Monday, 16 April 2012

Encomium modestiae: or big up dissed

Someone asked me recently what I admire in people senior to me.I barely had to think about it: I admire people who work hard, are very successful at what they do, but are also modest about it. There is nothing more becoming in an academic with a global reputation than being understated about their achievements. When I think back to the people I respected as a student or early career scholar, people with that attitude were the ones I wanted to emulate. They were the people who you wanted to be taught by, whose books you read, who you wanted to become: everyone knew how good they were- the last thing they had to do was say so themselves. I still feel that way, really.

The problem is that understated modesty is out of fashion in the university of today. We are forever having to write things about how wonderful we are at this, world-leading at that, excellent at another thing. If I'm not doing that for my department or for UCLDH, as HoD I am writing recommendations, references, nominations or reading drafts of such things for others. The aim appears to be for the subject to big themselves up until they sound like a the most remarkable academic paragon of recent history. It gets extremely wearing, all this big up.

It's even worse when I have to do it for myself. Writing about my own career for my application for a chair really was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, even if that other unpleasant ritual of professorial big up, the inaugural, comes a close second; but I have written far too much about that already. In comparison, writing grant applications, articles for top journals, proposals for conferences that reject 2/3rd of papers were as nothing. The whole process took months, and numerous rewrites in response to the criticism from almost everyone who read it, that I had been too modest. Not enough big up in other words.

Is it just me, or does anyone else long for the end of big up? It's an ugly phrase and, I think, an unlovely concept. It's symptomatic of a culture, if one can call it that, in which currencies keep being inflated because nobody can bear the idea that some universities might be more equal than others. The government thought that only the top Russell Group universities would charge £9,000 fees, but almost everyone has, for fear of being thought a lesser institution than their rivals. The Roberts report that first proposed the new RAE/REF quality profiles suggested that 4* would be exceedingly rare. The idea was that such a grade indicated a truly world leading scholar, and, logically it follows that not every university would have one in each unit of assessment- the world leader in that discipline might not work in the UK, and thus nobody would be given that grade at all. This now seems laughable: at UCL, as at other top research universities, the expectation is that every member of staff must produce outputs at 3* or, better, 4*. Even if only half of us manage it, that still implies that we have 2000 genuinely world leading scholars here, some of us working in the same fields. It is, of course, a logical impossibility according to the original intention but it all comes from this big up culture where nobody is allowed just to be good at what they do any more: even excellent is a little disappointing.

The problem is money of course. The reason we have to write all these things is promotion, prizes, grants, REF (and thus research funding), in which we are competing with others, or at least matching ourselves against criteria. Thus being modest and claiming simply to do a good job will not work if our competitors choose to, as it were, exaggerate a little. How else is money, or preferment to be handed out? I suppose in the old days the way to decide such things was by patronage; knowing the right people, being a good chap, being one of us. As a woman from a very ordinary background I can hardly feel confident that I would have achieved what I have under that kind of arrangement. Thus, perhaps big up is not the worst option.

Becoming as it is for people to be charmingly self-deprecating, it's also a very good way to do themselves down. I've recently been in a couple of situations where someone's reluctance to big themselves up has harmed their prospects. It's rather
like examining a PhD: if the candidate doesn't demonstrate that they know the literature, you can't assume that they do, even though it's probably the case. At least in that situation there is a viva in which such doubts can be answered. There are no second chances in a lot of the cases where big up is called for. If you are part of a large competition people assessing your case may not know you or be from an entirely different field, and thus not understand what you do. You have, therefore, to explain why what you have done, or intend to do, is important, excellent, worthy of their notice. Once you find yourself on the other side of the divide, where you are the one assessing, not just writing or supporting the applications, you begin to realise that what, to the individual making the case, feels like boasting, reads to the assessor simply as explanation.

It appears, therefore, that in the university world big up may be a necessary evil; perhaps the age of modesty, like that of miracles, is past. It may be that it's ugly but necessary. Nothing, though, will ever make me like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment