Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What would a better hiring system look like?
John Bruce of In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood asks in the comments to this post what a better hiring system might look like in the humanities.

John, don't you realize that I'm an English professor? We're supposed to complain and opine, not offer concrete solutions that might actually benefit actual human beings. Did you think I was an engineer or something?

Well, I'm married to an engineer and went to an engineering college for undergraduate, so maybe something rubbed off. But I should start by being honestly fatalistic and saying that I don't think the system--as unlovely as it is--is likely to change.

The problem is that each institution and department wants to have colleagues that "fit" and that the definition of "fit" changes from place to place. At Wheaton it means a dedication to teaching. At Yale a focus on research and a desire to avoid undergraduate teaching at all costs. At Berkeley it may mean a particular political background, etc. One would like colleges to be intellectually adventurous, but in this end it's a committee decision and thus likely to cater to the lowest common denominator in the committee.

The British system -- in which outside "electors" determine who will get certain professorships -- breaks through that logjam by selecting the "best" person for the job without having to live in the same department as that person. At the high levels in which this system is used, departments are filled with scholars of surpassing excellence (think the Anglo-Saxonists who have recently been at Cambridge).

Such a system has its pitfalls, of course, and it would be a giant workload issue for US colleges. But I think if there were some kind of balance -- an "outside" group of electors recommends a slate of candidates and then the department selects from that slate -- such a solution might produce better outcomes. Or you could switch things around: the department selects ten possible candidates and then the "electors" choose one or two. The "electors" would have a thorough knowledge of the sub-speciality that was being hired and could rank the candidates in various ways -- teaching experience and ability, publications, importance of dissertation, etc. Or, the electors could simply produce a brief report on each candidate.

I don't love the system I've outlined above and can already see large potential problems, but it might squeeze some of the randomness out of the process and produce potentially fairer outcomes.

Another possibility would be to have the system work something like the way the medical intership process works, but I'm not enough of an expert on that to comment intelligently (it does seem to me that the matching of candidates with medical internships is more Pareto Efficient than the way we do things in the humanities.

Anyway, those are my brief thoughts. This trying to figure out solutions instead of just pointing to problems is way harder than it looks. Thanks, engineers, for all that hard work!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Why the Hiring Process Produces Such Uneven Results

John Bruce at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood discusses previous posts by me and by Jim Hu about the hiring process and closes by asking:

Jim Hu comments on and confirms Michael Drout's observations for other disciplines, and he makes it plain that the hiring process as it exists could hardly be more collaborative, intensive, analytical, holistic -- whatever you want to call it -- and yet I challenge both Jim and Michael to explain the error rate, the assistant profs who are hired whose accents are too thick for sophomores to understand, whose mastery of the material in the 101 course is dodgy, who lecture with their backs to the class, who break out in tantrums at students, who assign soap operas instead of readings, who stay out for a week with a toothache. . . how can this happen with a formal procedure that appears to be so rigorous? (Read the Whole Thing

Now I'm not a real scientist (though I try, sometimes, as in my Anglo-Saxon Medicine Project), but it seems to me that the most likely explanation for the, let's be charitable, uneven results one finds across academia, is that the data that are going into the decision are bad. I think the problem is the result of the combination of inflation with what Stephen J. Gould would call a "right wall" on the data. The two processes together create a situation where it is exceedingly difficult to extract meaningful information from the data that are collected, and so the actual hiring process ends up being arbitrary, capricious and inefficient.

Inflation is pretty simple to understand: even in hard sciences, average grades have steadily crept up over the decades, and the problem is much worse in the humanities. Rumor has it, for instance, that medical schools are now looking at the second decimal place of grade point averages because so many applicants have 3.7 or better GPAs. When I was at Stanford, the average GPA for undergraduates was a 3.5. Someone who, unlike me, didn't get a C in DiffEQs and a D in Linear Algebra (though I did get an A in Stats and a B in Stats II), can check my math intuition here, but I think that the distinctions between a large group of students who average 3.5 out of 4 are mostly noise (i.e., inflation wouldn't be in and of itself such a problem if there weren't that 4.0 wall on the right of the plot, but as it is everything is squeezed in). Larry Summers claims that physics professors at top-25 universities are 2 or 3 standard deviations above the mean, but if the mean is 3.5 and the maximum is 4.0, those standard deviations might not be meaningful in terms of content even if they are statistically significant. If the difference in getting into graduate school is the difference between having a 3.75 and a 3.87, it's likely that those decisions are essentially random (within that particular population; there may be some relevant information in the disintinction between someone with a 3.2 and a 3.7, though I have my doubts. [n.b.: I think that this inflation is one reason why MCATs and LSATs are still important despite decades of anti-test lobbying].

The inflation problem has propagated throughout academia (i.e., inflation in graduate programs, where almost everyone gets A's) to the point where transcripts, although included in a dossier, are completely ignored. I can't think of when I looked at one during a search.

