Merit, Luck, Privilege

A few days ago I wrote a thread on Twitter on the subject of the roles of luck and merit in getting academic work. I was prompted by, though I was not directly responding to, a blowup between a senior academic and others on the subject of the financial and personal sacrifices involved in taking up temporary teaching positions — once regarded, and still spoken of by the academic in question, as a first step towards permanent employment, but now often the best that many PhDs can hope to get.

But the wider context for my thread was the role that “merit” and related ideas — hard work, putting in your time, paying your dues, etc. — play in these discussions, as well as the role that full-time, permanent, tenured or otherwise secure faculty have in perpetuating this language. My thinking about this draws, too, on Erin Bartram’s reflections on having to leave the profession before really getting a chance to start, hard work and evident merit notwithstanding. Here is what I wrote:

I don’t know many people in academia who didn’t struggle in one way or another to find a footing. But I know a lot of people whose perspective on that struggle seems both stuck in the particular moment that they went through it and narrowed by the fact that they succeeded.

As a grad student, I was told by a senior academic (this was in 2003) that if I was good and I gave the market a few years I would wind up with something I could live with. I was told by another in 2004 that I would have years to revise my dissertation into a book.

I took both pieces of advice sufficiently to heart that when, after a year of adjuncting around the corner (well, around several corners) from my graduate institution, I got a TT [tenure-track] job with a heavy teaching load, I actually pulled out of the job (after a lot of agonizing) to take a postdoc instead, convinced that Finishing My Book was the most important thing and that if I was indeed good enough another job would just… come.

And, in the end, it did.

And because it worked out, that story can be told as a testament to my belief in myself and my confidence in my work. But if the likelier thing had happened, and no second job had materialized, it would be a story of how I screwed myself out of a career through sheer arrogance.

The salient difference between those two stories is luck. Not because I’m not qualified for the job I have, and not because my postdoc and book didn’t help (they did), and not because I didn’t have a ton of support from my supervisors and letter-writers (I did), but because dozens of others who didn’t get the job were qualified, and had committed supervisors, and books, and all the rest. And the same goes for dozens and dozens more who simply came on the market at the wrong time. This is not a meritocracy.

So when I look back on my decisions I am struck not by my confidence in myself or in the profession but by the arrogance (born of a certain privilege) that allowed me to pass on a rare opportunity expecting a better — and the luck that seemed, in retrospect, to vindicate it.

And of course as risky as these decisions were in 2006, they would have been even more obviously foolish two or five or ten years later. Students now are not in the job market of 2004 or 2006 or 2008.

Long story short: in 2018, telling my students to follow my experience in looking for academic jobs is about as useful as telling them to have my luck.

At this point it’s likely that more people have read the above than have read anything else I’ve ever written, which is humbling in a couple of ways, and some have commented on it or even contacted me directly. Two responses seem to me particularly important, or at least particularly important to address further. One concerns the meaning of “luck” (especially in relation to privilege), and the other the effect this kind of talk has on potential scholars from less privileged or less “traditional” academic backgrounds.

The first has come up in a few different replies and, in essence, it boils down to the point that “luck” in the context of the academic job market is a misnomer. In a basic sense, it is true that factors beyond the realm of candidates’ control play a large role in their fate: whether the year they go on the market is a good or bad one — or a bad or a disastrous one — for hiring in their field; whether their particular specialization happens to fit the perceived needs or aspirations or current makeup of the few departments that may be hiring, or the wider trends in the profession. (This last may seem more susceptible to calculation, and preparing students for it falls within the purview of good supervision. But as long as dissertation topics are chosen three to six years before PhDs hit the market, a high degree of uncertainty is built in.)

Still, none of these things is random. Each reflects an agenda of some kind, of which some candidates or their supervisors may have some, limited, knowledge. How much power that knowledge gives them is doubtful. Pointing out that academia is not a meritocracy does not imply that it is corrupt or nepotistic to the core. It is deeply flawed, and there are cases of friends hiring friends — though how much criticism this merits from a private sector that hires through personal networking rather than open searches, I’m not sure. It is problem; I don’t think it’s the problem. Nor, for the record, do I think hiring committees are applying ideological litmus tests, as the spectre of postmodern Marxism” is supposed to make us believe. But that idiocy is for another day.

