“Effing Geniuses”



And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

John Collins Bossidy’s old saw kept running through my mind as I read Thomas Frank’s “All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus” on Salon.com. I also kept thinking of Paul Krugman’s continual complaint about economists who are constantly shown to be wrong, particularly when predicting inflation, yet who are continually turned to as experts. Oh, I didn’t forget John McCain, either, with his drum-beat for war, no matter the situation, wrong though he consistently turns out to have been–and be. The term “the echo chamber in Washington” has become cliche for a reason.

But mainly I thought about us academics.

Frank writes:

The powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon. They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group. Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren’t part of the professional-managerial class.

There should be a big “ouch” there for all of us in the universities. We’ve become the go-to example of Lowells and Cabots.

And we’re doing little to change.

A big part of the problem is our slavish worship of established peer-reviewed journals and of the sanctified group of top-drawer university presses. There’s even a circularity going on: The more we strive to publish in these venues, the more valuable they become and the more expensive. The more expensive they become, the fewer who have access to them (outside of institutions, certainly), making their conversations directed to smaller and smaller cognoscenti. At the same time, those striving to climb the academic ladder have to conform to their demands or be consigned to the wasteland of non-R1 institutions or, even worse, to a life as contingent hires. Worse yet, those institutions trying to climb toward top status ape the requirements of the top universities, requiring that their faculties publish in venues where they have to compete for space with people with much lighter teaching loads, better support, and graduate-student assistance.

This also leads to the assumption that the faculty at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, M.I.T., Duke, Chicago and the rest are better than anyone else–and at everything. One of the more eye-rolling assumptions about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) was that the “master teachers” at Harvard and Stanford could, through them, share their teaching genius with the masses.

The academic deck has always been stacked in favor of those who, for whatever reason, land at the elite universities. Not just students, but faculty. I admit that I have taken advantage of it: I got into grad school in part because of the reputation of my undergraduate college. And the status of my graduate school, particularly in my field, certainly hasn’t hurt me, since. But we in the universities, many of whom speak frequently of equality and commonality, do little to actually encourage these.

Certainly, we do little in terms of broadening scholarly conversations or encouraging alternatives to the hoary and narrow avenues of the past. We approach online open-access publication with suspicion when it is put forward at promotion and tenure time; self-publication has become an absolute no-no. Many of us talk the talk of openness but, when it comes to actual professional advancement, we won’t walk the walk. We even go so far as to put responsibility for this on the candidate: they have to prove that work not done in established venues is of value–relieving promotion and tenure committees from the necessity of reading and evaluating the work for themselves. If it has the imprimatur, fine. If not, don’t ask us to rate your work–show, instead, that others have already done so!

Academic procedures for promotion and tenure are, at most American institutions, arcane and out-dated, and open to abuses of all kinds. They also help keep our reputation as inbred professionals intact. We, as faculty, are the ones most responsible for it; it is we, as faculty, who can change it.

Will we?

Or will we continue to be supportive of a snobbishness as stultifying as that of old Boston–or even contemporary Washington, DC?