what’s in a name? … outstanding, excellent, world-leading

I once heard Bette Midler, in the middle of her live show, preface a song with the words, “I’m a B-minus person”. I’m sure that most of the audience at once recognized the feeling of being less than an A+, your best efforts never being enough to make the top grade. At the same time, I’m sure the vast majority of the audience realised the inanity of a grading system that so clearly failed to see the sassy cleverness of the person awarded the oh so average B-minus. These days, this kind of perverse you-can-drive-a-truck-through-it grading system has become more, rather than less, pervasive.

Nowhere is this clearer than in higher education where just about everything is graded, league tabled and awarded prizes, mild disapproval or the textual equivalent of jeers and catcalls. Publications, income, student satisfaction, disciplinary prestige, teaching, use of social media, public relations, leadership, arts projects, public engagement, internationalisation, green-ness, staff satisfaction – you name it, there’s a table and/or a prize for it. (Although having said that, I’m still waiting for the league table on campus parking.) And if you don’t like the league table you’re not doing well in, you can always create another one – say one based on the age of your institution or its type, or maybe a new set of metrics.

Now I realise that to query this kind of hyperbole, and the winning and losing prestige economy, runs the risk of being seen as courting mediocrity. But is that really the case? Must we either love a league table or live in a world where nothing stands out from the crowd? Well that’s a long argument but I do just want to say here that there I reckon there must be a lot in between the binary of league table v. mediocrity that could be canvassed. But right now, in this post, I’m interested in what the obsession with naming ‘the very, very best’ actually means and does for people and institutions.

There’s currently a reality television programme being broadcast in England which shows beginning teachers in a particular and somewhat contentious fast-track to employment programme. They are, as you’d expect from a reality programme about schools, shown as struggling to sort out what to do with the kids. One of them in particular is having a very torrid time, as are her classes. These young teachers belong to a teacher education programme that claims them all as ‘exceptional’ graduates. I don’t want to say anything more here about the programme they belong to or the television programme itself (although interested readers might want to follow up here with this Celebrity Youth post), other than to note the use of the term ‘exceptional’. So what does ‘exceptional’ actually mean and do? These young teachers are singled out in this naming/framing, they are not the same as everyone else. They are different, and the implication is that that this means better – but does this really happen? The programme clearly says no. So are the ‘exceptional‘ young teachers being set up by this labeling? Does it raise hopes and expectations that they will all be outstanding as soon as they walk in the door? Is being good at passing exams a signal of the capability to work with young people? I wonder how other teachers working with these ‘exceptional’ colleagues feel about them being labeled in this way – particularly if they struggle at the start, as some inevitably must.

Something similar to this naming/framing happens in the UK in relation to doctoral education. We have self-funded doctoral researchers, those that have studentships and those that have RCUK studentships. RCUK – that’s Research Councils UK – students are seen as the ‘cream of the crop’, the ‘future leaders’. They are an elite. By inference they are the star academic performers, the ones who will finish quicker, smarter and get jobs. But this ‘elite’ identity is one that doesn’t sit well with all of its recipients, as was shown at a recent conference I attended. While the CEO of an RCUK council addressed a crowd of doctoral researchers, telling them how special and different they were, a social media wall behind him showed tweets from the audience expressing some disquiet about being labeled in this way. I’m sure that many of the tweeters together with the rest of the non-tweeting audience were only too aware that there was more than simply ‘merit’ involved in their success, just as there will be in their way forward. The recent upsurge of #quitlit writing attests to this.

Of course, this kind of league-tabling language is not confined to schools and higher education. It’s everywhere. In the UK the term ‘leading’ is pretty popular. As is ‘high performing’, ‘outstanding’, ‘excellent’, ‘world best’. It seems it’s no longer good enough to be simply good, you now have to be one in a million, top of the pops, better than all the rest. Pity those who are average and who must constantly strive to improve, they must get and be better or else be condemned as being happy being below par, being a B-minus person. There is no being content with your lot, life must be a continual development programme.

We do all know that what is named/framed and valued can skew what actually happens, don’t we? If we think of the famous example of insurance sales staff in the Depression, this is really clear. They worked to targets. The best salesperson often received bonuses and was accorded all manner of generous words like outstanding, excellent, top. Because these insurance sales staff were rewarded on sales alone, they often acted unscrupulously, selling policies to those who could not afford them. In the medium term this created all kinds of problems for the insurance companies when customers defaulted on their payments. In the longer term, insurance sales staff and their companies both got the reputation of being a bit shonky, and uncaring, just out for profit. This classic example ought surely to give us pause for thought.

I wonder why we don’t ask ourselves more often and out loud what damage an excess of league tables and a surfeit of prizes might actually do. (And just to repeat myself this doesn’t mean I’m advocating we abandon reward and effort.) We already know about, and debate, the potential problems of over- focusing on citations and peer reviewed publications. I’m interested to know whether there are other distortions going on. Too much hubris and envy for sure. But what else? Are there other ways in which the cultures and practices of never-ending cut-throat competition and spin might be a bit more than tiresome, but actually be genuinely toxic and counter-productive? And if so, what are your most worrying issues? Should we construct a league table of worrying league tables? What do you think?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in league tables, prizes, spin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to what’s in a name? … outstanding, excellent, world-leading

  1. Helen Colley says:

    Very well put, Pat, these are indeed deeply disturbing tendencies. My currently top bugbear in this regard is the new requirement for research ‘impact’ which is now being used to judge not only the quality of published research, but also who to give money to for research. I do research that is highly critical of government policies, especially the unethical pressures that austerity is imposing on practitioners in education and other public services. But the impact of such research is judged by…. guess who??? The same people – policy makers and service managers – who create and impose this situation, who don’t want evidence of the evil consequences to get out publicly, and who have a vested interest in slagging off research like mine and trying to prevent it being done. The practitioners, young people and parents who do suffer the consequences, and who do have an interest in the truth being told, will never get near a ‘user panel’ judging such research in a million years. The demand for outstanding ‘impact’ is actually a very dangerous threat to academic freedom and democracy. More academics should be speaking out against it.

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  2. Alan Smithee says:

    You see it all over – I had an invitation to a BSA event that promised the “research stars of tomorrow”

    Like

  3. Pingback: academics all write badly… another response to a familiar critique | patter

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