Let's Abolish Academic Prizes

They feed an individualist ethos in a time when the fantasy of the self-reliant individual, isolated from all community, support and connection, is doing more damage than good both within and beyond the academy, Michael J. Kramer writes.

January 2, 2020
 
 
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Scholars, let's get rid of academic prizes. We have nothing to lose but our internal divisions.

Why should we get rid of these prizes? They are a distraction from the real work of academic inquiry, which necessarily, and at its most vibrant, blends individual efforts with the mutual endeavor of better understanding the world together. Brilliant acts of individual scholarship arise from shared labor, diverse knowledge and multiple contributions. Yet they are currently rendered invisible by a job market increasingly composed of haves and have-nots and prizes that reinforce these divisions and hierarchies. More and more, we undercut the structural underpinnings essential for scholarly generosity.

It will take a lot to change that, but we can start by rethinking how our professional organizations award status. Let's repurpose the labor, energy and money dedicated to academic prizes to a host of other, more productive activities.

As a historian, let me focus on prizes in my field, although similar points could be made for other disciplines. How do we remake the underlying financial structures of history as a profession to enhance more robust, egalitarian scholarship? By stopping the privileging of a few historians over cultivating the many capable -- indeed, exceptional -- scholars out there.

Paying More Attention to Collective Needs and Possibilities

We can start by shifting attention from prizes to the crises of adjunctification and graduate student exploitation. Let's move the limited funds now going to more senior scholar prizes to graduate student and adjunct travel to conferences. That won't be enough to solve what have become unconscionable employment practices in the field, but it would make a strong symbolic statement. Let's use prize funds to help make available online historical databases and archives for adjuncts and graduate students who lack access. In short, fewer prizes for individual glory and more resources given over to the health of the most vulnerable among us will make our disciplines more robust collective enterprises.

As for more advanced scholars, what if we replaced prizes for completed work with commissions? We should pay more attention to historiographical dialogue rather than individual solos of brilliant research, anyway. Prestigious prizes could go to historians not after the fact but as a key honor. They would be tasked with the authority, time and resources to articulate the state of various subfields within history.

Instead of prizes awarded to one historian in what can be superficial, glib and obvious choices that mostly reaffirm manufactured hierarchies of prestige, or value trendiness over substance, historiographic prizes would better celebrate the intellectual intensity of our debates and disagreements -- the ways in which our individual scholarship is always, necessarily, part of a conversation. We could feature those essays in our most prestigious journals as synthetic summaries. Better yet, we could place sets of competing essays in roundtable dialogues with each other.

What if along with these historiographic essays, academic societies and journals issued awards to write reflective "acknowledgment" stories about those who made the research possible: the archivist who helped one find a key source; the teacher, adviser or colleague who helped a scholar clarify an argument; the writing group that helped a historian get to the finish line?

In short, let's give prizes to model not only what Elsa Barkley Brown once evocatively described in History Workshop Journal as the multivocal nature of history but also the multivocal qualities of historical scholarship, too.

Awarding Teaching

Teaching could also move more decisively to the center of award giving. What if we awarded prizes that gave junior scholars, adjuncts and graduate students the time and support to develop their pedagogy? Senior scholars could contribute with digital lectures and workshops in their areas of specialization and provide consulting for awardees.

What if we also shifted our focus more clearly to K-12 historical education? Instead of prizes, let's award prestigious fellowships that improve upon the now-defunct Teaching American History grants for historians to work with social studies educators in elementary, middle and high schools -- both for professional development workshops based on research specialties and through direct outreach into classrooms.

It's not as if our professional organizations and many historians themselves are not doing these things already. Thankfully, they are. But why not use the powerful spotlights of our prizes to shine a brighter light on this essential work? Let's be sterner with ourselves about what matters ultimately: not the increasingly absurd distinctions made between superstar historians and the rest of the field, but rather the collective nature of historical scholarship. So too, a shift of prizes to teaching would better highlight the connective civics of what it means to study the past together. It would reaffirm how specialized research stands at the center of the larger, public mission of history.

Broadening Appreciation at Conferences

Transforming prizes into teaching grants and fellowships reaches out to almost all Americans. Back in the arena of professional historical scholarship, when we gather at conferences and events, let's shine the spotlight more broadly across those assembled together.

I once heard a historian at a midsize conference turn an awards panel into a smart, eloquent survey of that year's work in the subfield. With many people who had written the books under consideration for the prize in the room, he cleverly turned a festival of potential jealousy and resentment into a celebration of the shared project. He noted the different, compelling or suggestive arguments that year's batch of books offered, and he tried to identify a few common themes and questions. When he arrived at announcing the winner selected from the many submissions for the prize, the event was transformed from a fetishistic emphasis on one supposedly solitary genius to an affirmation of just how wide and rich the discoveries and ideas were in the subfield that year.

It was a glimpse of how we might conduct ourselves. Rather than a room of faux fans lavishing praise on one star, we became a group of diverse, dedicated and accomplished scholars joining together in inquiry.

To be clear, I do not begrudge the winners of academic prizes. I believe anyone who has completed a historical monograph, synthetic study or article based on original research deserves a prize just for finishing the thing! It is hard, challenging work. To do it at all is an accomplishment.

If you have ever compiled footnotes, you know that no historian is an island. We build our work from the efforts of others, even when we disagree with them. Individual achievement only emerges from a larger community of scholars. We stand on the shoulders of others, not only fellow historians, but also the everyday people whose lives we study. So too, historians can only currently claim prizes thanks to the often unacknowledged labors of archivists, librarians, community organizers and others who made the history available in the first place. The storytellers matter, but the story should not only be theirs to prize alone.

Beyond Neoliberal Prizes

Academic prizes, as currently constituted, feed an individualist ethos in a time when the fantasy of the self-reliant individual, isolated from all community, support and connection, is doing more damage than good, both within and beyond the academy. In my small corner of the world, where specialized historical scholarship happens, it is a microcosm of a larger ideological force: what sometimes gets called neoliberalism, a mystification and obfuscation of the collective labor necessary for independent achievement. It’s the assumption that so-called free market competition (the cheesy "marketplace of ideas") doesn’t rely most of the time on a crooked playing field of favoritism or bias.

Abolishing academic prizes is, to conclude, not about reducing the recognition of excellence in history or any other academic field. It is about broadening appreciation for the wider range of contributions scholars make. It is about turning the vicissitudes of status more directly toward the current problems we face: the crisis of the academic job market, the obscene misdistribution of resources to the few rather than to the many, the growing disconnections between the discovery of new knowledge and its sharing with students and the broader public.

Abolishing academic prizes won't solve these problems, but it can open up paths for beginning to face them more honestly and forcefully. We can better confront the twin crises of adjunct labor and graduate student exploitation. We can more robustly argue and disagree with each other to model the ways in which debate and dissension relate to the collective quest of understanding the world. We can more profoundly link research to teaching. We can better share our scholarship. And we can recognize more boldly those who have made that scholarship possible. In sum, with the abolition of prizes as they exist currently, we can join together more effectively to support and care for each other's work in substance as well as in style.

Beyond today's history prizes lies something else: the reminder that it should come as no surprise that our individual work relates, fundamentally, to our shared livelihoods. We should prize that more.

Bio

Michael J. Kramer is an assistant professor of U.S., public and digital history at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. More information about his research, teaching and public scholarship can be found at michaeljkramer.net.

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