Friday, February 13, 2009

But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

This is rightly a comment but Jim's post below was so thought provoking that I used my Moneylaw hall pass to elevate it to a post. But you should read Jim's first.

I think the possible tension between what the humanities professor wrote, what I wrote, and possibly Jim is thinking is actually pretty thin.

First, like Jim, I am a sucker for character. Tell the truth, do your work, act on behalf of the stakeholders, don't gossip, don't use the School as a base for your jaunts to one conference or another, or push your political agenda too much and we'll get along fine. (The opposite of this is when, as happened to me once on a appointments committee, we were considering a visitor and someone raised the issue of whether he had been making passes (if that phrase is still in use) at students and the Dean, who was sitting in on the meeting, asked if we could move on to the substance of the issue which was whether to hire him.)

Second, like the humanities professor it does seem to me that the most accommodating people are often the most famous. Whether they were that way on the way up is another question as is whether that trait explained their rise. And it certainly is unrelated to what the young emailer in Ready, Set, Punt was referring to when she observed her faculty's appointments meeting. I do not mean to diminish being cooperative and friendly. In fact, I love it but did you ever notice that there is much more of it when people interact with those they do not view as rivals. My most recent post on classbias discusses how this has been found to exist to some extent even with body language. On this point I do have one qualification especially when it comes to niceness extending to organizing symposia. In those instances the cooperation-- especially in law -- often extends to those who are ideologically compatible.

Which bring me to niceness. I am sure the young professor who communicated with me and is quoted in "Ready, Set, Punt" did not mean niceness as in would you kick a dog or drown a hamster. Surely every reader must know that "niceness" is the code for "are you someone with whom I will be socially and politically comfortable." Geez, even George Bush probably thinks Dick Cheney is "nice." Nice in a faculty meeting is only slightly connection to morality, selflessness, or charity. And when it is used it is not so much a comment on the other person in the abstract but how that person makes the speaker feel. Consequently as the young law professor observed (by they way, I did not make up that email) evaluations seemed to shaped by the desire avoid personal political or social discomfort. Some, most, a majority (who knows) are looking for their own Dick Cheneys. And, unlike Bono, they generally find what they are looking for.

So, going back to the football analogy. If personal social and political comfort are critical in determining who gets an offer to join your faculty, it's like a team thinking more about getting drunk together than winning games.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the football analogy works -- academics don't play in teams the way football players do. I think it's more like a baseball team -- individual achievement that also contributes to an overall team achievement. And any baseball fan will appreciate team players over individual superstars: Boston always loved Jason Varitek over Manny Ramirez; New York owes Derek Jeter much more than it ever owed A-Rod; the 2007 Colorado Rockies became a dream team based on their good chemistry; Barry Bonds stole a world record but he ran the Giants deep into the ground and nobody has any respect for anything he has achieved.

In other words, superstars are worthless if they create a bad vibe in the clubhouse. I think it's probably true in football too -- do you really think Terrell Owens has helped the Dallas Cowboys get anywhere? I could go on and on...but the point is, good scholars who aren't good colleagues are not worth having around, and whatever is "good" about their scholarship will be worthless if they aren't the sort of person who can get along with colleagues, train students, and just generally make their work environment a pleasant place to be.

2/15/2009 11:12 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I think I agree with most of this. My single -- admittedly long winded -- point is that the definition of "good," "nice," etc., at the time of hiring seems to be based on social and political considerations. And too many people who think alike make for a dull place and a place that puts social comfort ahead of productivity is not likely to be doing a good job.

2/16/2009 11:43 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home