Saturday, June 23, 2012

Professional privilege

There's been something going around the academic blogosphere these past few months, with many long-time bloggers of roughly my generation wondering aloud about the purpose of their blogs now that their professional status is more secure. I've had those questions, too. A lot of us started blogging when we were grad students or were just starting our first full-time academic jobs, when we were growing into our professional identities but still felt pretty marginal. The period of becoming--the story of how one builds a life and fashions a self--is, after all, a traditional subject for narrative.

But now that we're done struggling upward, or have at least hit a significant narrative plateau (and now that we have enough buy-in that we're not going to be writing with complete candor about a specific obnoxious colleague, a gossipy scandal, or a potentially disastrous institutional initiative), then what's the point for those of us whose blogs are mostly life chronicles? Who wants to read about the relatively low-stakes struggles of the tenured?

I don't know the answer to the last question, but I suppose my answer to the first one is that, first of all, the story isn't actually over--and secondly, we were never fully candid and never really that marginal to begin with. Graduate school and the job market may have traumatized us, and we may even have spent a year or two as contingent faculty, but let's face it: those of us who went to fancy Ph.D. programs weren't ever in the belly of the academic beast (though we may have spent some time caught unpleasantly in his esophagus). So if we're more privileged now than we were then, it's only a matter of degree.

My point isn't that only the most marginal deserve our sympathy or have stories worth telling, but the opposite: academia can be brutalizing even for the relatively privileged, and as long as we're not conflating our lot with that of those further down the privilege chain--and as long as we're listening to them, too--writing honestly about our professional lives is a service no matter where we are or how much good fortune seems to outweigh the bad. (That guy we all know who didn't get tenure at Harvard or Yale or Chicago a decade ago, and who retells the story every year at the the conference hotel bar? Yeah, he's annoying as hell. But his story about the profession is a real one too.)

In the comments to my last post, I mentioned that I was striving to write both honestly and ethically: I want to tell the truth, including the emotional truth, of my professional life without being merely emotional and reactive, in a way that maintains the privacy of those who haven't signed up to be blogged about, and also in a way that at least implicitly recognizes my own privilege.

We'll see how it goes. But I'm hopeful that my life post-tenure is still worth writing about, and worth reading.


i said...

Flavia, I find your use of the word "priviledged" in this context quite interesting. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense -- those of us who graduate from shiny PhD programs have certain advantages, or better put, have all kinds of advantages all the way through the program that put us in a better position to find a job at the end.

On the other... you seem to be using it in a way that's equivalent to socio-economical priviledge, and likewise for the word "marginal." And I don't think that's quite right. I write "quite" because it is right to a very great extent -- the department we got our PhDs in was mostly white, American or UK-born, and I'll be darned if the ivies and ivy-like California schools weren't very well represented. But then there were also some of us (in my year a lot) who had gone to public universities -- who were not American or even born in the developed world -- who were not from comfortably wealthy, well connected New England families -- who spoke with an accent -- who were even not white.

I write this to agree with one of your points, but from a different perspective. That guy who didn't get tenure at Chicago or that woman who didn't get a job with her Stanford PhD might be annoying to many, but they're being judged by the last line on their vita. And if they're upset because they always expected to win at life, I have little sympathy for them. But what if they came from a small town in, say, Ontario or Kentucky or a refugee camp in Eastern Europe, to pick a few examples from real life. What if they came from an immigrant family, or an American family where they were the first to get a university degree? What if they worked their way to Harvard or Princeton despite their background, not because of it, and are then disappointed by the academic system?

I write this not out of sour grapes -- I have been ridiculously, unbelievably fortunate myself -- but because I think human stories are a lot more varied and nuanced than the simple language of "priviledge" often makes them out to be.

Flavia said...


I don't think you understand my point. My point is that debating who's more and who's less privileged--when we all are, all of us who got into good grad programs (and yes, even those who didn't get jobs or who came from more humble backgrounds)--is a ridiculous species of competition that winds up denying anyone's struggles and anyone's right to complain about the system in which we all exist and which is difficult and often unfair at all levels.

I am in no way denying that levels of privilege exist. I'm asking that we recognize that it's not just the people ahead of us--those who have some advantage we don't--who count as "privileged." And it's not just those far, far below us who have a right to complain when something goes badly for them through no fault of their own.

Look: whatever specific disadvantages you or I or our classmates may feel we had in the past, none of us is in the situation of the kid who grew up shoeless in rural Oklahoma, worked his way through college, got a PhD with no funding at a middling state school while teaching three classes every semester, and then couldn't find a full-time academic job. Therefore, logically, we should never complain! Academia has done right by us!

