Words Unspoken in My Home

I recently spent a few days with a friend about to send her eldest son off to college. And as she talked about their plans for the summer and fall, I realized that there were just a lot of things we take for granted as white-collar professionals that many of our students would never experience. In particular, I was struck by some words that would never have been uttered by my parents.

Let’s think about which of these schools would be a good fit for you.

I know the tuition is high, but I’m sure they have financial aid.

I’ll take a week in March and we can go visit some schools.

Let me talk with the registrar and see if I can get this straightened out.

You should see who the faculty are in your department; you might be able to do some research with them.

They have a summer orientation week in July for incoming freshmen; you’ll enjoy that.

We’ll get you a new laptop before you go.

These aren’t surprising words; millions of parents are saying something similar right now. But millions of other parents can’t take a week from work to do campus visits; don’t have the understanding of college structures that would allow them to intervene; wouldn’t know how to evaluate one school or one program against another.

Cultural capital accrues across generations, and lots of our students, as bright and eager as they may be, are starting without much in the account. It’s up to us on the inside to help them start to accumulate their early balance.

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.

Copying the masters

One of the things I think we do poorly in teaching young people to write is that we either teach it as a mode of self-expression, in which anything goes as long as it’s authentic… or as a mode of linguistic science, a series of parts of speech and moods and tenses and rules with nothing of interest to apply the rules to.

I think there’s a middle ground. It’s called reading.

Specifically, a guided, structured reading in which we learn to copy the masters, a sort of Beaux-Arts approach to writing in which we discover the writers we really love and then put their words through our hands. One of my practices for years when I was teaching myself to write was actually typing the most beautiful paragraphs or sequences I encountered. I got to feel those ideas coming through my hands; the fact of typing made me consider the author’s decisions, and how those were different than my own habits; I just got used to managing language beautifully and elegantly.

How do you learn how to write a CV? By reading them. How do you learn to write an abstract? By reading them. How do you learn the genre you want to participate in, from computational chemistry journal to literary short story to NIH grant proposal? By reading them. And intuiting their rules, and making those rules your own.

Women’s Work

I tend to be kind of an observant person, a good character trait for an ethnographer. But I don’t always know how to turn it off, and my wife occasionally says that I’m sounding like Andy Rooney, which is a gentle way of saying that I should be quiet for a while. (Andy Rooney, children, was a curmudgeonly commentator on the CBS “60 Minutes” TV show, whose common opening line was “Didja ever notice…?”)

But you get to suffer my occupational traits. Sorry.

Didja ever notice… that once women enter a profession, the profession suddenly doesn’t get paid as well, and has more bureaucracy and more regulation? It’s no accident, I think, that as we’re getting more and more women physicians, the medical industry isn’t as highly respected; that it’s losing room for judgement and becoming more “systematized?” That it’s gaining a whole new group of professional categories like “physician assistant” and “nurse practitioner?” I think our culture simply defaults to the idea that men are important and women aren’t, and so any job that a woman can do isn’t all that important, either. (You can read a great, brief, discussion of this at the blog Crates and Ribbons—click the italicized words for a link.)

So it’s no accident, either, that as more and more women succeed in higher education, the terms of engagement in higher ed shift beneath us. The American Association of University Women reports that in fall 2011, 52.5 percent of part- time faculty members were women, while women composed 44.2 percent of full- time faculty members. The shift from the tenure-track to temp work occurred at roughly the same time as women began to enter faculty eligibility in larger numbers (and also at roughly the same time as undergraduate populations started to become less male-dominated as well). Coincidence? Is it a coincidence that we now talk about “K-16” or “K-20” education, so that we can pay college faculty as badly as we pay high school and grade school teachers?

Now I know that in a social ecosystem, no single variable carries full explanatory power. But golly, maybe we should think about what we see when we see it.

Intellectual Genres

I was at a writers’ conference a few years ago, in a session led by an acquisition editor from Penguin. (Don’t you just love the idea that the publisher is called Penguin, by the way?) Anyway, she was telling us about the shelving codes used by publishers to help booksellers departmentalize their material. The big categories, of course, we know: genres like mystery, thriller, travel, biography, supernatural, and so on. But she surprised me by talking about the subcategories as well. For instance, within “mystery,” there are noirs and procedurals and capers and historicals and romantics and… and “cozy mysteries.”

W.   T.   F.   F.?

Yes, friends, the cozy mystery. Amateur detective, usually an older woman, no visible crime or violence, no sex, no profanity. Just a cheerful little murder to solve, within a scatter of chatty and eccentric neighbors in a picturesque inn or seaside town. Murder She Wrote, basically. Sometimes the books actually contain recipes, or knitting instructions! This is a major genre, and you had better not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get past page ten.

