Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Secret of Their Succe$s

What do the the Wall Street Journal's snippy reaction to the Eason Jordan affair and the Journal's regular defense of CEO pay, the Ward Churchill affair and Churchill's defenders, and
some of the more common critiques of tenure, teaching and the humanities at universities
have in common with a a fairly lame Michael J. Fox movie from 1987?

(Maybe only the groggy brain of Mike Drout, whose 10-month-old son decided that 4:28 a.m. would be a nice time to wake up today. But let's see if I can convince you.)

The Michael J. Fox movie in question, The Secret of My Succe$s, depicts (if I remember it correctly from about 18 years ago), a kid who works in the mailroom accidentally rising up to CEO-like power in a company. The point of the movie was that just about anyone could do what the movers and shakers were doing, and in fact a new, young person, idealistic and not tied into office politics and greed, might do it better.

The Secret of My Succe$s was nobody's idea of a great movie, but it did tap into something in American culture, the idea that for the many jobs, the difficulty is in getting the job, not in doing it once you are there. I can think of many other examples. For instance, every few years there's a story about some guy who has fake credentials as a doctor or nurse but who ends up doing a pretty good job in an ER until he is found out. Or, as I said to my wife last night when the topic of Carly Fiorina, ousted CEO of Hewlett-Packard, came up: "I'm sure that I could have destroyed the company's stock price just as well as she did, and I would have done it for ten million, saving H-P ten million bucks. Everybody wins."

To connect this idea to academia, there are many people (most of them graduate students) who would argue that they are better teachers than the dinosaurs in their departments -- and they might even have the evaluations to back them up. For example, my evaluations at Loyola-Chicago for Basic Writing were higher than those of almost all other faculty members, including full professors in their own subjects. Thus the argument would be that graduate assistants, at <20K per year, are better teachers than full professors at >75K per year.

Similar thoughts have occured recently to those who compare bloggers and journalists. American Digest, for instance, argues that journalists are starting to be scared by bloggers, since bloggers can, it seems, write and report as well as or better than mainstream journalists. Roger's L. Simon's characteristically pithy and well-written take (hope your recovery from the gallbladder surgery is progressing well, Roger!), suggests that journalists are becoming jealous of the influence, and also the freedom, of some of the bloggers (people who could have been journalists but chose to do other things).

Thus one might reasonably ask if professors, CEOs, and journalists are being rewarded for being better teachers, managers, and writers than graduate assistants, mailroom clerks, and bloggers, or are they being rewarded for being better ladder-climbers?

This is not as easy a question to answer as many who have climbed (however far) the various career ladders would like to believe. I think that in fact the Secret of My Succe$s (just love the stupid typographical witicism) meme is very prevalent in American culture exactly because there's been very little successful logical, evidence-based discussion of the relationship between ladder-climbing skills and performance from the perch. Michael Moore got his start, after all, with Roger and Me, in which he tries to ask GM Chairman Roger Smith why Smith gets richly rewarded when his company is going down the toilet. It's a good question that I don't think has ever been satisfactorily answered.

I think prominent national journalists are in many ways in the position of Roger Smith in the Moore film (tendentious as Moore's work may be). Faced with Dan Rather and the forged memos or Eason Jordan's talking smack, journalists start invoking their superior sense of the public interest, the checks and balances, etc.

Having been a journalist (albeit a terrible one, but I do have a very pretty M.A. diploma from Stanford) I have to say that this is a bunch of horse pucky. There are two things that separate journalist from everybody else: writing ability and access to sources. Good journalists have contacts and know who to call, and they know how to boil down a lot of information into a good, clear story. Journalists are generally much better at reporting and writing up reporting than are bloggers, who may at times report, but who usually link to someone else's reporting, either to use it or to critique it and who aren't generally constrained by space.

The problem is, that at the highest levels of journalism, the journalists aren't actually journalists, they are opinion columnists, politicians, managers and pundits. To some degree they still have the source advantage--Dan Rather can get a phone call returned by Colin Powell; the Power Line guys can't--but most of their energy goes not into reporting, but into other endeavours. And at these endeavours they have no particular edge over bloggers. In fact, because bloggers can write as many words as they need for a story, writers like Wretchard at Belmont Club or the much-missed Stephen den Beste can write argument cum research cum speculation essays that are more interesting and challenging than a predictable column by Thomas Friedman or George Will or Charles Krauthammer (when columnists go out and use their access to sources and do actual reporting, it's a different story). In short, I think the metro beat writers at most papers are probably better journalists (both as reporters and writers) than most bloggers. But the famous journalists are, perhaps surprisingly, another story. When they demonstrate that they don't use good judgment, that they can't avoid blatant and stupid bias, and when they try to argue that they deserve special privileges that other citizens don't deserve, people start to think--rightfully--that they are better ladder-climbers than perch performers.