(Except even he, someone else will say, is still privileged! He went to college! He has a PhD! No one else in his family did those things! So he should just shut up and be happy in some white-color job, because who ever gets everything they want, anyway?)

And if we think that we still have a right to complain about the injustices in our own lives, despite our relative privilege, so too does the hypothetical guy who got denied tenure at Chicago, regardless of his functional privilege--where he went to college, to grad school, what socio-economic class he comes from. He may still be genuinely wounded, still feel a genuine sense of loss, and even be right that his department or institution or academia as a whole did wrong by him.

Is his case the greatest tragedy in the world? No. But we don't tell our friends, when they're going through a rough break-up, that they shouldn't complain because they still have a good job and a nice house.

To me, acknowledging that we all have privilege is a way of getting past the term and into a more nuanced analysis that you seem also to wish for.

Psycgirl said...

My blog is in a different but related slump - I have stopped blogging a lot pre-tenure because I just don't have time and there is now so much that is unbloggable. I think if I had tenure I might be able to blog more about some things (but not sure since that is still a while away)

BookishBelle said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time (and thanks for that, by the way!), but I think this may be the first time I've posted. I hope you will keep blogging, because those of us who get tenure probably figured out how to be a successful junior faculty member. And there's lots of discussion around that. But I'm not sure we have sufficient discussion of how to be a successful mid career or senior faculty member. Not just how to get to full, but all the other stuff: how to mentor, how to advocate, how to tell people when they're effing up without breaking their hearts or closing their ears. How to figure out what to do for the next 30 years of our professional lives!

Bridgett said...

I am a tenure-track faculty member and have been regularly reading several blogs since beginning in my position. I can honestly say I have learned a lot from many of you. Thank you for your honesty and eloquence in
describing the challenges and joys of academic positions. Your experiences have given insight into situations that many face so it helps to read about it and learn from others. So thanks for the effort and please continue!

Withywindle said...

As Phoebe notes, YPIS is always an unpleasant game.

EngLitProf said...

Flavia, I wonder if there isn’t a faulty assumption somewhere here. It seems clear to me that the “life chronicles” of tenured faculty are likely to be more valuable (actually, educational) than chronicles of untenured life. The struggles of the tenured may be “low-stakes,” but people will still get tenure, and information is almost always your friend in academic life. One of the things I regret about my own graduate education is that the students seldom got a glimpse of what life is like for our distinguished mentors. The faculty were so intent on “being professional” that it was difficult to learn how they conducted their scholarly life, how they lived, etc. So, we were left with basic questions unanswered. If you become a tenured faculty member, where might you (afford to) live? How hard will you work on your teaching? What decisions will face you as to what research to work on? What will change from when you were battling for tenure? It is no surprise if some of my cohort developed odd expectations, given that they had little to base their expectations upon. I graduated knowing roughly how to be an assistant professor, but beyond that . . . (I admit my Ivy League graduate program was a colder than many—no going over to your advisor’s house for pizza.)

Flavia said...

Thanks, all.

And ELP: you may be right that there's something more useful about depicting the lives of mid-career professors (and, certainly, my own grad experience/perception of my professors in grad school is much like yours). But it's less narratively exciting, or less automatically obvious as a subject for narrative, then the story of Becoming Something.

Withy: yes, of course I was thinking of Phoebe in my clarification to I., above.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Appreciate the shout-out.


I might have the middle-ground for you and (commenter) "i". Basically, for academics or anyone else, one's lot in life is a mix of earned and unearned advantage. If you come from a working-class family but had a scholarship to a fancy prep school, went from there to HYP, and from there to a job in finance, it's a mix. Same if you come from a wealthy, well-educated family, graduate from a liberal-arts college aimed at the wealthy but academically so-so, and the best post-college job you can get is (inspired by today's paper) selling computers at the Apple store.

But the loaded word "privilege" is one I tend to think is best reserved for cases of unearned advantage. A difficult line to draw, given that so much of where one ends up depends on opportunity. (If you were born in the U.S. and not in a refugee camp, you already have an edge. And so on up the chain.) But in terms of acknowledging (and, often, apologizing for) privilege, this feels acceptable or even admirable when it's something like, your parents who are themselves successful corporate lawyers paid for all your schooling from kindergarten through law/business school and look at you now. Less so if you've worked incredibly hard for everything and been handed not much at all. True, others worked just as hard and weren't as lucky. But that's why we have the word "luck" as well as the word "privileged." "Privilege" implies that the system, for systematic reasons, was rigged in your favor.

