The glut of prizes is undermining the true value of research and teaching

Universities are now committed to ‘celebrating success’ and to treating every failure as just a stepping stone on the way to further success. Yet this, argues Joe Moran, is a betrayal of what really matters in the academy

November 26, 2020
Men working on a giant inflatable trophy.
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A recent phenomenon of academic life has been the proliferation of prizes and awards for staff. These often take the form of “vice-chancellor’s medals” for excellence in research, teaching, leadership or public impact. They are almost identical in style, at least across British institutions, as if a memo went round all the vice-chancellors. Any anthropologist of the modern workplace would find them an intriguing ritual. Yet their sudden ubiquity has passed without comment or critique. University managers have an all-purpose phrase to explain them: celebrating success. And who but a killjoy would be against celebrating success?

Well then, I am a killjoy. Not that I blame people for accepting prizes. Academia is short on affirmation, and we all like to feel appreciated. But there is something faintly infantilising about these awards. The phrase celebrating success originated in prize-giving assemblies at primary schools. Many academics (including me) were the kind of children who had gold stars regularly stuck to their work by their teachers. Prizes appeal to this eager-to-please aspect of our characters, while gently badgering us into higher levels of performance. They see our jobs not as a contract with our employers but as a life-ruling passion in which the best of us go “above and beyond”.

The phrase celebrating success obscures the competitive nature of all prizes. It implies that the winners of these awards have not really competed for them. Success has just been benignly acknowledged from on high. The Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when asked who has won the Caucus race, declares: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” This being Wonderland, the Dodo is of course talking nonsense. Everyone can’t win a race, and if everyone gets a prize then the prize is meaningless. A prize is what economists call a positional good. Its value derives from its scarcity, the extent to which other people can’t have it. Every time you give someone a prize, you’re not giving it to everyone else. Every time you celebrate success you define what success is. Celebrating success means that an aspect of collegiate life that is relatively resistant to market values – our relationship with our colleagues – becomes a competition.

Alongside this plethora of prizes has come a related development: a redemptive way of thinking about failure. Universities have bought heavily into the “failing well” movement. This emerged among American start-up entrepreneurs in the mid-2000s, before being taken up by the self-help and personal-growth industry. Its message is that we should own up to our failures and use them to learn and grow. Failure is simply a hurdle to overcome on our way to success. A new feature of graduation ceremonies is the honorary fellow appearing as an expert witness on the subject of failure. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” they say to the new graduates. “I’ve spent a lifetime failing, but it’s all been part of my journey to get here today.”

British universities have also followed the American example of running courses, aimed at staff and students, on coping with failure, beating impostor syndrome and developing resilience. I recently had to complete an online training module on “bouncebackability”. Alongside mildly sensible advice about conscious breathing, healthy eating and sleep hygiene, it urged us to “reboot your level of resilience” by adopting a “High Power posture” for “instant access to your feel good factors”.

The failing well movement too often succumbs to platitudinous positivity – the belief that every negative can be turned on its head. The day after Sir Peter Ratcliffe won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2019, one of his old rejection letters from the journal Nature began circulating on social media, posted with suitably boosterish comments. Believe in yourself, they said. Everyone else will catch up eventually. Success will find you in the end. Failure is the stepping stone to success.

Except that none of this is true. Believing in yourself will not always make people believe in you. Success will not always find you in the end. Failure is not always the stepping stone to success. The most concerted efforts misfire. In any race, most of us will be also-rans. Failure is always odds-on. It is statistical probability, basic maths, a numbers game – reversion to the norm.

This is especially true of an academic career, which is a long falling into failure. Most new PhDs don’t get shortlisted for jobs. Most grant applications fail. Most papers are rejected or abandoned before they are submitted. Most published work is ignored. The way to deal with this is to think about failure and success differently, not to assume that failure can be eradicated with the shallow certainties of positive thinking. Younger scholars who have failed in a flawed and iniquitous system are hardly helped by having to view their successful elders as shining beacons who persevered and got there in the end.

The failing well movement is a symptom of how the language and logic of the market have become the pervading aroma and undertaste of our lives. The market wants us to believe that everyone who works hard will be rewarded in the end – in which case the only cure for failure is to dust yourself down and start over again.

What can never be seen to have failed is the market itself. For the marketisation of universities, initiated by government and embraced by most university leaders, is a utopian project. It holds that anything can be solved with incentivising competition and better performance measurement. If this utopian project falters, the blame must never be seen to lie with the project, only with the failure to realise it to the full. Marketisation has failed, the utopians believe, because its values have not been spread with sufficient fervour and alacrity. Failed efforts must be redoubled. And so we continue our journey to the market-led Utopia beyond the ever-receding horizon.

If marketisation is the unchangeable given, then the only thing that can change is you. Your failures are not the fault of a failed system in which failure is distributed unequally. No, they are yours alone to solve, by acquiring that admirable quality, “bouncebackability”.

Oxford v Cambridge boat race 1978 crew sink into Thames.

