Friday, February 08, 2008

Darwinism in Academe

From Jessica Burstein's "No: A Love Song" in the Chronicle (I think it's behind the subscription wall--sorry). Burstein tells about having a panel rejected by an organization that she'd been with since its first meeting (I was at that first conference, too), and along the way she says this:
Here's what I know to be true. Academe is about being rejected. Everyone is told no. Am I right about this close reading? No. Will you read my dissertation? No. Can I have this job? No. How about this fellowship? No. Publish my article? No. Might I have tenure? No. Do you want my book? Nope. Could I get a promotion, a raise, an office with a window, an office, 15 extra copies on the Xerox machine? No, no, no, no, and yes — wait, I changed my mind: No.
. . . In Texas, or its outlying areas — Cincinnati, Seattle, Amsterdam, Algiers — academics proceed by virtue of an algorithm of envy. Born of denial, "no" is its currency, while "yes" swaggers through alleyways like dinners with Susan Sontag or Stephen Fry: You weren't there; but they had fun, and quips were exchanged.

Finally! She's so right, and yet this is the part of academics that we all pretend mightily just isn't so, that all things are open to us, when actually most of us will spend our careers getting rejected.

And yet we enable this behavior to occur. I'm reminded of this when I hear well-known people in the field saying things like "I think I'll do a panel on X at the next MLA" or other big conference. Isn't it a competitive process for them as it is for the rest of us grimy proles? How do they know it'll be accepted? Is it because--gasp--the proposer has a big name? MLA and all other conferences piously deny this, although a few years back PMLA, in an essay about why fewer academics submitted articles to it (answer: because they thought they had a snowball's chance in hell of being accepted), did admit that it relied heavily on "solicited contributions" rather than those submitted to a blind review process. (I think that has changed.) I know that some conferences "strongly encourage" (yes, that's a euphemism)including a "well-known scholar" as a respondent or chair if the organizer wants the proposal to be accepted.

I'm also reminded of this when I'm on a conference committee or hiring committee. Everyone gleefully wishes for a big pool of applicants or proposals to make a "strong program" or get the "strongest applicant." The more competitive a pool is, the better, according to everyone's estimation, and if a pool is small, everyone wonders whether it's good enough.

But wouldn't a sufficient number of good ones (applicants, proposals) do? Do we have to wish for excessive numbers? We're not breeding salmon here; we're choosing applicants or proposals. How Darwinian do we have to be? How many people do we have to say no to in order to satisfy ourselves that we're competing our way to the top?

The answer is "a lot," and that's why Burstein's conclusion is unlikely to change anytime soon.


Sisyphus said...

Sigh. I sure know this, having just gone through the incredibly nasty job market process.

Maybe academia is made for the particularly pig-headed (that's me) who are so clueless about most kinds of rejection, they hardly notice it.

Or maybe they cleverly balance it with the occasional acceptance --- just enough to keep you playing the game, pulling the slot machine lever (says the cog who just got a conference paper accepted somewhere---- whoo hoo! happy dance!)

No wait, really its the Stockholm Syndrome.

undine said...

I think it's intermittent reinforcement, which psychologists say is the most potent kind. Or maybe we're just all gamblers.

Anonymous said...

It looks Darwinian, and it works like intermittent reinforcement, but I think it's actually Gramscian or something ... overdetermined.