Flavia said...


I see what you're saying, but I don't think I agree--or at least, I don't think that this distinction persists into later adulthood.

Having gone (let's say) to Harvard, then to Harvard Law, then to a partnership at a major D.C. law firm makes a person extremely privileged. This is true whether he grew up in New York City as the child of two doctors or whether he grew up (to use part of my example above) shoeless in Oklahoma. Did the latter individual overcome much, much more than the former? Is he probably profoundly shaped by the first 18-22 years of his life? Yes, of course. But the fact that he went to Harvard has a certain amount to do with the fact that he got into Harvard Law, and the fact that he went to Harvard Law has a lot to do with where he got hired after law school. It's not that he didn't "earn" he admission to Harvard in the first place, but having gone to Harvard gave him a leg up in getting into Harvard Law, and getting into Harvard Law gave him more than a leg up in getting hired by that top D.C. law firm, etc. At some point, we don't get to continue to claim that we're outsiders, underdogs, underprivileged, etc.

And as the example above suggests, So I don't think there's a totally clean line between earned and unearned advantage. The thing about privilege is that you never know when it's operating. I have no idea how much the name on my PhD advantages me, but I know that it does (alone, it probably gets me nothing--but it has surely helped me to get shortlisted for lots of things, from job interviews to publications). That's true regardless of how unlikely an INRU student I may once have thought myself.

I was lucky to get a good tenure-track job. But my privilege--my academic pedigree, which is partly earned and partly not--is what helped to make me lucky.

i said...

Flavia, I think we do agree on the destination -- all stories are worthwhile and worth telling, all disappointment is valid -- but not on the journey. I would like to reduce the use of the word priviledge (blogger keeps complaining about my spelling of it!), but keep it, as Phoebe much better put it, for systematic priviledge relating to class, race and gender. And we might as well throw religion and sexual orientation in there.

Yes, we all have a mix of advantages and disadvantages. (My own included growing up in a country with good public education, and in a family that valued that education.) But watering the word "priviledge" down to include those advantages we have mostly gained for ourselves starts to erase the fact that there are some real systematic biases at work, often based on aspects of our identity and background that we did not choose, had nothing to do with, and had no way of escaping. Well, and that individuals also deserve the advantages that come of their own hard work, even when they recognize that a good deal of luck was also involved in success.

More to the point, I find it frankly weird to talk about having a boost on the job market from, say, the name on one's PhD diploma as some kind of unfair priviledge. What, pray tell, would be the point of working and fighting to get into an elite school if it didn't come with all sorts of perks: working with well-known faculty, good funding, great visiting speakers, and an advantage on the job market? Are you really suggesting that it is somehow unfair to reap the results of labour combined with luck? And does that extend to journal publishing? We all know that journal publication involves some amount of luck, and often, connections. In a perfectly fair world, would job candidates have to expunge the names of almae matres (what is the plural of that in English? almas mater?) as well as of journals and publishing houses from their CVs?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This might just have to be an agree-to-disagree, or agree-to-agree-just-in-part. I do agree that lines are hard to draw (which is part of why I'm against hurling YPIS - you never know the full story of how someone came to have, or have not), and that once you've achieved one rung of some process, others become easier. But if the first step, the one that set this in motion, was one you earned, your tale is one of hard work, intelligence, and luck, but not of privilege. If "Harvard" is something on your CV that you earned, the benefits it confers are ones you earned indirectly. Privilege is what your children will experience.

A more clear-cut example might be if two people got jobs via connections, and one used professional contacts, the other family members. Both of these situations involve something other than merit in the sense of ability to do the job (unless it is, in fact, networking), but one is evidence of privilege, the other not.

This is an issue I was just thinking about, actually, in reference to the Anne-Marie Slaughter essay on work-life balance. In it, Slaughter comes across as quite clueless as to the difference between her own life as a tenured Ivy prof and public intellectual torn between that and a high-up government post, and that of well-educated female professionals as a class. But is this variety of out-of-touch an example of 'privilege showing'? It's some kind of out-of-touch-ness, but that's not the term I'd use.

i said...

Phoebe, you seem to have a talent for expressing what's in my head much, much better than do I.

