I admit that the notion of an academic star system fascinates me, as do notions of prestige in academia in general, so I could hardly be expected to leave this topic alone after just one blog post. “Academostars” is a term coined by Jeffrey Williams, who edited an edition of the minnesota review on that topic in 2001. In that issue, Williams offers both a critique and a complement to David Shumway’s PMLA article, “The Star System in Literary Studies.” It’s entitled, “Name Recognition,” avoiding Shumway’s key terms (after all, they’re colleagues at Carnegie Mellon!). So I’ll devote today’s post to expanding, in Williams’s terms, the notion of what it means to be a star in our profession.
Williams offers one very useful qualification of Shumway’s thesis—that the star system migrated into academia sometime during the heyday of theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It did, Williams seems to acknowledge, and there are stars out there of the magnitude of Spivak, Butler, Zizek, and Fish. We might add to that list Andrew Ross and Cary Nelson (not only an activist writer, but a real-life activist—how many of us have been arrested?!). But Williams wants to expand the category of “star,” and does so in an ingenious way, simply by noting how ubiquitous the term is in academia. He argues that “there are various declensions or quantum levels of stardom, ranging from who is a star in one’s department; of a specialization within a subfield (the star of 18th-century c. French furniture, as I heard a colleague called, which makes me wonder how many other people are in the field),” etc. “At the other end of the spectrum, one aspires to be the star of one’s graduate program, or of the job pool in a particular field. Hiring committees, especially at research universities, look for potential stars.”
I could add that the rhetoric of stardom is thrown around, often recklessly at tenure meetings—the best way to make a pitch for a promising tenure candidate is to describe that person as a “rising star.” So Williams, accurately I think, outlines not a rigid, limited Hollywood-esque star system, but rather a set of overlapping constellations, in which a person can be a star in any one of a variety of local contexts. On this point, Williams is right: Sure there are transcendent luminaries, but the extensive use of the term “star” all but dictates that we take into account the “declensions” that Williams describes.
So how do we update all this? Shumway’s article appeared in 1997 and dramatically broke new ground; Williams’ adumbration complicated both the term and the system when it appeared in 2001. How do we characterize the star system now?
Well, I do have some help from my commenters (though I find it interesting that when I write about polemic topics, such as online learning or for-profit universities, the volume of negative comments is overwhelming, whereas when I write about something that’s (maybe) ideologically neutral but totally absorbing, almost no one replies). But one comment really struck me as opening up a new window. “Chuckkle” had the following to say: “Of course there are stars now. But the real trick is finding them when they are on the ascent and before they peak. Woe to the department and school that hires a big shot name who has just written their last major innovative work and from now on is going to coast, travel, finally become a responsible family man or woman, etc. neatly avoiding department labor, committee work, and administration.”
He’s right on both counts. Sure, there are still stars in academia, but the commenter raises the salient point that all research universities are now in the market for stars, and thus attuned to the issue of whether the “stars” they’ve targeted might be crested waves. The danger, if you’re a research university administrator, is that you might hire the glittering name, but the person behind the name might never write another glittering book, or (worse yet—how horrible!) might discover priorities different than those required of a famous literary scholar, such as raising kids.
I’d extend Chuckkle’s insight even further, by asking the question: Are we now in the age of the commodified star? That is, if we move beyond the constant efforts of Yale, Harvard, Hopkins, Chicago, etc., to land a bona fide megastar, we find a host of universities also looking to acquire stars but obviously unable to afford (or to know what to do with) a Spivak or a Zizek. What they do instead is, in effect, to bureaucratize the category of the star: they make strategic hires; they aim to hire relatively high-profile (but distinctively not starlike) scholars to elevate the profiles of their overall programs. In other words, like every other precinct of the academy, the star system in 2011 has been thoroughly commodified. As a result, we still might have a few stars who fit Shumway’s definition, but for the most part we have a lot of research universities with one or more blue dwarf stars. I’ll stop short of pontificating about capital’s influence on academia’s taxonomy of its professors (lest I seem to aspire to stardom), but I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic in the future.