Of course for many institutions, the place where the candidate received his or her degree is used as a proxy for quality. I have posted on how stupid this is several times, in large measure because where someone gets his or her Ph.D. often has more to do with where one went to undergrad, which has a lot to do with grades in the junior year of high school. I don't think that's a very good metric.
So if transcripts are meaningful only in the sense that they are used to select for graduate school (adding a huge dollop of randomness and poor decisions into the recipe right at the beginning), and graduate program shouldn't be a very good metric (though it is often used as one). If it's not, the next two sets of qualifications come into play. These are scholarship and letters of recommendation. These are, unfortunately, similarly inflated and even more capricious.

With the proliferation of journals, conference-proceedings volumes and essay collections, many candidates have a publication or two to the vita in addition to their dissertations. Whether or not these are good publications is very difficult to judge because there is so much sub-specialization and narrowing of scholarship. It's very hard to judge a dissertation, anyway, and the mere fact that one has completed a dissertation does not always mean that a student is doing quality scholarship (and conversely, the fact that one hasn't completed a dissertation can simply mean that one's advisor flaked out in some way or that interpersonal, funding or other issues arose). So, a publication in a top-tier journal means a lot, and other publications, that might even be of higher quality, matter little. Ph.D. students are rather clever, and they've figured out how to game the system, so some put more effort into turning one chapter of the dissertation into an article for a big-name journal than they do on the rest of the dissertation. In short, reading a person's scholarly record at the stage where they have only a couple of articles and you can't tell the trajectory of work (which is what a tenure committee should look for more than any specific journal) is bound to give bad data.

Letters of recommendation are just as inflated as grades. In my estimation, over 80% of the letters are not just positive, but two single-spaced pages long praising the candidate to the high heavens. The rhetoric has gotten so inflated that I think if one writes "Candidate X is an excellent scholar and teacher who would be a perfect fit for your job," most committees would take it as a subtle warning that Candidate X is a loser. This rhetorical inflation particulary hurts candidates from British institutions applying for jobs in American, since the British tradition really is to write one- or two-sentence letters.

Letters of recommendation are inflated for a variety of reasons. First, a professor's reputation is enormously enhanced when his or her graduate students get jobs in a difficult market, so there is a great incentive to gild the lily. Second, as in all inflationary scenarios, the expectation of inflation leads to more inflation. If I know that the dissertation directors of my student's competitors are going to inflate accomplishments of their students, then I have to do the same just to maintain parity.

Also, the 'confidentiality' of letters of recommendation is suspect. It's common knowledge that many students find ways to see their own 'confidential' letters -- I heard one assistant professor in a talk at Kalamazoo talk about how she had had a friend at another institution request her credential file as part of a search and then photocopy and send the letters to her. She did not seem to be ashamed at this. I know other people who have simply requested a credential file themselves while adjuncting (i.e., they fax on letterhead from the school where they're adjuncting and have it sent to that school, where they snag it from the mail pile or from a friend in the department). When you have good reason to believe that your students will be reading the 'confidential' letter you wrote, you probably write according to those expectations [n.b.: I have no idea what is in my credential file]. I should note, however, that although letters are inflated, personal recommendations by a dissertation director can mean a lot, exactly because they are personal, confidential and involved in that professor's individual reputation.

So at this stage, the data from transcripts are bad, which leads to admission to any particular graduate program being bad (i.e., you can't be sure an Ivy U Ph.D. really is better than one from Unheralded State [update: I changed the names of my hypothetical schools to avoid giving the opposite impression of my intentions here]). The data from scholarly publications are mostly bad, since there isn't enough data to show career trajectory and the system can be gamed. Data from completing a dissertation might be good, but every candidate has done that, so it provides no contrast. Data from letters of recommendation are inflated and hence bad.

So what you have are committees working incredibly hard to attempt to extract some kind of meaningful information from an enormous proliferation of bad data. At Wheaton we put a lot of weight on the candidate's cover letter, syllabi and writing sample. Our experience has been very good: we've gotten amazingly good people, professors who are excellent teachers and who do first-rate research. We feel we have been able to use the job market situation to cherry-pick the best people out there, and we haven't been disappointed. But there's no doubt that the process is not logical in any way and perhaps we have just been very lucky.

Given that there is no agreed-upon metric for quality work in the humanities, it's easy to see how politics, fad and fashion, nepotism and corruption can creep into the process. For example, it's rumored to be quite common for weak professors to deliberately steer searches into hiring weak candidates so as not to provide any competition for them. A candidate who seems too strong and thus may be threatening to an established professor or department can easily be elminated from contention not from any real flaw, but from any kind of weird post facto case assembled by anybody in the department.

There are other problems, too. To me one of the worst aspects of contemporary academia is its rich-get-richer nature. Students who for whatever reasons got into a good undergraduate school then get into a good graduate program, get more funding, have more opportunities, and have the 'name recognition' of the school. They then just seem to get more additional funding throughout their careers (it's a snide and obnoxious comment, but so often made that it has a ring of truth to it, that if you have a degree from University of Chicago you will get ACLS and NEH stipends regardless of how stupid you or your project actually are; I don't know this from experience, since the only Chicago grad I'm friends with actually is very smart).