The example of connections made me realise why I am particularly sensitive to this leveling of "priviledge" to include earned advantage. I've been working since I was fourteen years old, and I have never gotten a job without some kind of connection. In fact, my current job as an assistant professor is the first one I applied for through the usual channels, and for which, reference letters aside, actually had the least amount of connections at play. Most of the jobs I've had were offered to me directly by the employers, and not even advertised.

Now, that sounds like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But the thing is, my family is an immigrant one, and not particularly well-connected. None of the people who offered me jobs did so because they knew my parents or relatives. My connections were usually people I had met through school (librarians, teachers, the occasional provost) or my extracurricular activities or volunteering. I've had friends who were established in the area, and whose parents set up job interviews for them with their well-placed friends. I don't begrudge them that, but I happen to think there's a difference between the kinds of "priviledge" we enjoyed.

And it's a little bit like that with INRU too. For five years I scanned the list of students to our program, saw few admitted from public schools, fewer from Canada, and none from my undergrad. (Despite, I might add, my undergrad being every bit as good as and more demanding than INRU.) I didn't overcome enormous odds, as I was coming from an excellent school, but I overcame a bias, and fought fiercely to do so. I'm happy to claim the rewards.

But anyway, I really didn't mean to jump down your throat about a throwaway comment in your post, especially since I agree with your conclusion. I guess I think that in our commendable desire to acknowledge the aspects of our success that are not directly attributable to personal merit, we sometimes exclude merit and hard work altogether. And, just to continue being belligerent in my sleep-deprived way, I think women in particular do this too often, and need to stop.

(I once quite intentionally jumped down a grad school acquaintance's throat when she told me she had gotten a fabulous library job tailored to her interests, and then added, "I'm very lucky." I told her that while there was always some luck involved, I happened to know exactly how hard she had worked towards just such a position over the previous years, and that she should own it. I'm happy to say she owned it.)

Flavia said...

Phoebe & I.:

Just two more thoughts defending my use of the word privilege--since I think you're right that we agree about the larger substance here:

1) Having advantages (which maybe is a word you would both prefer to privilege?) that help one to achieve a particular goal isn't the same as not having earned that goal. Lots of PhDs have earned a tenure-track job, by virtue of completing the degree, writing a strong dissertation, teaching a variety of classes, having a well-placed publication or two, etc. But not all of them get tenure-track jobs. I'm sure you would agree that being a middle-class, white, male heterosexual makes one more likely on balance to be hired for certain jobs than being, let's say, a black lesbian. Having a fancy degree also makes one more likely to get hired for a tenure-track job. Dude, I earned my job (by the work I did in grad school and as a lecturer). I earned my admission to INRU (by my scholastic performance). But I was also lucky, and some of that is more than luck. I don't know how much I'm advantaged in this world by being white, but I know that I am. I don't know how much I'm advantaged by having three degrees from INRU, but I know that I am.

2) I may have earned my admission to INRU. But I did not earn the full constellation of advantages that the degree gives me. I'm not in control of how people read my having gone there, or what assumptions they make about me as a result. You go to a school like INRU, and people assume you come from elite places, have a certain set of connections, are "clubbable." Or, academically, they assume you're the best of the best. And they treat you differently as a result. I call all those assumptions unearned privilege, because they're things that operate independently of the actual work one does.

Flavia said...

Oh, and here's a third point (and then I really will be done with this!):

3) Let's say my parents hadn't been able to afford to send me to INRU at age 18 (it was a struggle, but they managed). I would still have "earned" that admission, but I would have gone to the University of Washington instead, and probably would have done equally good work--or even have stood out a bit more for my work there. Nevertheless, it would have been much harder for me to get into INRU for graduate school, even though my intelligence and the quality of my work would have been the same. That's what I mean when I say that the name on the degree confers advantages above & beyond those that are purely earned.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Speaking as someone a bit past tenure, it's clear that early advantages do, as Flavia said, continue to tilt the professional playing field, and not entirely fairly, throughout one's career: indeed, that tilt may increase over time. And that tilt or bias operates independently of merit.

A couple of years ago, an older scholar whose work is very important to e-mailed me a compliment on one of my articles. It was so bold! It was the kind of thing she always wanted to say, but couldn't! Why not?

Because (she said) she lacked the *pedigree*. Not a good enough degree. Not a famous enough dissertation adviser. If she had written what I had written, she felt, she would never have gotten away with it.

This is someone near the end of a long, successful career, with many good and excellent books to her name. I had nothing remotely close to her record of achievement. But she felt that she could not get away with advancing the arguments that I had. I had a fancier PhD and a fancier mentor. I also had a fancier undergrad degree. I "earned" those advantages, but years later they still outweighed other, more important considerations.

