Barbara J. Shircliffe, 1968-2023

Over the summer my friend, fellow historian of education, and former colleague Barbara Shircliffe died while biking in Asheville, North Carolina. I last saw Barbara at the 2019 conference of the History of Education Society, where she was presenting with Deanna Michael and a graduate student. We met while moving into our offices as new assistant professors at the University of South Florida in August 1996, fellow historians of education.1 I was one of dozens of colleagues who benefited from her support in so many ways, from being a friendly ear to a shrewd and quiet observer of human quirks, especially at a public university. I was overjoyed when she met her husband Clint Perigard, and they lived a few miles from us, reliable neighbors and friends. My first semester as a department chair, my wife and Barbara were hospitalized at the same time, my wife from pneumonia and Barbara after she was hit by a van while cycling. For a few days I shuttled in the afternoons between my office, my wife’s hospital bed, and Barbara’s ICU unit, and was grateful when both of them were released.

As an historian, Barbara is best known for her work on student and teacher desegregation, and her writing is not well-enough recognized in my view. We collaborated in both teaching and scholarship: a group of about half a dozen faculty taught multiple sections of an undergraduate course in schools and society, and most of us were historians. So we shared ideas, planned a common set of assignments over a number of years, celebrated the first-generation students who were often our best students in both undergraduate and graduate classes, and occasionally commiserated about students who disappointed us.

Barbara and I were part of two research projects together: one was a consortium of sociologists and historians studying education reform in Florida — this was led by Kathy Borman and funded by the Spencer Foundation. It led to an edited book along with several articles, and a few road trips around the state for research. This single $150,000 grant supported eight assistant professors along with Kathy and a graduate student, and all eight of us earned tenure during or shortly after the three-year grant.

Barbara, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, and I also edited a collection that came out the same year, Schools as Imagined Communities, that began with conversations we had around the tortured community politics we saw in the Tampa area. Barbara pushed Deirdre and me to read Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities, and that led to a collection of essays that explored different dimensions of the troubled concept of community. It was one of my most satisfying projects, almost entirely because working with Barbara and Deirdre was so joyful, and I learned so much from our conversations.

But what I cherished the most, and felt the loss of when moving to Arizona, was the ease of walking a few feet between our offices and talking, about any subject at all. Shortly after we met, we discovered that both of our fathers had Parkinson’s, and we supported each other through their illnesses. We laughed about the foibles of anxiously ambitious university administrators, about some of the bad advice we received from tenured colleagues, and about drivers in the Tampa area. Along with several thousands of her students, and dozens of colleagues and so many friends, I will miss her deeply.


  1. Christine Ogren was also part of our cohort, and is now at the University of Iowa. []

Finding external reviewers in the wild (for promotion and tenure)

In April, I wrote about finding peer reviewers in a journal context. This blog post is about a task that seems similar but isn’t: finding external reviewers of scholarship for promotion and tenure purposes. In most American colleges and universities with any research expectations for tenure, part of the process includes asking tenured faculty to write an external review letter assessing the scholarship of the candidate for promotion and/or tenure. Ideally, letter-writers are scholars who can provide an independent judgment (i.e., with no conflicts of interest), and who have both sufficient expertise in the field and understanding of tenure expectations in the U.S. to be able to explain their assessment for review committees and administrators at the candidate’s college or university.

Those scholars are always nominated by someone — usually, candidates for tenure and promotion nominate at least half and sometimes all of the potential reviewers. And the normative (and sometimes written) rule is that the candidate for tenure or promotion cannot ask potential reviewers if they will write a letter, because it is the institution that invites reviews. This post is about how to create that list. I have conducted many workshops on tenure and promotion over the years and advised dozens of colleagues, and most of the informal advice bandied about omits critical information: what are the real qualifications for being a reviewer? As I wrote in 2018,

I have told dozens of colleagues over the years that at the tenure stage, the most critical qualification of an external review letter is the ability to put your scholarship in a broader context: what does it contribute to the field? It does not matter if you and they are on the same side of a disciplinary divide if they cannot write a competent review to save their lives. As an historian, I cheated when putting together my nominee list: I read a sample of book reviews from all my potential nominees. After deleting the peers who had written incompetent or capricious reviews, I was left with wonderful scholars whose judgments of my own work was unknown for the most part, but where I could say they had demonstrated competence and fairness. Most education faculty do not have that type of public writing sample for potential external reviewers, and they have to seek out potential external review nominees reviewing in the wild — as conference discussants, as lit review writers, as solo authors writing lit review sections, and the like. It’s an invisible part of the tenure-track life.


If you are a tenure-track faculty member where the book is the coin of the realm, and where most tenured faculty in your field regularly write book reviews, you can follow the same approach I did: vet your potential candidate list by the public and accessible evidence of their ability to put scholarship in a broader context. But you still need to assess that skill (or maybe habit) even if you do not have book reviews as evidence.

