More on career paths--long flame!

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Sat, 10 Dec 1994 15:19:00 CST

Alan Hanson suggests that my advice on career-making is gloomy,
even cynical. No, by God, I'm not gloomy: I'm mad as hell.

Right now we're reviewing the applications of some 200 people for an
opening in archaeology. (After PattyJo Watson's distinguished
lecture in Atlanta, maybe I should revise that to prehistoric
cultural anthropology!) To "help" us in our review (and the whole
department is reviewing all the candidates), we have received crib
sheets listing place and date of Ph.D., special interests, and a
summary of publications that reads like "11 refereed articles, 14
site reports, 1 book". The crib sheet doesn't even give publication
titles, and need I add that the task of reading even a decent sample
of that kind of publication list for 200 candidates is entirely out
of the question?

NIU, where I have been for 25 years, sometimes has pretensions of
being a research university, but anthropology here goes only to the
M.A.. (I'm lucky to have been sought out by a whole slew of
doctoral candidates in adult ed. The one who will get her doctorate
next week did a fantastic job with life histories out of a long-
established black suburb south of Chicago. I loved working with her,
and the gal who did fieldwork with Mexican women working in an
electronics factory in Aurora, and the one who is working with
Native American kids in a Chicago school program, and the guy who
teaches 15-year-old mothers in a school retention program in the
worst public housing in Joliet. It's a privilege to help with such
excellent and interesting fieldwork--but the rewards are in the
doing. I'm regarded as crazy to spend so much time working with
people who aren't even anthro majors.) Since we DON'T give the
Ph. D., we don't have to be driven by the standards of PhD-giving,
but after all, we who are on the faculty came out of PhD departments.

OK, let me expand (look out--here he goes long again!) on the social
organization of universities. We are very concerned with giving the
appearance of objectivity and fairness in our personnel processes,
which means that we provide multiple levels of review, promote
measurable standards, etc. But how do we try to accomplish that?

Start at the department level. When NIU hired me, that took care of
Mesoamerica AND kinship AND politics at one blow. With a limited
number of faculty positions, it would not be in the interests of the
department or of our students to hire somebody else who does the same
things. What does that mean? It means that it's pretty lonesome out
here: nobody else in this department has any deep focus on what I do,
and I don't know their fields intimately, either. (My answer is to
go to the AAA meetings--35 of them so far--so I can talk with folks
I don't have to explain things to. That means I'm in my professional
home culture five days a year.)

Now consider the problem of judging the significance of my work. If
the system virtually guarantees that my university will not have
anybody else who does what I do, how is my work to be judged? To be
fair, the answer we keep coming up with is that if you can't judge
the content at least you can weigh its mass and assess its siting.
The high value given to refereed journals in one's field comes from
the hidden assumption that "Well, even if I'm not competent to judge
work in this guy's field, refereeing is about having real experts in
that field make a solid professional assessment of the work". Of
course that's not true, but what does that matter? (If you think
that peer review really is about professional assessment of the
value of the work being reviewed, then how can you explain the very
high crap quotient in our leading journals? And if you don't think
those leading journals publish a lot of crap, then ask yourself why
you don't read everything in every issue of every one.)

But my university, and yours, is a bureaucracy. Whatever my depart-
ment recommends about my salary or tenure or promotion has to go
to some higher level of review. When I sat on the Council of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, most of our work consisted of
"reviewing" personnel decisions and applications for sabbaticals and
research support. I took the job seriously, which meant reading all
the materials we had at hand and thinking about their significance.
My training as an anthropologist gave me at least minimal competence
to judge the significance of a historian's work on the Spanish
Inquisition, a biologist's work on population genetics in molluscs
off the coast of Belize, or even the survey research proposed by a
sociologist. But I was also called on to judge which of two plasma
physicists had a better research proposal, not to mention work in
mathematics whose very titles I can't pronounce.

Our recommendations at the College level established funding
priorities for research proposals. Our recommendations at the
College level confirmed, or questioned, or reversed recommendations
for salaries, tenure, and promotion coming from the departments.
And we were, almost by definition, incompetent to judge those cases
on their professional merits. What's worse, when we were through
with our "review", cases in which there was any disagreement were
reviewed again by the University Council. That council, since it
drew from all the Colleges of the University, was even less competent
than we were to make professional judgments on the quality of the
work presented to them.

So what could we do? Publication in refereed journals is countable.
In most fields, high-prestige journals are recognizable. Nobody can
be sure how selective the editors of a collection of articles in a
book may or may not have been, so "of course" that kind of publishing
peer-reviewed prestigious journal. A journal that does NOT have a
peer review process is only as good or as bad as the judgment of
the editor, and how in hell can WE judge the judgment of an editor in
a field not our own?

So I'm not being cynical. I'm describing the world I live in. I
don't have to like it, or approve of it, but as an anthropologist I
try to understand it. (I don't have to like or approve of a politi-
cal system that makes Jesse Helms Chair of the Senate Foreign Rela-
tions Committee. As an anthropologist who works outside the US, I
damned well better understand how Jesse got there and what he's
likely to do from that position!)

Side note: There came a day, in my fourth year of serving on the
College Council, when I was aghast to hear myself saying "I don't
think we're being fair here. This guy has TWO publications in the
last year and a half in SCIENCE, and most people would give their
right arms to be judged that highly." Omigawd, I said to myself,
you've finally bought into the system! Why aren't you saying how
good the work is, rather than how good SCIENCE is? Right then and
there I decided it was time to get off the College Council!!!

My survival advice still stands. Publish early, publish often,
publish in peer-reviewed journals. Worry about the quality of your
work to maintain your own self-respect and the respect of those you
respect because you're a human being and you have to live with
yourself. But the academic marketplace has its own rules, and if you
choose to live in the academic world you have to accept the workings
of those rules.

PLEASE do your best to make a real contribution in the field you
choose to work in. If you don't, who will I have to talk to
when I go to AAA meetings? Your rewards will come outside the
personnel system of universities: in your communications with those
who share your interests, in your networks across and outside local
university boundaries, in your knowledge that you have contributed
something worthwhile to the sum of human knowledge, in the fact that
somebody, somewhere, is better off because you do what you do.

THAT is what makes it all worth while. Satisfying the requirements
of the marketplace is no more than a means to make real accomplish-
ment possible.

Now, folks, REALLY turn on the flames.

-- mike <>