Late Afternoon of the (Academic) Elites

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
Many jobs
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.

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12 Responses to Late Afternoon of the (Academic) Elites

  1. Thanks, Tim … this is smart and generous, as usual, and it helps me think through a couple of things about the issues raised by the exchange.

    I have been trying to figure out why I reacted so strongly to this commenter, quite apart from his weirdness about how the length of my essay (which was cut in half from the original talk) is taking up space that would have gone to other people. Yesterday I finally realized: OMG, this guy thinks that the professoriate became more demographically diverse simply because of affirmative action. Moreover, he thinks that affirmative action required search committees to choose X number of candidates from underrepresented groups and give them interviews and jobs. And now he wants the same thing for graduates of less prestigious graduate programs — and he thinks this is a question of social justice. (As I read him, it isn’t a question of stripping all institutionally-identifying marks from each application so much as creating a national database of academic prestige and requiring search committees to interview candidates from the high, middle, and low range of the database.)

    Now, I ran into a great deal of this kind of thing when I was the volunteer placement director at Illinois, starting in 1993 (I was appalled that the English department had no such position, and that our students were getting such horrible advice as “keep your application letter to one page”) — a constant stream of white male students who were convinced the system was rigged against them not only in the way Hayes describes but also in a kind of white-backlash anti-PC kind of way, whereby they concluded that they couldn’t have nice things because the women and minorities, together with the Stanford grads, had already taken them all. So I have very little patience with it, especially since, as you well know, the inequities of the academic job system (which are many and brutal) get worse for women and minorities, who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty.

    It is true — and I have always argued — that good work can come from anywhere, from any graduate program in the country, and that it is not only unjust but intellectually foolish to judge candidates by their degree-granting institutions or their dissertation directors. But of course I don’t agree that the women and minorities have gotten theirs and now we need to create a National Clearinghouse of Academic Prestige Justice with the power to tell search committees who to interview. And it pushes my buttons, and it even leads me to wade into comment sections, because I really can’t stand it when resentment dresses itself up as a wing of the civil rights movement.

    That said, there’s another issue that hasn’t been mentioned, and that has to do with the relationship between program funding and a student’s time-to-do-her (or his!)-own-work. It’s a pretty direct relationship. You mention the importance of knowing about a candidate’s training and intellectual background; I’d add that graduate students can usually make more of their training and background if they are fully funded throughout the year, and if they aren’t teaching two sections of composition (or anything else) every semester. Surely that’s where the institutional disparities are most keenly felt. It is not true, as ex-Catholic imagines, that everyone from an elite program gets a job offer, and winds up working outside academe only if they think they’re too good to teach at Eastern State. But it is true that most people in elite programs are well-funded (even though, as I mention in another comment, this was not true of Virginia in the 1980s), and that they have more time to do the kind of work that will result in a really compelling writing sample.

    As is so often the case in comment threads, at the CHE and elsewhere, there are some real issues lurking behind some really misguided comments. Thanks for teasing them out here.

  2. Matt Miller says:

    Please do write another post elaborating on why you might suggest dispensing with graduate training as the primary qualification for academe. Your parenthetical has got me intrigued.

  3. Thanks for this post and also for the reply. I had read Michael Bérubé’s initial essay and the exchange at CHE, but except for understanding that the angry commenter was angry, it wasn’t clear to me until now exactly why.

  4. MDC Bowen says:

    My take on the controversy is that I think there is a great deal of American bias inherent in the whole deal, which is to say that the expectation that meritocracy itself is sustainable requires a great deal of stuff whose absence has wrecked the practice no matter how well or poorly selection criteria are.

    What I think is unstated here is that the best of the best cannot seem to recognize that the rewards of being the best are not always forthcoming. You may have high demand for something that is of low value. You may be the best hooker on the boulevard, but you’re still just a hooker and it ain’t 1980 and Donna Summer is not making double platinum singing about you bad girls. Sorry but who needs higher education but those who need it? I have a rule that says no idea you have is valuable unless others can use it successfully without your opinion – and what I think academia needs – especially the best of the best, is that they are not generating genuine demand at the grass roots for the products of their labor. I don’t care what you are learning, there is NO undergraduate degree worth $50,000 a year. So the upshot of all this is that somebody among the best of the best has got to make the economic decision to literally move to South Dakota and start a new university from scratch, because the purity of the profession has been lost owing to its inability to function without a luxurious infrastructure whose inefficiencies are beyond their control and ability to reform.
    It seems perfectly obvious to me that if you can fix a toilet in NY, you can fix one in Patagonia, or else you don’t really know toilets. Everybody is trying to be the tenured plumber to the King of New York, but maybe the world just needs more toilets.

