Saturday, September 3, 2016

Individualized faculty performance: When unbridled meritocracy breeds selfishness

As a faculty member who has been teaching for almost two decades, I recall the many times I have felt so lucky to have the mentorship and support of senior colleagues.

Senior colleagues have thoughtfully provided feedback on my paper, with line-by-line edits, the paper entirely marked by notes in pencil. Senior colleagues have observed me teach, make mistakes, built up my spirit, and shown me strategies of teaching large and small lectures. Senior colleagues have taken me aside and given me advice on various aspects of academic life. To all these senior colleagues, I owe much of my academic survival.

That I survived in the academy and did so somewhat well is a product of the countless hours and unpaid labour these colleagues put in. They did all this with a smiling face, with compassion, and with care in their hearts.

The increasing privatization of the University in recent years and the ascendance of the privatized logic however is breeding a different kind of self-serving academic.

For this self-serving academic, university life is all about beating the performance metric so they can earn the next bonus or the next accolade. Success is narrowly defined as self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Often at the cost of others.

For senior faculty in this individualized system, junior colleagues are seen as competitors, to be harshly evaluated, to be compared with, and to be put down.

Faculty members no longer want to share their lecture notes and PowerPoint slides with junior colleagues. After all, it is the job of the junior colleague to come up with her or his own lecture notes and PowerPoint slides. The irony is particularly rich when one recognizes how the careers of these individual faculty members ride on the generosity and kindness of other senior colleagues who have unconditionally shared syllabi, notes, slides, assignments, grant proposals, authorship, datasets etc.

Leave aside sitting through classes and giving feedback, faculty are incentivized perversely to think of junior colleagues as competitors. Rather than come from a framework of solidarity and love, for these faculty in an individualized performance-driven system, the performance is one of harsh evaluation. The performed subjectivity of senior scholars or want-to-be senior scholars in this sort of a privatized system is one of holding up criteria when evaluating junior colleagues without ever turning the harsh light of the criteria on their own scholarly record. As long as you can trick the system to look good on certain metrics, you have succeeded.

Unfortunately then, what goes on in the name of meritocracy in such instances is mediocrity, garbed in individualized and selfish notions of performance metrics.

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