The more significant point about the limited explanatory value of “luck”, however, is not that some candidates have specific information others don’t, but that candidates face the same uncertainties from different positions. A terrible year may be slightly less terrible if you have a degree from one of the eight US universities that dominate hiring in history, or from the one Canadian university that does — or with glowing letters from three or four dominant figures in your field, or with articles written while supported by generous funding. These things are not matters of chance, and while they usually reflect some measure of merit — grad school is hard work, at Harvard as elsewhere — they reflect a lot more than just that. Which is where “privilege” comes in.

When I went on the market I did so with an Ivy degree, a well-known dissertation advisor (who had steered me to a timely and largely unexplored topic), and, later, a well-known postdoctoral supervisor (who helped ensure that I had a book contract before the postdoc was out). I did not personally know any of the people on any of the committees that considered my many applications — I had attended few conferences, and my networking skills were nonexistent — but many of them certainly knew my people. So, yes, I was lucky that things worked out; they might easily not have done, despite all these real advantages. But I had a lot of help with my luck, as I did with my work.

Nor is privilege merely an institutional matter. Long before grad school, I had journalist parents who taught me to write and to edit my writing, and who would skilfully read whatever I was willing to share. That is no merit of mine, but it was unusual even in my grad school circle and it had a non-trivial effect on my choice of career, in my grasp of the work I had chosen, and in my confidence in my intellectual value and ability as a writer. So did my parents’ willingness to take on substantial debt to send me to boarding school and to help pay for college — and, indeed, for grad school. (I was admitted to Columbia without full funding — I didn’t enjoy every possible privilege — but being under-informed and overconfident, I went anyway.)

This is not a simple “class” question, either. For one thing, my advantages derived more from my parents’ skills and expectations than from wealth or connections. (I am still paying off student debt, seven-plus years into tenure and six into parenthood.) But more importantly, the confidence that money could be borrowed and would be worth borrowing, like the confidence that I could turn down a tenure-track job because the book mattered more, are inseparable from expectations and biases — mine and others’ — relating to class as well as to gender and to race. In a profession disproportionately staffed by white men, led by white men, and critiqued by white men for its neglect of still other white men, I look the part. I looked the part in prep school, and in grad school, and later, so thoroughly and so tacitly that I could ignore it and focus instead on the ways in which I was less privileged than those with, say, better graduate funding. (This is not to downplay the importance of things like graduate student unionization, with which I was glancingly involved at Columbia and which I support. It is merely to acknowledge that my path to it was sped more by my awareness of grievances I shared than by systematic reflection on those from which I was exempt.)

This brings me to the second comment, put powerfully by Katherine T. Tyson, who I hope will not mind my quoting her here:

The doom & gloom about the profession is deterring non-standard students from applying, even though we need them in universities. 1st generation, minority & marginalized voices need to break down the doors of these institutions. There won’t be luck for them: should they give up?

None of my students at my non-elite institution — the institution, as it happens, that my father dropped out of a lifetime ago — will ever face the uncertainties of the market from the vantage point that I did. Their chances will almost certainly be much slimmer than mine were, whatever their merits as scholars, not only because the market is worse but also because they won’t have “Harvard” or “Berkeley” or perhaps even “Toronto” on their diplomas or CVs. Many if not most of them are from “non-standard” backgrounds. Unless and until the academy changes in fundamental ways — not only in its social makeup and expectations but also in the ideas of “merit” that govern its procedures even at their least corrupt — most of these students won’t, can’t, have my “luck”.

Should they give up? No. I hope not. But in the end, that question is for them to answer. The question for me is: should I push them to take greater risks than I had to, for a vanishing chance, from a worse starting position, at a less secure job than mine? Should I encourage them to spend years on a degree that may yield, at best, only “skills” and the chance of belated entry into an unrelated field? It’s fine to say that I should be pushing the academy in a direction that makes these questions unnecessary; of course I should. But that doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the students we have, in the system we have, right now. And the fact is that aggressively recruiting “non-standard” students to non-elite programs in an era of precarious academic employment and ever more deeply entrenched institutional hierarchies is not an obviously ethical choice. We may need them, but we aren’t doing the hiring to back that up. Do they need us?

All I, with my own peculiar mixture of work, luck, and privilege, have to offer on this point is what I said some time ago in a letter to a prospective student — and the one I had in mind was, in many respects, the kind of student the academy needs right now. What I said was: study the past not because it will give you skills or a job or a higher income. Study the past because the past matters, because it can be and is being obscured and lied about in ways that harm you and others, and because it matters that you and not just I study it. I believe all that. But I can also see that, from a less privileged perspective, what I seem to be saying is: take the risks I didn’t have to take.

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