    The software industry has been radically changed (and purified) by the open source movement, and I think it ought to be inevitable that similar radical changes would come to academia if significant fractions of the professoriate were to give up their cozy digs and open source their great intelligence to YouTube. No it will not work like a classroom, but must a classroom cost as much as it does?

    I believe we have already reached the inflection point at which people ‘with equivalent work experience’ are in a backlash against the multi-degreed. Perhaps not in those fields that require Large Hadron Colliders or Level 5 clean rooms – but look what’s happening to NASA, folks. (And women are going to the Army). I think academia is going to have to prove its value to the American masses all over again, or else relocate to Oslo.

  5. MDC:

    There’s a couple of weird things, at least to me, going on in your comment. The first is this idea that if you don’t have universal demand for your services AND a universal “fit” for them, your services are worth nothing. There’s a small part of that proposition that I find appealing, that I think is potentially built in to the liberal arts as an ideal–that a demonstration of ‘critical thinking’ should be adaptability, flexibility, etc. I would agree that on some level, that’s not right now the result of most liberal arts education, not consistently or thoroughly.

    But at the same time, really, no knowledge or skill or expertise is worth anything unless it is 100% adaptable to every possible situation and wanted by everyone? So, say, investing the necessary time, effort and money to acquire the specific, hard-to-acquire skills needed to design and maintain the Large Hadron Collider is worthless because there are no other machines on the planet like it? That’s what you’re saying, really–that it is never worth developing expertise or skills that are highly adapted to a particular niche. It may be *risky* to do so (as it is in evolution) but never?

    Keep in mind too that you are not imagining that academia should therefore return to some state it used to be in, you are imagining it becoming something it never was before. Seventy years ago, almost no one went to college: it was for a very small subset of people who either needed very specific credentials or for a social class for whom college was a part of their social capital. Even in the GI Bill, a relatively small number of Americans sought higher education. To argue that higher education needs to achieve universal adaptability and universal relevance, to be all things to all people from Montana to Patagonia, is to call for it to be something it never has been in all its history. Which is interesting–but it’s a bit churlish to imply that a failure to achieve something you never have been is a decline from some previous benchmark.

    I also think you may be underestimating the adaptability of academics. In some ways it’s easier to get hired around the world to teach in universities than it is to fix toilets (plumbing and other infrastructure is less universal and interoperable than you might think, and not just because of technology but also because of different regulatory regimes). A lot of US academics that I know are working or have worked in universities in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, East Asia, etcetera. At this very moment, the idea and practice of education that it’s become fashionable to bash inside the United States is really attractive in a lot of other societies–and not just because Yale and NYU are starting up universities abroad.

  6. MDC Bowen says:

    No I think you get me wrong. I think that the success of academia is to replicate its knowledge base and to expand its knowledge base., rather like that old history joke. It gets harder as time goes on because there’s more history. If history professors are having a crisis in meritocracy shouldn’t that only occur when knowledge of history approaches a saturation point?

    I agree that academia is and should be elitist. There should be proper processes and ends to those processes and thus relatively objective ways to measure the effectiveness of the leaders and participants in those processes. But if the end of those processes is to serve humanity, somebody’s job had better be to distribute the benefits, because you really cannot serve humanity by osmosis. (That’s the hidebound sinecure of affirmative actions – humanity is better because this subset who share not, is better)

    Since the subject is the humanities, let me use music as a familiar example. And I wonder if all the humanities work in this fashion – if so – recognizing that I come to understanding iteratively then I can rethink my position. After all, meritocracy may be a false standard.

    I have come to know and recognize the Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould is *the* standard. His performance of this solo piano piece by Bach is universally admired. For our example let us say that Gould is the best of the best and that his instructors were the best of the best plying their trade without any expectation that he might record a world historical best. If the professoriate of classical piano is having a crisis of meritocracy that is rooted in the problem of demand as I see it, it is because the sort who would produce another Gould are all vying for tenure at {Eastman, Julliard, Curtis, AnnArbor..}. This fixed set of excellent schools artificially inflates the value of tenure there because in fact there isn’t enough appreciation for the Goldberg Variations. More people, in fact most people, would rather listen to (but mostly watch) Beyonce at the Superbowl. If the best of the best had access to Beyonce’s money and audience, it would be trivial to establish a new excellent music school.

