Last night Cosimo and I went to a minor-league baseball game played by our local AAA team. I'd been to a couple of AA games back in college and grad school, but while those outings were great fun, everything about this enterprise seemed more professional: a gorgeous ballpark, smack downtown; a free performance afterwards by the symphony orchestra; a spectacular fireworks display. (I can't claim to remember the level of play at the AA games well enough to make a comparison on athletic grounds.)
I wondered aloud how much the baseball players made and whether it was enough to live on. "Oh sure," said Cosimo. "Not enough to live large--but it's definitely a full-time job. The average triple-A player probably makes as much money as we do."
Which got me thinking--since this week is apparently Compare-Academia-to-Other-Stuff-It's-Sorta-But-Not-Really-Like Week at Ferule & Fescue--how helpful professional sports are as an analogy for the ruthless winnowing of academia. The best ballplayer your high school has ever seen may not get a college athletic scholarship. Many of the best college players don't get the chance to go pro. And of the few who do, most wind up playing in the minors or in overseas leagues; even among sports fans, they don't have a national reputation.
However, the players in the minors are still phenomenally successful. They get paid to do what they love. They have a dedicated local fan base and the best of them are known to players in the majors. Other athletes know who they are and how to value them.
And that's broadly similar to how academia works. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I was on the job market I got a lot of snobbish comments from expensively-educated acquaintances who assumed that the selectivity of a college's undergraduate admissions had some kind of transparent relationship to its desirability as an employer--or the difficulty of getting an academic appointment there.
A friend's boyfriend, upon hearing that I was shortlisted for a job near his hometown in New Jersey, was plainly incredulous: "But. . . would you even take that job?"
"Are you kidding?" I said. "It's a tenure-line job, with a 3-3 load, within commuting distance of New York or Philadelphia. Their junior Shakespearean is already kind of a big deal. It's a really good job."
"If you say so. But the kids I knew who went there were a bunch of dumbasses."
This happens all the time, sometimes benignly (an aunt or uncle just assumes that, with one degree from Cornell and another from Princeton, you're destined for a job at another Ivy--or at least at a state school they've heard of) and sometimes not so benignly (I briefly dated a local guy who repeatedly implied that having a B.A. from the best of the area colleges made him my intellectual superior--because I taught at a school he sneered at).
The error lies in thinking that being in the minors isn't already a sign of success and of having already survived some significant culls. The related error lies in thinking that the only successes are people affiliated with institutions that nonspecialists think they know something about.
I don't want to push this analogy too far or try to nail down the exact equivalencies between the different levels of the minor leagues and the different levels of academic employment; you see what I'm getting at. Those outside of academia only keep up with the local teams or the major leagues--the schools in their region, or the schools with national reputations or the schools that their kids and their friends' kids are applying to. That's perfectly reasonable. But within the profession, the standards of judgement are a bit different.
People move up from the minors--or they don't, but they're still highly trained with an exceptional set of skills (and they're still extraordinarily lucky). In other words, they're all very much in the game.