Friday, January 6, 2012

Does only deadwood float? A late thirsty on meritocracy...

The recent posts about nature vs. nurture, exhaustion and futility, and of course writing your way out provoke me to finally scratch an itch I have had for a while and ask y'all: are we a meritocracy? Of course we all know or have heard of some examples that show we are not - some brilliant adjunct who got f***ed by the system, bad luck, circumstances, etc. and some silverback deadwood somewhere who doesn't deserve the job. Then there are other factors like families and geography that keep ranks from sorting out completely "rationally."

But overall, my sense of the matter is that if you take any reasonable measure of academic prowess - the reach, relevance and/or eloquence of research, the inspiration and skill of teaching, the collegiality, the committee work ethic and other service, whatever you want - and compare it with overall formal ranking in the system, you will find a correlation. Despite all the complaining and horror stories and exemptions, at the end of the day, the better scholars tend to float to the top. If you knew nothing about two people save their academic rank (and taking the school they work at into account), that would be a reasonably good predictor of how you would rank them, at least in terms of order (although I know we'd all like to give particularly the lower ranks better conditions), given the power to do so, if you also knew more about them and the specifics of their work and their work personae.

Do you think so? Or is the system ruined by corruption, deadwood, ideology, sexism, phoniness, funding cuts, assessment assholes and the deans who serve them, adjunct serfdom, the IT people, commercial influence - pick your own favorite horrors - etc.? Are we more likely to succeed by being good scholars, or is something else more important? We all know it isn't sufficient in this job market, but is it still the core element of success?


  1. AS, I agree that the system is basically a meritocracy once you get paste the advantages bestowed on certain groups based on family wealth, parenting skills, culture and ethnicity. Academia is a human endeavor and so it is flawed. However, it works pretty well in the way you describe.

    The people to spring to mind when we say that the system is ruined are the exceptions.

    The fact that all good scholars don't get TT positions is not necessarily even a flaw in a meritocracy. In many academic fields, there is a glut of good applicants looking for a few jobs. Some very good people will not succeed under those conditions.

  2. Such a good question!

    I think that the word "meritocracy" (originally designed as a dystopian pejorative, by the way) is misleading for one single reason: it leaves out 2/3 of the equation for success.

    Success requires three things. Merit or qualification, of course, but also opportunity and networking. If I happened to be the most talented Dodo trainer of all of history, it wouldn't really matter because I live in a time when Dodos no longer exist. And even if I were a particularly talented Dodo trainer back in the day, if I didn't know anyone in that industry, my talents would go unnoticed even if I developed them day and night.

    We focus on the meritocracy in pop culture and on this blog, but we often ignore the fact that people get jobs through networking (advisers' recommendations, personal knowledge of staff and institutions, etc) and through opportunity (seeking a specific job at a time when jobs are hiring, or right as someone is about to retire).

    The most intelligent, hardworking people in the world are out of luck if they go on the market when the chips are down or when they are completely unaware of SLAC State hiring over in Boston. Without the remaining 2/3 of the equation, we cannot speak of a "meritocracy" alone.

  3. Not only deadwood floats. But it's a terrible shame that the job situation is so constricted, it's not even close to true that all the good ones make it.

    For the sciences, Peter Feilbelman's book, "A Ph.D. is Not Enough" discusses this extensively, even in the title. He even has a section, "Dilletantes need not apply." This is not a new phenomenon. Feibelman's experience comes from the first big mass layoff of science Ph.D.s, in the wake of the cancellation of Project Apollo in 1972, after they'd been so aggressively recruited throughout the '60s in the wake of Sputnik. Hiring for science Ph.D.s has been erratic, at best, ever since. It got better in the late '70s and '80s, but has been bad again since about 1989, when the head of the National Science Foundation loudly trumpeted an "imminent shortage of scientists and engineers" that never even came close to happening. (Remember "the peace dividend"?) It was bad throughout the '90s when I was a struggling postdoc who bought Feibelman's book in 1996, and it's especially bad now.

    Feibelman's book has been criticized as nothing more than common sense, but consider its intended audience: people who have spent a large fraction of their lives in the lab. A long list of refereed publications is indeed highly desirable. Those need to be refereed publicaions, though, not abstracts. Erratum notices look bad. It's especially bad when junior people with short publications lists mix these very different types of publications together. It looks like they're trying to pull a fast one, and will usually be the end of their application.

    In a small field like astronomy, people know each other, so if you publish large amounts of junk, you won't get hired. Even if you're in a large field, a reputation for unreliability will catch up with you, so you won't get tenured.

    (We had a case of it in my department. It was a dreadful fight, complicated by the extreme specialization of modern science, so that we were critically dependent on the word of outside reviewers. The culprit saved us much pain by finding a better job and leaving us with only two weeks' notice: imagine the scramble of teaching schedules that caused.)

    Good speaking, writing, and especially people skills are now essential. They didn't used to be. We have our majors and grad students give talks, and they often object to it. As Feibelman notes (and I quote from memory), "you do see Nobel prize winners whose orations are Delphic, whose graphics look like they were scrawled during a particularly turbulent airplane flight, and who look like they have just emerged from the bar, but you are not one of them yet, and if this is how your talks are going, you never will be, either."

    As long as the discussion recently touched on statistics, the problem with tenured deadwood is an illustration of a confirmation bias. In a confirmation bias, one remembers the hits, but not the misses. Tenured deadwood can do such harm, and in so many ways. Everyone resents them bitterly, particularly the contingent junior people everyone (except the clueless or just plain callous higher-ups) knows to be better. Perhaps worst of all, tenured deadwood can linger for decades, there being no easy way to get rid of them.

    My department is strugglng with two nasty ones. The stakes may well be whether our department can afford to hire back our three full-time instructors next year. They have taught well for us for over ten years, but they were never tenure-track (they don't do research), and their three-year contracts are all coming up for renewal next year. As department chair, I wonder about the deadwood: what do I have to do, put stakes through their hearts?

  4. George W. Bush.

    I think it was Jim Hightower who said that Bush was born standing on third base and thinks he hit a triple.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.