The genres of higher education, of course, are our disciplines. And you had likewise not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get through your CV.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to market my fiction writing, an utterly different world than nonfiction (although literary agents are as anonymous, and as non-communicative in their rejection, as faculty search committees). And there’s a way in which the pitch letter is making two opposing cases at once. This book is fresh and innovative… and fits right in with all these other books you already know how to sell. As you market yourself as a candidate for a faculty position, you also will be making exactly that same divided case for yourself, that you’re an exciting and challenging scholar who’ll fit right in.

It’s an exacting line to walk, especially with so little feedback. So here’s my suggestion. Your department should have a folder (literal or virtual) with every single CV of every single tenure-track and tenured faculty member, available for the study of its graduate students and pending graduate students. Bio statements, too. Not only for their ostensible utility, to help your students know what you do so they can more wisely choose advisors—but more importantly as a study guide to the genre of your discipline. Which journals show up most often? Which doctoral programs did people in your department most often come from? How are research interests framed? How does your discipline define itself through its actions and allegiances?

You can learn to write a cozy mystery. It isn’t hard; you just read a hundred of them, and you start to learn the form. So too with your discipline; you learn the basic moves, and then figure out ways to do exactly those things, but with enough elan to be noticed among all of your shelfmates. To do that, you have to have the reading material to learn from.

Here’s another hint. Your department members won’t do it. They’re busy, and it’s not a priority. So some graduate student is going to have to make it her project, to go door to door and beg until she assembles a critical mass of CVs and bio statements from her masters, building a reverse-engineered guide to her genre. Get used to lifting your own bootstraps, kids.

The space between

The world of the student is filled with mechanisms for identifying and rewarding talent. Talent on certain terms, of course, but talent nonetheless. We pack thirty kids into a room and we ask them all to do the same thing. Some will do it better than others. We repeat that dozens of times a day, 180 days a year, thirteen years, and we have a relatively effective means of identifying who can do the things we value.

The ones who do it well—the gold that remains in the pan—get to do it some more, get tasks of higher level, greater focus, more sophistication. The machine winnows yet again for another four or five years, and a few of those participants are invited to continue even further, for another five or more years of the same.

In every case, the machine is designed, like a quiz show, to continually feed its participants challenges that they can identifiably do better or worse at. It is a virtual reality, a protective pod that seems like the whole world but is actually an illusion. We do not know this, because it seems so real—we’re immersed within its structures, it gives us the positive feedback that we crave, it rewards the odd blend of curiosity and obedience that we have cultivated so carefully.

But ultimately, the day comes that we have passed all of those challenges, and there is no more machine feeding us, challenging us, praising us. There is only the vast, incoherent, airless ether of “the market.”

The market rewards what it rewards, in a peculiar, circular, unknowable fashion. There is no conceivable explanation for why more people like Justin Bieber’s music than Kaki King’s, except that it’s true. There is no conceivable explanation for why E. L. James has sold a hundred million copies of shabby, secondhand vampire fiction, except that it’s true. The matrix—the logical, structured system of challenges and rewards—has finished with us, and we have entered an entirely different logic system, one we were never informed of. One that will comfortably dispose of the majority of us.

In the market, the tasks are less structured, the opportunities for challenge are less frequent, the feedback less defined. Instead of a a dozen papers a year to write for professors we’ve come to know, we have cover letters to write for the three jobs a year in our field, written to people who are anonymous to us and who do not themselves know what they want, which will receive no feedback of any sort aside from “no thank you.”

If you manage somehow to cross that wilderness, you will, surprisingly, re-enter the matrix. You will once again be given specific tasks in a reliable sequence—creating and teaching courses, conducting and submitting your research, serving on committees and preparing for promotion. And you will get regular feedback, if you’re paying attention, and thus be able to learn, to re-energize the paired muscles of curiosity and obedience. You will be welcomed back into to the pod, the virtual reality, the loving arms of the mechanical mother. You will, in fact, now help to shape it. And you will forget the terrors of the space between.

Unseen Allies

Years ago, I read an interview with John Updike in which he talked about the joy of receiving a fresh box of his new books. He smelled them. He held them in his hands, admiring their covers, turning them gently so they’d catch the light like a jewel. He opened one, pleased with the publisher’s choice of typeface, so graceful, so elegant. And then, invariably, within the first few minutes of browsing, he’d come across a typo, and his joy was dashed.

I now have my own box, as of yesterday morning. And I have done exactly those same things. But I cannot yet bring myself to open one, for fear of my own glaring error.

My phobias, though, are not the point of today’s message. Today’s message is about how much better the book is because someone else made it that way. I spent much of the summer and fall of 2015 exchanging documents with the Press’s stellar Renaldo Migaldi, Senior Manuscript Editor. Renaldo read every single one of the 110,000 words in the manuscript, already a remarkable dedication; you and I as civilians almost certainly don’t read every single word of the things we read—we gloss, we slide, we skim. Renaldo did not. He dug in, locating every hitch and hiccup along the way. Of which there were a stunning number.

