John Bruce has a long series of posts detailing his critique of academic quality control. His main complaint, as I understand it, is that in some disciplines (perhaps most or all: he’s focused on English but there’s no restriction of his critique to English) he believes that a significant number of professors are factually ignorant about their subjects of expertise. This, he feels, degrades the value of undergraduate education. I’ve criticized him for not detailing exactly what the harm suffered is, but to be fair, he’s had a lot to say about that in the past: he views many students trained by elite universities as shamefully ignorant in factual terms and therefore crippled in their ability to do good work after graduation.
In this series of posts, he attributes the source of the problem to academic hiring practices, and cites a number of other bloggers critical of academia (including yours truly) to buttress his characterizations of academic hiring. I’ve made some critical comments over at his blog, but I’ll echo and amplify a few of them here.
The general problem, as I see it, is that John Bruce is building his own Frankenstein monster out of various anecdotal spare parts which do not really fit together very well. The lowest common denominator critique of academic hiring, tenuring, graduate training and so on that you can find at my blog, at Invisible Adjunct’s defunct blog, at Erin O’Connor’s site, and many other blogs and publications, is that academia is a closed shop in various problematic ways. That it has an overly narrow or parochial set of selection criteria, that it punishes idiosyncracy or originality, that it allows people to misuse confidentiality to promote their own views or practices at the expense of healthy intellectual diversity. That academia is too much of a monoculture.
John Bruce’s representations of academic hiring are fairly accurate. Typically a department is granted a “line”. The members of the department craft a description of the ideal candidate: usually this describes a required field of expertise and suggests some desired secondary fields. The college administration often approves the language. The job is advertised. Applications come in. In most cases, an application consists of the candidate’s c.v. and reference letters. Some candidates may also send in a publication and a sample syllabus. Usually a department of more than three people will designate a committee to make a first pass through the applications with the intent of eliminating those that are totally unsuitable and those that are especially interesting or promising.
Some of the applications that are more or less eliminated at this stage, honestly, anybody would eliminate. Really. Academia’s no different from any other employer in that respect. Anybody who has done any kind of job search in any profession knows that you get some applications from people who are totally unsuited to the position by any standard. Kind of like the first round of American Idol. If the committee were all unprofessional and tried to eliminate honstly competitive applications? The norm in most cases is to keep all the files together, even those deemed uncompetitive. People can and do check up on their colleagues to be sure everything is going fairly.
It’s possible to bias the selection process more subtly, and people do. But I don’t know that academia is all that different from any other workplace in that regard. John Bruce thinks industrial workplaces are different because market mechanisms are self-correcting. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, but there’s plenty of capitalist workplaces that look more like “The Office” than an efficient entrepreneurial powerhouse, where cronyism is the rule of the day. (And of course, the same remedy is available with universities that it is with businesses: if they’re dysfunctional enough in your judgement, don’t give them your money. Shop around for quality.)
Still, I’d agree that academic hiring does tend to reinforce some of the worst aspects of scholarly culture: its insularity, its timidity, its drift towards safe mediocrity, its monoculture. Plurality of viewpoints and methodologies, unconventional ideas, and so on, do tend to be punished, often without any obvious over-the-top manipulation or unprofessionalism–more by insinuation, or by the simple fact that group decision processes tend to revert to a mean. The incentive structure of academic life, in hiring and elsewhere, is often completely screwed-up.
That’s the lowest-common-denominator consensus, and John Bruce appears to be drawing on that to forge his own complaint. The problem is that the main thrust of his accusation is the one thing that virtually no one else complains about. Left, right or none of the above, the one thing that almost no one says about academics is that they’re insufficiently erudite or knowledgeable. In fact, I’d say that’s the one thing academic hiring processes tend to be brutally efficient about detecting, for the most part. I was involved in a search some years ago, not in my own department, where one of the candidates turned out in my judgement and the judgement of many others to simply not know some basic factual information, the kind John Bruce is concerned about. That was an instant disqualifier, and I think it would be in many departments. The same goes for other kinds of vetting processes, by and large. Whatever is wrong with academia, I don’t think it’s that most academics don’t know their fields of expertise reasonably well.
The reforms that John Bruce suggests, particularly a national comprehensive multiple choice exam administered to all Ph.D candidates, seem to me to kill the patient outright (or to return to my earlier metaphor, putting a defective brain inside the Frankenstein monster). What is it that parents have a right to expect in return for their money? What do students have a right to expect? What are the outcomes desired, and what skills do professors need to have to deliver those desired outcomes? Bruce’s suggestions would change the incentive structure of graduate education and academic hiring in major ways. The consequence of those changes, in my view, would be to replace what is now understood as scholarship with something that looks more like pedantry. To make professors people with tremendous amounts of rote learning and no ability to think. Or to teach and communicate. If anything, the more common anecdotal complaint heard outside of academia is not that professors don’t know their material, but that they have no ability to teach it (or no interest in doing so).
My father used to tell me about the professors who made a difference to him as a first-generation college student at a Catholic university. The golden thread that connected them, in his view, was not what they knew but how they thought. He didn’t come away from their classes with a sack full of discrete facts–one of the classes that mattered most to him was a course that he literally made no use of later in life in terms of the subject matter. He came away having encountered a person who could think clearly, think critically, think skeptically, and who could show his students how to do the same. My father learned persuasion. He learned communication. He learned what knowledge was, and how to come to know new things when it was necessary or even pleasurable to do so. Of course my father knew also that thinking well involved knowing things, being clear about the facts, and saying no more or no less than what the facts allowed you to say. He learned that also from these few professors he valued.
The ones he didn’t value were the pedants: the people who knew a great deal factually but who had no idea why they ought to know it. Who could say nothing about why their knowledge mattered, and could only demand that their students repeat the same rote processes that the professor himself had undergone to acquire knowledge.
I share my father’s views. You have to know your shit but knowing your shit isn’t the thing that makes you a valuable professor. It’s the easiest part of this career. It isn’t the thing that a well-designed process of hiring and retention needs to be looking for first and foremost, the thing that separates the excellent from the adequate. It isn’t the primary good that higher education ought to aspire to deliver to students. It comes with the territory, but a fetishistic emphasis on factual information to the exclusion of critical thought, persuasive communication, and the ability to explain why knowledge matters, is a surefire way to reduce the value of higher education still further.