Academic Musings

Academia is Not a Meritocracy

Academia is not a meritocracy.

 (And here’s a dirty little secret : Neither is any other professional field).

You would think that smart people – especially social scientists – would have internalized this rudimentary kernel of truth.  But we haven’t.

The myth of academic meritocracy persists mainly in two forms: 1) a collective obsession with academic rankings and status markers and 2) the hysteria that surrounds so-called “stars”.

Academic rankings and hierarchies continue to signal to our undergraduate and graduate students that certain departments are better than others.  These same departmental and institutional reputations are taken seriously in hiring decisions.  The most highly ranked journals are routinely framed as the most important and legitimate gatekeepers of scholarly research.  Prestigious fellowships and awards are often framed as supporting the “best” and the “brightest” academics in their respective fields.  And, all too often, the folks that publish in the most prestigious journals and win these highly prized jobs, fellowships, grants begin to drink their own koolaid.  

The meritocratic myth is also bolstered by what Durkheim refers to as the “cult of the individual”, the myopic focus on individuality that characterizes modern Western societies. In academia, this takes the form of a routinized, habitual recognition of intellectual work as the product of individual genius and effort.  Every year, graduate programs, hiring committees and publishing houses salivate over the latest “stars” – folks who are spoken of in hushed tones as Messiah-like figures who walk on water.

Now the thing about those Messiah-like figures?  They’re usually white.  And whadya know? They’re also usually male.  Chances are?  They’re probably straight, too. And when they’re not white and male and straight?  They probably hail from a top-ten ranked graduate program and/or have an Ivy League degree and/or second generation academic status and/or middle/upper-middle class background and/or are particularly well connected and/or are able-bodied and/or .. Well, you get the picture.

The fact of the matter is, we are trained to believe that the best, the brightest and the most hardworking get the most professional recognition, but this could not be farther from the truth.  The exploitation of contingent faculty is a growing, often ignored crisis in higher education. Institutional and interpersonal discrimination counter efforts to produce a more inclusive academe.  Professional and personal networks, nepotism, clientelism, elitism and all sorts of other -isms disprove the meritocratic myth.

Aside from luck and various forms of privilege, the number one factor in academic success/survival is resilience in the face of rejection and failure.

The vast majority of academics are never, ever going to be considered “stars” in their field. They may be respected and well-regarded by the very few people who have actually read their work.  But those who are considered to be at the top of their field?  They’re not necessarily doing the best, most cutting-edge, thoughtful or paradigm-shifting work.  You know why? Because . . .

Academia is not a meritocracy.

In academia, as in most endeavors, recognition ≠ quality. Success in this field is not governed or guaranteed by genius, worthiness or even work ethic. The hardest working, most thoughtful academics are not always the most rewarded. And clearly, the most-deserving aren’t always rewarded either. Wildly “successful” and ordinary academics alike, the folks who benefit from layers of privilege and the ones who have overcome multiple dimensions of disadvantage usually have one thing in common: Resilience.  They struggle with their inner critic.  They doubt their capabilities.  At some point – usually early in their career – they were told that their ideas were bullshit. Their manuscripts and proposals get rejected.  Their projects fail.  Their paper submissions get ripped apart by ruthless reviewers.  The book doesn’t sell.  

Add to this the micro-aggressions experienced by faculty who are women and/or non-white and/or queer.  The racist and sexist remarks. The stress of managing minority status. The mentors, colleagues or students who question your abilities or directly disparage your presence, your work or both.

Resilient academics deal with all this shit, eyes wide open.  Not only do they deal with disappointment, discouragement and failure – they expect and plan for it.   

They re-submit the paper. They re-frame the argument. They send the manuscript to another journal. They get angry and hurt and pissed and bitch and moan.  They commiserate over wine and whiskey with people who can understand.  But at some point, they:

And they do it again and again and again.

We brush off our shoulders because resilience is what is required in this line of work.  It isn’t always rewarded, but it is required. And, at the end of the day, resilience is its own reward. The fabulous Tanya Golash-Boza has a whole blog article about resilience and rejection that you should read right now!