So, over time, the fact that Albert got an A on his final chemistry exam junior year in high school while his friend Bob only got a B can end up ramifying through such a large number of decision trees that Albert ends up as Professor of English at Stanford while Bob is part-time adjunct at Community College even though there is perhaps very little difference in intellect or effort between the two. Such is one of the very worst aspects of our academic system (and the real horror is that it's a marvel of openness and opportunity compared to the academic systems in Europe).

With the lock-in created by tenure (so that even excellent scholars are often unwilling to think about moving institutions), with all the bad data backing the decisions, and with the problem that if even a small minority of the faculty members at an institution want to institute, sub rosa, a series of political, ethnic, or institutional tests, they can do so pretty much unobserved, the "market" for professors fails miserably in allocating resources or making good decisions.

That the whole system is not an even bigger disaster is due almost entirely, in my opinion, to the ad hoc efforts of indivdual professors and administrators, scattered throughout the system, who find a way to spot and reward good scholarship and teaching. But it's a tough battle, and many people just get tired of fighting it.

Perhaps a better way to allocate professor jobs would be to replace the entire disgusting, unjust, cruel and inefficient hiring process with fights to the death at the MLA convention (I recommend they fight using the Lirpa). It would make the convention more interesting, and it would probably be less painful and humiliating to the graduate students currently being ground up the by academic machine.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Hiring Process: Or, How Did an Obvious Horse's Ass Like Ward Churchill Get Hired, Anyway?

Short answer: he probably didn't go through the real hiring process, but a pro forma search was conducted with a pre-determined conclusion. It's quite possible that the position was so narrowly conceived that Churchill was likely to be the only person eligible for it (though you never can tell. I was originally hired at Wheaton in part because I could teach medieval lit of various sorts, basic writing, fiction writing, and journalism. Try to find that particular skill-set in any one applicant).

If interested readers want to figure out how the "system" works (more likely we are now descending into academic shoptalk that will bore many readers to tears), you can scroll down and read my previous post and also read what Jim Hu has written about the tenure process.

Reading both of these posts should make it clear that, nowadays at least, the biggest hurdle and the best opportunity for both quality control and sleaze is the hiring process, so I thought I would attempt to give just a bit more detail about how it works.

Once a department decides that it needs another "line" (that is, a tenure-track position), the Provost and President have to be convinced and there has to be money there. So the department will define the position, the first time, in whatever terms are most likely to appeal to the Provost. Obviously there will be politics, etc., involved, but the constraint of asking for something one is likely to get, rather than asking for all that one wants is a factor.

Once the position has been approved by the Provost, the department drafts an add for the job list. This has to be approved by the Provost, also, but in general this is where the real manouvering and heavy politics come into play. A carefully crafted add can be used to exclude certain candidates or can be ambiguous to allow for a wide variety to be reduced later, or can just be a laundry list of wishes. It depends on the department and the particular meeting at which the add is drafted.

Then, when the job list comes out, anyone who can possibly spin their qualifications to be even marginally qualified for the add will apply. Really. I've seen candidates argue that they really are in one field when they've given one conference paper in it, while everything else in the vita is in a different field.

In our department every single file that comes in (cover letter and vita) goes into a xerox paper box in alphabetical order. There's a cover sheet for each file that has the candidate's name on top, a list of all department members down the left side, and the categories Definite No, Probably No, Probably Yes, and Yes across the top. Department members read a file and check the appropriate box next to their name, adding in a comment or two. When the file receives two "Definite No" votes it goes into the "No" file (although it can be resurrected at a later date). Two "Definite Yes" checks and the candidate gets a dossier request (dossier is letters of rec, transcript, writing sample).

Of course, because this process is run by academics, most check-marks are in the "Probably" categories. The search chair makes a determination when a file is leaning one way or another and either requests a dossier or does nothing (i.e., Probably No filed don't go in the No box). This process leaves us with 40 dossiers, which are then whittled down in a long and tedious meeting to 10 MLA interviews. (I discussed this in more detail in the previous post).

Clearly there are hardly any real checks at the on-paper stage, and this is in my opinion the worst part of the system. Someone could, for instance, go through and "No" any candidate for any reason and make only the most cursory explanation (or even have a tendentious, dishonest explanation). If the other readers aren't reading closely, it's likely that they might just go along with the "No" for the purpose of quickly reducing the giant stack of files to read. Theoretically two members of the department could conspire to eliminate just about anyone (though there are some members of the department who search the "No" pile to bring back candidates, so this is 100% possible), though I've never seen that happen (and if the same two people kept writing "No," it might raise some red flags for the search chair).

As I said, I've never seen malfeasance like that, but I do think the system invites superficial rejection. When you're faced with 150 cover letters, all written in tiny font with stretched margins, its very easy to look for any excuse to stop reading. It's also easy to find an excuse that would let someone engage in just about any kind of discrimination he or she wanted to engage in, either personally (i.e., I don't want that guy) or systematically (i.e., no Ivy Ph.D., no military historians, no non-marxists, etc.).

