Romantic ideals of originality still remain deeply embedded in how we recognize, cultivate and reward merit in most of our selective systems of education, reputation and employment. In particular we read for the signs of that kind of authentic individuality in writing that is meant to stand in for the whole of a person. Whether it’s an essay for admission to college, a cover letter for a job, an essay for the Rhodes or Fulbright, an application for research funding from the Social Science Research Council or the National Science Foundation, we comb for the signs that the opportunity-seeker has new ideas, has a distinct sensibility, has lived a life that no one else has lived. Because how else could they be different enough from all the other worthies seeking the opportunity or honor so as to justify granting them their desires?
Oh, wait, we also want to know, almost all of the time, whether the opportunity-seeker is enough like everyone else that we can relate their talents, ideas, capabilities, plans and previous work to the systems which have produced the applicants. We want assurances that we are not handing resources, recognition and responsibility to a person so wholly a romantic original that they will not ever be accountable or predictable in their uses. We want to know that we are selecting for a greatness that we already know, a merit that we already approve of.
This has always been the seed that grows into the nightmare of institutions, that threatens to lay bare how much impersonality and distance intrudes upon decisions that require a fiction of intimacy. Modern civic institutions and businesses lay trembling hands on their bankrolls when they think, however fleetingly, that there is a chance that they’re getting played for fools. That they are dispensing cheese to mice who have figured out what levers to push. That when they read the words of a distinctive individual, they are really reading the words of committees and advisors, parents and friends. That they are Roxane swooning over Christian rather than Cyrano, or worse, that they are being catfished and conned.
The problem is that when we are making these choices, which in systems of scarcity (deliberately produced or inevitably fated) must be made, we never really decide what it is that we actually value: unlikeness or similarity, uncertainty or predictability, originality or pedigree. That indecision more than anything else is what makes it possible for people to anticipate what the keepers of a selective process will find appealing. Fundamentally, that boils down to: a person with all the qualifications that all other applicants have, and a personal experience that no one else could have had but that has miraculously left the applicant even more affirmed in their qualifications. Different in a way that doesn’t threaten their sameness.
I’ve been involved in a number of processes over the years where those of us doing the selecting worried about the clear convergence in some of the writing that candidates were doing. We took it to be a sign that some candidates had an advantage that others didn’t, whether that was a particularly aware and canny advisor or teacher, or it was some form of organized, institutional advice. I gather that there are other selective institutions, such as the Rhodes Foundation, that are even more worried, and have moved to admonish candidates (and institutions) that they may not accept advice or counsel in crafting their writing.
The thing is, whenever I’ve been in those conversations, it’s clear to me that the answer is not in the design of the prompt or exercise, and not in the constraints placed on candidates. It’s in the contradictions that selective processes hold inside themselves, and in the steering currents that tend to make them predictable in their tastes. When you try to have it all, to find the snowflake in the storm, and yet also prize the snowfall that blankets the trees and ground with an even smoothness, you are writing a human form of algorithm, you are crafting a recipe that it takes little craft to divine and follow. The fault, in this case, lies in us, and in our desires to be just so balanced in our selection, to stage-manage a process year in and year out so that we get what we want and yet also want what we get.
Maybe that was good enough in a time with less tension and anxiety about maintaining mobility and status. But I suspect the time is coming where it will not be. Not because people seek advantage, but because anything that’s predictable will be something relentlessly targeted by genuine algorithms. Unpredictability is never a problem for applicants or advisors, always for the people doing the selection or the grading or the evaluation. If you don’t want students to find a standard essay answer to a standard essay prompt, you have to use non-standard prompts. If you don’t want applicants to tell you the very moving story of the time they performed emergency neurosurgery on a child in the developing world using a sterilized safety pin and a bottle of whisky, you have to stop rewarding applicants who tell you that story in the way that has previously always gotten your approval. If what we want is genuine originality, the next person we choose has to be different from the last one. If what we want is accomplished recitation of training and skills, then we look for the most thorough testing of that training. When we want everything, it seems, we end up with performances that very precisely thread the needle that we insistently hold forth.