In 2013, the Chronicle for Higher Education featured an inside look of two public university faculty searches for assistant professors. Through an open records request, the Chronicle discovered that Ohio University drew 117 applicants for one spot in the English department. The University of Florida drew 71 applicants for a spot in the linguistics department. This is an acceptance rate of 0.85% at Ohio and 1.4% at Florida.
Each of the applicants were extraordinarily talented. An MFA or PhD was required at Ohio. Each applicant had to have published at least one book. One applicant’s novel had been adapted into a film. Many won prestigious awards. All published numerous articles in respected peer-reviewed journals. Regardless of their awards, only one got the job.
Academics in other fields don’t fare any better. Rebecca Schuman noted last year that the MLA Jobs Information List announced that a grand total of only nine tenure-track jobs opened in German studies in the fall of 2014: “9. Single digits. This is utter carnage.”
Which is why the story of Eric Jarosinski’s rise to academic stardom by using Twitter is so strange.
In 2012 Jarosinski was an assistant professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania. He began using Twitter as a way to vent his frustrations while attempting to write a book. The topic of transparency as a metaphor in contemporary German culture was difficult to put into words. He had to use airtight academese to avoid unnecessary criticism. Each sentence was bogged down with qualifiers like “somewhat” or “not unlike.” He turned to Twitter, where clever comments of 140 characters could be fired off without peer review or scathing critique.
Two years and 30,000 tweets later he has become a social media superstar. Followers loved his irreverent voice, written in both English and German: “At Starbucks I order under the name Godot. Then leave.” “Signifying nothing is harder than it looks.” “First as tragedy. Then as farce. Then as tragedy-farce-banana smoothie.” His feed at @NeinQuarterly – a “Compendium of Utopian Negation” – has over 100,000 followers.
Without Jaronsinski’s planning it, Twitter became the next step in his career. In 2013 he had research to do in Berlin so he tweeted that he was embarking on a #FailedIntellectualGoodwillTour. Suddenly German journalists started contacting him for an interview, thinking he wasn’t joking. Die Zeit invited him to the newspaper office to do a staff critique of the paper. This meeting led to an offer to write a series of Twitter-length jokes on the paper’s opinion page. He now writes longer pieces for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the cultural magazine Kursbuch. His Twitter feed has also led to a publishing deal with Grove Atlantic. Jaronsinski’s book Nein. A Manifesto comes out this year.
Right now, Jaronskinski is on the #FailedIntellectual Goodwill Tour 2015. He is lecturing to American and German universities from February to May. The colleges hail him as an academic who has pioneered “a highly innovative form of outreach in the humanities and drawn significant international media attention – in Europe he is somewhat of a celebrity.” All of this for a Twitter feed than anybody can set up for free.
How did Jaronsinski manage to earn a level recognition that other academics could only dream of, even though he largely sidestepped the gauntlet of publishing and peer-reviewed research? He doesn’t even have tenure but has more influence as a public intellectual than almost anyone but Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman.
To explain this process, I will outline an economics theory that Cal Newport has described as The Superstar Effect. But before we describe this, let’s first take a look at how economics plays out in the hiring of most academics.
The Superstar Effect in Academia
The academic world uses the “tournament model” of employment. Only a lucky few can win the prize of a tenure-track job while most languish in the no-man’s-land of adjuncting. It is a terrible way to run a business. In other professions the tournament model is even more vicious. It takes on its cruelest form among artists and actors. Megan Mcardle writes in Bloomberg that many have been destroyed by this model, most of all those who kept getting a taste of success. A minor part in a Broadway show here, rave reviews at a second-tier festival there. They kept waiting for success to arrive well into their 30s or 40s. When it was clear that it never would, they were broke and lacked vocational skills that could transfer to another industry when most others entered their peak earning years.
In the academic profession the tournament model has created one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. Karen Kelsky has noted that tenured professors realized this but they do nothing about it. They run off to graduate admissions meetings, continue to admit the same number of students, with the same terrible funding, into the same dissertation-obsessed programs, based on the same indefensible job market assurances (“the good people always get jobs”), as it was in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
The trend has gotten even worse. According to a recent article in Slate, a new study published in Science Advances shows that just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in the fields of business, computer science, and history. Eight schools account for half of all history professors. If you want to get a job at a university in America that isn’t located in a rural region of the Deep South, you must have obtained your PhD at an Ivy League university.
I haven’t. You probably haven’t. And if you have not, it is statistically improbable that you will get a tenure-track job at a major American or Canadian research university.
How do you get around this trend? It all comes from harnessing what is know as “The Superstar Effect.”
