Chris Uggen's Blog: have you been unfairly accepted?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

have you been unfairly accepted?

i was talking with colleagues last night about academic egos. you know the conversation -- stuff like, "department X had to widen the doors to make room for all the big heads." i tend to see symmetry in the world, so i formulated two aggregate-level hypotheses about our profession:

  1. for every underrated scholar, there must be a countervailing scholar who is overrated to the same degree.

  2. for every manuscript that is unfairly rejected, there must be a countervailing manuscript that is unfairly accepted.
now, admitting that one is "overrated" or that one's published work somehow snuck into a journal is probably a lousy career move. my experience is that such admissions are taken as evidence of insecurity, false humility, or, worse, that one is fishing for compliments. i'd guess that more academics would point to systematic biases that keep them underrated and unfairly rejected, while elevating others without justification. these would include their social position, ascribed characteristics, epistemology, cultural capital, area of study and many other factors.

i wouldn't deny the influence of any of these factors. at the same time, however, we often fail to see how our privilege gives us unfair advantages. so, i might grouse about criminologists not getting enough play in the top sociology journals (not fair!), but i'd likely fail to mention that my graduating from an elite department gives me certain compensating advantages (not fair?). of course, one could also argue that all sociologists or criminologists are underrated (or overrated) based on our invaluable (or worthless) contributions to society, but that's a different point.

within our disciplines, there is a clear career and life course arc to over- and underratedness. many academics, i'd guess, are underrated in their early careers. i remember reading an interview with a wise guitarist who did a lot of session work. his four-stage career sketch would seem to fit any reputation-based profession:

  • STAGE I. Who is Chris Uggen?
  • STAGE II. Get me Chris Uggen!
  • STAGE III. Get me a young Chris Uggen!
  • STAGE IV. Who is Chris Uggen?
with blind reviews and systematic evaluations, our reputations and publications are based in part on academic merit, as are the tangible rewards that flow from them. that said, an appreciation for the vagaries of rankings and reputations probably helps one navigate through the "who is chris uggen and why is he sending me all these crappy papers?" stages without bitterness.

in my experience, the healthiest academics recognize the structural inequalities in the system but don't get eaten up by them. that is, they seem comfortable with themselves and their work regardless of external validation. moreover, they tend not to make invidious comparisons with other scholars (e.g., i can't believe she got the job or how could they publish that?). of course, they take their work seriously and know that external validation will offer opportunities to do more of it, often for a wider audience. they often employ their professional resources to challenge structural inequities or help other scholars who have been unfairly rejected or underrated. still, they seem to greet the ups and downs of professional life with a bemused smile. maybe this is why, regardless of their over- or underratedness, their heads still fit through standard 30" x 80" interior doors.


At 3:22 PM, Anonymous valerio said...

i just read an article on philip rieff, and there you have an interesting story on the rise and fall in the life course of a once very prominent scholar. i think i came across it at kieran healy's weblog(

btw, chris, i'm glad you've been writing about sociology as a profession, and sociologists quite a lot lately. certainly something to be discussed more often.

At 8:55 PM, Anonymous chris said...

thanks, valerio. i teach a one-credit course called sociology as a profession in our grad program, but don't take my ill-formed opinions too seriously. the best advice i ever got on sociology was from larry wu. he taught me that "not all advice is good advice."

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

BTW, those four stages are priceless. I'm going to adapt and tack them on my bulletin board in order to promote a sense of perspective. I think I'll post them right next to my Kerry-Edwards "A Stronger America" button...

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Kim said...

I know this contradicts the "stop whining" tone of the post, but I can't help but point out that Stage II is shorter for women than it is for men. Some of the compression of Stage II occurs because Stage I tends to get extended (due to pregnency). But, based on my experiences from sitting on search committees, women also reach Stage III sooner in the eyes of the discipline. Many senior academics -- yes, typically men, but not exclusively -- consider a woman to be "late career" (i.e., too old to be hired off) by age 49 or 50. In the next sentence, though, they'll describe a 53 or 54-year old man as "mid career."

It drive me nuts, not only because of the injustice of it, but also because it's completely irrational. If you assume that in the absence of mandatory retirement, professors work until they get sick or drop dead, 54-year old men are on average s much closer to the end of their careers than 54-year old women, let alone than 49-year old women.

Do I have any data to back this up? No, but I'd bet that you'd see consistent evidence if you compared the probabilities of upward mobility (to a "better" department) by age and gender.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey kim, you make a good and useful point. as incoming chair at a plucky but underfunded institution, this irrationality has "hiring opportunity" written all over it. i'd love to exploit such irrational market distortions ala moneyball. i'm not suggesting we exploit the scholars, of course, but it gives us a shot at outstanding seniors who have been irrationally overlooked.

the past few years, minnesota sociology has had great success hiring senior or near-senior women (e.g., penny edgell, phyllis moen, rachel schurman, and robin stryker), though they are all considerably younger than the age range you mentioned. my guess is that part of this relates to "perceptions of moveability," but you'd know more about such workplace gender biases than me.

for my part, i'm gonna milk this "young guy" thing for as long as i can possibly get away with it (or at least until my grandkids call me a pathetic aging hipster)...

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Kim said...

"as incoming chair..."

My sincere condolences to you and your family. :)


Post a Comment

<< Home