I have written before about “best” being a distraction and encouraged you to focus on doing good work. In this post, I want to extend that argument using a recently published scholarly article as a jumping off point. (you can go read it and come back)
“Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence
Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell & Damian Pattinson
Palgrave Communications 3, Article number: 16105 (2017)
Published online 19 January 2017
(It’s open access so you can just download it. No money. No library log in.)
The main point Moore et al make is that “excellence” has no content. It is meaningless in any practical sense. They propose using “soundness” and “capacity building” as better guides to the kind of thing we might mean by excellence at the institutional level. They make good arguments for what this means for improving processes and policies. I will not summarize them all here.
Moore et al focus on the institutional level and larger policy instruments like the UK Research Excellence Framework (though similar rhetoric is used in policy in other countries). However, I think the argument has implications at the individual level both in how you think of your own work and in terms of how you engage with those larger processes. Although I often focus on writing, the points I make here apply to any area of your work that is subject to this institutional discourse of “excellence”: writing, research, teaching, anything.
Implications for judging your own work
First and foremost the argument Moore et al make means you need to stop judging your work so harshly. Since you can always improve, and always will improve, aiming for “best” or “excellent” means you put your focus on the limitations of your work instead of its positive qualities. Those terms are no better than “perfect”. You don’t know when you’ve reached “excellent”. You feel like you never measure up.
I hear that gremlin telling you that I am just making excuses for mediocrity. That gremlin is wrong. The fact that your work (in any area) can be improved doesn’t mean that it doesn’t meet high standards. You are not behind. You are not failing. Accept that your good work already meets high standards. Focus on doing good work.
Alternatives to “excellence”
If “excellent” is an abstract, unmeasurable way of defining those high standards, what might you use instead?
Soundness, as proposed by Moore et al, is a useful way forward in this search for concrete criteria. You know what a sound methodology is in your field. You know what a sound argument looks like in your field. Using soundness to judge whether your manuscript meets the standards for submission to a journal gives you something concrete to focus on. In the Short Guide to the Scholarly Writing Process I use the term “good enough” and have created a series of questions to help you determine when your writing meets this standard.
You can do the same with your teaching. Use concrete criteria to determine the soundness of your teaching. Focus on where you are already meeting these criteria and how you can build on that as you grow and develop as a teacher. Reclaim learning objectives/outcomes for your own purposes here. What are your objectives for this course? How will what you do in this class/assignment/etc support those objectives? What is your role in the complex process of student learning?
Do not let them convince you that your current standard isn’t even close to what’s required. Your goal here is not to find different terms with which to denigrate yourself. In your day to day work your aim is to do good work. Soundness. Making a contribution to knowledge. Recognizing the good and building on it.
Implications for engaging with the policy discourse
Of course, the term “excellence” is still going to be ubiquitous in your workplace. Your institution will ask you to deliver excellent teaching and research. You will need, collectively, to be evaluated by those external policy instruments where “excellence” has real material consequences for your department and institution. This makes it hard to shift the language you use in your own self-talk because someone is always going to be pushing “excellence” language on you.
“Excellence” is rhetoric. It is a story you tell, individually and collectively, to serve particular purposes in particular institutional contexts. It isn’t any more than that. Write that down to remind yourself. Imagine the scare quotes every time you see or hear it.
When you report on your work as part of any kind of institutional exercise that requires “excellence”, you call your work excellent (the quote marks are invisible). Your gremlins might tell you that you are lying. You are not. “Excellence” is meaningless. That means you can make it mean soundness.
When reporting on your work for any of these purposes, DO NOT focus on the stuff that could be improved. Focus on what you are doing right. Focus on the evidence that students are learning and make links to what you have done. Use the buzzwords.
And remember that the people who are asking you to be more excellent without specifying what that looks like are often acting from fear. They aren’t being malicious. They are not stupid. Fear just makes them look that way. Ask them to define what they mean by excellence. Push for concrete criteria. And if their response suggests that they fear that whatever you do won’t measure up, ignore them. Do not get sucked into their spiral of panic. Come up with your own working definition. Carry on doing good work. You cannot hit a moving goal.
Changing policy & culture
Complaining to your friends will not change anything even if it makes you feel better momentarily. (And if it doesn’t even do that, stop it.)
You will have opportunities to shape how these bigger processes work, both within your institution (at various levels) and as a member of society. Use the language Moore et al suggest in discussions you are part of. Writing to your government representative, getting active in your union or scholarly association, or even just using different language in your department meeting will change things. Slowly. Painfully slowly. One step at a time.
If you are a head of department, coordinating a submission to some accreditation exercise, or in another position to influence how things work locally, think about what you (collectively as a committee perhaps) mean by “excellence” and provide more concrete criteria for the people you are asking to write reports or do things differently. Use your position to reduce the anxiety that abstract “excellence” creates.
At the very least refuse to participate in the culture of We’re Never Good Enough. Catch your colleagues doing good work. Comment on it in ways that highlight those concrete criteria. Encourage each other. Remind each other that you have a high standard for “good work”.
Simple but not easy
It really is that simple. But that doesn’t make it easy. Make yourself reminders. Ask for support. Be kind to yourself.
An earlier version of this post was sent to members of the Academic Writing Studio on January 27, 2017. It has been edited.