Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Balance Problem

(I was going to call this "The Balance Fallacy," but that's too strong a term, though I think there is a flaw in the logic).

In my previous post I quoted The Chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system who wrote: "if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars."

I criticized these sentiments, pointing out that if you have one tenure line to award, it seems to me that it would go to the scholar with five excellent articles and two innovative classes rather than the more "balanced" scholar with three excellent articles and one excellent class. Tom Elrod at Wordisms disagrees, stating:
Maybe, but if we develop an academic culture where the maximum "success" is pursued at all times, we end up with universities filled with people with little or no "life" outside of their job. That's not good. It ultimately gives us less creative scholars and less dynamic universities. Humanities scholars have to be in touch with "the human experience" beyond their subject. A hyper success-driven academy also encourages only a certain type of person to enter academia: usually single, white, and male. It's just not good for demographic or intellectual diversity.

I understand what people are trying to get at, but I don't see how you can use that to award scarce resources to people. Let me give a hypothetical.

Let's say the me and one of my colleagues are up for the same endowed chair. The committee can't give it to both of us. Let's say that the deadline for that chair is Friday, and I'm not done with one more essay that I could include in the application packet. My colleague is in the same situation, and, as of now (Thursday afternoon) our applications are basically equal. She decides to stay at the office, work all night, finish the essay and include it in her application materials. I, however, being 'balanced,' decide to pick my kids up from school and drop off the skateboard-based parade float representing Alaska (instead of asking my wife to do it), cook dinner instead of ordering pizza, walk the dog all the way down to the river instead of just around the back yard, take the kids rock climbing after dinner and then watch the Olympics for a while. She turns in the extra essay. I don't.

How can the committee (which, by the way, doesn't know what I chose to do Thursday afternoon and evening) fairly award the endowed chair to me instead of to her? (Remember we've defined the application packets as being equal before this point). I may be happier, I may be more balanced, but I just can't think of a way to see it as fair that I would get the chair and she would not.

This is what seems to me to be missing from most of these arguments about 'balance.' How do you measure it as a contributing factor in a fair way? How are you going to award scarce resources if not by productivity? I never get anything but the most nebulous answers, which makes me suspicious, suspicious that underlying the idea of balance is a desire to have scarce resources awarded based on factors like demography, seniority, collegiality or politics. I'm not so keen on that.

And I wonder, sometimes, if the 'balanced' argument isn't a disguised way of denigrating the efforts of those who, because they don't have advantages of pedigree or attractiveness or easy sociability, are a threat to those who do and want to keep the advantages that come with those gifts. If you don't have some quasi-objective (and it will only ever be quasi) way of measuring the contribution to the institution, won't all resources just be awarded to members of a in-group, a coterie? Is that the hidden agenda behind the 'balance' argument: give things to people who are more like 'us' rather than to driven people who aren't content with their current estate? Again, forgive me for being too Foucaultian (though I've been reading Nietzche--more of a nutbar than I'd remembered--lately, not Foucault), but I do wonder about the deeper motives. There's at least a whiff of people, under the guise of 'balance,' wanting to keep the wrong kind of people (the grinds, the immigrants, the people from non-wealthy background) from doing extra work so as to move up. For their own good, of course.

Now, if you'll excuse me, even though I haven't finished my essay I have to pick up my kids, drop off Mt. Denali, walk the dog, cook dinner and go rock climbing. I may bump the Olympics from the queue, however, so that I can do some work later.


Vellum said...

I think that's the reason they interview for positions and don't just judge based on packets, don't you?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Isn't it likewise the case that no one is even considered for tenure without already having invested a significant amount of time in the institution? Such people are thereby generally known to those who will be making the decision, and their general personality and work habits will play a part in the decision. No one wants to work with a real work(-only)aholic: they make everyone else look bad, and they're unpleasant to work with. Someone who works well and achieves much both at work and outside of work is a different matter. A "well-rounded" candidate isn't a slacker in either environment. That's the ideal situation, isn't it?

Or, of course, it could always go to someone who habitually spouts the latest, coolest, memes and serves the best wine and cheese at schmoozefests.