Friday, February 13, 2009

You like me

Sally FieldYou like me! You really, really like me!
Jeff Harrison's recent post, Ready, set, punt, has all the hallmarks of a MoneyLaw classic. It exposes one of the abiding pitfalls in academic governance: the tendency to approach faculty hiring with criteria better suited to choosing a partner for a drink after school hours. I agree with Jeff that the drinking buddy test is "a disaster for the stakeholders of a law school."

Yet I find at least some superficial tension with my own post, Talent versus character. By no means am I endorsing — or have endorsed or would ever endorse — the use of the drinking buddy test in hiring. But I do believe that severe character flaws, especially the selfish arrogance typified by the tenured Arschloch who treats his school as a personal expense account, are so inimical to the academic enterprise that I would trade that Arschloch and his entire portfolio for a quiet, thoughtful colleague whose congeniality is as genuine as his output is modest.

Comes now The Chronicle of Higher Education to the rescue. The Chronicle's On Hiring blog recently commented on Ready, set, punt. The seventh comment to that post, by an unnamed "humanities doctoral candidate," is so insightful that I will reprint it here in its entirety. As for the author of that comment, I hereby issue this invitation. Ms. or Mr. Humanities Doctoral Candidate, if you will write me at, I will issue you a hall pass to MoneyLaw. We could use your wisdom here.

As a graduate student, I’ve spent the last six years at lectures and conferences, watching older scholars like a hawk. And one thing that I noticed early on, and has been consistently true throughout my graduate experience, is that the best scholars are also the nicest people.

Perhaps it’s not true everywhere, and I know this will sound very young and idealistic . . . but I’m at a big scary Ivy, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to see some pretty famous (and some pretty notorious) people.

First Effort, Plus TimeNancy Lloyd, First Effort, Plus Time (n.d.)
The really good scholars are self-confident, and that confidence allows them to treat everyone else with respect and kindness. They are excited about ideas, and they are willing to share. Most of all, they are willing to collaborate — they are the ones organizing symposia, inviting guest speakers, cultivating graduate students, and just generally creating the kind of atmosphere where good work flourishes and everyone benefits.

It’s amazing to me how many times I’ve seen people — “established” scholars and younger students alike — give absolutely terrible papers, and then walk around snubbing everyone around them. Insecurity leads to intellectual isolation; people become greedy, self-centered, and unwilling to share. When they do present things, they are often incoherent because they don’t care a whit about sharing their thoughts with the community; indeed sometimes it seems like they try to intentionally make their arguments confusing in order to make themselves seem smarter. It backfires — they end up sounding pompous and priggish, but they don’t end up sparking fresh ideas or adding anything new to the discourse.

Scholarship matters; publications matter; teaching matters. In my department, it’s astonishing that the people who do all these things best — the ones with MacArthur Prizes, the ones with famous books, the ones who attract droves of students — they are also incredibly warm, kind, and friendly. Maybe this isn’t true everywhere, but every day I walk home from school and thank the stars that it’s been absolutely true in my experience.

PS: I should also add that one of our younger faculty members was awarded tenure last month — and yep, he is a brilliant scholar with two good books to his name, but he is also a genuinely nice person and universally loved among us lowly students. I know I will be accused of being very naive for writing all this, but I was the student representative at our faculty meetings for two years and my faith was continually rewarded: my department is full of big-name stars, and it’s amazing to see how beautifully they all get along.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I'd agree that often the best scholars are incredibly nice. But it does vary by field (philosophy and economics have suffered notable exceptions), and frankly, generalizing from this comment into something prescriptive about hiring is the kind of mistake that wouldn't be made by a social scientist. The best scholars (esp. those winning MacArthur awards) are a pretty small group, incidental to the population. There's no telling how they behaved before they arrived, and while one might expect them to have become arrogant and insufferable -- making their niceness all the more surprising and noteworthy, leading to observation biases -- it's also easy to see how they can afford to be more generous. I'd also expect that the observer is more likely to deem someone's work to be great if he or she is also an appealing human being, and more likely to deem someone nice if they are also great. Caesar's every crumb looks like a banquet.

2/15/2009 12:44 PM  

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