Level Playing Field

For many decades, major American orchestras were overwhelmingly male. And every time that was pointed out, the response was “It’s a shame, but there just aren’t as many excellent female musicians out there,” and all kinds of faux-sciology was invented to explain that paucity of musical talent and commitment. And that reasoning held sway until the practice of blind auditions came to prominence. Amazingly enough, women who weren’t known to be women turned out to be excellent performers in similar numbers to men. Who’d have guessed?

There’s a reason why blind review is considered the uppermost threshold of academic evaluation. So why don’t we do it more often? I was having a discussion with a colleague from another college over the weekend, and we were talking about disciplinary accreditation. Whole-institution accreditation is pretty wide ranging, accounting for everything from finance to the website. But disciplinary accreditation has mostly to do with whether the students are experiencing a particular array of coursework, under the supervision of appropriately trained faculty, and achieving a certain level of performance. That could all be done blind, and would reduce the need to be nice to your pals from other schools with whom you serve on meaningless but important-sounding boards.

For tenure and promotion reviews, a body of work could be sent—with identifiers removed—to the senior faculty in the applicant’s field who work at similar schools. Those reviewers could offer independent and adequately blind assessments of the candidates, based only on the quality and quantity of work on the table.

For the most part, we don’t do those other things blind. Why is that? In the case of accreditation reviews, we don’t do it because IMPORTANT people like deans or presidents could be embarrassed. Wouldn’t want that. And accrediting bodies are member-supported, and it’s hard to tell a school who’s been giving you tens of thousands of dollars a year that they’re inadequate.

In the case of hiring committees and tenure and promotion reviews, we’re assessing a whole person—a scholar, a teacher, a colleague, a working partner, an officemate. Those things require a holistic assessment that can’t be done in the absence of interpersonal and contextual knowledge. And yet… it’s hard to reconcile that one’s whole career comes down to specific decision points with unclear and likely biased criteria. We’re all biased and privileged, usually in ways we don’t even begin to recognize. Sometimes we’re biased about what we believe to be “good” work, as MFA programs privilege short story writers because that’s what you can accomplish in a semester, and design programs privilege the extrovert who can bust out a dozen ideas a minute rather than the introvert who goes off to work something out on her own for a few days. And sometimes we’re biased about who we believe to be “good” colleagues, usually meaning that they remind us of ourselves in some important ways. The hiring decision that comes down to which candidate is a “good fit for our department” is simply the forwarding of those biases.

Perfectly blind review is neither always possible nor always fully desirable. But we need to develop some better body of methods that allows us to recognize talent as talent, no matter who brings it to the audition.

Class Traitor

It’s the little things that you notice.

I’d gone to visit my brother in Michigan while I was in grad school, for the first time in a decade. It was Tuesday evening, 9pm, and he invited us to watch a little TV before he got ready to go off to work third shift at the furniture factory. Tuesday at 9pm in my home meant Fraisier, the Kelsey Grammer sitcom about the foibles of the pretentious and overeducated. Tuesday at 9pm at Bill’s meant Home Improvement, the Tim Allen sitcom about guys who fix things and the friends and family who give them crap about it.

Oh. Of course.

Education takes us away from our home communities, away from our families. It takes us away from our politics, our biases, our language. It takes us away from familiar habits and familiar landscapes. It brings us into new cultures, new problems, new groups, new values.

Those of us not natively in the professional classes will always be double agents, playing both sides off one another. We become bilingual, able to translate. We become suspect, not able to firmly place our allegiances. We pass, everywhere we go, belonging nowhere. We always choose the tone, choose the words, choose the clothes, choose the jokes, choose whether to push back or let a stereotype slide.

It’s intellectually and emotionally wearying work. Sometimes, when you’re tired of the navigating, you forget where you are. The wrong words emerge. And everyone around you gives you that look… that look that means they’ve caught you out, they know you’re not really a member.

College changes lives. Please remember that. And please know what it is that you’re asking.