I say this because it is not said enough.  It is however, said, in the vitally important book “Mentoring for Faculty of Color“.  As Andrea Smith writes in her chapter: “If we start to realize that academia is not a meritocracy, then we are less likely to be fooled by the lie that we need to dispense with our lives in order to do quality scholarship.”  People of color and folks who experience other forms of marginalization need to hear this message loud and clear.  

mentoring  

For me, practices of self-care and holistic wellness are the building blocks of my life.  I have learned, over the last few years, to prioritize my well-being above everything else.  If I’m not replenishing my mind, body and spirit, then I can’t be a good partner, daughter, friend, mentor, educator or researcher.  I think, blog and talk so much about eating healthy food, setting aside time to rest, exercise, tend to my body, meditate and cultivate stillness because these are the fundamentals. Without a strong foundation of self-care, it is impossible to thrive in academia or any other professional field.   This is especially true for people who experience marginalization.

Taking care of yourself — mind, body and soul — is what real resilience is all about.  It’s about loving yourself in the midst of feelings of failure and rejection.  Refusing to let external recognition determine or circumscribe how you value contributions.  Cultivating a higher purpose to guide you when shit hits the fan. Because shit is going to hit the fan.  Trust.

The academics who inspire and edify me the most are not necessarily the most highly cited. Many weren’t even widely recognized until after death.  And among the living, those scholars who are most committed to promoting social justice and un-doing various forms of domination are not usually the same people who are the presidents of universities, the editors of the “prominent” journals, the gatekeepers of institutional privilege and prestige.

Academics who wish to do something more than genuflect to the system that produced them must consciously confront and transcend the bullshit they’ve been trained to internalize. Transcending said bullshit requires letting go of the idea that genius and hard work are always rewarded in this business.  They aren’t.  People have all kinds of unfair advantages. And, as sociologist Kerry Ann Rockquemore astutely points out, the criteria used to evaluate academic work are profoundly subjective.

As a conscious academic, you need to have your own vision of 1) why you’re in this line of work in the first place and 2) the kind of life you want to live.  Note that I did not say “the kind of basic, mediocre existence that you’re willing to scrape by with until you find out if you’ve been awarded tenure”.

People need to understand: You can play by all of the ‘rules’ for gaining tenure and still not get it.  You can influence the outcome by conforming to the expectations of your department and institution, but ultimately the decision is out of your control.  And the fact of the matter is, you may not even be alive by the time you’re considered for tenure.

Let’s pause and consider that.  You may not be alive in two, three, four or five years.  

I don’t say this to be grim. It’s just reality. (Although, apparently it’s a reality that women consider more than men.)  And in the event that you are actually alive in a few years, your future quality of life depends on what you do now.  If you compromise your values and your health just to appease your discipline and institution, you may find yourself tenured, miserable and chronically ill.

Now, watcha gonna do with your tenure if you ain’t got no health, no peace of mind, no sense of purpose and no fulfillment?

These are all reasons why I advocate taking care of yourself – your whole self – now, rather than later.  Don’t wait for tenure (or a tenure track job . . . or promotion . . ) to focus on your well-being.  Get clear on your priorities, your principles, and take steps to bring your work into alignment with those values. Ideally, you find a happy medium between your authentic vision and the exigencies of the tenure process.  And if such a happy medium cannot be found, you exit stage left and find something better to do with your precious time and energy.

In other words: Do you, boo.  

shameless

And if you get tenure in the process?  Fantastic!  If not?  Their loss.  Keep it moving.  It’s a big world out there and there’s plenty to be done.

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42 thoughts on “Academia is Not a Meritocracy”

      1. hahaha, I know, the language is problematic, but it was just what I needed during that demoralizing year. Are you going to be at ASAs? Can we have some courvoisier?

  1. Wow !!! Another profoundly candid and truthful piece.

    A reality check. And not limited to Academia!

    You are pitch perfect.

    You have to take a stand and Stand for something bigger than ‘they’ are – who ever they are. Have your own plan and work the bunk out of it.

    Let your successes speak for itself. Tell ere’y one of them, take a seat!

    😉
    BJ

  2. This is brilliant. While I would not have thought of accenting it with Jay-Z, it works, it really does! 🙂
    I wonder if I would have been open to this message back when I was young and hungry (read: untenured)? Now, with the privilege of time and more experience behind me, I find myself nodding my head in agreement to all of the above. Above all, stay in the field, do what you love, and be resilient. And don’t base your self-worth on the bells & whistles.

    1. Hello Diane! How nice to read you here on the blog – thanks for visiting 🙂 Yes, I surprised myself with the Jay-Z vid, but the spirit moved me!

