On the Importance of an Intellectual Project

Now that I have reached the doyen stage of my career, I find myself frequently called upon to serve as an external reviewer for junior faculty who are being considered for promotion and tenure. The process begins with a letter from a departmental chair asking if I am willing to give my candid assessment of the candidate’s scholarship. Since my own research and writing are centered on race and ethnicity in American society, I am usually asked to evaluate the work a young scholar whose research is more or less within my domain of expertise. I am mindful of the unspoken fact that I have been thrust into the role of gatekeeper, and also mindful of the sinister role that gatekeepers have played historically in marginalizing minority and radical viewpoints. So I take on this otherwise mundane obligation with a sense of intellectual and moral responsibility. “It goes with the territory,” as my friend Hylan Lewis once told me, when he was the age that I am today.

Some colleges stipulate a mathematical benchmark of how much productivity one needs for tenure. We are told, for example, that one needs one book and four articles, with the caveat that the articles must be in peer-reviewed journals. I find this last stricture to be totally wrongheaded. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, the peer review system is an instrument for intellectual conformity, since it is so often antagonistic to dissenting viewpoints. Besides, by what twisted logic is the lottery of a peer-reviewed journal more reliable than, say, being invited to contribute to an edited volume that will reach a relevant audience? Why is it better to have your work subjected to the whim or judgment of anonymous reviewers, and promulgated to disinterested readers of journals that, as is commonly acknowledged, “nobody reads”? This is where pious observance of the false god of objectivity leads us. Indeed, a cottage industry of journals has sprung up, often attached to sections within professional societies, which go through the motions of being “peer reviewed,” in order to meet this specious requirement. Sadly, the pursuit of knowledge has been reduced to gaming the system.

Before long, a package arrives in the mail, whose bulk is the first indicator of the productivity of the scholar, as well as the onus that awaits the external reviewer. Already, the shibboleth of one book and four articles is exposed. If that was the fulcrum for tenure decisions, it would hardly require the intervention of an external reviewer.

My modus operandi in reviewing “the tenure package” stems from my interest in the sociology of knowledge and the history of ideas. I attempt to discern the applicant’s intellectual genealogy based on what I can glean from the cv, publications, conference papers, and other professional activities, including contributions in the realm of public intellectualism. I try to get a sense of the germination and direction of the applicant’s scholarship, and how these disparate elements gel into an original intellectual amalgam, culminating with the dissertation. As we know at FFPP, often these young scholars are making the challenging transition from dissertation to book. Clearly, the dissertation and first book is a pivotal stage of intellectual development, where the neophyte consolidates what I am calling “an intellectual project.” And is a neophyte no longer!

As we all find out, one line of inquiry invariably engenders more questions than it answers, leading to other unanticipated lines of inquiry. Here the intellectual project reaches the next step. Our neophyte gradually develops an expertise and reputation as a scholar with depth and purpose. Hopefully, this intellectual project is predicated on a critical perspective that challenges stale orthodoxy and hegemony within the realm of ideas. This critical spirit is the sine qua non that will infuse your research and writing with energy and conviction, lest promotion and tenure lapse into professionalism.


–Stephen Steinberg, FFPP Mentor and Distinguished Professor (Queens College and the Graduate Center)

writing groups as collaborative communities

I’m Katherine K. Chen. To kick off the 2017 spring semester’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP) blog series, I briefly reflect on CUNY, the academic profession, and how writing communities can support and enhance scholarship.

First, a little about myself: I am one of the newest FFPP mentors, and I am also a FFPP alum-turned-mentor (colleague Stephen Steinberg was my mentor!).  Using ethnographic and other qualitative methods, I study how organizations develop.  I joined The City College of New York in 2008, so I am now approaching almost a decade at CUNY.

As some of you know, CUNY is a higher education institution with an unusual structure, consisting of the Graduate Center, where most of its PhD granting programs are concentrated, senior colleges that offer bachelors and masters, and community colleges that offer associate degrees.  Moreover, CUNY has a long legacy of propelling first-time, minority college-goers into the middle class and beyond.  Despite a crushing burden of working low-wage, dead-end jobs, caring for sick relatives, and intermittent homelessness in a high cost of living city, CUNY undergraduate students persevere in their belief that education matters. Working at the frontlines with CUNY students are CUNY instructors who are vibrant and accomplished. Besides publishing in the expected peer-reviewed venues, some also produce artwork, novels, and opinion pieces in widely read venues.

It’s difficult not to be inspired by the intellectual ferment of CUNY and the surrounding New York City. Nonetheless, universities and academic professions in general face increasing uncertainties as state support for higher education declines.   Meanwhile, neoliberal pressures are increasing, with demands that faculty demonstrate their market worthiness in numbers of students taught and graduated and funding awarded.  These pressures can make the university and academic profession feel alienating, particularly when the rewards structure is skewed.  Often, only one type of the work – publishing in peer-reviewed publications – is recognized in tenure and promotion while much of daily work – teaching students and undertaking service to maintain academic institutions and the profession – is uncounted and unrewarded.

It is easy to get lost when journeying in this milieu.  In particular, navigating the writing and publishing can involve taking a hike into the unknown. While maps exist, the details are often unmarked, requiring local knowledge and constant experimentation. Sometimes a more experienced guide may lead, or companions may join, making the journey lighter (or heavier).  While writing coaches and guides to publishing offer some assistance (my favorites of the latter include Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks and William Germano’s Getting It Published), people can more fully realize their potential when immersed in an active, supportive community.

Writing groups such as FFPP, where members meet regularly to give feedback on circulated work, offer an oasis of support, collegiality, and generativity.  For me, participating in FFPP and other writing groups has been crucial to advancing my scholarly development.  Such groups have facilitated difficult decisions to, for example, reframe manuscripts and cut out excess material; these gatherings have helped interpret cryptic reviewer comments and modeled potential responses to reviewers’ suggestions.  Moreover, reading other scholars’ works in progress helps us understand common writing and conceptual issues – it is much easier to identify problems and potential solutions in other people’s manuscripts!   Finally, it’s heady to be on the cutting edge of manuscripts that are on the verge of reaching a wider audience, especially given how long it takes for manuscripts to wend their way through the publication process.

With these thoughts in mind, I look forward to facilitating fellow FFPPers’ journey and learning from everyone’s work in the months ahead.  Welcome to spring 2o17!



Welcome to FFPP!

Welcome to FFPP!

The Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP) is the only university-wide initiative of its kind.  Sponsored by CUNY’s Office of Recruitment and Diversity, FFPP supports CUNY’s institutional goal of a diverse, high achieving professoriate, the cornerstone of CUNY’s scholarly excellence.    The FFPP initiative assists full-time untenured faculty in the design and execution of writing projects essential to their progress toward tenure. Discipline-based writing groups of peers from across the University, facilitated by senior faculty members, provide fellows with feedback on their work, which may include scholarly articles for peer-reviewed journals, books for academic presses, or, in some instances, creative writing.

University Dean Arlene Torres
University Dean Arlene Torres

University Dean Arlene Torres leads the Office of Recruitment and Diversity, and Maryann McKenzie is her Deputy.  Shelly Eversley (Baruch College) serves as Academic Director.  FFPP Mentors and working group leaders for 2016-17 are:  Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College), Matt Brim (College of Staten Island), Katherine Chen (City College), Bridgett Davis (Baruch College), Carrie Hintz (Queens College), Lina Newton (Hunter College), Debbie Sonu (Hunter College), Stephen Steinberg (Queens College), Anahi Viladrich (Queens College).