April 24, 2008

Rockstardom, notoriety, influence

In a reputation economy, our personal levels of fame and influence are extremely important. It's what gets us jobs, in the front of the line for plum speaking gigs, interesting/influential committee appointments and the best freebies and perqs. It's how you know who the opinion leaders and gatekeepers are. In other words, it opens doors that wouldn't otherwise be open to us. Go to a conference for the first time and you should be able to tell with some certainty who plays those roles in the community you're dropping in to. Go to the same conference several times, and the names of the gatekeepers will scream out at you -- because those are the ones you'll see in the best speaking spots and on all the right committees year after year. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it's just how these types of communities form.

Academia is a reputation economy, as are most professions. They always have been. More and more, every economy is becoming a reputation economy as the emphasis goes from selling stuff to selling performance, experience and lifestyle.

It seems that a lot of people are thinking about what it means to be an Important Person these days, two examples from within the library world and one from outside.

First of all, I guess everyone wants to know how to become an important person, from Meredith Farkas:

Every few months, I get an email from someone in library school or a new librarian basically asking me how I’ve accomplished all that I have in this profession in three years and how they can do the same...

And time is what all this takes. Read the profiles of Movers and Shakers in Library Journal and read about a lot of the big name librarian bloggers and you will see a lot of people who are really passionate about what they do. Many of us spend lots of time outside of work on these projects. We spend our free time writing, speaking, and networking online with folks who have similar professional interests. We often spend our own money to go to conferences in our areas of interest. The woman who wrote me last week mentioned that she doesn’t get many opportunities to publish or contribute to the profession. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve mostly made my own opportunities and I’ve done all of it on my own time. Sometimes you just need to do something and hope for the best; you can’t sit around waiting for someone to drop opportunities into your lap.

Of course, sometimes we can even undervalue our own fame quite seriously, thinking ourselves to be a American Idol dropout when in fact we're just a step or two off the Rolling Stones, maybe like the Doobie Brothers. Rockstardom isn't everything, after all. Dorothea Salo makes a good point.
Look, folks, rockstardom isn’t the only face of success. In spite of my bulldog’s face, in spite of my snark, in spite of everything, I am quite as successful as I need or want to be. I found work in my heart’s home. When I need to say something serious about what I do, I can get it said and hearkened to, here or even (to my own surprise) in The Literature. (I could do considerably more, even, if I were a more fluent writer than I am.) In spite of the people I’ve alienated (and they are not few), I have my own network of well-loved colleagues and friends; I’ve never been lonely in this marvelous profession. If rockstardom got dumped in my lap, I’m honestly not entirely sure what I would do, but I lean toward “running and hiding,” because I have serious being-around-hordes and travel-hassle limits, and rockstardom would stomp all over them....

Most of all, I have the luxury of defining success for myself. I fully and freely acknowledge that non-tenure-track academic librarianship has its discontents, but they pale to insignificance beside the phenomenal freedom of picking my own goalposts.

But again, it can be hard to judge just where we are on the totem poll.
Several kindly librarians of my acquaintance tried to convince me yesterday that indeed I am a rockstar. Evidence clearly shows otherwise, but thanks to them anyway.

One told me (paraphrased), “I wouldn’t know anything much about open access if not for you.”

But clearly, a reputation economy also has potential for inequalities just like any other. What if people who deserve to get fame and influence are denied it just because of their gender? What if you were a physicist and all the men were given the plum assignments when they clearly don't deserve it? It seems that the gatekeepers of a community can use their influence unfairly.
I think the essence of what determines your long-term success as a scientist is your ability to influence the scientific discussion. When you’re at a point in your career when people pay attention to your work, and want to know “What does think about this?”, you are on a near certain path to a stable position as a research scientist. Instead, if no one is reading your papers (to the extent that you’ve published them at all), or wants to hear what you say at conferences, or calls you up to ask you about your area of expertise, then you’re in danger of drifting out of the field....

A former particle-physics postdoc (and current grad student in statistics) carried out a very detailed analysis of the productivity of postdocs on the Run II Dzero experiment, and how that translated into giving conference presentations, and being hired into faculty positions. The paper found that the postdocs’ success in eventually landing faculty jobs were highly correlated to productivity (as measured by internal papers), to conference presentations (which were awarded by the leadership of the project), and to the degree of “physics socialization”....

The jaw-dropping aspect of the paper is that the awarding of conference presentations was grossly gender biased (as was the fraction of service work assigned to the women). The female postdocs had drastically higher levels of productivity (indeed, half the men were less productive than the least productive woman), but were allocated far fewer conference presentations than men with comparable productivity....

In this exercise, we see the influence game writ large. You need to be productive and visible. If some sort of bias (against women, or shy people, or people from state schools, or whomever) is present that conspires to make you less visible, you’re going to have to be even more productive. It’s not fair, and people in positions to fight against the bias in their institution should do so. But, at least it’s something that you have a chance of controlling.

Read Sherry Towers's jaw-dropping paper A Case Study of Gender Bias at the Postdoctoral Level in Physics, and its Resulting Impact on the Academic Career Advancement of Females. Oddly, it seems that reputation can acrue to someone for being discriminated against, hopefully to raise awareness and make things better.

Me? I've no illusions about being in the Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones category of rock star, or even mid-range like Genesis or The Doobie Brothers. It's fine for me having a niche, a small core audience, like Walter Rossi or Frank Marino. I'm afraid I'm just not that interested in (or necessarily good at) the kind of driven self-promotion it takes. And I think what modest level of fame I do have is split between the science and library domains, giving me more modest levels in two communities rather than a larger share in one (ie. Rossi + Marino = Bob Seger), which I actually think is pretty cool and which suits my interests just fine.

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