Now, remember, this is the University of Chicago Press, the curators of the Chicago Manual of Style. One does not argue with the very people who hold the sacramental chalice. So I, rightly and wisely, conceded nearly every point, and the book is vastly better for it. I am forever grateful to Renaldo for making the PhDictionary a far, far better work than it had started out to be.

And yet… this book is written in a colloquial, casual voice. I wanted it to be fun to read. And so the few tangles that Renaldo and I found ourselves in was due to my use of some construction that just sounded like folks talking. And, of course, it WAS technically incorrect, but I managed to hang onto a few of them where I thought they were most crucial to the spirit of a story.

Language is musical. If you play some selected notes off the beat, it humanizes the sound, gives it intention and specificity. If you play every note off the beat, you’re just inept. Renaldo brought this manuscript into sharp time, against which my most personal hesitations or surges could be heard more clearly.

Even this most internal of projects—a sole author communicating my own thinking—is a team endeavor. There are at least four people I can name at the Press whose attention to this book has brought it alive; there are a dozen early readers and reviewers who simultaneously encouraged and nudged. As Elizabeth Warren rightly says, none of us build it on our own.

Unseen Work

I tend to mistrust “how-to” books. I think they’re too sanitized to be trustworthy, reducing complex and contextual circumstances to linear recipes. Much more interesting are the “how-it-happened” books, in which some person talks about how their amazing life got to be so amazing. Filled with stories and accidents and roads not chosen, these are the books that I’ve found more reassuring and helpful. There’s a reason The PhDictionary isn’t structured as a how to get a job book…

One of my very favorite “how it happened” books of recent years is Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, London, Jawbone Press). Bill Bruford was the drummer for the band Yes in its early years of huge success, then jumped ship for King Crimson during its early years of huge success, and then pursued a succession of personal projects (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks) and fun side jobs (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, or BLUE). He’s one of these players who revolutionized his instrument—contemporary drummers do things a little differently because of him, they have more possibilities at hand (so to speak…).

Bruford’s structured his book around a series of common questions he never wants to answer again. What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? Do you just play anything you like? Do you like doing interviews? And one of those questions was “Oh, you’re a musician. So what do you do during the day, then?” He never actually does the arithmetic in the book, but as I read, I came to estimate that maybe 30% of his professional working life as a drummer was spent behind a drum kit, practicing or rehearsing or performing or giving lessons. The substantial majority was engaged in the business of music:

  • auditioning and hiring other players
  • arranging practice venues
  • scheduling studio time
  • reviewing designs for t-shirts and CD labels
  • managing product distribution
  • scheduling tours and organizing transportation
  • getting paid by promoters and venues
  • shipping musical instruments and sound equipment around the world, and setting them all up when he arrives
  • doing interviews, signing autographs, working his own merchandise table after the shows

Here’s a fraction of the setup for a concert in Cadiz, Spain (after he’s rebuilt his own drum kit, a job the technicians had bollixed up wholesale):

After about 30 minutes, I take time to mic and position the grand piano, mic and position the bass amp, position and monitor the music stands, and complete the thousand-and-one other tasks that will make the stage ready for the arrival of my colleagues. This is, of course, the job of the production manager, for which I am now wearing the seventh of my nine hats. The drum kit is functional and soundchecked with minutes to spare; the others walk in. Unnecessarily sensitive to the collective mood, my radar scans the arriving group and gratifyingly registers laughter, stories. Next up, then, for the next hour and everyone’s amusement, is the bilingual soundcheck, with no translator.

While not as glamorous, academic life also has its unseen logistical worlds, jobs no one ever teaches us but that we must know how to do in order to do the work people think we do. We need to learn to operate and modify software, to set up and calibrate equipment. We need to learn how to respectfully ask permission to engage the archives of a crabby family, or a justifiably resentful subjugated culture. We need to learn to book our own travel, to act as our own literary agent, to act as our own promoter, to be our own tech support when we’re on the road and our laptop acts up. We manage down, when we bring the recalcitrant student into some degree of engagement with our course; we manage up, when we bring the recalcitrant dean into some degree of acquiescence with our research plans. We organize schedules, write budgets, manage expenses, build and supervise teams. We manage hurt feelings and encourage new partnerships. All of those are learned skills, too often learned in shame and secrecy by screwing up unnecessarily and repeatedly.

One of the goals of The PhDictionary was to make those logistical skills at least visible, so that younger readers could know that these problems were coming and that they could ask about them in advance. But a second goal was to make those logistical skills newly visible to older readers who already do them—to remind advisors and chairs and deans of their own responsibilities to teach the logistics and the culture of our profession, not merely the 30% of working life that has to do with content.