This is why I call this process a search for competent reviewers in the wild, because you need to hunt down the evidence of how someone assesses scholarly contributions. Sometimes, you can spot the evidence in written, public form: solo-authored discursive review articles, or solo-authored articles that are long enough to have substantive lit review sections. Sometimes, conference discussants have enough time, and the expectation, to reveal how they analyze the contributions of new scholarship. But sometimes, the best evidence is not public: it consists of the confidential reviewing that journal editors and grant program officers request and read. Sometimes that evidence leaks into public view, with reviewing awards: many journals issue them! But not always, and there are far more competent potential reviewers than there are recipients of reviewing awards.

Sadly, this is where one’s circle of networks and mentors matters most: if you know current or recent associate editors at journals in your field (and I mean a journal that overlaps the most with your scholarly community), they are probably the best source of information about who reviews fairly and clearly (and promptly). If your mentors know current or recent associate editors, that is another route to this information. If you ask, be very clear about what you are seeking: information about fair, clear, and prompt reviewers. Do not ask for “good reviewers for me” but “reviewers who are consistent about stating the contribution of a manuscript and are fair and clear.” You want to prompt people to think about reviewing competence and temperament, not disciplinary politics.

I say “sadly” because access to this information is a reflection of existing professional networks, and these connections are not distributed equitably. This is one additional reason to build a network of mentors.

If you are seeking tenure, and administrators (or occasionally peer review committees) nominate potential external reviewers, you can shape their search by clarifying your scholarly community. This is best done through narrative statements on your annual reviews — this is how your peers learn about you! — but you can also be explicit, especially with department chairs, school directors, and associate deans. Some years ago, one of my (now-tenured) colleagues spoke with me about their scholarly community, and also about a scholarly community that looks like it was the same, but was different in some very important ways. I immediately took that and started asking other candidates for tenure and promotion to provide me with this type of information, along with one other piece of information:

  • A substantive explanation of the relevant scholarly community (or communities, more rarely)
  • Examples of journals that members of the scholarly community read and publish in
  • False cognates, to borrow a term from languages: Fields that might look similar to an academic from another discipline, but wasn’t, what the distinction was, and examples of journals that were thus inappropriate representatives of the candidate’s community of interest
  • True cognates in other fields (this was my addition): If I were looking for reviewers who were faculty in other types of colleges, who might have similar concerns and be reasonable if unexpected sources of reviewers? Some of these connections are obvious: sociologists of education work in sociology departments as well as colleges of education, and people who study measurement often work in psychology departments. But some are truly unexpected: some of the interesting work in qualitative research methodology comes out of nursing faculty.

One final item: talk explicitly about potential conflicts of interest, even if you are not asked to when providing nominees. If you can say “I have collaborated with none of these scholars, none of them have my advisor, and none of them received their doctorates from the same place as me,” that’s great. If there is a potential conflict of interest, be clear, such as the following: “{Name} and I both graduated from Purdue, 12 years apart, and our committees did not share any common members.” And for goodness sake, do not nominate your own advisor, your advisor’s regular collaborators, your collaborators, your relatives, or (if a relative is in the same field as you) any committee member of a relative. And if your chair, director, or associate director has input on potential reviewers, give them a list of all your committee members, remind them from where and when you received your doctorate, and alert them to any well-known scholars where there is a clear conflict of interest because of collaboration ties (with you or your committee members).

Attacking trans people and criminalizing teachers

In education, Ron DeSantis and Chris Rufo are the boys who cry woke, the politician and polemicist currently getting the most public attention for hyping the 2020s version of the culture wars.1 Adam Laats is among the many historians who have provided important historical perspective in Made by History (Washington Post) and Slate, among other places. I’m a little less sanguine than Laats that this current culture war wildfire will burn itself out, and even if it does, it is currently harming individual children and chilling the professional judgment of educators — which is one of its primary goals. The cruelty and intimidation are the point.

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  1. Jamelle Bouie coined this great phrase last month, in connection with political posturing around the Silicon Valley Bank failure. []

Finding peer reviewers (for journal submissions)

For the past year, I’ve been an associate editor for two journals, and for one of them, the run of manuscripts has been about 50% greater than one of the co-editors said was likely. So I’ve had to up my game in terms of the main job of associate editors for both journals, organizing the peer review process once a manuscript has been approved by the editorial leadership for peer review (i.e., not a so-called desk rejection, on first read). This blog entry describes my individual process of finding peer reviewers, in an era where the first impression of many journal editors is that manuscript submissions have increased at the same time as review invitations have been declined, especially for so-called ad hoc reviewers, outside the editorial board of a journal.

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Pandemic education history poster??

Yesterday, I presented a poster on this blog series at the Association for Education Finance and Policy, in Denver, and I had a challenge: how does one present a broad-brush historical argument in this format? So I hacked the idea of a poster, which is to present a limited amount of information as an entree to a discussion with people who decide they’re interested in the topic… and created a chart thematically tied to this series, rescaled to show proportionate changes (with the bottom of the chart representing the greatest proportionate loss 2020-2023 from the 2019 baseline), but without labeling the data:

Figure showing three unlabeled time series of data for 2019-2022, scaled to show proportionate drops -- blue and orange lines sharp in March 2020, slowly rising back up to 2019 baseline, and a gray line representing data that reached highest proportionate drop in early 2022.
Data from three pandemic series of data, 2019-2022
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