So, assuming they did a search for Ward Churchill, how did such a loser get hired? Well, the add could have been crafted just for him, or some individuals could have sabotaged all of the most competitive candidates by finding fault with some small aspect of their applications. It's also theoretically possible for small groups to hold the entire search hostage (particularly in small departments), continuously raising objections to all other qualified candidates until they get the one person they want. So while I think John Bruce may be right that there was adminstrative pressure to hire him, but it's also quite possible that everything could have been coming from inside the department. He was around campus, a known quantity, and an affirmative action data point. That, sadly, was probably enough.

P.S.: Clueless me, I just learned that Churchill had been invited to speak here at Wheaton and that his invitation was rescinded. That's going to be a discussion of it at AAUP. Too bad I won't be able to go to that meeting.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

More on that Moron Ward Churchill

John Bruce at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood has a typically incisive post on the Ward Churchill affair:
The real issue in the Churchill scandal, it seems increasingly clear to me, is the lack of transparency in academic culture overall, with particular focus on how tenure decisions are made. I think the issue of 'political correctness' is a false lead, except insofar as it shows what a sham 'politically correct' views really are at a place like CU: the administrators appear to have justified hiring Churchill on the basis of false 'ethnicity', when this was most likely just a convenient beard for hiring a psychopath who'd charmed (or whatever else) the pants off them. Nor is it an issue of free speech; Churchill was a bad hire long before he started talking about 'little Eichmanns'. As I've discussed already here, though, the tools are available, and likely will be used, to fire him for unrestrained extramural speech, as they've been in other cases."

Yes. Lack of transparency is everywhere a problem, but it is particulary bad in academia, and particularly bad within academia at large institutions and state-run schools.

Let me describe how tenure decisions are made at Wheaton and then compare and contrast, so readers outside of academia (and perhaps those within) can see how the process works and can be corrupted.

You start with hiring, but I don't want to go into in specifics because Wheaton has a search going on right now. What I will say is: the department argues about how to define the job. Then an add gets wrangled over and written. Then the add goes in the Job List. We get 100+ applications that include cover letter and vita. We ask for "dossiers" on about 40 of those 100 -- dossiers include letters of recommendation, transcripts (which everybody ignores) and writing samples. We argue about those 40 finalists and whittle it down to 10. Three members of the department -- usually the chair of the search committee, who isn't always the department chair, but usually is, and two others -- interview the 10 candidates at the MLA conference. They return to Wheaton and discuss with the department. We invite 3 finalists to campus. We ask them to teach a class in their subject area, meet each member of the department formally, have a formal interview in front of the whole department (and several dinners, etc.) and meet the Provost. Department then decides who gets the job offer. The Provost has to approve.

Larger places operate similarly, with a few exceptions: most places don't involve the entire department in just about every aspect of the seach (we are only 12, so we can do that). Instead, a committee handles everything. Most places have the candidate give a lecture about his or her research rather than teach a class. This is the "job talk" that Ph.D. candidates prepare. Most places have several more layers of administration that have to be appeased, including one or more Deans. Wheaton has a Provost and two Associate Provosts, who are regular faculty members rotating through the job, and that's it. The Associate Provosts have no power over the job offer.

Ok, so the person is hired, usually on a two-year contract. After the first annual review (when the new assistant prof. submits all scholarship, teaching, service, etc., and writes a long letter about it and then responds to the chair's response... Wheaton loves long, discursive, self-analytical paperwork, oh yes we do), the department chair and the tenured members of the department discuss the new hire. If everything seems to be progressing, and the person seems to be a good fit for the department, a second, 4-year contract is offered. At this point the person is on track for a tenure review. No one outside the department has reviewed scholarship or teaching.

In the summer before the sixth year, the department prepares to bring the assistant professor up for tenure. Every member of the deparment must write a letter (either or recommendation or not; it's confidential, but everybody has to write a letter). The tenure candidate has to submit the names of six outside referees who can judge the scholarship. These people have to have an 'arms length' relationship -- no shared publications, not previous teachers, etc. -- the candidate has to promise not to contact these people from that point on until the end of the process. Only the Provost and the Tenure Committee knows which outside reviewers will be chosen, and which will agree to serve, but almost no one ever turns down such an important job.

Now to the tenure committee, who will decide our candidate's fate. At Wheaton we are very unusual in having no official administrative veto over tenure. That is, the decision is made by a 7-member committee that includes the President and Provost and 5 faculty. To be awarded tenure, the candidate must receive 5 votes. So even if the President and Provost vote "no," theoretically the faculty can all vote "yes" and prevail. The President does have a veto in the sense that it is the President that makes the recommendation to the Board of Trustees, but no President has ever gone against the committee. Since actual vote-counts are kept secret (i.e., I don't know if I was 7-0, 6-1, or 5-2), we don't know if it has ever been a 5-2, faculty against admin, but rumor has it that this has never happened either.

