top ten signs you are an academic careerist

In The New Republic, Russell Jacoby names Stanley Fish as the academic who “raised careerism to a worldview.” “His writings incarnate the cheerful, expedient self-involvement that is part and parcel of contemporary life: everyone is out for himself. Fish has burnished this credo for the professoriate.”

I do not know if that is fair to Fish, but I do observe plenty of academic careerism. Here are ten signs of it:

  1. You want famous academics to know what you’ve done, but you don’t know or care what laypeople think about the topics you study.
  2. You can recite the professional achievements and setbacks of colleagues but don’t quite remember their arguments and findings.
  3. If you could continue to accumulate praise and rewards without learning anything new, you would stop learning.
  4. If you had a choice between a job where you could do better work and a job that had higher prestige, you would pick the latter.
  5. You are primarily interested in who holds each theory, not whether it is right. And you mainly select topics to study because prominent scholars are currently interested in them.
  6. You are most impressed by scholarly work that requires especially difficult techniques. You do not consider impact when you assess scholarship.
  7. You can explain what you know and how you know it, but not why it’s worth knowing.
  8. For you, a “good” university is one that attracts students and faculty who are already accomplished before they arrive.
  9. You think that fully successful students are those who become professors in your field.
  10. Like Fish, you don’t think taxpayers, students, and other laypeople have any right to judge your work.

It is a privilege to be paid to read, talk, and write. Many talented young people strive for a chance to join the academy but can’t find jobs. If you hold an academic position and have turned into a careerist, I believe you should quit and get out of the way.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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