I've been thinking about academic hierarchies lately, and my deeply ambivalent relationship to them: not so much the hierarchy of rank within a particular institution, but the list of schools we all carry around in our heads, tailored to our specific discipline or field. We all know, or think we know, which are the best schools, which are the second best. When confronted with any school name, even the less-familiar ones, I generally have an intuitive sense of where it falls in that list. And mostly, it's an easy guessing game: there's lots of agreement about which are the top ten or fifteen schools in a given field. And after that, the second tier is easy to fill in. Past second tier, and nobody really cares, except for the people in those institutions. And the people who might be hiring them, or reviewing their tenure files, or selecting papers for a conference.
I've been selecting papers for a conference panel recently, and even though my conscious mind knows it's a very flawed way of making judgments, I still recognize that the internalized hierarchy plays a role in how I read a proposal. Even though I'm trying to only read for the content, I also know that a session with some well-published, if not well-known scholars will more likely be approved for the conference, and more likely to draw some attendees. And unfortunately, the degree to which you're published usually reflects either the length of time you've been in the profession (i.e., you don't expect the same from grad students as from assistant profs) or your institutional location. People who are teaching 4-4 or 5-5 don't have time to publish, nor are they usually required to.
There are several things I find so pernicious about all of this. First is that in today's market (which in English has been this way for at least 15 years), the 3rd- and 4th-tier places are frequently staffed by people from top-ranking PhD programs. Like my institution, for instance: we are a research U, and we offer PhD and MA degrees. But we are not nationally known, at least in my field. We serve a regional student population, and we do that quite well. But we are definitely down in the 3rd or 4th tier, depending how you're counting. My colleagues include people with degrees from Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, UCLA, etc etc. So judging someone by their letterhead doesn't necessarily tell you anything about their individual caliber. (of course, neither does their PhD-granting institution -- but it usually tells you something about their training, if not their brains).
Secondly, there's this weird inflation of institutional self-importance. For instance, for my tenure review, I was told to list external reviewers "who would have good letterhead" -- by which my chair meant Ivies. Because to the College-level committee (not even humanities faculty, mostly) the letterhead meant more than anything else. I didn't actually have any Ivy reviewers, but I had people at tier1 and tier 2 schools in my field. What this means, multiplied by all the other tens of people trying to get tenure, is that a very small percentage of the published scholars in a given field wind up acting as the gatekeepers for the profession as a whole. (Plus it overloads them with work: MS reviews, P&T reviews, etc.)
Thirdly: the ethics of this profession are crap. Realistically, half of the PhD programs ought to shut their doors -- there's no point in churning out so many PhDs (a particular problem in English) when there aren't enough jobs. If people like me are working at places like this, and feeling damn grateful to do so -- where are the people from 3rd, 4th, or 5th tier places going to go?
Fourth and Most Pernicious: the myth of meritocracy. The myth that it's really just about your ideas and your arguments. Because at the end of the day, academics are making judgments all the time not about content, but about status.
Who knew I was so bilious today? this post actually relates to a much larger post that's been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, but I haven't been ready to write it yet.