Does it matter being at a "top tier school" anymore? No, but maybe yes

Kind of an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed this morning called “Losing Their Edge?” It’s about a study of economics departments that is trying to suggest that “the internet” has lead to a flattening out of the heirarchies between different economics departments and being at a “top 20” econ program doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Here’s a quote:

The basic approach of the research was to examine the productivity of professors at elite universities (defined as the top 25 in economics and finance) in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. What the scholars found isn’t good news for those top departments. In the 1970s, a faculty member moving from a non-top 25 university to Harvard University would nearly double in productivity (based on various measures of journal publishing, which is where most economics research appears). By the 1990s, this impact had almost entirely disappeared.

Beyond Harvard, the study found that moving to 17 of the top economics departments would have had a significant positive impact on productivity during the 1970s, while moving only to 5 of them had a significant negative impact on productivity. By the 1990s, only 2 such departments were having a positive impact on productivity while 9 had a significant negative impact.

It goes without saying that this study, at least as described in this Inside Higher Ed piece, sounds kinda fuzzy if you ask me. And, of course, I am not in economics. But I have to say that there is a grain of truth to it, and I certainly see communication technologies like the web (and, once upon a time, things like gopher), email, and other internet search tools figuring into my own Ph.D. education and my current practices as a happy academic.

I earned my Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University— a good school for composition and rhetoric, but not exactly the “center of the academic world.” But technology made it considerably less far-flung. For example, I did most of my research with OhioLINK, a service that essentially allowed me to browse and borrow books from a whole bunch of different university libraries in Ohio. Unlike an inter-library loan request, I could do an OhioLINK search with no paperwork and I could expect to get my requests in a day or two. So instead of using just BGSU’s library (which was pretty good), I was using a whole bunch of libraries.

Another example: back then, MBU, an email list discussion about computers and writing stuff, was very active. For me, MBU served as both an instructional medium– that is, I learned a ton of stuff from the discussion on this list, things about the connections between writing instruction and technology that I wasn’t getting anywhere else– and as a space where I was able to participate in a discussion with colleagues (fellow grad students at other schools, senior “big name” faculty at fancier schools, and everyone in between) in the field. As the writer(s) note in this Inside Higher Ed piece, forums like MBU have made it possible for scholars to talk with others all over the world, while in the old days, scholars talked mostly with people down the hall and/or “across the quad.”

It’s strange to me that mailing list discussions have either dried up (MBU went off-line in 1997, and it’s replacement, tech-rhet, is basically stopped) or have turned into kind of annoying spaces (WPA-L has these tendencies). Perhaps a lot of the discussion has moved to the blogosphere, which is a shame since I for one see blogs as a poor substitute for electronic mail list discussions. Perhaps it’s just me though; perhaps I’ve moved to a place in my training where I don’t “need” the email discussion forums as much as I did way back when.

So, heirarchies have flattened, at least a bit. Does this mean that being at a “tier 1” school no longer matters? Of course not, and the Inside Higher Ed piece makes that clear as well.

I think there is still a lot of unspoken heirarchies in place in hiring practices, even in a field like comp/rhet, which is considerably less “stuffy” and traditional than fields like philosophy, history, or literature. Basically, it is very difficult to rise above one’s academic class: someone who holds a Ph.D. from what is largely a regional state university (me) is unlikely to secure a position at a flagship state university– the U of Michigan, Michigan State, and University of North Carolinas of the world. Further, there is a difference between working at a university like EMU versus a university like the University of Michigan, most of which are probably obvious: money, teaching load, institutional facilities, support, etc., etc.

Of course, there are certain interesting advantages at working at an “opportunity-granting” university like EMU too, advantages that are often overlooked by status/heirarchy-minded academics. But that’s another post.

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