I might get the credit for being "daring" but I had the privilege of being "daring" because I could get away with more. I was quite literally more privileged to speak than my more accomplished senior colleague.

Similarly, I did write my book, my own damn self. But the reception of that book will never be disentangled from advantages I "earned" earlier and which should have no bearing on the question of the book's merit. Where my book got published, and how easily, was influenced to an unknowable but non-trivial degree by where I had gone to graduate school, and who my dissertation adviser had been, and how warmly my adviser supported me. Had I earned admission to my doctoral program, and my degree, and my adviser's intellectual approval? Sure. But that doesn't mean that my book had earned preferential consideration. And it could not help but get it.

And where my book was published influences how people read it and how seriously they take it. I could make "bolder" arguments than I could with a less prestigious publisher, and be treated with more deference by reviewers. I got more reviews, and in fancier places. There is no separating my actual intellectual achievements from a set of at best tangentially-relevant advantages that I gained decades ago. I am still making money off my old SAT scores, really. If I had brought a #3 pencil that day, my whole life would be different.

Did I earn admission to well-regarded schools? Sure. Is it reasonable that admission to those schools carried some reward? Most likely. But my educational pedigree provides me advantages which can never be entirely overcome by those without it, subsequent achievement notwithstanding. The playing field never levels off, and the benefits I accrue from my pedigree do not diminish over time. In many ways, they increase, in progressively more disguised ways.

I'm not saying this to flagellate myself, or to "renounce" my privilege as if that would make everything better, or be possible. Privilege is a question of structural and systemic advantage, and can't be eradicated with a little personal manifesto. But because it is structural and systemic, it's important to examine how it works.

When one person's words and ideas are taken more seriously, rewarded more generously than another person's equally good words and ideas for reasons that have nothing to do with either the words or the ideas, how is it not privilege? I can write something and have it published in a prominent academic journal. Someone else writing the same thing might not get a hearing. My book will have a better reception, and I will gain more of a scholarly reputation from it, than someone who wrote an equally smart book but went to less famous schools. That's privilege in action.

i said...

Flavia, it's not that I prefer "advantage" to "privilege" in general, but that I want to see "privilege," with its legal etymology, restricted to something more like OED 2.a:

"a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by an individual, corporation of individuals, etc., beyond the usual rights or advantages of others; spec. (a) an exemption from a normal duty, liability, etc.; (b) enjoyment of some benefit (as wealth, education, standard of living, etc.) above the average or that deemed usual or necessary for a particular group (in pl. sometimes contrasted with rights)."

While "advantage" seems to me to be more general, as in OED 1:

1. Benefit; increased well-being or "convenience. As a count noun: a benefit received."

and OED 2.a:

"a. A condition, circumstance, or ability that puts one in a favourable or superior position."

Now, the problem of course is that the American academic system makes it pretty hard to see where one ends and the other begins. It's a little easier in Canada, where all universities are public and generally affordable to normal people, and where admission to an academic program is not based on who your parents are, how well you play the cello, or your parents' ability to pay for you to go annoy Guatemalans for a week and put it on your resume. (Seriously, my undergrad application process involved putting three universities' codes on a scantron sheet, paying $80, and hearing the results the next year after they had considered my grades.)

And what makes it even harder is that there are many shades of gray. The outright legacy stands at one end -- let's call him Dubya. At the other end you have one of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, growing up in a small shoebox in the middle of the road. In between there are lots of young people, often with wealth, whiteness, and cultural know-how working for them, but who often also do amazing things with their head start in life. (There are many schools for the wealthy white 18 yr olds who don't do anything with their privileges, but I don't believe INRU is one of them.)

What I find strange is the claim, "I'm not in control of how people read my having gone there, or what assumptions they make about me as a result." Aren't you? If not, why did you go? To me it seems that the American system is basically set up to confer disproportionate advantages on those who make it through a gatekeeping process. (Jerome Karavel's book The Chosen tells one of the uglier sides of the story.) It seems to me that when you go to INRU, you can make a pretty educated guess about what kinds of assumptions people will make about you for the rest of your life, and that is precisely the point. If you didn't know it at eighteen, your parents did (that's why they struggled to send you there), and I suspect you did when you started grad school, or else why not go to a university where you'd have felt more at home?