In 2010, Melanie Stefan, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, proposed an idea in an article in Nature. Most of the research fellowships Stefan applied for she did not get – predictably enough, since they were much sought after and so had low success rates. When she learned that the Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho had been left out of his country's 2010 World Cup squad, she felt better about these failures. Ronaldinho had been one of Brazil’s stars in the previous two World Cups. Brazil’s squads are announced with some fanfare, so Ronaldinho’s failure to make the cut was very public. It made Stefan wonder why failure in sport is so conspicuous and academic failure so hidden. “As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others,” she wrote. A scholarly career came to seem like the simple accretion of esteem indicators, with no sign of our statistically inevitable friend, failure.

Stefan suggested that scholars compile an alternative CV listing all the things they had failed at. It would be much longer than their normal CV, she warned, but it would give a truer picture of a scholar’s life. Thus inspired, Johannes Haushofer, a Princeton psychology professor, released his “CV of failures”. He arranged it under CV-like subheadings, such as “degree programs I did not get into”, “paper rejections from academic journals” and “awards and scholarships I did not get”. Haushofer’s CV of failures became a viral hit – garnering more attention, he said ruefully, than anything on his standard CV.

A CV of failures is a sweet and generous idea. But still it relies on the redemptive arc that treats failure as something that can always be spun into success. CVs of failure tend to be produced by tenured scholars. They make their failures public to inspire their more precarious junior colleagues to shrug off disappointment and continue their ascent to the professional heights.

A true curriculum vitae would include not just the failures but the shards of uncompleted work that never got to the stage where they could fail. It would record that large part of our lives made up of false starts, wasted time, aimless worrying and fruitless moaning. And it would acknowledge that most of the useful things we do as academics are unrecordable, done when no one is looking, just to keep the collective enterprise ticking along. Academic life is a delicate ecosystem in which every part affects every other part. In a healthy ecosystem there is no such thing as individual failure or success. Earthworms are as indispensable as charismatic megafauna. Every living thing contributes to the general health of the habitat.

In a market, failure and success are easily measured. The main criterion is productivity: the rate of output per unit of input. But in the academic ecosystem, we can’t always identify what inputs and outputs are. Much of our work is stochastic: a randomly determined process with asynchronous and asymmetrical results. Teaching doesn’t easily slot into the market language of “delivery”, being a multi-stranded pursuit covering everything from scholarly expertise to social work. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops,” wrote the American historian Henry Adams. Often he can’t tell where it starts, either. Every lecturer has taught classes that fell flat for murky reasons that no amount of student feedback will disclose. Failure is inevitable in any activity where we interact with other human beings, who are as mysterious, complicated and unique as we are.

Academic research, meanwhile, can go on for months with little clear sign of progress. A scientific experiment may yield only null results, its elegant theory ruined by empirical reality, the evidence buried in lab books. An archaeological dig may unearth nothing for weeks but plastic wrappers and ring pulls. A day’s harvest of writing may yield a few salvageable sentences, if that. Even when finished, research is inherently incomplete. There is always another reference to check, another source to chase up, another theory to take on board. All scholarship is provisional and falsifiable, so someone can come along to point out the gaps in your reading or the holes in your argument.

None of my own academic failures has been any kind of spur to self-improvement. The only good they did was to throw me off the hamster wheel of institutional expectations. They forced me to face the blank days and dry seasons that, by the short-term and satisficing standards of the market, look like failure. They taught me that every academic career is incommensurable with any other and runs on its own tracks to its own destination.

Success divides us; failure unites us. “All losers are the heirs of those who lost before them,” writes Jack Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure. “Failure loves company.” The culture of celebrating success claims to be fostering collegiality – let’s celebrate success, everyone! – but actually undermines it. Handing out awards is no substitute for the knottier and more time-consuming task of talking and listening to colleagues and making them feel valued. Awards blight is the friendlier face of all the other inequalities created by marketisation: insecure contracts, huge pay disparities, cuts in “uneconomic” areas, and a general fetishising of overwork and competitive busyness.

Most academics do not thrive in such a competitive system. Academia is a gift economy, as defined by Lewis Hyde in his 1983 book The Gift. It trades not in commodities, which lose value when they become second-hand, but in gifts that gain value as more people are allowed to hold them. This kind of gift can never be sold or stockpiled, but must be constantly given away. We refer to a work of scholarship as a “contribution” because it has to offer something to the group, not just accrue kudos for its author.

This is what makes the thing we most crave, the approval of our peers, so elusive. Scholarly prestige has to keep circulating; it can’t be hoarded, still less solidified into a medal or certificate. Nor can we ever predetermine the impact our work has on others. “All work is as seed sown,” wrote Thomas Carlyle. “Who shall compute what effects have been produced, and are still, and into deep Time, producing?” Many seeds are scattered; most fall on stones and never break bud. All we can do is keep the faith that our efforts will one day feed into the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the world. This is the only success that lasts. 

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. His latest book, If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace, was recently published by Viking Penguin.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Contribution is the prize worth having

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