Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fairness and Effort

This judicious post by Ingrid Robeyns on parenting and academia addresses something I've been brooding on for a while.
In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes. You have to be good and good enough, but you don’t have to be better than all the others. In fact, there may be no way to say who is better than the others if we compare candidates who are all above a certain threshold of competences and experience. In academia, it seems that the sky is the limit. [...] You don’t need to be just good; you need to be better than the others. So if there is someone competing for the same job, who has been able and willing to work significantly more hours than you over the last years, than all other things equal that person will have a more impressing CV and will be hired.
This is subtly loaded: it's not just about the number of publications, it's also about whether they're any good. The reason it's impossible to find a "good enough" academic is that all academics are woefully inadequate to the task of completing human knowledge: the same person, putting in more time in the lab, would probably bring more new shit to light. This aspect of the matter is important because otherwise I would be sympathetic to the idea of making academic appointments on "sufficiency principles." Nothing is gained, for instance, by Posner's publishing at the rate he apparently does, since he never has anything interesting to say [if you disagree, consider Posner', of whom this is true by construction]; if people are denied tenure purely on the grounds that they don't write enough books, that's silly. There's no reason that jobs should go in principle to those people, of a given level of ability, who want them the most; it makes just as much sense to give them to the tallest or prettiest. I don't entirely agree with Robeyns's notion that making allowances for parents is unfair to nonparents -- or, rather, I don't think fairness is what's really at stake. The relevant question is just whether there is any utility to having a given discipline be a rat-race.

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