Bowing to the ‘Quality’

BY AARON BARLOW

Anyone who teaches at a community college, an urban state university or almost anywhere outside of the top research institutions has run across it: We are not the equals of the scholars at Harvard, the University of Chicago and others of their ilk. Nor are we quite the teachers they are; our students, of course, will rarely match theirs. Or so we are told—perhaps not in words, but by the ways we are sometimes treated at conferences and elsewhere.

We live in a situation where the academic “Lowells speak only to Cabots, And Cabots speak only to God.” This isn’t new; the perceptions have been around for centuries.

Yet there are students at the lowliest community college who can run circles, intellectually, around certain Yale undergraduates and whose teachers elicit more improvement from their students than do many of their counterparts at Columbia. There is creative writing being produced by instructors for journals at their local institutions that is more interesting than much of what comes from the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and the scholarship by faculty members of almost unknown institutions published in nearly unheard of journals can be more groundbreaking than that found in Annual Review of Psychology.

True, there is so much out there today that we need metrics of some type to help us with our sorting, but we can’t be forgetting that using them is akin to reliance on stereotypes. Just because we have sorted something (or someone) out does not justify looking down our noses at it (or them). Yet we do. And that’s just as bad as judging someone by the clothes they wear, the dialect they speak or, yes, the color of their skin. It continues elitist attitudes that slam the door against certain people and provide frameworks of self-justification for those holding it closed.

I do teach my students to be aware of venue as they read. I want them to know what it means when a book is published by Cambridge University Press and not Cambridge Scholars Publishing. I want them to understand that a poem published in The New Yorker is considered differently from one published in a chapbook put out by a local collective. What I don’t want is for them to assume, based on venue, that one is better than the other. That sort of worth needs to be determined by examination of the works themselves.

The same is true of people. Where they went to school (or where they teach) is no certain indication of their worth—it’s not even a good starting point for judging them. Yet even the most ‘liberal’ of us in academia use this as a basic sorting tool.

To make matters worse, the distinction is based on dishonest premises. People do not attend (or graduate from) elite institutions solely based on their accomplishments or even their potential. The same holds true for their faculties. They are not hired simply because they are the best, but because of where they come from and, in a scholarly sense, who they know.

A new report in The Washington Post claims that the “University of Virginia’s fundraising team for years has sought to help children of wealthy alumni and prominent donors who apply for admission, flagging their cases internally for special handling.” That, for any of us who work in higher education, is not even really news. Most of the elite schools do the same, or more, for applicants who come from money. Years ago, I knew someone who was incensed when the Wharton School didn’t accept his daughter into the MBA program he had graduated from—even though he had recently given the school $15,000. ‘Why didn’t they let me know it wasn’t enough?’ he fumed.

There are plenty of other reasons that children of the upper classes dominate the ‘elite’ colleges and universities, none of which is fair to those sorted out. Privilege has its perks (how’s that for a tautology?), as we all know. Institutions of higher learning, however, should not be placing icing and candles on them and singing “Happy Birthday” as they pass them out.

So used are we to sorting in academic settings that we rank just about everything without even thinking about it, without even noticing that we often have our fingers on the scales as we make our decisions.

Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan, in an article for Inside Higher Ed, argues that, even in the way we consider scholarly journals, we warp “the scientific process by narrowing the scope of impact to one type of journal, which reaches one type of audience using one type of content and style.” That is, we rank journals at almost all institutions where publishing is part of retention, tenure and promotion. These days, it is as important where we publish as what, ‘impact factors’ being as much a part of the journal (or press, for that matter) as of the import of the particular scholarship. I know one scholar who parlayed his dissertation into a book from a prestige press—and who published nothing more afterwards than a screed in a top journal about how no one had paid attention to his book (the article, on top of the book, proved enough to get him to full-professor status). He liked to dismiss work by more productive (and influential) colleagues who work did not appear in venues quite so vaunted.

Because scholarly publishing has changed so much in the digital age and so much more is published each year, it becomes almost impossible for faculty to evaluate their colleagues’ work on its own merits. There’s too much of it and, often, the topics (even in a single discipline) can be far from one’s own area of expertise. As a result, work is sorted by venue. As Hoffman writes, there are junior faculty “who say they cannot publish in a particular journal because it is not on their institution’s A list and therefore will ‘not count’ toward their accomplishments.” This, as Hoffman goes on to claim, is “anti-intellectual,” yet it is common practice in today’s academic departments.

Few people actually read the articles and books in a personnel file. They take a look at the venues and maybe skim a page or two—and check to see if the work has been cited and where. This process, of course, raises the walls around the elite venues, keeping most everything else out in a climate and age where we should all, in academia, be working to expand access and understanding. Hoffman ends by quoting Daniel Cabrera of the Mayo Clinic, “our job is not to create knowledge obscura, trapped in ivory towers and only accessible to the enlightened; the knowledge we create and manage needs to impact our communities.” This cannot happen in an environment where we worship (and speak only to) elites.

Whatever we may think of the protests against Charles Murray, who extols the virtues of an elite (without really understanding the factors that go into creating it), most of us in academia claim an egalitarian philosophy of one sort or another. In our actions, however, from selection of students to vision of institutions to evaluation of scholarship, we act to promote and protect our own academic elite—even, strangely enough, when we are not part of it.

Even as we flatter ourselves for teaching in institutions (those of us who do) reaching out to a wide population of potential students, we disparage our students for not being able to produce what a Princeton undergraduate can, we put down our institutions for not living up to R1 status, and we snub the work of our colleagues for not reaching the mythically created A lists of our fields.

We venerate the elite, and support it, even when we are not really part of it. Like 18th century English country folk, we step aside and doff our hats to the ‘quality.’

Even though the ‘quality’ don’t often deserve more than do the lowliest adjuncts. Or colleges. Or students.


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