he acted as such ?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 19, 2014

          We don’t know his emotions, but I think most scholars agree that Jesus started out as John’s disciple.

          • Josephsluna
            Josephsluna  September 19, 2014

            Yes of course bart
            That’s I what I was thinking as we’ll
            Jesus started as johns disciple plus the story of his twin
            The gospel of Thomas
            ” tell me ”
            Have you ever seen any interpretations like mine of
            Possibly the oldest, older than the cononicle gosples
            The gospel of Thomas ? Unless everything is not being put out
            And yes I’ve read the gospel truth etc
            You’ve seen interpretations like mine before using astronomical approaches number (3) for example 30 – 3 3 ?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 21, 2014

            Yes, some scholars such as John Dominic Crossan think that Thomas is older than the NT Gospels.

  4. Avatar
    FocusMyView  September 18, 2014

    How does a novice on a subject keep from being led astray?
    Are there tell tale signs you can mention without naming names?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 18, 2014

      The key is to read authors who have a wide and established reputation in their fields, at least to begin with.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 18, 2014

    I can understand and agree with everything you say. But I’d already been thinking about what someone mentioned in a Comment on the last post – the problem of whether all these graduate students will be able to find positions. And another one: at some point, when you’re dealing with a field like early Christianity (about four centuries), won’t all the discoveries that can be made *have* been made, all the theories that can be presented in dissertations *have* been presented in dissertations?

    I’m sure historians of early Christianity need to keep abreast of the latest archaeological discoveries. (I was shocked to read in the Comment that’s already been posted that history textbooks still don’t reflect a discovery made in 1915.) Do you think there’s a chance of finds being made that could have a major impact on your field?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 18, 2014

      Yes, new finds are made all the time. Just a few years ago the Gospel of Judas turned up, for example. There is a TON of work that needs to be done on Christianity in the second, third, and early fourth centuries — my particular fields of interest.

  6. Avatar
    Hana1080  September 18, 2014

    The process you describe seems to be then one of distillation ensuring that the ‘waters are not muddied’ within specialized fields? Is this a correct understanding? If so, then I can also see the value (which I didn’t before reading).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2014

      I would say that the issue is whether a candidate is advancing scholarship, more than whether they are making things confused.

  7. Avatar
    shakespeare66  September 19, 2014

    In what way is a trade book different from a scholarly book? How is it that both are written by the same expert and yet the trade book is not considered to be scholarly enough. Many of your trade books have plenty of documentation so why isn’t it as authoritative as the scholarly work? Is it because it is watered down? Not sure why it–the trade book–is still not expert enough to count for tenure.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 19, 2014

      My trade books are written at a very different level from my scholarly books — not nearly as well documented or closely argued, and not assuming lots of assumptions (and jargon, and perspectives) found in my scholarly books. For a good comparison, look at my trade book Forged in relationship to my scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery (just read the first two pages of each and you’ll see what I mean).

      • Avatar
        bamurray  September 19, 2014

        Also, trade books don’t generally advance new scholarship (as you have said). Scholarly works that count for tenure do (and should).

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