In a former lifetime I served as director of publications for a small liberal-arts college whose ambitious president wanted to put it on the map. The word he asked me and others to promote in articles, in capital-campaign materials, in announcements of scholarship opportunities, and the like was excellence. I wondered at the time what was so special about claiming to be excellent. Were there liberal-arts colleges that claimed to be mediocre, or merely good? Perhaps, I thought, I was influenced by my generation’s rather coy use of the term, like the term brilliant, to denote an idea or a choice that we merely approved. E.g., “How about we smoke a couple of joints and drive down to the beach?”
Well, apparently the “ubiquity of excellence rhetoric,” as several British scholars call it in their recent article “Excellence R Us: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence,” has in fact seriously eroded the term. They ask, “Does ‘excellence’ live up to the expectations that academic communities place upon it? Is ‘excellence’ excellent?” And the answer, generally speaking, is no.
We accustom ourselves to the notion of excellence, I suspect, beginning early in our school years. Grading criteria often assign the description excellent to the top grade in a sequence; if you see Excellent! at the bottom of your sixth-grade essay, it’s probably followed by A. At the same time, excellence continually represents something toward which we are meant to strive. I once took a job in publishing that required very little of me beyond shuffling sets of proofs from one department to the next. (This was before computers.) I was asked to perform a self-evaluation after six months. It seemed to me I’d done everything as I was supposed to, on time, cooperatively, etc., and so given the choice of evaluating my own work as poor, fair, good, or excellent, I chose excellent. My boss corrected me when we met. “You can’t be excellent,” she said.
“Oh dear,” I said. “Have I fallen short somewhere?”
“No,” she said. “But you’ve been here only six months. You’re not allowed to be excellent before a year passes.”
For the authors of “Excellence R Us,” the problem with the term is that it “carries little or no information content, either within communities or across them.” Rhetorically, though, they consider whether it might be useful nonetheless, much as Wittgenstein’s “beetle in a box” was useful. That is, if each of us has a box with an invisible object inside that we each label beetle, we cannot know if we are housing the same thing. Nonetheless, so long as we “negotiate and use the term socially to engender intersubjective understanding or action” — that is, so long as knowing the boxes all contain something that we’re all calling beetles serves to promote understanding of some kind — then the term has a purpose. Likewise, even if your idea of excellent differs broadly from mine, perhaps it means something that we are all using this term for our assessments; that it amounts in some unknowable way to an A.
No, say the authors, and I think they’re right. A beetle is a beetle unto itself. Excellence is continually relative, as its place in any given rubric suggests; it exists as an aspirational quality, as the achievement that beats out good, fair, and poor. This matters to scholarly disciplines and to institutions mostly because, like the gold star on the spelling test, the designation of excellence brings rewards — and if we cannot know the intrinsic quality of the assessment criterion that rewards us, what purpose does it serve? Excellence, as the authors write, “is little more than an assertion that that project, institution, or practitioner can be said to succeed better on its own terms than some other project, institution, or practitioner can be said to succeed on some other, usually largely incomparable, set of terms.” Even within disciplines, and even at the highest levels (think Nobel Prize), the vagueness and ubiquity of attributions of excellence produce homophily, or a tendency to find excellence mostly or entirely in works that hew to the same conventions as works that have already been rewarded or canonized. Few of us would admit that excellence is a “more of the same” quality, but so long as we hold to the term as the apex of our aspirations, it may well continue to function this way.
The authors of the study, which looks at a wide variety of disciplines and examples, cautiously introduce other terms we might consider, like soundness and capacity, in place of excellence. I don’t know that these do the trick. I did realize, on reading the article, that I know of no instance where I have written the word excellent on a student paper or in a recommendation letter. I have had to check those boxes on recommendations, of course (Excellent: top 1%-2%). But something in me resists the label even for work I have found to be head and shoulders above what other students produce. I’ll write almost anything else instead — Fabulous! Fascinating! Well argued! Detailed and engrossing! Why? Perhaps because it seems to me to put pressure on the very students I aim to praise; to label their introductory paragraph, or even their work as a whole, excellent seems to give them no further room to maneuver if they revise that piece or when they write the next paper. Or perhaps because, given the commonness of claims to excellence in an academic world where nothing less than the best will do, I fear that my students will discount the label, will see it as a professor’s lazy response to a bright shiny bit of rhetoric rather than a celebration of their achievement.
Perhaps I am simply persnickety, or too parsimonious in my praise. I wonder how others have negotiated this term that, dependent in its very meaning on remaining highly concentrated, has nonetheless fallen prey to immense dilution.