The tenure committee spends the entire Fall reading all of the candidate's scholarship, all student evaluations (i.e., not just the redacted numbers), letters from the department, other faculty, and current and former students (who are soliticted by the college). In November the letters from the outside referees come in. In the first week of January the committee meets and makes their decision. All proceedings are tape recorded, but the tapes are sealed in the archives for 25 years after the professor's retirement, unless there is an appeal.

How are other places different? There can be administrative veto by any number of Deans up the ladder to the Provost. The Provost or the President can also veto, and they don't need to give any reasons. There are also in-department vetoes at some places (we don't have one officially, but it is unlikely that someone would be tenured if their entire department wasn't behind them), and by this I mean that there are small committees, controlled by single individuals or small groups, that can effectively veto a candidate.

Where can there be corruption and malfeasance? Obviously at any stage where there is a veto that doesn't need to be explained. The next most obvious places are with the selection of outside referees. Due to super sub-specialization, it is at least theoretically possible for people to choose their friends or obvious supporters and for the Provost and Tenure Committee not to know that this has happened. If there isn't an obvious paper trail, the Provost and President won't see that the possible conflict of interest. People do look out for their friends and political fellow travelers. And the biggest problem of all is that nobody really wants to be a bad guy. So once someone gets to the tenure process, it's very hard to stop it from happening. Referees don't really want to write negative reviews. Faculty members don't want to write negative letters (they'd rather just ignore the whole thing in many, but not all, cases). Most people are only willing to be negative when it appears to be safe--thus the over-emphasis on any hint of certain politics. It's easy, make the writer feel righteous, and doesn't require cross-disciplinary work.

There is also the opportunity, as appears to have happened with That Moron Ward Churchill, to have administrators put pressure on the department. It can be--at least theoretically, though I haven't seen this at Wheaton--as clear as the administrator suggesting that the tenure-line (i.e., the ability to hire a full-time person for that particular field, etc.) is dependent upon the department making a certain kind of hire. This could be affirmative action (i.e., if you don't hire a certain gender, race, etc., don't bother hiring at all), it could be place of Ph.D. (get a Chicago grad or don't bother), or it could be even a certain person, which again appears to have happened with That Moron Ward Churchill.

There is also the problem of the minds of the hiring and tenure committees. I have seen inviduals make what were to me absolutely bizzarre decisions, suggesting to me that they believed in very weird stuff. I'm sure there are some people at CU who would have voted for Churchill because they thought he was American Indian no matter how bad his scholarship was. They may not even have admitted this to themselves. If his scholarship were of a specific kind of badness (i.e., so convoluted as to be opaque), they may even have convinced themselves that he was too smart, that what he was doing was too cutting-edge, for them to judge.

Well, it's late and I've got a lot of English 101 papers to grade, so I have to bring this to a close for now. There is a process as best I can describe it. I hope that this adds a little transparency to the system, though it's obviously not the real transparency in every case the John Bruce is really calling for. And I agree with John. Although I understand the privacy and confidentiality arguments (we hope referees and othes are more likely to be honest when they know that their recommendtions are confidential), all the secrecy allows for dishonesty and corruption -- and their appearance even when their actuality isn't there. I'd like to see a lot more transparency at least in the sense of quantitative measurements: Scholar X, awarded tenure, had Y pages of publications, Z student evaluations, etc. Same for graduate student funding, by the way: I'd like to see student grades and test-scores posted (without names) with funded/not-funded breakdowns. That way people could see where they fall (in both tenure and funding) and argue their case if they are out-performing people who are ranked above them. But I also know that it is not that simple, and that many quantitative measurements of scholarship (such as number of pages) and teaching (such as the raw numbers of student evaluations) are not always good proxies for scholarship, teaching and service.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Secret of Their Succe$s

What do the the Wall Street Journal's snippy reaction to the Eason Jordan affair and the Journal's regular defense of CEO pay, the Ward Churchill affair and Churchill's defenders, and
some of the more common critiques of tenure, teaching and the humanities at universities
have in common with a a fairly lame Michael J. Fox movie from 1987?

(Maybe only the groggy brain of Mike Drout, whose 10-month-old son decided that 4:28 a.m. would be a nice time to wake up today. But let's see if I can convince you.)

The Michael J. Fox movie in question, The Secret of My Succe$s, depicts (if I remember it correctly from about 18 years ago), a kid who works in the mailroom accidentally rising up to CEO-like power in a company. The point of the movie was that just about anyone could do what the movers and shakers were doing, and in fact a new, young person, idealistic and not tied into office politics and greed, might do it better.

The Secret of My Succe$s was nobody's idea of a great movie, but it did tap into something in American culture, the idea that for the many jobs, the difficulty is in getting the job, not in doing it once you are there. I can think of many other examples. For instance, every few years there's a story about some guy who has fake credentials as a doctor or nurse but who ends up doing a pretty good job in an ER until he is found out. Or, as I said to my wife last night when the topic of Carly Fiorina, ousted CEO of Hewlett-Packard, came up: "I'm sure that I could have destroyed the company's stock price just as well as she did, and I would have done it for ten million, saving H-P ten million bucks. Everybody wins."

