Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Academic Stars vs. Superstars

"Well, I went to grad school with Robert Scholarson, and Bobby says..."

One of the on-going jokes here in my department has to do with academic superstars we have known. All of the junior faculty have met or worked with some academic superstars, and many of the senior faculty have as well, though by now that starlight has in some cases waned. A strange thing about academic superstars is that they tend to be total jackasses. Many of them are quite smart (though not all them), but their habits of self-promotion, posturing, and cruelty earn loathing from scholars outside of the elitist clique (i.e. those that control a few organizations and publications, such the the Chronicle and the MLA).

One of my colleagues went to school with one of the more obnoxious superstars -- we'll call him Robert Scholarson (no, that isn't his name in some kind of code). One of the bonding moments I had with this colleague was when I mentioned a particularly loathesome essay by Robert Scholarson -- how I found it both stupid and offensive, a cheap exploitation of personal tragedy -- and my colleague mentioned that he had been to school with Scholarson. He then regaled me with tales of how obnoxious Scholarson is in person -- worse than I had thought.

Perhaps more galling is that, so far as we could tell, Scholarson (who has published a great deal), seems to have published very little actual scholarship. I asked my colleague how Scholarson became an academic superstar with such an anemic scholarly record. According to my colleague, Scholarson entered graduate school annointed, and from that point forward was groomed for great things. Scholarson has, reasonably, turned that grooming into a very successful career. I doubt anyone would begrudge him it if he didn't behave as if good things in life resulted from moral superiority, rather than politicking and networking.

Daniel Boorstin once said that "The celebrity is a person who is well-known for his well-knownness." Since that quote lacks a certain poetry, we generally revise it to "famous for being famous." Robert Scholarson is an academic superstar because he is an academic superstar.

Now, this is the peculiar thing. I'm using Scholarson as an example because he is so thin in terms of scholarship -- he is not the scholar himself, but at best the scholar's son living off the father's inheritance (or in this case, dissertation committee's political pull). The run-of-the-mill academic stars, on the other hand, tend to be much nicer people than the academic superstars. Why would that be? Aren't stars superstars-in-waiting?

Probably not. When I look at the superstars, I find that they tend to have one really smart book in their career. After this first book, they are prolific, pronouncing on things about which they know little, but finding publication primarily because of that smart book. Superstars seem insecure in their position, likely fearing that they don't have another smart book in them.

The stars, on the other hand, tend not to have one really smart book. They tend to have a half dozen solidly smart books that, while they never caught fire, advanced their discipline. The stars, then, earned their positions, and maintain them by producing more work of the type that brought them stardom. As a result, stars tend to be more understanding of the shortcomings of others, because they themselves have struggled with writer's block, with ideas that stopped working in the middle of an article, with detailed and meticulous research. I've seen superstars brutally tear apart novice graduate students at conferences, but stars tend to be more supportive, offering suggestions for improvements.

I've tried to take a lesson from this. I'm neither star nor superstar, but in my own limited way I try to emulate the stars. Rushing after the latest, hippest thing might advance my career ... but is that why I got into academe in the first place? Fame doesn't interest me. Riches would be nice, but I'm less interested in them than in leaving a small-but-enduring legacy for scholars who come after me. I'd rather work slowly and produce work I can be proud of.

Whenever we want to say something pretentious, the joke around here is to say, "Well, I went to grad school with Robert Scholarson, and Bobby says..." I hope no one ever says that about me.


  1. very interesting post and i had a great time reading it.

    how great would it be if somehow those so-called superstars can be also genuinely nice people.

    but i have to admit that my personal secret wish is to be a superstar.i hope i can one day be that revolutionary that can make a groundbreaking change in the academia.

  2. Anonymous8:31 PM

    Might want to say how this is a "humanities" academic superstar.

    A math/science superstar, may perhaps be arrogant, but math has a right/wrong answer. Thus, they deserve their arrogance for getting the "right" answer (which can lead to further avenues of research, opening up jobs for others, etc.)