A New (Academic) Year’s Resolution

I’ve made a resolution for this academic year: to stop using the language of merit to talk about successes in the professional academic world.

As scholars, we have all invested a huge amount of time in developing our skills in a particular field. It is simply impossible to be awarded a PhD without investing substantial time in research and writing, making oneself into an expert in a particular (narrow) slice of academic knowledge. (That is, with the exception of schools that will award degrees essentially for a payment, which deserves its own separate exposition.) So yes, we are all experts.

But the difficulty is, the business of academia does not treat us as equals. Some of us work as adjuncts, taking on more classes than is healthy so that one can make rent; some people move from one temporary position to the next, never able to achieve any life stability; and yes, some do land those coveted tenure-track positions that allow you to put down roots in a place (although achieving a tenure-track job increasingly comes with precariousness of its own, as we’ve seen at Dartmouth recently). The factors that determine who gets the most desirable jobs are notoriously hard to parse with any substantial evidence. But one thing that should be clear is that achieving this success on the academic job market is not a matter of merit.

Nonetheless, we use the language of merit all the time in academic contexts—about the quality of scholarly work, of course, but even when talking about job placements. “Did you hear that Zeke got that tenure-track job at Prestigious College? He really deserves it.” But as anyone but the most oblivious and starry-eyed scholars can tell you, there are tens, if not hundreds, of people who also might have “deserved” that prestigious job. These discussions happen all the time among people who are competing for academic positions: the process is arbitrary, there are scores of deserving candidates, the few who get hired are those who “won the lottery.” Conversely, we all know someone—and most of us, probably several people—about whom we wonder, “That person is so good, I just don’t understand why she can’t get a job.” Which, spun a bit differently, means that hirings are not made on the basis of merit. They simply can’t be, if there are 20 candidates that people (even a search committee) might recognize as more or less equally deserving of a position, yet only one person emerges as the successful one.

There are probably many factors that determine how young academics are positioned for success (or not) in this arbitrary world. We are part of social networks with other academics, and those networks can make sure that you know the right people to succeed in academia.1)For a data-driven study on this topic, see Michael J. Hilmer and Christiana E. Hilmer, “Is it where you go or who you know? On the relationship between students, PhD program quality, dissertation advisor prominence, and early career publishing success,” in Economics of Education Review 30(5). Of course, one can do a lot to build those networks on one’s own, but graduate students are also forced into particular social networks (often at the expense of others) based on their school, their advisor, their topic of study, etc. So you need to know the right people, but the “right people” may not have been available for you to know.

Similarly, there are feedback loops that develop when you are in a particular academic track. If your path out of graduate school has you in a writing-oriented postdoc and then a tenure-track job at a prestigious college, then you likely have time to write, money to do research, and exposure within your field. On the other hand, if you are teaching 8 classes a year, or if you are adjuncting at a couple different colleges, then you have to fight to find time just to write job applications (which is itself almost a full-time job). You may not produce as much writing, get the same kind of exposure in your field, etc.

(And I have knowingly chosen not to even begin to explore the ways that “merit” has gendered, ableist, racial, and other insidious connotations—the reasons there is still a gender imbalance in STEM fields, or why people of color remain underrepresented across the academy. For instance, see again the Dartmouth case, linked above. These are all part of the set of intersecting forms of privilege and discrimination within the academy, and obviously they deserve—and are increasingly receiving —much more attention than I can give here. I merely wish to note that “merit” language is one way in which these structural biases are expressed and replicated.)

Even with these factors in place, why complain about the language of merit? Isn’t it true that people who get the good jobs deserve them? Well, yes, they do deserve them, in the sense that they are qualified for them. I’m not arguing that people who succeed in academia don’t deserve that success—only that the success is not the outcome of some inherent merits of the successful people. We all work hard. We are all experts. We don’t all succeed equally.

Thus, why I refuse to use the language of meritocracy any longer to talk about people’s academic successes and failures. Doing so obscures and naturalizes all of the inequalities within the academic system, because our language for talking about academic success is inherently skewed towards a belief in meritocracy. A rejection letter from a job may tell us that there were “many qualified candidates” and the hiree was simply the “best fit.” But we still say that Zeke is a great scholar, at the top of his field, with a prestigious position at the prestigious college where he was the “best fit.”

In other words, there is an additional (and often hidden) feedback loop for people with good jobs: when someone has the “ability” (time, money, institutional support) to do the things that scholars are supposed to do, we say that they’re good scholars, ignoring the contexts and privileges that allowed them to “succeed” to begin with. We construct narratives of merit to describe outcomes that are, in large measure, arbitrary and not substantially merit-based. We put carts before horses, confusing causes and effects in describing someone’s abilities and achievements. These feedback loops only intensify as people’s careers progress (or stall).

For these reasons, I will no longer use the language of merit to describe anyone’s successes or failures in academia. The idea of merit is too contingent, too euphemistic, and, ultimately, does too much to conceal inequalities within academia that we should be seeking to erase.

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References   [ + ]

1. For a data-driven study on this topic, see Michael J. Hilmer and Christiana E. Hilmer, “Is it where you go or who you know? On the relationship between students, PhD program quality, dissertation advisor prominence, and early career publishing success,” in Economics of Education Review 30(5).

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