Save Us from the Superstars
We live in a "superstar culture." Maybe we could choose something different.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a superstar, or as the case is for most of us, not being a superstar.
I’ve always wanted to play in the games, but I never wanted to be a superstar. I’ve written previously about my admiration for the egalitarian hockey ethos, how players who fulfill the less glamorous roles are still valued as part of the team. I’ve played hockey myself since the age of five and play still in an Over-35 no-check rec league. I was good, but never great. I played at the highest level I ever aspired to (high school varsity), but was hindered by two things I lacked in sufficient quantity: talent and ambition.
I’ve spent my hockey playing career as what’s known as a “stay-at-home” defenseman, a role where I’m expected to make low-risk plays, to defuse the other team’s offense before it’s even a threat and then move the puck to more offensively skilled players so they can do what they do. A stay-at-home defenseman has his best game when nobody notices him.
In looking as objectively as possible at my own careers as a writer and teacher, I see that I’ve employed a similar strategy. Especially with teaching, I’ve historically enjoyed the lack of scrutiny that being off the tenure track brings.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
I’ve also always been wary of ambition. To my mind it’s a recipe for hubris. Ambition also comes with risk, the fear of falling short of those ambitions. It’s easy to keep disappointment at bay if you don’t want anything.
But as George Packer points out at the New Yorker online, America runs on a “star system.” If we want to be valued in our culture, one best be a star.
Packer is primarily concerned with political figures who cash in once they enter the private sector - Bill Clinton’s $17 million in speeches last year, or David Patraeus’s $200,000 to teach one class at CUNY, a plan that was later abandoned when people realized that this was a little unseemly. Patraeus is now teaching the course for $1, which makes him the lowest paid adjunct in America, though maybe not by much. I was under the impression that Patraeus was a disgraced figure, but apparently it takes less than a year (he resigned last November) to go from punchline to six-figure sinecure.
J.K. Rowling is a superstar. She is one of the best selling authors ever and lives in a castle. Even people who don’t read know who she is.
Rowling wanted to publish a book without her name on it to see if she could. She was apparently tired of her brand, and wanted to see what would happen without it.
I bet J.K. Rowling feels like she has a lot of books left in her, and it must be distressing to think that, in the eyes of the public, all of them will pale as compared to her first creation.
Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith was well-reviewed, but it wasn’t selling, which is the story of 99% of all books published. Once Rowling’s authorship “leaked” the book suddenly shot to the top of the charts. Not a single syllable of the text was changed, and yet we have a bestseller.
At his blog, “More or Less Bunk,” Jonathan Rees writes about the coming MOOC “superprofessors,” headlining, “To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression.”
Rees argues that to work as a superprofessor is to abandon teaching and aid in the corporatization of higher education, which in turn harms their colleagues. When professors are valued primarily for their “names” (or more accurately, the names of their home institutions), rather than the specifics of their ongoing teaching and scholarship, we’re right to be concerned.
Higher education has always had superstars. Big names are lured away for big salaries, only to have very limited contact with undergraduates and very little impact on the day-to-day lives of students.
What matters in these cases is the brand, which is why someone could think that paying former CIA Director and Army General David Patraeus who resigned amidst an embarrassing sex scandal $200,000 to teach one course might be a good idea.
At least under the old system all superstars had to be local. Now, in our MOOCy future, one superstar per discipline will stand astride us all.
In his article on star politicians cashing in, George Packer acknowledges that there’s a kind of fairness to the system, as these figures are only taking what the market will bear.
This is assuming disgraced former CIA Director and Army General David Patraeus didn’t show up at CUNY in an Abrams tank and demand that salary.
But Packer does ask a more interesting question, namely, what is the actual work attached to earning these outsized rewards? In his words:
One problem with the star system (aside from its appearance of corruption and conflict of interest, and its demoralizing effect on adjunct professors, journeymen power forwards, mid-level executives, freelance journalists, and career bureaucrats) is the pervasive mediocrity and corner-cutting that it encourages: the utter banality of corporate speeches written by staff, the abuse of researchers and ghostwriters by big-name authors, the ease with which a star athlete transitions into a business franchise or a commentary gig, the lack of face time with the prof that awaits CUNY students who register for “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?,” a course whose instructor needed three Harvard grad students just to help him put together the syllabus. Nothing spells the end of real achievement like becoming a brand.
As a non-superstar, I’m not offended by superstars. For the most part, they’ve earned their status. Talent and ambition should be rewarded. My shortcomings of talent are nothing I have control over, except with continuing hard work.
My lack of ambition is, through one lens, a character flaw, through another, a necessary strategy for self-preservation when working in arenas like teaching and publishing, where being driven by external rewards is a sure recipe for disappointment. Over the years, I’ve come to know some legitimate superstars, at least in the world of writing, and they’ve absolutely deserved their acclaim and any awards that might come with it. They’ve also continued to do work that is interesting and vital, above all to themselves. This is where J.K. Rowling was coming from, I think, a desire to connect to the work itself, rather than the machinery that surrounds her brand. I have great respect for that attitude. I just wish she’d been able to play out the string a bit longer.
But when the superstar economy rewards something other than the work itself, we’re in a cycle of failure, forever chasing something we can’t even identify – prestige, achievement, exclusivity - we are in the branding business, not education.
I hope that CUNY has found a better use for that $200,000. I’ve never understood the urge to spend on the intangible when tangible needs are so apparent.
One day, I hope to be a Twitter superstar. Only another couple million followers to go.
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