Thursday, August 31, 2017

Nametag Season

In an earlier stage of my career, the annual trip to the American Political Science Association conference in early September was effectively mandatory.  I started going a few years into grad school, and kept going for several years into my faculty life.  This tweet captures the feel of APSA disturbingly well.

The timing was always awful.  The few days around Labor Day coincided with the start of the semester, and The Wife’s birthday falls in there, too.  We had to dress sorta-formally, even though it was invariably about 90 degrees and muggy.  And as grad students, the annual travel allowance didn’t even cover airfare, let alone lodging, food, or registration.  

This piece from IHE earlier this week reminded me of the day I realized I had to stop going.  I was working at DeVry at that point, teaching lots of American Government and a few other things.  My grad school mentors didn’t quite know what to make of that; on the one hand, it was a full-time job, but on the other, it was DeVry.  I knew I couldn’t eat status, so I made the best of the situation for a while.

But the nametag-gazing.  Oh my, the nametag gazing.

I noticed it when I was walking through a corridor with a grad school friend who had since landed at a respected public university.  He had his affiliation on his badge, and I had mine.  People talked to him openly and happily, would turn to greet me, look at the nametag, and recoil, as if from a bad smell.  It wasn’t subtle.

Having been there previously with the Rutgers nametag, I knew enough to know the difference.  I had gone from “potentially interesting” to “persona non grata,” simply by virtue of institutional affiliation.  

Frances Fox Piven, of all people, helped crystallize it for me.  In a presentation she gave that year, she referred to APSA as “a mechanism for the production and distribution of prestige.”  After shaking off the shock, I realized she was right.  My continued presence there served nobody’s purpose, so I stopped going.  

I pivoted to administration and community colleges, and have made a new career since.  I’ve found unexpected joys in it, and a surprisingly multifaceted muse as a writer.

But having been through that, and having spent the last fourteen years at community colleges -- a branch of higher education that gets elided entirely in many discussions of “The University” -- I still get twitchy when I read or hear about smart and capable people being ignored due to affiliations.  

Academia is many things, but a meritocracy it decidedly is not.  Someone hired to a department with a 2-2 load and teaching assistants has more time for writing than someone hired to a department with a 5-5 load and DIY grading.  They simply do.  But the higher production registers as higher productivity, and is attributed to the person.  It’s a variation on the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology.  

The tragedy is that many people wind up buying into it to explain their own defeats.  The quest for legibility, or an explanation at all, can lead to self-blame, and then to a series of increasingly desperate attempts to escape or displace that blame.  

For all of the attention they attract, nametags are distracting.  That applies to people, and it applies to institutions.  Especially in this market, talent can be found where you might not expect it.  

Enjoy APSA, folks.  I hope it isn’t as muggy as it seemingly always was.  I’d rather be here.