Fuck Genius. Everyone In Academia Should Be Replaceable

This is part of a series of posts I plan to share, on the abuse of power inherent to academia as a profession, and what we could do to reimagine and rebuild a more just, anti-racist university. Read part one here.

Much of the research I have done over the last two decades on academic cultures can be reduced to a single conclusion. Academia as an institution and set of cultural practices is justified by a widespread but damaging ideological belief in both meritocracy and individual genius as the font of knowledge.

Universities, research funding agencies, publications, and so on are organized around an outmoded understanding of how knowledge is created – i.e. by lone individuals whose achievements arise from naturally derived personal abilities.

This idea is a myth. But even if we know that, it’s not easy to change the consequences of institutions and practices founded upon that idea.

Researchers at Fermilab, a high energy physics research facility in the US. As discussed in Karin Knorr Certina’s research, high energy physics is a highly collaborative science, where research is conducted collectively by 100s of researchers working together.

For example: consider how this idea structures the way we organize and fund research, and how professors in any given department relate to each other. An individual Principal Investigator (PI) applies for a grant, sets up a lab/team, mentors a set of students, publishes papers. There may be co-PIs or co-authors; but the model is that a lab or research team in a university department is run like a fiefdom.

The engineering department, or the biology department, or even English department is not a collection of faculty all working together on the same research question, but rather a loosely affiliated set of mini-kingdoms, each with it’s own ruler, who would actively resist any interference on the part of other fellow-sovereign.

This organization is not inevitable! We could be doing it another way. For instance, we could set up academic departments to study a set of research questions or areas of focus, and have faculty and students apply to come work on them for a while. When someone left, the team itself would continue on with the work.

(I don’t know enough about how commercial research is organized outside of academia. But I would be interested to know if this is how, for instance, research in the car industry, in pharma, or in chemical labs is organized.)

If this is difficult to imagine, that’s because this is such an ingrained idea.

The Genius as the Missing Stair

The inaccurate belief that academic knowledge stems from individuals, rather than being a collective effort/conversation, doesn’t just harm women, but also undocumented, Indigenous, Black, Brown, queer, and working class scholars, and scholars from the Global South.

Basically, anyone whose identity strays from the imagined ideal of a straight, white, heterosexual, middle-class man with a Euro-Christian heritage.

Unfortunately – and I say this not to diminish the trauma suffered by those who have come forward – discrimination and harassment of women (especially students, and especially white women) garners more outrage than discrimination and harassment against other disempowered groups.

Abuse becomes institutionalized, and unstoppable, when any individual is considered ‘too big to fail’.

Think about how, in so many cases, victims of bullying in academia are afraid to report their abuser because they know that doing so would damage not only their own career. They also carry the burden of knowing that if the PI is fired, it will damage the careers of other students, postdocs, and researchers who depend on the bully, and likely compromise or bring to an end the research.

The idea that a small group of individuals are irreplaceable “geniuses” who can’t possibly be fired, even when they do terrible things like routinely punch holes in the wall and smash equipment, pops up in other professions as well. In law they are called ‘rain makers’.

In law firms, managers understand that confronting abusive rainmakers may cause them to pick up their clients and leave.

And abuse is not necessarily related to sexual misconduct. There are many forms of tyranny in law firms: greed and excessive demands for compensation; screaming and use of obscenities; unreasonable work demands; bullying, and many forms of disrespect. Firm management has often looked the other way or allowed rainmakers to work in silos, without much external supervision or review, if they produced.

KAREN KAPLOWITZ, FEBRUARY 27, 2018. “Abuse of power within law firms: The rainmaker dilemma.”

We already know the genius is a myth!

And yet historians, sociologist, and anthropologists of science have been saying for years that this myth of the lone genius is just that: a myth. Research is collective and collaborative.

Hell, even the Nobel Prize knows its not true!

Archaeology is actually a great illustration of how ridiculous the individualized scholar idea is. Who digs an entire field site single-handedly? How many PIs get PhD-level training in not only ceramic analysis, but also zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotony, GIS, textiles, and whatever else they need to study the data a project produces?

Sure, there are loners who uncover previously-ignored evidence, heroically laboring on alone with zero input from other researchers… But they are generally sharing their ‘findings’ via all-caps screeds on the internet, rather than in journals.

The point being: its not possible to do research, on a practical day-to-day basis, or to come up with ideas, without collective effort. All of which is to say: no single person is responsible for producing archaeological, or any other kind of scientific, knowledge.

And yet our institutions, funding, and education system are set up around the idea of the individual PI. This model leads to mundane misery, when a single director feels like they can’t take sick leave, bereavement leave, time off to have a baby, or even just a vacation.

I’m thinking of a colleague and mentor who needed hip-replacement surgery last year, but felt she couldn’t take time off to recover properly because if she stepped away for a few months, what would happen to the large project she directs? Who would be looking after the data-collection? Or the many employees and students who she oversaw?

But the implications can be even more damaging, when a PI turns out to be a bully, sexual predator, racist, or otherwise just an arsehole who needs to be fired. Too many terrible people have got away with terrible things, because if they were removed their employees’, colleagues’, and students’ would lose jobs, and the research/data would be compromised.

Even in the Gary Urton case, a former student had to weigh the cost of losing access to data she herself had created, effectively abandoning years of work and re-starting her PhD, against reporting his abuse of her.

“If you knew my passion for Inka khipu and wondered why it wasn’t in my dissertation, the condition of access to the khipu database was sex,” Brezine wrote in an email to Science. “Gary made it clear that he could and would revoke my access at any time if I did not perform adequately.”

“I was dependent on him for employment and continued references, teaching assistant assignments,” she says. “The majority of my energy went to managing my relationship with Gary … keeping on his good side … making sure I hadn’t offended him.”

Quoted in “Prominent Harvard archaeologist put on leave amid allegations of sexual harassment” By Ann Gibbons, Jun. 5, 2020.

What can we do?

I have participated in, or come across through my research, a number of research projects that had co-PIs, some of which had explicitly feminist orientations.

A great example from archaeology is the Projecto Jacha Marka in Bolivia, discussed in this short article. Another is the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which describes itself as “a feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution.” CLEAR has great resources on its webpage such as How to Run a Feminist Science Lab Meeting.

These are good steps forward. But they are not enough. Because they are small fixes that cannot address the heart of the problem: The idea that academia exists to allow an individual thinker to pursue the life of the mind.

Real change requires a complete reimagining of not just who gets to make knowledge, but what scholarship is for — what the purpose of our work is, and our institutions.

It’s not enough to just add more women or more Black or Indigenous scholars to the existing mix, and hope that fixes the problem. The problem is bigger than that — and the possibilities inherent in the solutions are not only exciting, but revolutionary.

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2 thoughts on “Fuck Genius. Everyone In Academia Should Be Replaceable

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