Gold among the dross

From Aeon:

The higher education system is a unique type of organisation with its own way of motivating productivity in its scholarly workforce. It doesn’t need to compel professors to produce scholarship because they choose to do it on their own. This is in contrast to the standard structure for motivating employees in bureaucratic organisations, which relies on manipulating two incentives: fear and greed. Fear works by holding the threat of firing over the heads of workers in order to ensure that they stay in line: Do it my way or you’re out of here. Greed works by holding the prospect of pay increases and promotions in front of workers in order to encourage them to exhibit the work behaviours that will bring these rewards: Do it my way and you’ll get what’s yours.

Yes, in the United States contingent faculty can be fired at any time, and permanent faculty can be fired at the point of tenure. But, once tenured, there’s little other than criminal conduct or gross negligence that can threaten your job. And yes, most colleges do have merit pay systems that reward more productive faculty with higher salaries. But the differences are small – between the standard 3 per cent raise and a 4 per cent merit increase. Even though gaining consistent above-average raises can compound annually into substantial differences over time, the immediate rewards are pretty underwhelming. Not the kind of incentive that would motivate a major expenditure of effort in a given year – such as the kind that operates on Wall Street, where earning a million-dollar bonus is a real possibility. Academic administrators – chairs, deans, presidents – just don’t have this kind of power over faculty. It’s why we refer to academic leadership as an exercise in herding cats. Deans can ask you to do something, but they really can’t make you do it.

. . . .

If the usual extrinsic incentives of fear and greed don’t apply to academics, then what does motivate them to be productive scholars? One factor, of course, is that this population is highly self-selected. People don’t become professors in order to gain power and money. They enter the role primarily because of a deep passion for a particular field of study. They find that scholarship is a mode of work that is intrinsically satisfying. It’s more a vocation than a job. And these elements tend to be pervasive in most of the world’s universities.

But I want to focus on an additional powerful motivation that drives academics, one that we don’t talk about very much. Once launched into an academic career, faculty members find their scholarly efforts spurred on by more than a love of the work. We in academia are motivated by a lust for glory.

We want to be recognised for our academic accomplishments by earning our own little pieces of fame. So we work assiduously to accumulate a set of merit badges over the course of our careers, which we then proudly display on our CVs. This situation is particularly pervasive in the US system of higher education, which is organised more by the market than by the state. Market systems are especially prone to the accumulation of distinctions that define your position in the hierarchy. But European and other scholars are also engaged in a race to pick up honours and add lines to their CVs. It’s the universal obsession of the scholarly profession.

. . . .

At the very pinnacle of the structure of merit badges is, of course, the Nobel Prize. A nice thought, but what are the odds? Fortunately, other academic honours are a lot more attainable. And attain them we do.

Take one prominent case in point: the endowed chair. A named professorship is a very big deal in the academic status order, a (relatively) scarce honour that supposedly demonstrates to peers that you’re a scholar of high accomplishment. It does involve money, but the chair-holder often sees little of it. A donor provides an endowment for the chair, which pays your salary and benefits, thus taking these expenses out of the operating budget – a big plus for the department, which saves a lot of money in the deal. And some chairs bring with them extra money that goes to the faculty member to pay for research expenses and travel.

But more often than not, the chair brings the occupant nothing at all but an honorific title, which you can add to your signature: the Joe Doakes Professor of Whatever. Once these chairs are in existence as permanent endowments, they never go away; instead they circulate among senior faculty. You hold the chair until you retire, and then it goes to someone else. In my own school, Stanford University, when the title passes to a new faculty member, that person receives an actual chair – one of those uncomfortable black wooden university armchairs bearing the school logo. On the back is a brass plaque announcing that ‘[Your Name] is the Joe Doakes Professor’. When you retire, they take away the title and leave you the physical chair. That’s it. It sounds like a joke – all you get to keep is this unusable piece of furniture – but it’s not. And faculty will kill to get this kind of honour.

This being the case, the academic profession requires a wide array of other forms of recognition that are more easily attainable and that you can accumulate the way you can collect Fabergé eggs. And they’re about as useful. Let us count the kinds of merit badges that are within the reach of faculty:

  • publication in high-impact journals and prestigious university presses;
  • named fellowships;
  • membership on review committees for awards and fellowships;
  • membership on editorial boards of journals;
  • journal editorships;
  • officers in professional organisations, which conveniently rotate on an annual basis and thus increase accessibility (in small societies, nearly everyone gets a chance to be president);
  • administrative positions in your home institution;
  • committee chairs;
  • a large number of awards of all kinds – for teaching, advising, public service, professional service, and so on: the possibilities are endless;
  • awards that particularly proliferate in the zone of scholarly accomplishment – best article/book of the year in a particular subfield by a senior/junior scholar; early career/lifetime-career achievement; and so on.

Each of these honours tells the academic world that you are the member of a purportedly exclusive club. At annual meetings of professional organisations, you can attach brightly coloured ribbons to your name tag that tell everyone you’re an officer or fellow of that organisation, like the badges that adorn military dress uniforms. As in the military, you can never accumulate too many of these academic honours. 

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG will note that the same pattern applies in U.S. law schools. As with other academic departments, the ability to actually teach well tends to be subsidiary to the publishing/professional organization elements of status.

That said, it’s rare for law school professors to be active in the interest sections of The American Bar Association and various state bars.

For a twenty-year period during which he practiced retail law, PG was actively involved in the ABA and his state bar association. Generally speaking, the activities of those associations were characterized by entertaining presentations, talks and discussion. As PG has mentioned before, a lawyer friend once told him that the friend could walk into any third-grade classroom and identify future lawyers because they never stopped talking.

As one might expect, some, but not all of the most engaging and entertaining speakers were involved in litigation practices that meant they spent a lot of time in court talking to judges and juries. On the other hand, patent and tax lawyers (with a small handful of exceptions) tended to be pretty dry.

On a couple of occasions, PG’s ABA responsibilities required him to attend a meeting of a law school professors’ organization. They were dull as dishwater.

2 thoughts on “Gold among the dross”

  1. I suspect that the author has missed one of the most important motivations driving “publish or perish”: to keep the grant money flowing in. Otherwise how are you going to employ the Phd candidates and the post-docs who are going to do most of the teaching and research grunt work?

    Of course, in those areas of physics which are no longer guided by experimental results there is no true way to judge the value of a paper the whole academic structure can become diseased.

  2. Well. This confirms for me that “career counseling” is a complete failure.

    If not for those incompetents, I’d have three lawyers in the immediate family, supporting me in the life style to which I would like to be accustomed…

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