By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
We are in the middle of annual reviews, which means we have been busy documenting what we have “accomplished” in the areas of research, teaching, and service in the last year and describing the quality and significance of that work. We rate ourselves in each of the three areas, and our department chairs also rate our work as exceeding, meeting, or below expectations.
I know what you’re thinking: annual reviews are a function of neoliberal audit culture in higher education settings, where increasingly across the U.S., professors have to “prove effectiveness,” some might say prove our worth.
For faculty women of color, annual review time can be especially stressful. Student evaluations do not always reflect the effectiveness of our teaching and instead reflect how racism and sexism intersect to influence students’ perceptions. Faculty women of color whose research is situated in marginalized disciplines (like critical race feminism) also may have a harder time demonstrating quality and significance of our publications using traditional measures (like impact factor of journals). Sometimes the service faculty women of color do that supports our institutions’ diversity missions, like mentoring of students of color and supporting other women of color colleagues, is invisible labor which does not get counted fully.
For a long time (before and after earning tenure, by the way), I put pressure on myself (and way too much time) into annual reviews. With my research, teaching, and service situated in marginalized education fields, my focus was often on “convincing” my superiors that my work was as good as the work of my colleagues in traditional disciplinary fields. Because the academy has historically recognized as legitimate only a few indicators of quality and significance, a higher bar exists for demonstrating how my work “measures up.” This higher bar, and all the extra work it requires for a successful annual review, takes a lot of time and emotional energy.
Explaining my teaching evaluations in a larger context of research on Black women faculty teaching diversity courses, providing additional documentation to demonstrate how big of an impact my scholarship is having in my field, justifying how mentoring of students and colleagues from historically marginalized groups is more time-consuming and energy-depleting than regular service yet still so essential to the health of the university, and proving that my public scholarship (the blogpost you’re reading now, for instance) is indeed scholarship and deserves to be “counted”—all of this extra labor for annual reviews is not uncommon for faculty members who do “diversity” work. We understand the costs when we make these commitments, but even with this knowledge, having to count and measure and justify and prove our “value” to the university can still be dehumanizing.
To counter this effect, I made some changes over the last five years in how I approach annual reviews. I view my annual review for what it should be: an opportunity to stop and take stock of all that I have done over the past year; to think about how my work is aligned with my pedagogical commitments, especially related to social justice; and determine what adjustments I need to make in the upcoming year so that my work is more integrated and purposeful.
The most difficult change was developing a different framework for and attitude toward annual reviews—and I’m still a work in progress. I resist seeing the review as my one shot at proving that my work and I matter in the space.
I know that I matter, I know that the work I do matters, and I know that my mattering is never going to be measurable using the means that institutions privilege. I am no longer looking for ratings on an annual review to tell me how effective I am as a teacher, researcher, and colleague; what to do more of, what to do less of; or how close I am to what sometimes seems like a moving bar. The bar I set for myself is always going to be higher than one set for me, and sometimes this has meant that I don’t earn the highest scores.
I’ve made some practical adjustments as well that I invite readers to consider.
First, I set a timer to the work I do completing annual reviews. A very firm timer. I give the task no more time than this. No exceptions.
Second, I use my own template which has sections with reusable content and sections that I fill in with new stats each year, and so far, this template works with the university template I am required to use.
Third, I set goals for research, teaching, and service in 2-3 year increments, so I don’t write new ones until I have achieved these or until they change after this window of time has passed.
Lastly, I know what my university’s handbook says is required of department chairs and me in this process, which can be helpful especially when department chairs change frequently.
I also learned from Roxanne Donovan to schedule a session to work on annual reviews with a couple of colleagues who do similar work so that you can create statements of quality and significance together.
Even though I’ve made changes over a number of years prior to my recent promotion to full professor, I understand that being able to work around some institutional norms is a function of my privileged position in the academy. I also understand that my individual approach to changing my mindset around annual reviews is not going to solve a more systemic problem nationally, where evaluation of professors has become increasingly more high stakes. But I have effected change for myself, which is sometimes all we can do.
I also invite administrators to use the approach of my current department chair—shout out to Dr. Anete Vasquez. She added a humanizing frame to the annual review process by sending an email to faculty members acknowledging that review meetings often trigger the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and stating her intent to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). To do this, she gave us a brief set of questions to answer in advance of our meeting which asked us to reflect on what was working—a strengths-based model—in our teaching, research, and service, and to offer solutions if we noted any problems.
She also stated that we would work collaboratively in our meeting to draft the letter together—with ratings in each area—that accompanied my annual review to the next level. In my meeting with her, she asked me to help her make a case for positive ratings, which sparked a conversation about my accomplishments the previous year. I never felt like I was defending my work. Instead, my work was understood, and I felt acknowledged.
I hope you’ve found a way—big or small—to use what agency you have to make annual reviews more formative and less high stakes, generative and not destructive, and collegial not adversarial. That’s what we deserve after all the work we’ve done throughout the year.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.