Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Meritocracy, knowledge production, and killing your advisor

Dr. Free-Ride has a post up about graduate students who murder their advisors and other cases of workplace violence in the groves of academe. There are an alarming number of examples. The lead story is about a math student name Theodore Streleski who was ABD for nineteen years before being told he would not get a Ph.D. On receiving this information, he promptly murdered his dissertation advisor with a ball peen hammer.

Janet’s main point is that, while workplace violence is morally unacceptable, it is a expected reaction to extreme workplace injustice. People are freaking out because they are being totally used. Graduate students are strung along for their usefulness as TA. Co-authorship is awarded for political reasons, and often bears no resemblance to who actually contributed to the production of the paper.

Invisible Adjunct once pointed out (I’m not going to dig up the link) that despite well known problems in the system, people with tenure generally believe that academe is a meritocracy. People who would otherwise never endorse social Darwinism assume that those who fail in the academy do so because they weren’t smart enough to compete.

Obviously, people hold this belief largely because it lets them flatter themselves. But I think there is another reason for it. We in the academy, whether we are in the humanities or the sciences, believe with good reason we are producing knowledge. Our central processes, like peer review and experiment replication, are designed to ensure the quality of our product: knowledge. So if we are producing knowledge, it is natural to assume that we are also rewarding the best knowledge producers.

This inference is at best unjustified. The systems of knowledge production and career advancement are a few steps removed from each other, and it is quite likely that they do not work in synch. For starters, remember that the processes of peer review and experiment replication operate on the knowledge itself—as represented by the academic papers and experimental apparatuses. People are judged by their publication record, but this is an additional layer of judgment.

More importantly, the academic system of knowledge generation is specifically designed not to rely on the genius of a few knowledge producers. The system consists of a large number of total schlubs carefully checking each other. It really doesn’t matter if only the best people make it into the system, because most of the important functions can be performed by anyone with enough training.

You who have tenure and a phonebook sized CV would do well to look at Theodore Streleski, who has refused parole on the grounds that his decision to murder his advisor was morally justified, and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” You would not be betraying the integrity of your discipline.

Update: I forgot the actual link. Oops.

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