Inside Higher Ed

Beer Me, Esteemed Colleague

How the academy is like a frat.

Young men drinking beer
“Your dissertation on Joycean intertextuality is sick, bro.”

Photo by Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

I wasn’t a frat guy in college. I was pretty much the opposite of a frat guy. But as I’ve slowly come to understand more about my own discipline, and the workings of academic life in general, I’ve come to believe that most of our professional communities operate pretty much the same way that frats do.

Bear with me here. As we all know, a credential alone is not enough to be accepted within and achieve professional success within an academic discipline. Access is tightly socially controlled. Just as the Greek organizations that some of our undergraduates participate in are defined largely by social gatekeeping mechanisms, so too are academic disciplines defined. A discipline is not only a grouping of a topic or subject of expertise, but also a social grouping, defined as much by who it excludes from its ranks as who it includes within them. Down to the individual level.

None of what I’m saying at this point should be too surprising.

The social forces that influence, at least in part, how disciplinary communities operate dictate that sometimes those with talent and merit and those who actually succeed are not necessarily the same groups. In order to succeed within your discipline, you must not only be a competent expert, but you’re going to have to play the game—the networking, socializing, back-scratching game.

I don’t mean to imply for a moment that those with successful careers are without intellectual merit or are undeserving of their success. I do mean to imply that intellectual capacity and hard work are not enough. One of the worst mistakes someone undertaking an academic career can make is to assume that we’re operating in a meritocracy. We aren’t.

Hopefully merit is involved, but there are many deserving people who have not experienced success within the academic ranks, and probably a few folks who, in terms of their work alone, probably don’t merit the success they’ve achieved. So it goes.

Think of it this way. (And, word of caution, my numbers here are only intended to be illustrative, and don’t refer to any measurable realities that I know of.) There is a certain percentage of professionals in each discipline, let’s just call it 10 percent for the sake of neatness, who will be successful no matter what. They’re straight-up brilliant, both in their thinking and how they present their thinking. They will be successful regardless of everything else. Then there’s another percentage of folks, which we’ll also call 10 percent, who just aren’t good at all. They made it through the system, somehow, but they really don’t belong in higher education, and even when granted every favor imaginable, they’re going to wash out.

The vast majority of us though, the remaining hypothetical 80 percent, don’t fall into either category, and neither our success nor our failure is inevitable. Instead, our work will be recognized, and new opportunities for interesting, relevant scholarly work will arrive, because our academic preparedness and abilities encounter the right fellow professionals at the right times. It is a function of preparation meeting opportunity, as the clichéd but accurate saying goes.

Of course, one cannot rely on the social game alone for professional success. The social networker who neglects doing real work, relying exclusively instead on his or her connections, will eventually be exposed. Classes must be taught. Research must be undertaken, written up, published. That somebody who networks well but doesn’t put in the work will eventually fail ought to be obvious, particularly within today’s competitive academic employment environment.

What is less obvious is that the person who only works, and works diligently and intelligently, but to the exclusion of the social realities of disciplinary life, is also more likely to fail than otherwise. Or, perhaps, likely to meet with less success than otherwise deserved.

People at the “top” of the academic professions are frequently not only brilliant, hard-working researchers and teachers, but they’re also extremely well networked, entirely plugged into the social and intellectual fabric of their research communities. They are especially good navigators of the social sides of their disciplines, and at some level recognize that hard work alone is not enough to ensure professional success within our line of work.

I also don’t think that we should resent any of this. I can’t think of a single professional community that is a pure meritocracy. Your frat might be a really tiny one, or it might be a big one. But, like it or lump it, you’re going to have to rush, so to speak.

There is a probationary period. Like a frat, the existing members of the discipline may regard you warily at first, waiting to see your commitment to the work and the potential that you represent.

At times, it’s an economy of favors. It is not enough to engage in good research. Sometimes research only goes public and finds a venue or audience because the right person, a person with some sort of power within the discipline, knows of you and your work and provides you with an opportunity that you couldn’t otherwise manufacture for yourself. You may have to earn your way into such favors by helping with disciplinary grunt work for a while. Yes, you’ve been pledging all this time.

While you’re in grad school, it’s about networking, not grades. While I personally think that the Greek organizations on our campuses have outlived any usefulness they might have once had, the parallel here holds up. Even though there are academically oriented Greek organizations, fraternities and sororities are primarily social organizations, not academic ones. In this respect, disciplines are a lot like frats, because disciplines, in addition to being sites of intellectual inquiry, are social organizations. Once you receive a degree, your grades are essentially irrelevant (in part because most everyone who finishes has great grades), and what will matter far more is that you have a network of folks to plug into when you transition from graduate student to professional.

Eventually, leadership is expected. Once you become a fully fledged, established member of your discipline’s intellectual and social composition, there’s an expectation that you will become a leader, mentoring those who are newer to the discipline, its work, and its networks of participants. Such leadership may take many forms, from editorial posts, to professional organization committee work, to hands-on mentoring. But leadership responsibilities are the dues that come due once you’re established.

I don’t see any need to attack or defend the fraternal nature of disciplines. It is what it is, and those cultures appear to me to be prevalent enough and organic enough that I’m unconvinced we could change them if we wanted to change them. So, we must navigate the social networks of our disciplines, at least until the model changes. Which won’t be soon.