Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Credentials Gap

Last year Dewey James, a pseudonymous writer in the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article, "My Credentials Gap," that hit really close to home and that I suspect will resonate with more than a few of my readers. I'll let "Dr. James" get his point across:

So, am I prepared to prosper on the tenure-track market for historians this year? Let's go over the CV:

*Doctorate in hand? Check.

*Excellent teaching evaluations? Check. University teaching award? Check.

*Other awards, including a national fellowship? Check.

*Publications in reputable, peer-reviewed journals? Check.

*Book contract with a well-regarded scholarly press? Check.

*Currently holding a visiting position at a good university? Check.

And let's not forget one important factor that the CV does not reveal:

*Generally nice guy who gets along well with people and interviews well? Check.

I should be golden on the job market, right? Can search committees honestly expect a whole lot more from a 2004 Ph.D.?

Oh yes.

The problem is that my CV has one gaping, glaring, career-hampering hole, one that can't easily be patched over.

My Ph.D., you see, is from, well, let's call it AMU: Average Midwestern University. You know, a big state university from the agricultural heartland, the sort of place that Ivy Leaguers might teach at, but would never actually earn a Ph.D. from.

When it comes to attracting job offers, Ivy League credentials beat AMU credentials most every time, despite whatever else might be on the CV. A recent study from the American Historical Association demonstrates that the "top" programs admit graduate students from a very narrow range of mostly private institutions, and hire from a similarly narrow pool. All of which is bad news for those of us from AMU's.

I too received my PhD at "AMU," although if anyone bothers to look beyond the university name they would discover that the program was anything but average, and my referees compare with anyone coming from the Ivies. Yet I know that most job committees at the elite instutions don't look beyond the university name. Don't we alll know of a hiring situation in which a job went to a recent Ivy League or cohort university graduate whose promise may have been boundless, but whose record was still lacking, the presupposition being that while Person X had not yet published and had no teaching record, surely in coming from the University of Self Importance, they must be good? In fact, AMU sometimes doesn't do its graduates or those of its own cohorts any favor by making these exact same decisions -- again, I know my AMU has. Sometimes these hires work out. Oftentimes, however, they do not. I'd be willing to bet that graduates from AMU work out just as well as those with the more glimmering background.

The tendency not to look beyond the surface is not unique to hiring decisons within the profession, either. Hiring committees, tenure committees, and anyone looking at your vita will ask the question "where did she publish?" Rather than say, "was what she published any good?" This is understandable -- short of reading the article, the "which journal is it in" shorthand seems to make a certain amount of sense. But there are several problems with this approach. The first, of course, is that many of the big name journals carry a prestige out of all proportion with the quality of what is within its pages. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I cannot remember the last article in the American Historical Review that I even cared to read; I'd have to go a lot further back to find one that I thought was any good after I did read it. In short, the AHR may be the most visible journal. Publishing it it may confer something upon the writer. But that does not necessarily mean that an article in the AHR is any better than an article in a much smaller journal. Given that we are all under pressure to publish, that the big journals take forever to provide feedback that may well not be positive, and given that the low-hanging fruit offered by smaller journals both in terms of acceptance and time to publication may hold a great deal of appeal for junior faculty facing yearly review and tenure deadlines, there are obvious reasons why someone might take the smaller journal route. Dismissing an article that may well have been able to get into a bigger or "better" journal -- if only we were allowed to shop our work to multiple places -- seems both unfair and reveals a remarkable obtuseness about the nature of academic publishing these days.

In making hiring decisions, granting fellowships or any of the other myriad reasons for looking at someone's vita, we need to do better than to lazily ask "where did they get their PhD?" and, to a lesser degree, "Where did they publish?" The former question is especially noxious because it presupposes that the best work always comes from a small number of programs and that those programs are nearly infallible in their admissions decisions, decisions most often made based on the performance of 22-year-olds.

Back to Dr. James:

But in the name game -- the "glance quickly at the conference badge to see whether this person is worth talking to" academic culture -- I'm at a decided disadvantage, even against those candidates who can't match my teaching and research credentials. People in the humanities may like to pretend that it's the quality of scholarship that matters, but the open secret is that the prestige accorded to one's doctoral institution counts for a great deal.

In some ways this whole hiring process is irrational. At its worst, it reminds me of what I hated about high school: It's the cool kids reproducing their privileged social status. It's not that I don't recognize that Ivy Leaguers are nearly always very good; it's just that many of us from other institutions are very good as well.

The job market isn't easy on anybody, but the dearth of tenure-track positions means hiring committees rely even more heavily these days on status credentialing. With so few positions available, hiring committees are under great pressure not to make a bad hire; after all, the dean might very well give the next space to a different department if the process doesn't go well. And search committees can imagine themselves explaining, "Hey, he was from Harvard -- who knew it wouldn't work out?" But they cringe at trying to rationalize to administrators why they would take someone from AMU in the first place.

There are lots of great people coming out of good AMU's every year. If only various committees would get their heads out of the clouds, bother to read and weigh the entire vita on its own merits, and realize as much.


Anonymous said...

Dcat, are you on the job market?

dcat said...

Blake --
I have a job with which I am happy right now. Which may not answer your question fully, but which is AN answer!


Stephen said...

Too painful to read...

dcat said...

Steve --
Painful, but something I hope universities start reflecting about more seriously. It's an intellectually and morally vacant, not to mention lazy and sloppy, way to stock a profession.

Rich said...

Some damn good times were had at those AMU's though, that's for sure. On a coolness scale I'll shuffle with the AMU'ers over the Ivy Leaguers any day of the week.

That'll shut you up.

dcat said...

True dat. And I guess we showed that damned parking meter for being in our way too.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like maybe you should have spent more time in the library, rather than fighting parking meters.

dcat said...

It was a split decision against the parking meter! (Whereas in our mano a mano confrontations the library usually won.)