To connect this idea to academia, there are many people (most of them graduate students) who would argue that they are better teachers than the dinosaurs in their departments -- and they might even have the evaluations to back them up. For example, my evaluations at Loyola-Chicago for Basic Writing were higher than those of almost all other faculty members, including full professors in their own subjects. Thus the argument would be that graduate assistants, at <20K per year, are better teachers than full professors at >75K per year.

Similar thoughts have occured recently to those who compare bloggers and journalists. American Digest, for instance, argues that journalists are starting to be scared by bloggers, since bloggers can, it seems, write and report as well as or better than mainstream journalists. Roger's L. Simon's characteristically pithy and well-written take (hope your recovery from the gallbladder surgery is progressing well, Roger!), suggests that journalists are becoming jealous of the influence, and also the freedom, of some of the bloggers (people who could have been journalists but chose to do other things).

Thus one might reasonably ask if professors, CEOs, and journalists are being rewarded for being better teachers, managers, and writers than graduate assistants, mailroom clerks, and bloggers, or are they being rewarded for being better ladder-climbers?

This is not as easy a question to answer as many who have climbed (however far) the various career ladders would like to believe. I think that in fact the Secret of My Succe$s (just love the stupid typographical witicism) meme is very prevalent in American culture exactly because there's been very little successful logical, evidence-based discussion of the relationship between ladder-climbing skills and performance from the perch. Michael Moore got his start, after all, with Roger and Me, in which he tries to ask GM Chairman Roger Smith why Smith gets richly rewarded when his company is going down the toilet. It's a good question that I don't think has ever been satisfactorily answered.

I think prominent national journalists are in many ways in the position of Roger Smith in the Moore film (tendentious as Moore's work may be). Faced with Dan Rather and the forged memos or Eason Jordan's talking smack, journalists start invoking their superior sense of the public interest, the checks and balances, etc.

Having been a journalist (albeit a terrible one, but I do have a very pretty M.A. diploma from Stanford) I have to say that this is a bunch of horse pucky. There are two things that separate journalist from everybody else: writing ability and access to sources. Good journalists have contacts and know who to call, and they know how to boil down a lot of information into a good, clear story. Journalists are generally much better at reporting and writing up reporting than are bloggers, who may at times report, but who usually link to someone else's reporting, either to use it or to critique it and who aren't generally constrained by space.

The problem is, that at the highest levels of journalism, the journalists aren't actually journalists, they are opinion columnists, politicians, managers and pundits. To some degree they still have the source advantage--Dan Rather can get a phone call returned by Colin Powell; the Power Line guys can't--but most of their energy goes not into reporting, but into other endeavours. And at these endeavours they have no particular edge over bloggers. In fact, because bloggers can write as many words as they need for a story, writers like Wretchard at Belmont Club or the much-missed Stephen den Beste can write argument cum research cum speculation essays that are more interesting and challenging than a predictable column by Thomas Friedman or George Will or Charles Krauthammer (when columnists go out and use their access to sources and do actual reporting, it's a different story). In short, I think the metro beat writers at most papers are probably better journalists (both as reporters and writers) than most bloggers. But the famous journalists are, perhaps surprisingly, another story. When they demonstrate that they don't use good judgment, that they can't avoid blatant and stupid bias, and when they try to argue that they deserve special privileges that other citizens don't deserve, people start to think--rightfully--that they are better ladder-climbers than perch performers.

In academia we have similar problems. On the reseach front, when people become so specialized that there is no one else at a given institution who is 'qualified' to read their work, it's very hard to separate ladder-climbing from performance. This is yet another reason why I think scholarship in English can and indeed must be written in such a way that intelligent people outside the immediate subfield can understand it (I'd argue that intelligent laymen should be able to understand it, and I have tried to follow that rule in my own scholarship). In the case of Ward Churchill, we see that politics have trumped all pretensions to scholarly accuracy, intellectual rigor and not being a horse's ass. If Churchill's tenure review and his scholarship had been required to have been judged by intelligent people outside the sub-field, this might not have happened.

In terms of teaching, there's a general rule of thumb that the younger a professor is, the better the evaluations. Now many people dismiss student evaluations as being driven by professors wanting to suck up to their students (the National Review guys do this a lot, which is yet another reason why I don't self-identify as a conservative; the WSJ's defense of CEO pay is another, and their snippy editorial on the bloggers and Eason Jordan is a third -- I'm not a great lover of hierarchy of any kind), but when you correct for grades (i.e., discounting the evaluations of profs who hand out A's like candy), I think you get a pretty good idea of student involvement and motivation, which is a decent indicator of teaching skill.

But older professors bring something else to the table that might make up for the 'connection' younger profs and grad students make with students: experience can often allow a teacher to zero in on the student's particular problem or difficulty. That can make for better learning by the student, which is really the whole point. Older professors also have an awareness of the history of a field and so, supposedly, will be less likely to be taken in by things that are trendy, reinventions of old wheels, etc.

