Gaming the System: a2ru’s Card Deck as a Tool for Understanding Tenure Policy

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Two stacks of white cards on a hot pink surface. There is a question printed on the top card of each stack.

Sep 16, 2021

When the a2ru research team designed our Implicit/Explicit card deck, we had in mind a tool for those charged with aligning reappointment, promotion, and tenure policy (RPT) with institutional values of interdisciplinarity and arts integration. We hadn’t imagined that it could be used as a research tool itself, so we were delighted to learn that an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) had adapted it for their study of gendered barriers to promotion to full professor. (You can read about the details of their study inWomen’s Perception of Explicit and Implicit Criteria for Promotion to Full Professor”: PDF file below. This article appeared in the Journal of Faculty Development Volume 35, Number 1, January 2021 and is used with the publisher’s permission.)

Implicit/Explicit is a simple card sort. Each card bears a question about RPT; together, players decide whether cards belong in a pile of questions that are explicitly addressed in policy at their institution, or in a pile of questions that policy leaves implicit or ambiguous. By uncovering which elements of an institution’s RPT policy are implicit or explicit, players can recognize the cultural biases present in institutional norms. Those biases might be disciplinary, as in policy that doesn’t recognize the arts as a form of knowledge production, but they may also be gendered or racial.

For the team of researchers at UC—seven women from across the university, brought together under the auspices of a campus women’s leadership initiative—the Implicit/Explicit deck had potential for their study.

Noting that women are underrepresented globally at the rank of full professor, they hypothesized that murky expectations could be an impediment to promotion. In order to better understand women’s perceptions of criteria for promotion, they modified the questions on the Implicit/Explicit cards (with our permission) and incorporated a round of the game into their study methodology. The way that study participants sorted the Implicit/Explicit cards generated quantitative data, while postgame discussions and feedback forms filled in a narrative explanation. Thirty-nine women with the rank of associate professor from across UC’s thirteen colleges participated.

Initially, the game format provided an alibi, a chance for women faculty to answer questions about promotion in a depersonalized context. The researchers found, however that the game also afforded a framework for conversation about important issues, leading to a space where the alibi could be removed and women could speak frankly about their experiences going to full professor.

Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, one of the study’s authors, had initially encountered Implicit/Explicit at an a2ru workshop, and this framework for conversation was one of the reasons she suggested incorporating the deck into the study methodology: “I wanted to recreate that moment [from the workshop] when we sat around the table and heard so many different voices.” Since she and most of her fellow researchers on the team were reluctant to use a survey, sensing that the women at their university had been surveyed to death and seen little meaningful change as a result, the card deck offered a generative alternative. “Hearing one another’s stories was one of the most valuable parts of the experience for many study participants, so the whole idea of the game as an alibi to have this conversation was really a strength,” says Sadre-Orafai.

The UC study is agnostic on whether implicit or explicit is “better”; explicit policies make metrics for success clear and accessible, however, where policy is left implicit, the resulting ambiguity can be a space for opportunity. Danielle Bessett, another UC study author, observes that ideally, policies would be more explicit without becoming more restrictive. That is, rather than dictating how much individual research outputs “count” toward promotion, RPT policy could lay out the considerations and decision points involved in making that calculation. “We should look at the RPT criteria for their ability to recognize all of the different kinds of outputs. We say we value community research. Well, what does that actually look like? And how do we measure it? Does tweeting constantly count as that kind of engagement, and if so, how do you begin to give people guidance about that?” The UC researchers envision policy that can be tailored to a scholar’s individual trajectory, and ongoing conversation built into annual review so candidates can make informed decisions about their research.

The study team presented their findings about implicit and explicit promotion criteria, and their implications for women Associate Professors, to the UC Provost, and the team has been in conversation with the Faculty Enrichment Center to make their adapted Implicit/Explicit card deck available across campus. Sadre-Orafai and Bessett are hopeful that their work is gaining traction, noting a greater focus at the Center now on issues like burnout that impact Associate Professors. As for their idea to make promotion criteria more explicit and more inclusive, Bessett is likewise hopeful: “This would allow people to demonstrate their contributions in a way that scholars can recognize, but also accommodate the diversity of ways in which we actually want people to do that. And the way we want to diversify the university, in a way that existing criteria don’t do.”

The Implicit/Explicit card deck is available as a PDF download for a2ru members only. The deck is also available for purchase, with a 30% discount for a2ru members.

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