March 04, 2003


This is an age of immodesty.

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's online Career Network, Dennis Baron, chair of the English department at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is writing a series of columns on the tenure review process in his department. One of the candidates that Baron discusses is one "Alison Porchnik" (Baron is a Woody Allen fan), whose forthcoming book manuscript has been evaluated by three external reviewers. Unfortunately, there is a "problem" with the second letter.

The letter, Baron explains, "started out with some general praise: Porchnik identified a 'significant' research problem and produced a 'competent' book. There were detailed examples of Porchnik's strengths as a scholar, and even a comment that a conference paper Porchnik gave at the MLA suggested that she was a dedicated and effective teacher."

The problem? The reviewer had called the book "competent." And in the marketplace of ideas that we call the academy, inflation is the order of the day not only in the area of student grades but also in the area of letters of recommendation and evaluation. Thus, Baron has heard "more than one colleague insist that 'competent' means the work is truly awful."

Though Baron would "hate to see reference letters go the way of movie reviews, where only extreme praise counts as positive," he does not sound optimistic. It may not be long, he notes, "before letter writers find that even 'a bold and imaginative' assessment packs as little of a wallop as 'competent,' and they start penning claims like, 'Alison Porchnik -- the subaltern speaks!' Or worse yet, 'Porchnik: Socko Boffo!'"

Fortunately for Porchnik, her department decides to support her tenure bid despite the label of "competent" that is now viewed by some as a mark of mediocrity. As Baron writes in his most recent column, "[T]he English department's tenured professors think that her scholarship, while not exactly 'paradigm-shifting,' is certainly 'field-advancing,' and vote unanimously to recommend her for tenure." But we are not yet done with the problem of the second letter, for Baron must now plead Porchnik's case with the dean and the College Executive Committee. Among the questions/objections raised by the Committee: "Why weren't there more external reviewers from places like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale?" and "Why didn't all of the reviewers say Porchnik was the best thing since sliced bread?"
Will Porchnik get tenure? Too soon to tell, so stay tuned to Baron's series.

I am struck by the notion that Porchnik's work, "while not exactly 'paradigm-shifting', is certainly 'field-advancing.'" As reported by Baron, the assessment of the English department's tenured faculty reads like some sort of concession: though Porchnik's work is good enough (it does advance the field), they concede that it really doesn't really meet the new and inflated standard of "paradigm-shifting." And I can't help but wonder just how many paradigms these faculty members have managed to shift in their own work.

I suspect not very many. In the humble opinion of this humble adjunct, the new expectation of "paradigm-shifting" work is downright silly. What can it mean? Well, just about anything and everything, and nothing much at all.

I have a sister in the business world who loves to fill me in on the latest lingo, and who is variously amused and appalled by what she calls "the slaughter of the English language" (she was an English major in college). A few years ago, the buzzword was "paradigm," and "let's shift the paradigm" could be heard in boardrooms across North America. Not anymore, of course, because they've apparently shifted the paradigm, and paradigm itself is now obselete.

Well, we academics like to see ourselves as opinion leaders not followers. But don't believe it. We are following the example of the corporate world in more ways than one, a little bit behind instead of "ahead of the curve," admittedly, but desperately trying to catch up. Hence, the use of "paradigm-shifting," which is now 4 to 5 years past its buzzword prime.

But wait, you may be objecting. Why suggest that academics have borrowed the term from corporate America when many academics are obviously well familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn. Aren't they taking this term from his famous Structure of the Scientific Revolution, first published in 1962?

To which I reply, but surely we academics cannot be quite that shallow and silly? After all, as the title of his work indicates, Kuhn was referring to major transformations (revolutions, even) in modes or structures of understanding. The shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican framework, for example. You know: the big stuff. Think "advent of the printing press" and Gutenberg bible and quantum physics and the Internet. And taken in its Kuhnian sense, just how paradigm shifts could anyone expect to see in his or her own lifetime? And how many paradigm shifts could we expect to see in any given scholarly discipline? and how many in any given subfield of specialization? And if hundreds, nay thousands, of academics are now expected to shift the paradigms, then people must be using paradigm in the business buzzword sense, for surely we cannot expect academics to shift their (Kuhnian-sense) paradigms the way they change their socks?

Or can we?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 4, 2003 02:47 AM