Is the older professor that much more valuable than the graduate student or new professor with the high evaluations? It's probably pretty close. I'm in the middle of the professorial career trajectory now, and I think things balance out: the enthusiam and energy of younger professors allows them to overcome their lack of experience; the wisdom of the older professors allows them to overcome their lack of energy. And the older professor can and should bring more to the table in terms of more sophisticated, complex and difficult scholarship. When these things don't happen, you have a good argument for post-tenure review or the elimination of tenure.

Let me try to close this extremely long essay. I mentioned earlier that we fairly regularly read stories of someone who pretends to be a doctor and has quite a few successes in the ER. My dad is a physician, and I asked him about this to tease him. He actually agreed that someone who has spent a lot of time in an ER -- as an assistant or even a janitor -- can probably learn to do almost all the things necessary. 99% of what goes on is routine, same old, same old. But, my dad said, in those 1% of cases where something isn't routine, someone who is a fake doctor rather than a real doctor will very often end up killing somebody.

The stakes aren't quite so high in journalism, management or academia, but I wonder if there isn't some important wisdom in my dad's comment. Maybe there is a difference in what a ladder-climber can do. I'd like to see those who are in their exalted perches tell us what those things are.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Shoe on the Other Foot

I've just spent way too much time fixing the Works Cited page of an article that we're going to be publishing in the next volume of Tolkien Studies. I now understand, in a very deep and personal way, why journals, editors, publishers, dissertation directors and the infamous "ruler lady" at Loyola-Chicago were all such enormous pains in the butt about consistent formatting and style. I can remember very clearly thinking how stupid it was to waste time on one citations style versus another. "All the information is there," I said, even as I mixed and matched various styles or just tossed things together. What did it matter if I used commas, or periods, or a mixture of them? Who cared if I used "ed" or "Ed." or "edited by"?

Now I know why I was wrong and they were right.

Just from an aesthetic point of view, you wouldn't want a whole variety of citation styles and formats in a single book or journal. It would just look stupid and, more importantly, it would be confusing for the reader. So someone has to make those citations consistent.

That someone is the editor. In this case, me. And it's a lot of stupid, irritating, boring work for the editor. More importantly, the editor has to do this for ten or fifteen different articles. So it's easier to make additonal mistakes, and it's a time suck.


correctly format your own damn papers!

It saves time, leads to better-looking and clearer papers, and prevents the editor from getting mad at you.

You don't want the editor mad at you, do you?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Talking Smack
The Eason Jordan and That Moron Ward Churchill stories are all over the blogosphere right now, and I am too tired after a babysitterless day to do a link roundup.

I see a connection between the two stories that might not be evident to folks outside of academia: both individuals have--to their surprise, I'm sure--gotten called out for talking smack. I am almost certain that Jordan was trying to suck up to his audience and show what a tough job he has. It's even more obvious that Churchill was writing as a tough guy rebel who can speak truth to power.

I think both must be surprised by the reaction, because in the realms in which they move not only does no one ever call them out, but they are in fact encouraged to talk more and more smack.

Wheaton has a lovely Faculty Dining Room where most of the faculty eats regularly (some classes are taught 12:30-1:30, but most aren't). We have a lot of nice customs, including the unwritten rule that you generally fit yourself into a table regardless of who is already there, so you end up sitting with different sets of people, including the President and the Provost. Sitting in the faculty dining room, one hears many things. Most of the talk (probably more than 75%) is about students, and this is probably the best reason for students' parents to fork out 30K per year: we're always asking: how is Susie doing in your class? Did Adam skip English today? Amy wasn't herself in class, etc. But there's an occasional strain of talk that crops up that I particularly hate: talking political smack.

My favorite example was when one of my colleagues, a nice person and a good teacher, went on an extended rant that the purposes of prisons was to provide a source of cheap labor for companies. I am almost certain that this colleague knew that this was not just untrue, but ridiculous (the cost of guards, buildings, etc., is so great that even the rock-bottom prices on license plates don't really make up for the overhead). Everyone else at the table knew this was nonsense also. But yet it went on, and became in fact a kind of theater, the same kind of theater I remember from my own college days when we sat around in my fraternity and escalated b.s. about how amazingly we were going to defeat our rivals in the Spring Carnival Booth competition.

I think this kind of smack-talking is pretty normal when people are gathered around eating. We see it in the beot and the gilp in Anglo-Saxon, when the warriors gather in the mead-hall and talk about how great they are and what they're going to accomplish in battle.

But the problem shown by Jordan and Churchill is that you can get so used to performing that theater that you forget that it is acceptable in one setting and not in another. And because people want to be collegial, and because academics as a class are deadly afraid of offending their minority colleagues (in the case of Churchill), and journalists are deadly afraid of offending someone as powerful in journalism as Jordan, the feedback loop gets lost and people start to believe their own extravagant nonsense and, worse for them, forget that others don't believe it either.

