Education: View from here - Ted Wragg

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In these madcap days in universities, more time can easily be spent justifying and maintaining one's existence, than living it. The desperate quest for indications of "kwality" has forced academics to produce more and more written evidence.

One of the sadder manifestations is that of "esteem indicators". Elaborate kwality assurance forms have to be compiled, under headings such as "prizes, medals", showing how the work is esteemed. Having dutifully written the digit "2" in the "prizes, medals" column, which do you list first, your Nobel Prize or your Tufty Club road safety medal?

Many academics are by nature modest people. Being clever in childhood often involves playing down achievements. Telling the world too loudly how many prizes and high grades you have attained is a quick way of alienating your friends. Most, therefore, learn early in life to stay the right side of the divide that separates satisfaction from smugness, legitimate pride from vainglorious boasting.

There is another personality trait that is discouraged in early years: emotional insecurity. Ask your family or mates whether they like you, and you will be told to stop sucking your thumb and grow up. If you throw a party and then wander around among the guests, eager to be assured that they are enjoying themselves, you are seen as an over-anxious host. Seeking reassurance about your own public esteem is normally regarded as wimpish.

In universities, all this carefully socialised behaviour is turned on its head. Boast, damn you! Shout your achievements to the world. Crave affection and recognition, grovel for esteem. Modesty, or stoical independence, could cost the university money.

Some of the esteem indicator headings are hilarious. "Academic visitors to the university for longer than a week" is an interesting indicator of esteem, but for what? Do people come because of your formidable reputation, for the scenery, or to get a stamp on their passport? Work at a university near the sea, the moors or the lakes if you want to build up this part of your profile. Avoid dark satanic mills.

The category "Official positions on external committees (indicate if you are a chair)" is another belter. I went last month to a huge American research conference where the worst paper by far was delivered by the chairman of one of the association's divisions, a desiccated husk of a man whose appalling presentation sent droves of listeners into deep slumber. "How on earth was he elected chairman?" I asked. My two neighbours replied, "It was his turn", and, "I guess the rest must have died off." So much for esteem.

Lists of broadcasts are yet more misplaced indicators of esteem. Some strange people get invited on to the airwaves. Producers often ring me up to ask whether I can suggest the name of someone who might be willing to appear on a programme to defend an extreme point of view. I find myself naming the same three or four loonies.

Before one of my first broadcasts, the producer strolled into the hospitality room, where I sat alone. "Are you the chap in a favour of caning?" he enquired cheerily. I looked blank. "Oh, you must be the academic," he said, with the knowing look of the seasoned pro, well able to recognise "on the one hand, on the other hand" fence-sitters when he met them. Fervent thrasher, cool equivocator, smart policy analyst - who knows what they are, where mere listings of broadcasts are concerned?

I have always been opposed to the uncritical use of the citations index as a measure of esteem. People are cited for different reasons. In the social sciences, some of the quoted names are controversial figures who are under attack. If you want to do well on a head count, announce that two plus two equals five. Make sure that readers are told your name clearly, so they remember who wrote it. You will be attacked as an idiot for years, and thus top the annual citations index.

Saddest of all is when it comes to promotions, and people are under pressure to oversell themselves to outsmart their colleagues. Decent folk, privately modest and self-effacing, suddenly feel the discomfort of having to prove their esteem. Truth is gently warped.

"My lecture to the Little Piddlington Civic Society was received rapturously" (all six members applauded at the end). "I have planned the successful new first-year course single handed" (no one else turned up). "The eminent scholar Professor Splutzenheimer visited me to see my work" (his Auntie Mavis lives nearby). "I am a referee for the Albanian Journal of Necromancy" (and sole subscriber).

Outside the American conference I attended, there were several people asking for money. Before long they could be replaced by academics begging for esteem - a citation, a prize, a lecture invitation, a hug, even.

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University.