Computer science PhD Cal Newport wrote on this phenomena in an extensive post on Tim Ferriss’s blog. The Superstar Effect is an economics theory that says in many different fields it pays disproportionally well to be not just very good, but the absolute best. According to a 1981 paper published in the American Economics Review, the top person in any field will get massively more fame, money, and attention than his or her marginally-less-talented competitors.
The paper used the examples of superstars like world-famous tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez. Both were exceptional, but Pavarotti was slightly better. They both competed on a world-class level, but the impact of this small difference was huge. Florez probably earned five figures per performance. Good, but not enough to make him rich. Pavarotti was estimated to be worth $275 to $475 million at the time of his death.
Newport says that we can understand the Superstar Effect through simple intuition. If a million opera fans only have $10 to spend on an opera album, they can only buy one. If they have to choose between Florez or Pavarotti, two tenors whose talents are likely indistinguishable to the casual listener, the bulk will purchase Pavarotti’s album. They will think that although both are great, Pavarotti is the best, and if I can only get one album, I might as well get the best on one available. Therefore, most of the $10 million goes to Pavarotti even though his advantage over Florez is marginal.
Understand the Superstar Effect within academia is simple. If a university hiring committee has to choose between two candidates, one a graduate from Harvard and the other from the University of Iowa, all things being equal they will most likely choose the Harvard graduate. For a university the simplest way to burnish its reputation is to hire a graduate from the nation’s top school, importing some of that school’s credibility, rather than a respectable but middle-tier university. Furthermore, since hiring a tenure-track professor could be a 40-year investment, the decision is high stakes. It seems natural to go with a safe choice due to all this uncertainty.
University alma maters are not the only territory on which academics compete for prestige. Other battlegrounds are the quantity and quality of published articles and books. But these are the few places where this competition takes place. And the competition is brutal. Ivy League universities have historically low acceptance rates. Journals that are at the top of their field have article acceptance rates in the single digits.
The Superstar Corollary – How to Hack the Superstar Effect in Academia
Becoming a superstar in an academic field by going to the best school, having the best articles, and knowing the most influential people is staggeringly difficult. Tens of thousands of people are competing on these same grounds. That’s why tenure-track job openings get hundreds of job applicants with marginal differences between any two of them, but in the end the job goes to the Ivy League graduate.
But as Eric Jarosinski has shown on Twitter and Cal Newport writes elsewhere, there is a way to get all the benefits of the Superstar Effect without competing on such blood-stained battlegrounds. It comes by using a process known as The Superstar Corollary.
Newport writes that The Superstar Corollary means being the best in a field makes you disproportionally impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.
Consider Jarosinski. Through no planning of his own, he became a top academic on Twitter. He is a superstar in a tiny sphere. Was it as difficult as becoming the superstar of academic publishing in German studies? Of course not. Does he reap some of the same benefits? His book deal, columns in German national newspapers and campus tour would argue ‘yes.’
Another beneficiary of the Superstar Corollary is Gregory Sadler. Greg was a guest on The Scholarpreneur Podcast a few weeks ago. He talked about his experience with Youtube and uploading videos of his classroom philosophy lectures. Although Greg is a professor at Marist College, he noted that the digital meritocracy of Youtube gives him equal footing to compete with any philosophy professor, even one from Harvard.
He is a superstar in this realm. Greg has over 1 million downloads of his lectures and 18,000 followers on Youtube. Greg has triggered The Superstar Effect in his professional life. His presence online has led to speaking gigs and new employment opportunities. Uploading lectures to Youtube is far less difficult that writing dozens of peer-reviewed articles, but he receives far more benefits from the former despite much less competition.
The Superstar Corollary is a powerful tool for growing returns without growing the work involved. It is an excellent way for academics to get exposure, particularly those who didn’t go to an Ivy League school or lack a sterling publishing record.
Another example comes from podcasting. Chris Gratien is one of the hosts of The Ottoman History Podcast. He began the project in April 2011 during his PhD studies to discuss topics in the field with fellow Ottoman scholars. Although Chris has excellent academic and publishing credentials from a traditional standpoint, he has still triggered The Superstar Effect through podcasting. By recording nearly 200 episodes, he has become one of the most well-known podcaster in Ottoman studies (a micro-niche to be sure! ) and a well-known name across the discipline. While everyone else is only competing in the field of published articles and conference papers, he is gaining exposure by unconventional but much simpler means.
In conclusion, humans are conditioned to respect those who are the best at what they do. But we often do not pay attention to the difficulty or competitiveness of task that one is best in. Take advantage of those uncontested corners. Use a simple platform like Twitter to get as much attention as the keynote speaker of an academic conference.
Do you have any other examples of The Superstar Effect in Academia?