Monday, March 2, 2009

How Professors are Like A-Rod

In a recent poll conducted by the NY Times and CBS, 44% of respondents said Alex Rodriguez should not be allowed into the Hall of Fame and a slightly higher number (47%) say any records he sets should be marked with an asterisk to remind baseball fans that he was on the juice for a few years.

To quote Seth and Amy from SNL: "Really?"

First, I don't get the sanctimonious reverence for records, records that are often broken more because the equipment has changed and because the philosophy of the game has changed than because of any special training regimen an individual player is on.

Babe Ruth set his home run record because at the time almost no one else even thought about hitting home runs. The game was based on defense, singles, stolen bases, and bunts. Pitchers didn't know how to handle a guy who came up to the plate trying to hit the ball out of the park. To make things easier, Ruth was facing pitchers who usually went complete games and pitched on only two-days rest.

Today, batters sometimes face pitchers who were signed for the sole purpose of striking out one left-handed batter in the seventh inning. In addition, bats, balls, gloves, the condition of the field, video replay, etc. all make the game substantially different than it has been in the past. And... oh yeah... today's batters actually have to face all the best pitchers, not just the white ones.

So any kind of real comparison between today's totals and those of the past is already out of kilter. At best the asterisk amounts to a nostalgic over-idealization of the past; at worst it represents a sort of moral hypocrisy and an attempt to scapegoat athletes for technological advances we as a society are still grappling with.

And speaking of hypocrisy, let's discuss the Hall of Fame: home to many outstanding ball players and good men, but also home to racists, criminals, and thugs. I for one would rather have a steroid user in the HOF than a racist... I wouldn't want to send the wrong message to the kids and have them think it's all right to let racism slide as long as they take a stand against steroids.

Finally, if we give A-Rod an asterisk, shouldn't we all put one beside our name, too, when we retire?

How many people have cheated to get ahead in their careers? Or, to be more true to the A-Rod situation: how many people do something that is not technically against the rules but that could be construed as unethical in order to get ahead in their careers? Just because it doesn't involve a needle, do we give those people a pass, let them keep the extra money they've earned, but publicly scapegoat athletes who cut corners by taking PEDs?

Take my profession, for example. I don't think steroids help get articles or books published (if they do, does anyone know where I can get some?). But networking certainly does help. Shouldn't my article, competing for a spot in a prestigious journal, be judged solely on its content? Is it really fair that my article is competing for space against an article written by someone who knows the editor and who took one of the associate editors to lunch at last year's national convention?

So in my profession, networking amounts to a shortcut, a way to add 10 feet to my line drive. Instead of pushing hard to research and write phenomenal material, if I know the right people I can write mediocre stuff and get it published.

And like baseball in the 90s, there is currently a widespread culture of free and loose schmoozing in academia...

Where is George Mitchell when you need him?


ophir sefiha said...

Couldn't one extrapolate these "problems" to any form of labor in capitalist countries. Part of capitalist ideology is the hegemonic ideal of parity or fairness in the distribution of scarce goods and services. Exposing this as a fraud calls into question the very foundation of a meritocracy.

Those with degrees from certain universities don't even need to schmooze at conferences as their accreditation does it for them.

SM Sprenger said...

Except for what A-Rod did was illegal. See this quote from Sports Illustrated: "Though major league players were not tested for anabolic steroids until 2003, the use of steroids for performance enhancement has been implicitly banned by baseball since 1971 and expressly banned since '91.

Baseball's first written drug policy ...did not explicitly address anabolic steroids, but it did say that baseball personnel must "comply with federal and state drug laws." Federal law at the time mandated that an appropriate prescription be obtained for the use of anabolic steroids.

No matter how one personally feels about this , the fact is that steroid use was illegal and A-Rod knew it. It would be surprising if a lot of people weren't upset by this simple fact.

The difference between steroid use and other changes to the game (technology, equipment, strategy, etc.) is that some changes are deemed acceptable and become conventional whereas others do not (corked or steel bats, for example). How or why these things become accepted is a complicated matter, but cheating with unacceptable changes is bound to cause outrage. It would be surprising if it didn't.

The other point is: steroid use produces better, even excellent public results in sports, whereas schmoozing (assuming that that's the only way for the mediocre professor to get published) only benefits the professor.

Such a scenario could not last long because eventually those in the know (assuming that professors still know things) would stop reading the so-called "top-tier" journals once they got a few whiffs of the mediocre contents.

Ophir Sefiha said...

Corking a bat, manipulating the weight of one's bike, stealing plays, and accepting excessive pushes from fans can be just as influential to the outcome as PED use AND each are also illegal w/in their respective sports. But no Congressional inquiry. No Commissions.

Seems to me that a more honest discussion would consider why some some acts become 'cheating' and others become 'advances'. clearly there are far more dangerous acts in sport than PED use yet we reserve nearly all our vitriol to this one form of performance enhancement.

Publishing is just one of a range of variables taken into consideration for academic advancement. As we know, much of the hiring, appointments, contracts are often decided in informal contexts (golfing , at the bar, at the conference social, etc) and in these situations, being able to drop the appropriate names ("I did my work at ...") caries significant weight.

Mediocre writing and a good pedigree can take one just as far as great writing and a mediocre pedigree.

I would respectfully disagree with SM Sprenger on this one. Schmoozing benefits far more than the individual prof - if they land a job based on this, it transmits unearned privilege to their kids. Doesn't seem fair to me.

Robert J. Hudson said...

Is this some kind of a cryptic confession, Corry? When you go up for full professor, I'll make sure we scrutinize your every publication for evidence of "schmoozing" and demand that your title have an asterisk beside it! Oh, and a percentage of all royalties received from your "schmoozing years" should be donated to a charity of your choice (may I suggest the academic journal _Lingua_). And, forget ever getting the Christensen Lecture (the BYU College of Humanities equivalent of the Hall of Fame)!

All joking aside, legal or illegal, the scarlet letter idea of the asterisk (*) is still ridiculous. Corry hit the nail on the head with this post: records are no more than the imaginary measuring stick of soi-disant purists. Thanks for cataloguing a good number of variables. Great post!