The Ramifications of Not Considering Luck

The Atlantic Monthly has become one of those clubby, patrician magazines that the comfortable read to reassure themselves of their comfort. Every so often, though, they surprise me.

One of those surprises is in this month’s issue, an article by Robert H. Frank called “Why Luck Matters More than You Might Think.” In it, he discusses our natural tendencies to explain prior events as somehow logically inevitable. Thus, persons who have succeeded have done so because of their talent, hard work and moral virtue; those who have not succeeded must be missing one or more of those characteristics.

As I discuss in the book in the entry on Meritocracy, this is a partial truth at best. We have all employed our best efforts within contexts over which we have no control. We have family histories and childhood resources that we did not control. Our work is subject to public policy considerations that we do not control. We place our talents in service of an academic job market that we do not control. Sometimes those winds are in our favor… sometimes they are not.

For our purposes today, I’d like us to consider those times when the tides have lifted us, to consider those random facts of our experience that have offered us a boost. Why does this matter? I’ll let Mr. Frank answer that:

…a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

So what elements of utter luck made it possible for me to go to, and to succeed in, graduate school? Here’s a very partial list:

  • As a child, I was left largely alone in a home filled with books and magazines. That meant that I had enormous amounts of time to read, and to select for myself what I read.
  • I was born without the Internet, which meant that I learned how to focus. And I went to grad school with the Internet, by which time I’d acquired some self-discipline.
  • My mom and my aunts loved to play cards and invited me to play as well, which meant that I could manipulate numbers quickly at a very early age.
  • As a college student at Berkeley (and as a grad student at Milwaukee), I was encouraged to take courses outside my degree program, discovering a body of ideas and possible connections that would never have occurred within the intellectual monoculture of a discipline.
  • When I finished undergrad at Berkeley, I knew that I wanted to stay there for my PhD, but I thought I should apply to a backup school, too.

Change any one of those conditions, or any one of hundreds of others, and my life would have been markedly different. Add in the hundreds of elements of generosity, of people doing something they needn’t have done to teach me or to open a door, and I can see that everything I’ve been able to accomplish has been enabled, in fundamental ways.

Only by considering the advantages we’ve had and the generosities we’ve received can we be conscious of the advantages we should try to confer, and the generosities we might offer.

The Nested Bell Curves

I grew up a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers, and thus learned to love baseball above all other team sports. Because of that, I used to read Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, the annual geek’s guides to baseball statistics that were the precursor to the Moneyball era.

In one of those editions, he discussed baseball fans who watch a miserable player or a miserable team and say—nachos in one hand and a beer cup in the other—”I could play better’n that!” No, James said. No, you couldn’t. And he used the descending upper tail of the normal distribution to make his point. If there are thirty MLB ballclubs, and each team has an active roster of 25 players, that’s 750 men currently playing professional baseball at its highest level. These are the 750 best baseball players in a nation of roughly 200 million adults; that is to say, they are at the uppermost .00000375 of American baseball talent, five or six standard deviations above the mean.

You and I, alas, are not.

So imagine player #750, say a backup infielder for the Phillies, 2015’s worst team. There he sits, day after day on the bench, watching his team lose two out of three games all year. And yet, he is an immeasurably better ballplayer than any high school star, an unimaginably better ballplayer than you and I. He was born with the right physiology, he was born with some degree of innate talent, he got terrific coaching, and he has worked harder than any human being should ever have to work in their lives to be as fit and as capable as he is. He is, by any measure, an elite athlete. But in the microscopic bell curve of major league players, he is at the far left end of the graph, the bottom of the low tail.

All bell curves, James said, contain bell curves within them. Even within the rarified air of MLB rosters, far above us mortals, there are ranges of talent, with central tendencies and outliers at both ends.


Now, let’s take this analogy to the world of doctoral life. About 50,000 people a year get PhDs; about 1.5% of all American adults have one, according to the US Census. That would put us about two to three standard deviations above the mean of the general population’s educational attainment. Most people could not do this, and you should be proud that you can.

But when placed under the microscope, that leading tail of the bell curve has a bell curve within it. Every year, if 50,000 of us get PhDs, a few hundred are at the acknowledged top of that top; a few hundred are (sometimes identifiably) at the bottom; and most of us are somewhere in that big bulge in the center. In broad population terms, we are remarkably well educated; within our own little neighborhood, though, we might not stand out so clearly.

What does this mean in strategic terms? It means that even though you’ve finished your degree, perhaps even finished it with some degree of distinction, you still have a lot of work to do to differentiate yourself from the herd. Talent is necessary but not sufficient in an elite marketplace; you need allies, networks and marketing materials that can help push you up into that outer tail of success.