The Prestige Economy of University Affiliation

I recently saw a twitter discussion about how to list affiliation when uncertain where one will be working in the future (if working at all). It is a good question. As often with Twitter, I see something, think about it and then cannot find it when I want to comment. So I’ll make a short blog post, in the spirit of Eidolon’s Burn It All Down editorial.

Once upon a time, I had an article accepted just as I switched from my first temporary job to another and I was uncertain which affiliation to list: where I was employed when I wrote the article or where I would be employed when it came out? Since my new job was also temporary, I decided that I wanted to list as my affiliation the University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, I felt, matched my west-coast vibe. Listing my aspirational affiliation would then force Berkeley to hire me since I was already publishing for them. I was not permitted to do this, so I cannot say this strategy won’t work.

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Marketing done, the question I have is less how to list affiliation in complex situations, but why do we list affiliation at all? A somewhat random survey of the practice at the AJPh shows some variability. The first article in AJPh 1.1 (1880) is listed in the table of contents as by “W.W. Goodwin, of Harvard University.” His name also appears at the end of his article, though without affiliation. The shorter notes are listed only by name: Albert S. Cook was an associate in English at Johns Hopkins when his note came out (1). In 1889, Paul Shorey, at the time professor at Bryn Mawr College, has an article on Plato in In volume 10.1. There is no affiliation listed for him or anyone else in this volume. No affiliations in volume 30.1 (1909). They appear at the end, with the author’s name, in volume 60.1 (1939). So, listing affiliation is a somewhat irregular practice. So what is the purpose of this “little tool of knowledge”(2)? I want to divide my wild speculations into two parts, corresponding to the paradigmatic places where we name our employers: publications and conferences.

Undoubtedly, affiliation might have once served to help locate the author if a reader wanted to get into contact. At this point, shameful as it is, I have to admit that, after reading an impressive article by a young scholar, I have written an email to the author to express my appreciation after finding contact information at the university affiliation listed. Yeah, I’m that guy. But this address function hardly seems the reason why we continue to list affiliation, especially when AJPh now also gives author email. So, my first wild speculation is that affiliation on publication serves to add to our employer’s institutional cultural capital. In a more obvious way, the charismatic authority of a Fields Medal or a Nobel Prize winner grants the institution cultural capital. As minimal is it is, even a minor classics publication provides cultural capital that supports the prestige economy that academic institutions require. Why else does the modern research university insist that its Classics faculty publish for tenure? Why privilege “impact”? Why try to hire productive and charismatic scholars away from rival institutions? Universities are in the prestige business, seeking to build institutional cultural capital from the labor of its members. The affiliation listed on a publication is one structural tool for this system and the hierarchies that support it.

It is not immediately clear to me that institutions that pay their employees to produce cultural capital should not take their cut. But what of the adjunct? Most are not paid to research, should they add their capital to the institution’s pot? The institution may have provided the infrastructure (space, library, etc) that facilitated the publication. Given the changing institutional employment practices, focusing resources and time on “productive” and “charismatic” researchers, while overloading the “teachers,” perhaps this little tool could be burned down. What does affiliation on your publications do for you? For the field as a whole?

Institutional affiliation at conferences certainly has an innocuous function. I also play the academic triangulation game: “Oh, you are at Barnett College? Do you know Professor Jones?” At the same time, affiliation at conferences allows the hierarchies of the prestige economy to function. I’ve heard people complain when they sense other conference members ranking them based on affiliation, which is simply a natural response to the hierarchical organization of the academy. At the same time, those without affiliation are excluded from the system, pointlessly, since the name of an employer does not give a scholar value. Of course, your institution may have paid for your trip, and it makes sense to list it in this case. If I hadn’t been so embarrassed, I might have listed my father in place of affiliation, since he helped finance my first conference trip. So perhaps we could burn this down as well.

I guess, rather than my trying to Burn It All Down, this post is more like trying to light a campfire in the rain by rubbing sticks together. Even if we did stop listing affiliation on our publications and at conferences, it would not change the fact that the modern academy is run on an economy of prestige and encrusted by pointless, unproductive hierarchies. I remain skeptical of institutional practices that seem simply to reproduce the system while doing little to help scholars and teachers do their work of teaching and scholarshiping.

(1) According to Wikipedia, which cites a 1927 tribute to him. What precisely an “associate” is, I don’t know. Cook had an MA at that point and he didn’t get his Ph.D. until later.

(2) Becker and Clark (2001) use this term for material practices that illuminate how groups (especially academics) organize, communicate, and evaluate knowledge claims.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.