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Expertise, anyone?

Jill Walker has a post today about signing up to serve as an expert EU advisor, for reviewing proposals, programs, et al., and it put me in mind of another of my pet peeves with respect to our own organization here in rhetcompville.

One of the persistent themes of my discontent is the tendency to think of our field/discipline/organization as being smaller than it actually is. This shows up most often, I suppose, in the way that we abuse the term community to speak of ourselves. More concretely, I think that our organization is of a size that we often fail to appreciate the implications of the choices we make. The overuse of conference themes in papers and panels that have little to nothing to do with said themes is but one example. Jill's thoughts raise another for me, and that's the process by which proposals are selected and/or rejected.

My understanding of this process may not be entirely accurate, but that in itself only serves to prove my point--it shouldn't be opaque to someone who has been in the field for more than a decade. Anyhow, my understanding is that the Chair in a given year selects proposal reviewers, period. How is this done? As far as I can tell, the criteria for selecting proposal reviewers are two: the Chair knows you (or knows someone who knows you); and/or, you reviewed proposals in a given area the year before.

My guess is that if you were to study the qualifications of these reviewers over a ten-year period, you would actually not find that they weren't qualified. But you probably would discover that the vast majority of them have connections (either positions at or degrees from) a small percentage of schools. And back in the day, when this handful was pretty much all there was, that made some sense. The conference was smaller, the range of topics narrower, and it was conceivable for a Chair to come to the position with a pretty good idea of who was qualified.

This is no longer possible, however, and in a field where so much emphasis is placed on our flagship conference, it would be nice to see some effort expended to adapt the proposal process to the actual size and composition of the field, rather than an outdated, utopian, who-you-know network.

And yes, there are some sour grapes operating here--insides and outsides abound, and the closest I've come to being inside was to take a position in a department where a CCCC Chair once worked (although he was gone by the time I arrived). The answer to this insider problem, though, isn't for me to simply figure out a way to get inside--it's to open the process up to the kind of system that Jill describes. If I'm a qualified scholar, and I'm interested, there should be an easy self-nomination process whereby I might be (at least) considered. There are plenty more qualified than I, but certainly not all of them, unless we stick to the FOAF criteria that currently operate.

After a certain point, the size of a network prohibits any one person (or even program) from being able to stay abreast of all the network's members and their various expertises. It is no longer possible to assume that if one hasn't heard of someone, then that person isn't very important or qualified. When the network hits a particular size, that assumption tips, and unless changes are made, importance and qualification end up depending on whether or not someone at the core has heard of you.

In case you're not feeling me here, that's the process by which A-Lists are made, and the rest of us grumble. We're goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, to quote KB, even as we claim to resist it. And I could easily imagine solving this issue with a small change in policy and a database.


I think this is a pretty accurate assessment and it doesn't seem that problematic to post an electronic submission form whereby interested parties could nominate themselves to read for a particular area. Even if the chair still picked the reviewers it would at least open up the process.