It’s that time of the year, again. Fiscal year is ending, or about to end at most institutions of higher education in North America. If your institution is anything like mine (I know, I know, there is simply no other place as crazy as mine… or, yours), it’s time for the dreaded annual activity report.
Ex-cuse me ? You want an annual report from Me ? Me, The celebrated, very accomplished, highly distinguished, internationally known, most frequently cited, widely respected, unquestionably handsome… ? I am a walking annual report, Mister !
So, anyway, they make it pretty easy nowadays to fill out an annual report. One need not even bother with inserting data about classes taught — they have all of that already. For most of us, inserting publications, talks and other accomplishments is a matter of half an hour at the most. Until, that is, one arrives at the infamous “Other contributions” section. I have never really been clear on what that is supposed to include.
In general, I understand the notion that, as a college professor, one could conceivably be expected to engage into activities that might have a positive impact on the broader community, in the process enhancing the standing and image of the institution among taxpayers.
I suppose that pro bono consulting, public lectures , outreach efforts  could be examples of such activities — who knows, maybe even blogging could fall in that category. I still think, however, that this kind of stuff should be left out of an annual report.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the least suggesting that one should not be commended for doing any of the above, much less discouraged. My problem, however, is that I do not see a way of evaluating such things in fair and objective way .
The benefit that an institution derives from one’s scholarly activity can be reasonably, fairly accurately quantified. Publications, invited presentations, patents, awards, citations, as well as teaching — all of that correlates quite well with grants, increased enrolment and even prestige for the university.
And there are reasonably accepted ways of assessing the importance of a publication, of an invited talk, of a prize, of giving recognition to accomplished teachers. Most of us who work in academia have no trouble admitting that not every paper that we publish is equally good, and that we have taught some courses better than others.
But, how does one establish what constitutes “good” or “bad” outreach, for example ? Or, even what constitutes outreach, period ? Just calling it that does not make it that, it seems to me. Take blogging, for example. I do it for fun only, and have never had any outreach ambition — but, hey, maybe I should call it “outreach” and list it on my annual report under “Other contributions”.
Problem is, I have no way of knowing whether my blog reaches out to anyone, nor whether it does more harm than good to me professionally, or to the university. I honestly do not see what kind of weight, if any, anyone evaluating my scholarly output should ascribe to my blogging, which is why I am not listing it on any annual report of mine. And I think that this problem affects all such “synergistic” activities.
How does one go about assessing the impact on the bottom line of the educational institution, of, say, an interview with the local paper, for example, or of an article written for a non-scholarly publication, or of one’s political activism ?
Call me naive but I think that all of these undertakings, pastimes, recognitions, are their own rewards. I say, when it comes to annual reports, how about we stick to that for which we are expected to show up at work every day ?
 We all think we understand what “outreach activities” are, but heaven forbid one should ever sit at a table with two other people and try to classify what constitutes outreach.
 It should be noted that reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions, as well as merit-based salary increments are decided based on annual reports.