In academia we have similar problems. On the reseach front, when people become so specialized that there is no one else at a given institution who is 'qualified' to read their work, it's very hard to separate ladder-climbing from performance. This is yet another reason why I think scholarship in English can and indeed must be written in such a way that intelligent people outside the immediate subfield can understand it (I'd argue that intelligent laymen should be able to understand it, and I have tried to follow that rule in my own scholarship). In the case of Ward Churchill, we see that politics have trumped all pretensions to scholarly accuracy, intellectual rigor and not being a horse's ass. If Churchill's tenure review and his scholarship had been required to have been judged by intelligent people outside the sub-field, this might not have happened.

In terms of teaching, there's a general rule of thumb that the younger a professor is, the better the evaluations. Now many people dismiss student evaluations as being driven by professors wanting to suck up to their students (the National Review guys do this a lot, which is yet another reason why I don't self-identify as a conservative; the WSJ's defense of CEO pay is another, and their snippy editorial on the bloggers and Eason Jordan is a third -- I'm not a great lover of hierarchy of any kind), but when you correct for grades (i.e., discounting the evaluations of profs who hand out A's like candy), I think you get a pretty good idea of student involvement and motivation, which is a decent indicator of teaching skill.

But older professors bring something else to the table that might make up for the 'connection' younger profs and grad students make with students: experience can often allow a teacher to zero in on the student's particular problem or difficulty. That can make for better learning by the student, which is really the whole point. Older professors also have an awareness of the history of a field and so, supposedly, will be less likely to be taken in by things that are trendy, reinventions of old wheels, etc.

Is the older professor that much more valuable than the graduate student or new professor with the high evaluations? It's probably pretty close. I'm in the middle of the professorial career trajectory now, and I think things balance out: the enthusiam and energy of younger professors allows them to overcome their lack of experience; the wisdom of the older professors allows them to overcome their lack of energy. And the older professor can and should bring more to the table in terms of more sophisticated, complex and difficult scholarship. When these things don't happen, you have a good argument for post-tenure review or the elimination of tenure.

Let me try to close this extremely long essay. I mentioned earlier that we fairly regularly read stories of someone who pretends to be a doctor and has quite a few successes in the ER. My dad is a physician, and I asked him about this to tease him. He actually agreed that someone who has spent a lot of time in an ER -- as an assistant or even a janitor -- can probably learn to do almost all the things necessary. 99% of what goes on is routine, same old, same old. But, my dad said, in those 1% of cases where something isn't routine, someone who is a fake doctor rather than a real doctor will very often end up killing somebody.

The stakes aren't quite so high in journalism, management or academia, but I wonder if there isn't some important wisdom in my dad's comment. Maybe there is a difference in what a ladder-climber can do. I'd like to see those who are in their exalted perches tell us what those things are.


Mearcstapa said...

I think what you say about these professions could translate into most any profession, degreed or not. Once you find out what it really takes, you realize that a trained monkey could probably do it. I have an MSEE and work in the field I got my degree in. Could a high school student with enough OJT do what I do? Yes, with, interestingly, the exception of being able to write decently.

This is where I think one of the huge divides between the 'academic elite' and the rest of us shows up: the academic elite really believe their degrees confer some kind of ability to understand the world at a higher level than other people can. What a crock! They/we are as constrained in their ability to understand their world by their education as a plumber is in his/hers. I think the typical plumber understands this far better than the typical academician.

Coll said...

It's true. I'm not watching The Apprentice anymore, but from what I've heard, the "Book Smart," highly college educated team is getting theirs handed to them on a platter by the "Street Smarts" high school degree team.

Oh, and that MJF movie? I think it's based on the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Ted said...

Great post. One thought:

"This is yet another reason why I think scholarship in English can and indeed must be written in such a way that intelligent people outside the immediate subfield can understand it (I'd argue that intelligent laymen should be able to understand it, and I have tried to follow that rule in my own scholarship)."

Why not blogroll your scholarly articles? I hate to admit it, but not only am I a huge Tolkein fan, but I'm enough of a fan to be interested in his Beorhtnoth.

Sometimes a break from the left/right discussion refreshes the brain. ;-)

Michael said...

I'd actually like to put up some of my articles, but the copyrights to most of them are owned by the journals / book publishers who published them. Everyone in publishing is still very uptight about just posting things to the web, but I'll put up some links for what is available for free.

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"The stakes aren't quite so high in journalism" as they are for the fake doctor?

I'd say the sad story of American journalism in the last 5 years or so doesn't make that at all a sure thing.

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