Developing your own academic “index”: An interview with Dr. Beronda Montgomery

By Kimine Mayuzumi

Dr. Beronda Montgomery is Michigan State University Foundation Professor in the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory. Her research focuses on understanding how individuals perceive, respond to, and are impacted by the environments in which they exist. Beronda also pursues the research theme in the context of effective mentoring and leading in research environments. She often shares mentoring and faculty development issues on Twitter.

My partner, Riyad, and I, met Beronda last year for lunch. We were intrigued by her insights into life especially from a biochemist’s point of view. We were also inspired by her dedication to mentoring graduate students and junior faculty.

Here is an interview with Beronda particularly around her belief in defining one’s own parameters in academic work.

Q. How do you describe the existing culture of the academy?

Beronda: I have been in many conversations about scholarly “impact” that prioritize competition over the cultivation of cultures of support. These discussions often center prevailing measures of impact, which are most commonly based on how frequently published work is cited. The total number of publications also drives the quantitative nature of this assessment. Commitment to such predominant measures of impact increases work by individuals to increase outputs. Unfortunately, interest in such quantitative-based perspectives is increasing in this age of the use of academic analytics (see AAUP, 2016).

Q. What do you say is wrong with the quantitative-based perspectives for academic analytics?

Beronda: Such perspectives decenter or outright ignore the personal visions of success that individual scholars bring to their positions in the academy. These measures highlight a single aspect of careers, rather than assessing the multifaceted nature of academic careers. I know that personally when anyone started the conversation from the institutionally acceptable view of impact, it left me with the message that wholesale adoption and pursuit of that ‘vision’ of impact was the only way forward towards success. This perspective was at odds with the view I had cultivated for my place in the academy.

Q. When did you realize that?

Beronda: I realized very early in my academic career – soon after my first annual reviews in fact – that it would be critical for me to operate openly from measures of impact and success based on my own goals.

Q. Was there any backlash against your performance based on your own measurement?

Beronda: Yes, primarily in regards to my commitments being challenged even as my efforts were rated as satisfactory. I knew that I was being judged on my progress on track A, when I’d been running all along on track B. Undoubtedly, therefore, my “race” on track A could be justifiably rated as one of underperformance.

Q. How have you been able to counteract that?

Beronda: I found it essential to define (in great detail and in writing!!) my personalized, values-based vision of success for my career as a tenure-track faculty member. I quickly recognized that if I did not have a clear personal career vision, others were happy (and frequently “chomping at the bit”) to offer me one or to substitute theirs for mine. When deciding to pursue a career as a faculty member, one thing I have not been willing to cede is defining my own impact. Yes, undoubtedly I know there are standards of progress and success in every ‘institution’ in which I work and seek to build paths of success. However, I prioritize cultivating a personal vision of success, leadership, and impact, then seek to find a place in which that can be possible.

Q.  Can you share what exactly you have done to work around your own definition?

Beronda: I have defined my own parameters of success in the academy, what I refer to as my “B-index” (i.e., the Beronda index). My personal assessment is based on self-reflective questions such as the following:

  • For what purpose am I pursuing a particular platform such as tenure and promotion?
  • What have I done to help or influence others?
  • What types of activism, social justice, or community-centered initiatives will the attainment of a platform enable for me?
  • How and with whom have I shared knowledge that I have gained?
  • What work did I accomplish and how did I accomplish it?
  • Did I conduct my work through meaningful mentoring and thoughtful, empathetic leading?

In my annual assessment, then, I provide a rich, textured assessment of how I have progressed based on these criteria.

Q. In advocating one’s own parameters, what do you envision in an institutional level?

Beronda: I argue that an alternative to using a single type of index (e.g., the ever popular h-index) is to promote a culture in which individuals define their own parameters of success, or what I refer to as an “X index”. We should recognize how pursuit of the idea can contribute to goals of the institutions in which these scholars are embedded. Such individually-centered definitions of impact can position individuals to navigate the culture(s) of an academic environment without sacrificing their “whole self”. Rather than undermining institutional success, I believe that our institutions will be enriched when we can more fully embrace diverse definitions of and multiple paths towards success and impact.

Q. What has to change in the current system?

Beronda: For such perspectives to have the enriching outcomes truly possible, it means wholesale change in the way we listen to, review and promote, as well as the ways in which we mentor scholars. We have to move away from current systems that primarily reward self-affirmative mentoring towards individually-centered mentoring paradigms (see Montgomery, 2017). All of this will require major changes in leadership – this includes both the ways in which we select and reward leaders. But that change is needed as we understand that if we all keep contributing to the same measures of impact, we will continue to have monolithic outcomes.

Q. How did acting on your own B-index make a difference in your life?

Beronda: In the process, I have consistently honored myself, my relationships, my values and my intended impact through the ways in which I spend my time, my energy and the ways in which I make my commitments.

 

I thank Beronda for sharing such valuable insights and personal practices with us. Her emphasis on having one’s own vision also reminded me of our different blog posts (e.g., “Why slow down even before tenure?”, “Can I be productive by slowing down?”). Yes, our visions change the questions we ask ourselves and the ways we act in our everyday lives. What is your takeaway from this interview?

Here is another blog post written by Beronda: How I Work in Academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation.

 

Featured image by Sam Mgrdichian on Unsplash

About Kimine Mayuzumi

Dr. Kimine Mayuzumi is the editor and co-founder of Being Lazy and Slowing Down, a blog on the importance of slowing down/speed bumps and wholistic perspectives/lifestyles for busy academics. She has given workshops/webinars on topics around Being Lazy and Slowing Down, life transitions, and imposter syndrome. She also runs and facilitates services like Writing Circle, Weekly Reflection & Planning, and the Slowing Down Circle (SDC), where members support each other and mastermind towards wholistic lifestyles in a small-group setting. Kimine also enjoys Tai Chi and her family time with two kids and her soulmate/life partner, Riyad A. Shahjahan.