I guess what I find weird is being so apologetic about a partly-earned privilege, and one that can be opted out of completely. Most people can't step outside of the privileges offered them by their race, class, heterosexuality, etc. I can't stop being white just because I feel bad about how non-whites are treated. But anyone accepted can choose not to go to INRU. Then again, I see that my perspective is still rather tied to my immigrant background: I wanted precisely the disproportionate boost that elite American private schools offer, because without it, my options with an English degree were frankly more limited than those of my fellow classmates.

i said...

Dr. Cleveland, I'm horrified by your first anecdote. I've never heard of anything like that -- that the author's pedigree would "allow" them to make a more daring argument. I have to wonder if it didn't have something to do with your colleague's own perceptions as with reality. I really don't know. I do know that when I publish, it's my employer's name that goes next to mine, and that's quite a bit lower in prestige than INRU. Are people really going to be looking up my CV and then evaluating whether I'm allowed to make certain arguments accordingly?

I'm absolutely with you on the topic of the book, and on the benefits being connected/going to a certain school can have there. But do you really think that happens with journals too? Many of them? There are one or two journals in my field where you have to know the right people to get in, but most follow proper procedure, even if it's not double blind.

(Some anecdata: I recently had an essay accepted in a difficult-to-get-into journal. My two positive readers were people I had never met and with whom I have no institutional connection. My negative reader not only shares the same grad school, but we are on warm, sharing-a-Scotch-at-conferences terms. I thought this spoke well for the review process.)

Flavia said...

It seems to me that when you go to INRU, you can make a pretty educated guess about what kinds of assumptions people will make about you for the rest of your life, and that is precisely the point.

Yes. But those assumptions aren't fully earned, in the sense that they're not fully a reflection of the quality of the work the student does, or even her intelligence. And isn't this exactly what your last paragraph says? You earned your way into INRU. But you wanted the "disproportionate boost" of the INRU degree, even if you would have done equally fine work at your (equally educationally fine!) undergraduate alma mater. That's nothing to be apologetic about--and I'm not apologetic about the choices I've made or the benefits they've conferred. But surely you see that though our admission was earned, the privileges that accrue go beyond what's earned on the merit of the work itself.

But I can live with calling it "advantage" rather than privilege, if you like!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Guess I'm out of the loop - INRU=? RU= research university?

And Flavia, like i, I think using "advantage" rather than "privilege" is what's needed here. "Advantage" would also cover things like, if you get ahead because you've stumbled upon a trendy dissertation topic. Life's micro-unfairnesses, as opposed to systematic ones. (Not to further complicate this discussion, but whiteness is a form of privilege, even if it's a stretch to call everyone who's white "privileged.")

i said...

Flavia, you're right, they're not fully earned. In fact, when I see someone in my field near the end of grad school with a ridiculously long list of peer-reviewed publications, more often than not they're coming out of a good but not top public university, from a decent but not famous program. If anything, I sometimes suspect that INRU didn't push us hard enough to publish, didn't instill enough of the fighting spirit, but more a sense of confidence in our value despite, not because of, our accomplishments in print.

That said -- and this is to take the conversation in a slightly different direction -- I've become more comfortable in the past few years with what look like inequalities in the hiring process. Like many in my position, I suspect, I've spent a good amount of time over the past decades reading online discussions on the injustices of academic hiring. The job wikis, the Chronicle boards and comments sections, blogs, etc. The complaint of the Highly Published Scholar Passed Over for an Ivy-League Lightweight is almost a genre onto its own. And I have no doubt that it often happens unfairly. But when I've seen it happen from the other side, and repeatedly, there tended to be good reasons, either relating to quality of work or to shockingly self-sabotaging behaviour.

That said, I'd bet good money that a highly published individual coming out of, say, Oregon will often be looked over for Societies of Fellows...

scr said...

I, too, am curious about Dr Cleveland's response to i's first question. It is the very first thing that struck me about what he said; from his details, it was clear that everything the senior college said was in her head. Clearly, she wouldn't get fired for being 'bold'. What could possibly happen, other than, perhaps, a certain difficulty in getting the same argument published.

I think there are so many factors at play that you can't possibly account for them all. As a relatively skilled person working in the IT field, I'm acutely aware of both what I know, as well as the huge gaps in my knowledge I'd like to fill some day. I'm not the world's biggest risk taker, not unusually bold, and certainly not a good salesperson who can talk himself up in an interview and get hired anywhere (you know the type). I'm not even particularly outgoing! Surely some of this can be chalked up to a kind of imposter syndrome, where you compare yourself not against a collection of peers as individuals, but against all of the skills possessed by everyone in your field, an impossible standard which you could never fulfill.