      You raise a good question. Truthfully, I don’t know if I could have “heard” this message as a struggling, stressed, completely neurotic graduate student in an environment that promoted and perpetuated said neuroses. It’s only with perspective and the privilege of stable employment that I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to breathe and re-evaluate my priorities. But also – crucially – I had the good luck of eventually coming across folks like Tanya Golash Boza and Kerry Ann Rockquemore – just to name two – who have made it their business to demonstrate (in great detail) that academic work can be done while also taking care of yourself. Getting to know academics who integrate holistic approaches to self-care and work/life balance into their professional work has been life-changing. I may not have gotten the message “back then”, but I’m grateful to receive and amplify it now.

  3. Thank you for the great and uplifting post, Crystal. I, too, am a young academic and I find it striking that I have come to exactly the same conclusions ! Like you, I now prioritize my general well-being instead of yielding to the maddening pressures of the academic system at the expense of my health and relationships with other people – and instead of feeling bitter and frustrated because of the deep unfairness of this system. I have stopped comparing myself to academic “stars” and I have learnt to look at all things academic with humorous detachment (a sense of humour makes life so much easier !). I know my own worth and I am fully aware that my years in the academia have made me very strong, resilient, stoical, humble and open-minded – if I were an academic “star”, I would be a completely different person today …

  4. Excuse me, Minister Crystal. Can I have a word, Dr. Fleming? I just have to say that I am your choir and you can preach this sermon everyday on the daily! Honey, you’ve taken us to The Clearing in Toni Morrison’s BELOVED right here! (Love your flesh, love your hands, love your neck, love your heart, says the holy woman.) This post is so freakin’ on point!! Yes, resilience may not be rewarded, but it is definitely required. Yes, we must focus on “Refusing to let external recognition determine or circumscribe how you value contributions. Cultivating a higher purpose to guide you when shit hits the fan. Because shit is going to hit the fan. Trust.” TRUST, indeed! And, yes, “Resilient academics deal with all this shit, eyes wide open. Not only do they deal with disappointment, discouragement and failure – they expect and plan for it.” Seriously, not only is what you’re saying LIFE, but also the writing itself emits life. There’s an energy in your writing that just compels the reader. Thank you for this. As you note, we can’t be reminded too often.

    1. Koritha Mitchell, Goddess herself! Thank you so much for visiting the blog and blessing us all with your lovely presence! You brought us back to Beloved! Yahhhhs!

      It’s encouraging to hear these words of encouragement and agreement from dynamic women scholars like you, women who are doing the work. Rock on sis and thanks again for stopping by.

  5. This summarizes everything that I personally stand for. We spend so much time sacrificing the present we don’t even have anymore energy to enjoy or even recognize the rewards when they finally get to our door( if ever). By getting used to a routine of slaving ourselves away, how easy could it be to take that mask off and learn to sit back, slow down and relax??
    (This should be a required reading for future theory class/ right between Goffman and McLeod). Thank you for blessing us tonight 🙂

    1. Thank you for your post!

      In fact, I just finished teaching Goffman AND MacLeod .. and it was after my last lecture on the illusion of meritocracy that I found myself getting very upset.. well.. about the way another Goffman’s work is being framed in the media (more on that another time). This post is, in part, my reaction to that.

      You bring up the difficulty we have with staying in the present.. I think partly it’s because the “present” on the tenure track often feels VERY uncomfortable — stressful, agonizing, physically and emotionally draining. The discomfort with the present is compounded by anxiety of uncertainties of the future. Part of my self care and spiritual practice lately is to completely, consciously allow myself to feel all of these nasty feelings and to sit in that space, allowing stress to be there when it comes, without immediately trying to remedy or suppress it. Paradoxically, relaxing into the stress can be profoundly liberating, as I explain in a recent post.

      Anywho, warm thanks for stopping by.

  6. beautiful, powerful, so deeply and resoundingly wise. reminders to love and care for oneself and one’s loving others are crucial in the academic industry. thank you.

  7. Hi Crystal! An associate professor in planning just sent this out to our academic planning listserv (~1,000 members), with the remark, “I found this an interesting and useful reflection on professional life generally.” I agree and am so glad he directed us to it! I hope you’re well! Leigh

    1. Hey Leigh! So good to hear from you. I read other recent, equally problematic articles about that project .. I have lots to say about it — actually wrote an open letter but decided to take it down while I collect my thoughts.. 😉 Hope our paths cross again soon..

