I like Michael Bérubé’s essay about the “crisis in the humanities” at the Chronicle of Higher Education but I’ve written quite a lot about the main issues in the essay lately and I want to give it a bit of a rest.
I did find myself drawn to an exchange way down in the comments between Bérubé and the pseudonymous commenter I_have_been_Catholic. The commenter acts like a tendentious jerk in many ways, and as Bérubé points out, a bit creepy too when he/she says “we know each other”. But I think Bérubé sticks with the exchange as long as he does because the anger and dissatisfaction deserve some kind of answer and there is in some way no answer that can be given.
Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Meritocracy is a good, short, smart analysis of the accelerating feedback loops that are undercutting virtually every profession, institution, and practice in the United States where some form of meritocratic selection is an important part of its daily operation and its forms of self-justification. As Hayes observes, the ideology of meritocracy is increasingly just a cover story for the self-reproduction of a shrinking elite, and in his view, this is the inevitable structural outcome of meritocratic ideals, that their processes are always corroded and corrupted over time. Hayes knows that it is hard, perhaps impossible, to do without the proposition that talent, ability or skill is unevenly distributed and should be unevenly rewarded, but that for now, what’s needed is an egalitarian push that breaks open current systems of meritocratic selection, renews, reorders and flattens the distribution of wealth and privilege, and so on. It’s a cycle, as he sees it, and the life of a democracy will always involve this kind of cycle of renewal, corruption, radical reform and renewal again.
So let’s take the one small corner of American life that’s at stake in the exchange between Bérubé and his commenter: the training, hiring, and continuing employment of faculty in higher education.
The broad contours of the situation at present would probably be agreed to by almost everyone:
1) There are many universities in the United States, and thus a significant number of jobs available to people whose job is primarily to teach courses and a lesser but significant number of jobs for people whose primary job is to conduct research at a university.
2) Teaching in higher education should require some kind of advanced training or study in the field(s) to be taught, as should research.
3) The qualification most commonly used is the Ph.D; in other fields, it might be some other graduate degree. In a few cases, it might be experience in some other professional field with or without relevant graduate training. Few critics suggest dispensing entirely with some kind of graduate training as the primary method for qualifying someone to teach or research in higher education. (I might, actually, but that’s a blog for another day.)
4) The terms of employment in higher education in the United States are increasingly bad, in some ways consistent with the general ways that professional and managerial work have become less rewarding and stable, in other ways specific to higher education.
5) There has been a steady reduction in the number of highly desirable teaching and research positions where the salaries, benefits, and terms of work are very good, most specifically including continuous tenure, but some of these highly desirable positions remain. At the same time, there have been until the last few years, steadily increasing numbers of trained candidates seeking these positions across all fields, and in some fields, these increases have continued.
6) Some fields of specialized training have few, if any, other options for employment. Other fields offer a wider range of alternatives to academic work as plausible or even common outcomes.
Ok? Now we come to the point where opinions and feelings diverge with increasing intensity as we take up the question, “So what to do about it, what’s fair and unfair?”
Very very many job-seekers
Very few good jobs
Bérubé’s critic asserts that in this situation, the people who hold the very good jobs primarily look out for each other, and privilege the students trained by the institutions that have the very good jobs. He suggests that if all marks that distinguished where candidates were trained, who they were trained by, and so on were stripped from the files and the selection of candidates was done by some kind of national, disinterested group, that the outcomes of hiring in academia would be far more legitimately meritocratic.
Bérubé replies that this is impossible both in terms of being nightmarishly complex and bureaucratic and (as I read his increasingly and I think legitimately annoyed comments) because you cannot possibly strip the identifying characteristics of candidates for academic jobs, that the commenter is revealing that he doesn’t really know how searches actually work. He points out that the writing sample is a crucial part of the evaluation of academic candidates. One of the things I think he’s pointing out is that when you are assessing the question, “Will this candidate be a good teacher in this field? A good researcher in this field?” and you’re answering that question partly by reading their scholarship and listening to them present their work or teach a sample class, you should know right away some things about the candidate’s training and pedigree because you know something about the field and the discipline. If I were hiring a historian of modern Africa and could know nothing in advance about where the person was trained and who they were trained by, but I could see their scholarly work and hear them present, I’d almost certainly have a good guess about the information that had been concealed from view. If I didn’t, then that would be a sign that I don’t know my own field and indeed, that I wasn’t a very skilled historian overall, since this is precisely the kind of reading out of information from documents that I’m trained to do.
If the process was made objective by taking it away from me entirely, to some national star chamber, it would have to be taken away from everyone in my field and maybe my discipline. Which would leave us in the peculiar situation of having a process of hiring that is so fearful of selection bias that it asks everyone but the people who know and practice a field to decide who is the most meritocratic candidate in that field.