That said, when I see people comment online about their miserable jobs, and how they could NEVER find something better, I begin to realize that there's a certain confidence many people lack that keeps them from achieving. Sure it's easy if you're sitting on a stack of money and can afford to quit your job and find something better, and it's harder if you have a family to support. But I've never been in a position to walk away from a job before finding something better, yet I've never had a problem moving on to bigger and better things with some regularity. Maybe there's some unknown factor at play. Or more likely, it's a combination of things. It's just enough confidence, coupled with just enough boldness, combined with knowing the right people, having the right timing, having worked in the right niches of the industry, having enough (but nowhere near all!) of the right skills, and so on. I'm beginning to realize that very few of these things are really accidents, but probably the result of making wise choices at the right times, where others somehow fail to do so.

Again, I know this is quite different from academia, but I'm sure many of the same factors are at play. Some people manage to outperform what you would have expected of them based on their intelligence, personality, and qualifications, and many of them underperform.

One thing that strikes me about the discussion about the 'privilege' of attending a given University is that it doesn't take into account those for whom the degree carries less merit. For most schools, we can use the University of Washington as an example, there are some students who absolutely know they could have gotten in somewhere more prestigious, and others who barely gained acceptance. While both are probably proud of their degree, one would give the institution's name much higher billing than the other. The name of the school you attended is really just a 'bucket' you fit into, a generalization. The very average UW student fills it perfectly, the above average UW student 'brings up' the name value of the school, and the below average one 'brings down' the name value. So in a way, it's simply a convenient clustering.

That said, I'm sure an argument could be made for schools such as the Ivies that the name recognition exceeds the true value of the average (or even above-average!) student, in the same way that a degree from a regional school may carry a connotation that somewhat undervalues the average student.

In fact, maybe that's your entire point. But I wrote it, so I'm leaving it there.

Flavia said...


INRU = "Instant-Name-Recognition University." It's the pseudonym I've long used for my alma mater. But as it's pretty obnoxious, I rarely write it out now.

EngLitProf said...

A couple of comments (and I apologize if I’m getting even further from your excellent original post, Flavia).

1. Using universities like the place where “Dubya” went as examples of “advantage” or “privilege” muddies the issue because they are hybrids: superb scholarly and educational institutions that are also corrupted by many dubious forms of privilege (similarly, an undergraduate degree from one of these schools means something different than a Ph.D. does). A clearer example of academic advantage would be a Ph.D. in philosophy from Arizona: even though most people probably think of Arizona as a sunbelt party school, it is recognized in academic circles as having one of America’s best philosophy programs. Moreover, this recognition counts: an Arizona Ph.D.’s chances of getting a job are very strong.

2. The most intriguing aspect of Doctor Cleveland’s anecdote is that this scholar did not feel confident enough to make revisionist (“bold,” “daring”) claims even though (a) she presumably could back them up and (b) her publication record might be expected to have earned her a fair hearing. Let’s focus on (b), while assuming (for the time being) that she has gauged her situation accurately. Our willingness to consider unlikely claims is proportionate to the amount of attention the person’s achievements seem to have earned. Some people have earned more credibility than others have, although “credibility” is probably the wrong word, because they get not our belief but our readiness to listen longer and more attentively. The scary thing in the case Doctor Cleveland describes is the basis of the differentiation: a huge advantage, a distinguished publication record, was undermined by some disadvantages, and undermined directly by those disadvantages even though they were ancient history! (I got confused about when precisely she wished to be bold yet shied away; one way to read the story is that by the time she had the academic weight to be daring, it was too late: she had been scooped.) I am surprised that her graduate pedigree would have effects so direct, so late. “Advantages” do (and should) bring unmediated benefits when, for example, the identity of Doctor Cleveland’s graduate institution, the identity of his advisor, and his advisor’s endorsement lead a press to take his book manucript more seriously, or when the identity of the press makes readers more receptive to his arguments. But why would anyone care where I picked up my Ph.D. thirty years after I get it? I don’t want anyone to care now, and it’s been only twenty years. My pedigree benefits me, but by now the benefits better be indirect.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Flavia - thanks for explaining the acronym. That makes so much more sense than what I'd been guessing!

Doctor Cleveland said...

i, scr, and ELP:

I don't think that my older colleague was worried about having her arguments *published* (and certainly not about her job security). I think it's closer to what ELP says: about having her argument taken seriously.