I hope that both Jordan and Churchill pay a very high price for what they've done. There should be some consequences for talking smack to the wrong audiences and in the wrong social settings. But the seed of the destruction was planted a long time ago and fertilized by all the people who sat around and, not wanting to provoke an argument, encouraged them and people like them to run their mouths. Just as I did when I said nothing in response to my colleague's talk.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Tenure: Its Use and Abuse

That moron Ward Churchill (the 'Professor' -- with no Ph.D., I might add -- who called WTC office workers "Little Eichmanns") may be fired from his university if the tea-leaf-reading by some is correct (for background, here are a few links: Academic Bias 1, BAW 1, BAW 2, BAW 3, AcademicBias 2, Dennis the Peasant, several).

This has occasioned some talk about tenure and academic freedom, for example, by Eugene Volokh and see this entry and the comment thread at the brilliant Protein Wisdom.

Now I personally wouldn't mind seeing the guy fired on the principle that he is an obvious horse's ass and makes more money than I do, and I am obviously a better scholar, teacher and person than he is (ouch. Hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back there). If that hurts 'the tenure system,' then so much the worse for the tenure system.

Ok, that's how I feel, but I actually get paid to think, not feel, so here's some of that thinkin':

The Tenure System (whatever one thinks of it), is part of the business model for both colleges and professors. Although there are all kinds of problems with tenure, it saves colleges lots of money in the short term. Yes, you read that right. Think about it: people are likely to accept a lower salary if they get tenure as a perk (a very major perk). So instead of paying X, colleges can pay X-C, where C is the Tenure Constant. In the long run, colleges may lose money, as they are forced to keep employees who have become unproductive, etc., but in the short run, tenure saves money in the budget.

(Now it may be the case, as Tim Burke, I think, has argued, that there is now such a glut on the market that you could re-staff tenured departments with untenured people and still pay the same amount, but that's a speculation--there might be lot fewer people trying to enter the market if there wasn't the lure of tenure; we just don't know).

In any event, both the university and The Moron Ward Churchill entered into a contract. When they agreed to that contract, they both understood it as including tenure. That's why he can't be fired the way any other state employee theoretically could (and practically couldn't, do to union and civil service protections). It's analogous to a private-sector employee who signs a specific-duration contract but whose employer wants to terminate him before that contract is up. In this case, there is no termination date to the contract, but it's still a contract (Prof. Volokh, correct me if I'm wrong, please).

The case of That Moron Ward Churchill certainly points out the weakness of the system: once someone gets through the door, there's not much you can do about it. If a professor becomes useless and unproductive, you really can't get rid of him.

This problem is exaccerbated both by extreme specialization (because there ends up being very few people who think they can judge someone's work, and so there's not much judgment),and politics (of all kinds, from personal politics to ideologies and everything in between). But that's an argument for better tenure review more than it is an argument for the abolition of tenure. Although I guess one could make the argument that because the review system doesn't work well (probably in both ways: too many people who do deserve tenure don't get it, and too many who don't deserve tenure do get it), tenure is unworkable.

But let's assume that the tenure system should be abolished. How would you do it? As the That Moron Ward Churchill example shows, you can't get rid of the people who already have tenure. So if you abolish it, you end up empowering them even more, and when my scholarly generation tries to overthrow them, they (the dinosaurs) have even more power. In that case, the lesser evil might be to continue the tenure system until the dinosaurs are dead. But then, as my generation slumps towards the tar pit, we would have too much power in comparison to our students who need to push us in. And so the cycle continues.

My point in this post (beside the fact that Ward Churchill is a horse's ass) is that getting rid of the tenure system might be much worse than keeping it, even if the academic freedom, and freedom to pursue long-term projects arguments aren't convincing enough. In that sense, it's a variation of the argument I made about the current graduate and hiring system in English: indeed it is unfair and unlovely, but we may just be stuck with it.
About those discursive footnotes...
It's interesting how various memes cluster together academic discourse. For instance, over the past few months a number of reviews in The Medieval Review have taken authors to task for having "discursive footnotes" in their books. Given how close in time the 'publication' of these reviews has been, it's hard to see each as influencing the other. Rather, it seems to be a little spasm in the academic zeitgeist.
(There's been a similar spasm of complaining about the price of books, but that could simply be caused by a bunch of expensive but important books coming out).
So what's wrong with discursive footnotes, anyway? I don't know. But it seems that senior academics are starting to slap down more junior people for discursive footnotes. There has not been any argument as to why they are bad, just the presence of discursive footnotes noted as a criticism.
I think this is a matter of style (scroll down for a previous post on that topic). For some reason, medievalists my age really like footnotes, not just to put all the ducks in a row, but as an opportunity to pull together more wide-ranging or speculative information, and for some reason this doesn't sit well with some of the dinosaurs.
Because the thing with notes, foot- or end-, is that they are really easy to skip if you don't want to read them. But if you do want to read them (and I confess to being a voracious reader of footnotes--many times the notes are more interesting than the article), it's useful for them to, you know, exist.