      1. Crystal, it is really a pity that you decided to take the open letter down. I read it with immense interest and fully agree with you. I did not know whether to laugh or cringe when I read here http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2014/03/19/pages/8304/index.xml?page=3& that Alice Goffman had allegedly begun to fear white men, including Princeton professors (this seems completely unconvincing to me), and about such “painful” consequences of her project as the fact that she “didn’t know the music her fellow Princeton students talked about” and that she had got used to wear different clothes than the other students.

        These details reveal the depth of the gulf between the lives and problems of Alice and the Black people from the impoverished neighbourhood, and I am amazed that she did not realize during the interview that the fact that she felt somewhat disconnected from the other Princeton students seems completely insignificant compared to the problems and traumas faced by the people she got to know during her fieldwork !

        And one of the pics accompanying the article does seem extremely “racialized” and “genderized” to me – I am thinking of this one http://paw.princeton.edu/_internal/cimg!0/ibmmpe3qzyyqm7lgf2q2sqqpipclpo9 where one sees only Alice’s blonde head and two threatening-looking male police officers …

        1. Hi Joana – I appreciate your comment and received similar reactions from others who read it while it was up. I’m still considering how to respond .. And, I confess, I’m also reading the book in order to have a more informed perspective on the unfortunate media coverage.

  8. This is so on time. As a 1st year professor, I needed to read this. This has been a whirlwind year, so much has happened, and yet, so much more needed to be done. This post serves as my reminder that i have to preserve myself above all else. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank YOU for sharing your support! As much as you needed to read this, I also needed to read messages of commiseration like yours. Yes, keep taking care of you. I am trying to take my own advice 🙂

  9. Well done! You are quite right in saying that this isn’t just present in Academia but is also true in the corporate world. The exact same issues occur; the really excellent get pushed aside in promotions by the flash, dash, and well-connected. Unless, of course, you learn early on how to “play the game.” Unfortunately, that should not be part of merit-based promotions or raises. If only the corporate world had tenure…which cannot be compared to seniority. Seniority isn’t worth a damn, especially if the scion of the corporation’s family decides he /she wants to work for the firm.

  10. Very insightful and eloquent. I noticed “Eckhart Tolle” is one of the tags for this post. He’s one of my favorite nonfiction authors, perhaps my very favorite. It was after I read “A New Earth” and “Silence Speaks” that I had a come-to-Jesus (Buddha) moment. Namely that the ego’s illusion of separateness and division is just that: an extremely convincing, durable lie about nature of a limited, narrow sense of self. We’re all one spirit, the One Life in Tolle’s terms. I wrote “Overcome Any Personal Obstacle, Including Alcoholism, By Understanding Your Ego” — http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leewriter. In my book, I trace the root cause of the Seven Deadly Sins to an overly strong ego. Conversely, I show how one can attain each of the Seven Virtues by seeing through their ego’s lies and limitations. Paul Levy’s site, http://www.realitysandwich.com, has great stuff regarding what he calls Malignant Egophrenia or ME for short.

  11. This is a really powerful post. The issues you touched on do not exist only in academia – in fact they’re also pervasive in the private and (yes!) public sectors. You are so right when you advise that we should know our purpose and value; that is really the only way to survive. It is essential to know your worth, what you want to contribute and draw strength and direction from this core. Thanks for sharing your brilliance!

  12. I like this article and think it describes a problem in academia well.
    What I do not like is that the white straight man is chosen as the scapegoat.

    I can tell you that the microaggressions from females towards males is equally real and commonplace, and that people in general will reject you if you don’t fit in.

    Please, when doing such a well analysis, don’t fall for the trap to look for the next scapegoat, even if this makes it easy because there is a ennemy you can visualize and fight.

    The issue is about peer groups and peer pressure and social dynamics, not a specific race, gender or sexual orientation. Thanks

  13. I like this article and think it describes a problem in academia well.
    What I do not like is that the white straight man is chosen as the scapegoat.

    I can tell you that the microaggressions from females towards males is equally real and commonplace, and that people in general will reject you if you don’t fit in.

    Please, when doing such a well analysis, don’t fall for the trap to look for the next scapegoat, even if this makes it easy because there is a ennemy you can visualize and fight.

    The issue is about peer groups and peer pressure and social dynamics, not a specific race, gender or sexual orientation. Thanks

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