There is an amusing post here by a blogger who is eccentric enough to read B&W. He’s just been reading a N&C from back in early January, the one about academostars – which sent him to an article by Scott McLemee in the Chronicle, which prompted some reflections on Stanley Fish’s Reagonomical views of the merits of overpaying academostars.
To be fair, Fish may have a point: his presence in an English department may draw starry-eyed grad students into the department and increase funding for more useless graduate seminars on esoteric topics that will prove of little or no use to anyone teaching at most universities. In this respect, the “material conditions” of the other professors in the department may be improved somewhat (though the graduate students and adjuncts will still be teaching the same thankless classes for the same poverty-level wages). But Fish will still be making 2-3 times what his colleagues do for far less work (most academic superstars teach one course a year, generally a graduate or senior seminar with a small enrollment). Very little of that privileged status will be trickling down to his colleagues.
It’s all very reminiscent of Robert Frank and Philip Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society, an excellent book on the way minuscule differences in talent can make the difference between a hugely remunerative career and none at all (in professional sports, movie stardom, popular music, for example). Stardom does work that way. And often it has so much to do with – a kind of gas, really. Vapor, hot air, bubbles. Especially in the case of academostars. People become stars because people start calling them stars, and other people hear that and call them stars too, and more people do the same, and more and more. Mass hypnosis. Pretty soon it becomes unthinkable or socially unacceptable to ask ‘Why is this person a star? What’s the big deal? In what way is this one so enormously better than that one?’ It all seems to have far more to do with hype and silly showbizzy attitudes than it does with anything resembling intellectual interests or values.