But this is one common response to watching meritocracies break down, become insular and elitist: to try and make them objective and dispassionate, to take rhetoric and human judgment out of the loop of their operations. What this response believes is that there is true merit and that it is accurately discernable to very fine degrees. You can’t get away from the sense that Bérubé’s interlocutor thinks he/she and others are more deserving of meritocratic selection than others who have been selected and that the only explanation for the actual results is corruption and bias. This kind of critic believes in meritocratic distinction and hierarchy, that there are a very few who are much better at a task than anyone else, and a pyramidal distribution down from that, just that the pyramid needs resorting using a better mechanism of selection.
The other way to read the situation at present is that the numbers of people who could teach and research at approximately the same level of ability and quality is very, very large and that the selection processes are unfair largely because they can only match a small number of equally qualified people to the jobs they deserve. That observation leads to a different kind of solution: you could either argue, “We need more good jobs, then” or you could argue, “Let’s dispense with all the meritocratic flummery and gibberish then and just admit this is a tournament system where the people with the best jobs mostly got them through dumb luck, like winning a lottery”. (You can argue both at once, if you like.) You could even go one step further, as one of my colleagues has suggested about admissions to Swarthmore, and say, “Look, let’s just randomly select people based on some baseline set of objective qualifying metrics, let’s stop screwing around pretending that we are making fine-grained meritocratic distinctions that have any validity.” This is ultimately the position that says, “Everybody (including people who haven’t gotten the good jobs) needs to stop talking the language of merit and stop complaining that there are people with merit who haven’t been rewarded for it and needs to start talking more about something like equality instead.”
I end up wanting to borrow elements of all of these responses. Thinking that you’re the winner of a lottery is an uncomfortable way to think because it saddles you with an inescapable survivor’s guilt. Why me? Why not that guy or that guy? On the other hand, very few of us would give up a winning Powerball ticket even if we felt bad for all the people who didn’t win Powerball–we might just say, “But do good things with the money, try to live a deserving life”. If you’ve witnessed a lot of job searches, handed out grants or been involved in any selection process, you know that decisions often come down to very nearly random or miniscule distinctions between people who are very much equal in all the major ways that count, and that some of those distinctions can turn on the quirks of the individuals participating, on the structure of the selection process, on unconscious systematic biases, on disciplinary cultures, and so on, as Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think documents rather well. (Bérubé’s critic cites the book, as well he/she might.)
But Lamont’s book also points out how hard people involved in these selections often work to try and guard against some of those inclinations and how carefully people work to try and link “merit” to some set of ideals and requirements that aren’t just about entrenched privilege or the self-protection of an elite. If you’ve been involved in giving grants, hiring faculty, admitting students and so on, you’ve probably seen that there is sometimes striking consensus across a very broad range of temperaments, training, and relative access to privilege about who is at the top and bottom of a selection pool. And like Bérubé, I would say that that top and bottom are often about the substantive individual qualities and abilities of the candidates, not about their pedigree. When institutions do help their candidates, it’s often because, well, they did something better in teaching them. I helped judge an important fellowship for doctoral candidates for a number of years (it’s one of the competitions Lamont studied) and there was one research university whose candidates were always very strong, so much so that we typically had to cap the numbers of them who could get the award to be sure to spread the opportunity around to more institutions. That wasn’t because we were all wearing old school ties and shaking the secret handshake, it was because this institution had made a specific commitment of resources and time to teach its graduate students how to write applications for this grant and provided them with a lot of quality feedback on drafts. That’s privilege in some sense, but it’s also outcomes–what teaching is supposed to be about. If you’d blinded us to the institutional names, we’d have still picked these folks out because they had people who put time into making their applications “objectively” better, and other institutions didn’t even when they could have. A job candidate whose advisor takes time to read their dossier, critique their job talk, and provide advice about the places they’re applying to has an advantage that would show up whether or not you knew where the candidate was from or who the advisor was.
Merit is an ideology and I’d agree with Hayes that it is structurally accelerating towards a point of collapse and illegitimacy in American society. But honestly, yeah, there are people who do the job better and people who do it worse. Sometimes that’s well-predicted by how people present as candidates for the job or grant and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people do a job really well for a while and then not so well for a while and then really well again, and maybe that’s something that it would be nice if the entire society said, “Ok, that’s fine, that’s human, let’s all chill the fuck out and stop judging all the time or as strongly as we have been.” Sometimes I’m confident saying, “That person or applicant or grant just is absolutely weaker than that other person or applicant or grant” and sometimes I can’t see much of a distinction and hate being forced to invent one. Much of the time, I don’t like people who are too invested in their own merit–whether they’re people who see themselves as having been appropriately rewarded for their talents or people who are angry and resentful about having been excluded from the rewards they believe they are due. But I’d also acknowledge that arguing for humility and generosity all around is a lot easier when you have one of those few good jobs and your middle-age angst and doubt doesn’t include wondering how to pay for health care or make your mortgage payment.
The best I can do is grope towards trying to do it better than we do. I don’t think there’s a magic alternative system that makes everything fair and just and accurate. I don’t even think that’s really the humane society that most of us would rather live in–I think most of would just rather that there were lots of pretty good jobs for all the pretty good people and that we stopped spending as much time as we do sorting out the best of the best and imagining that we are matching them to their entitled rewards or raging when they are not.