(And obviously, my article, like most academic articles, was only accepted after anonymous peer review by two senior scholars that I didn't know. I didn't get the essay published just because I had a shiny PhD. But my status in the profession does influence how that essay gets received.)

Because the question, as ELP says, is about willingness to take someone's arguments seriously, I take my senior colleague's worries seriously, as the fruit of her decades of professional experience. (Dismissing out of hand her claim that her claims would be dismissed out of hand strikes me as unwise.) I think this is not about her personal lack of confidence but about her personal abundance of candor.

I would say that my friend's caution comes down to two issues: her ability to withstand pushback, and her ability to not be smothered by silence.

If she made an argument that rocked the boat, she could naturally expect that some scholars would make furious counter-arguments. (One scholar more established than I am did, in fact, spend whole paragraphs going after my article in print.) My friend's caution likely reflects her assessment that if she were counter-attacked by scholars who were officially "bigger deals" than she, people would largely take those scholars' words without investigating the matter too thoroughly, and her professional reputation would suffer. I think that's a real concern. The other danger is that her argument would get the silent treatment, in which other scholars simply ignore her argument because they would prefer it to go away. ("Did the silly old lady just say something? Everyone carry on with their business, and we'll just forget this unpleasantness.") I can't imagine she was eager for that experience.

On the other hand, my article brought an angry attack (by someone who'd not been criticized in the article), but I'm fine. Enough people did take it seriously to balance out those who dislike it, and while I'm by no means a big shot myself I'm still too well-connected to be simply dismissed out of hand. Because of my degree institution and my professional sponsors, my argument has to be engaged. And while I like friends much better than enemies, I have enough of one to afford one or two of the other.

And yes, EPL, it's shocking that things which should have stopped mattering still mattered. But I think that some privilege does not go away (although one might squander it). It's not that my friend would be judged directly on where she got her doctorate. It's that, in her judgment, the profession long ago fitted her into a particular slot, able to make some arguments but not others, viewed as a "solid" scholar rather than a "brilliant" one. And although she is in many ways smarter than some of the officially "brilliant" people, I am all too afraid that she's right.

Anonymous said...

I think Flavia and Dr. Cleveland are right about the long-term operations of privilege or advantage. My dissertation director was a big-name person in my field teaching at a very good public RI when I went to grad school. I went there specifically to work with him, in fact. A few years after I finished grad school, he was hired by a place like INRU. For many years, his students from that institution did far better in competing for fellowships, jobs, etc. than I did--despite the fact that we were all his students, and despite the fact that I had published more and better than a good many of them. The "brand" of the degree seemed to matter more than the actual quality of the scholarship and teaching ability.

I've now published several books with some of the best presses in my field, but realistically I know I am unlikely ever to be hired at a place like INRU, no matter how much and how well I publish, because I do not have the right pedigree. Indeed, I find it somewhat interesting that an Ivy League press will publish my work, but an Ivy League university will almost certainly never hire me. When I have applied for jobs at such institutions over the course of my career, I have watched with interest the short lists of finalists. The finalists in many cases have published less, and less well, than I have, but they have always had fancier degrees. Websites of departments in my field at places like INRU make very clear that people with Ph.D.s from institutions like the one where I received my degree are not on faculty.

This used to make me very bitter and angry, though now I just accept it. I sometimes still wish I had understood this better when I was 20 and deciding where to go to grad school, though! My undergrad mentors encouraged me to seek out my dissertation adviser, and I will never be really sorry that I listened to them, because he helped shape me as a scholar in very productive ways. But I will always sort of wonder if I should have tried for a more prestigious brand of institution, and if I had, how my career might have been different.

However, I will continue publishing and doing the best work I can. I have managed to build a very satisfying, rewarding career. But it has not been, and probably will not ever be, a career that includes working at a highly prestigious university.

Another Postdoc said...

I just graduated from my PhD program this May and have been thinking a lot about academic privilege or advantage. This is the most frank conversation that I have seen on this topic and I have learned a lot. Additionally, what I have suspected has been confirmed. Thanks to the contributors for such honest comments.

Canuck Down South said...

I just want to echo Another Postdoc's comment--that this conversation has make explicit a lot of factors I had suspected had a large impact but had never seen frankly discussed--except, perhaps, among grad students comparing themselves to friends at other institutions--and none of us have the perspective to see how our suspicions of how academic privilege works play out over the course of a career, as all those making comments here do. These are incredibly enlightening and useful comments.