    Being human, it is possible for anyone, given sufficient education to understand why Gould’s Goldberg is superior to Beyonce’s Tina Turner. Therefore to secure their elite positions in new universities it is in the interest of the elite to turn more people towards G’sG. I say the problem is that for the love of music, the professoriate is unwilling to suffer the work it takes to raise all boats – and yet want the comforts associated with the elite standing. This to me sounds familiarly like what Taleb calls the Bob Rubin Problem which is the taking of profits without producing the net benefit to the public which is the true value upon which elite perks properly depend.

    Now here’s the rub and it is something easy for me to see with music. There is a real constraint involved in the composing, teaching, performing, critique and appreciation of classical piano. (Let us assume something of that hierarchy with composing & teaching being the most demanding) It is one thing to appreciate, but something altogether more rare to teach, perform or properly judge. If academia in the humanities has in fact evolved to the point of equilibrium – at which point it consideres that the world cannot afford to be made to appreciate any more Goldberg, and there are no reasonable possibilities for striking out to make more public radio stations play classical piano, etc. Then it is at an impasse. There is no more real value to be mined from the planet of human minds. Then it is a natural consequence for there to be courtly intrigues. Meritocracy no longer has anything to do with it. There simply isn’t enough good work to be done to support the ambitions of those talented enough to do it.

    That’s when the open source movement has its best opportunity. The marginally elite players have nothing to lose – so they go to the subway and play for free, undermining subscriptions to Carnegie Hall.

    Interesting thinking about this as I see a consistency with my Peasant Theory. The subway players are what I call the ‘Alternate Slice’. Essentially ronin.

    My point here is not to suggest that the products of higher ed be universally accepted, but that they be economically approachable with significant demand in order to suggest that the crisis of leadership is one of meritocracy. Once the greater audience is gone, it is an illusion to believe that departmental applause is anything more than that.

  7. Ok, with some differences in emphasis and reasoning, I think I’m basically with you on this point, and I would agree that it is not a commonly understood thought in academia at the moment. Michael Bérubé’s Chronicle essay actually ends on a slightly similar thought. It also connects a bit to the parenthetical that Matt Miller says he finds interesting, so I had probably get to writing it up.

  8. x.trapnel says:

    I’m on Team Random Selection, but one thing I find interesting about the last bit in your posts is the squishing together of objectively better applications and objectively better performance. Program X’s candidates for the fellowship consistently put together better applications–but of course the fellowship isn’t supposed to be a reward for a good application; it’s supposed to give support to enable quality research and dissertation-completion (I guess; I have no idea which fellowship you’re talking about). Did the committee periodically evaluate its past performance to see whether Program X’s grantees had in fact performed as well as their applications indicated, better than the marginal candidates who would have been edged out by other Program Xers if there weren’t a quota? (And if they didn’t perform such retrospective evaluations, whhy on earth not?)

  9. Dave says:

    You should come to the UK, where the dominant voices in public discourse persistently argue that the slope of prestige isn’t steep enough, and the slope of funding is WAY not steep enough… Many of them would strip half of our universities of the very title…

  10. suibne says:

    You are merely trying to create an aura of believability around a fictional narrative. That requires either a willing suspension of disbelieve or a degree of naivete that only college students and those who want into the same virtual reality you already live in have. Parallel, virtual…..all fictional narratives. These things we call “school” are over.
    Have a nice day.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I am thinking that more than “school” is finished over in your virtual reality.

  12. welby, md says:

    The bloated, meandering “academic” writing of this entry defeats the purpose of its purported argument and sets up a fine hypocrisy that probably is an unintended irony.

    Many of us knew meritocracy would end this way, and was being used to hermetically seal the cells of power (while pretending to expand the cells for all by using token merit lackeys like Barack Obama, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Donna Shalala, Eric Holder), much longer ago than your cited “scholars” who are just now realizing what has long been pretty damned obvious to many of us.

    Perhaps your essay would be more forceful if you explained how you personally were gulled by the political correctness goat-roping instincts lurking behind merit-based systems and their hierarchical shufflings.

    Or perhaps you’re just trying to appear wise by caboosing yourself onto the train of those who have been noted, in recent days or weeks by scholars you “respect,” as being so wise.

    I think the hypocrisy and lack of self-criticism here is another indicator of what’s wrong, the precious snowflakeness of modern “leftism” or “progressivism” or whatever you’d like to call that segment of “the intelligentsia” who promote the status quo by pretending meliorism is a big fix that levels the playing field soon enough to provide existential palliatives.

    Ain’t that a shame?

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