We may well argue about what the criteria should be for admission to the various clubs that go rather a long way toward raising one’s status in life’s lottery. But in the 880 words I have here I wish only to point out some curiosities in how extracurricular activities and service are acknowledged on campus and beyond. I write from the perspective of someone who has been spectacularly fortunate; at the same time, I write as someone who is uneasy about his fortune, in part because I go back and forth between thinking that my clubs, including the Marshall and Princeton clubs, give too much and too little weight to conventional assessments of achievement.
Let’s say that you get into a place like Princeton and, being intellectually inclined and liking the atmosphere, you decide you want to remain for life. Let’s say, in other words, that you make your goal what I made mine: to move to the other side of the table by transforming yourself from student into professor. The tried-and-true path from being an 18-year-old at a first-rate college to being a professor at a comparable institution is via a first-rate Ph.D. program. But how do you get admitted to a first-rate Ph.D. program? The answer, at least for the fields I know, is in a way very simple: You spend your undergraduate years demonstrating that you’re unusually good at your chosen subject. What’s important about this answer is what it is not: If you want to be a classicist or a linguist (and, as far as I can see, if you want to be a mathematician or an economist), it doesn’t matter that you’ve also saved whales or built a school in Afghanistan or been a stand-out hockey goalie. This narrow outlook seems to me appropriate, but it sure is different from the path to Oxford — and many other places recent graduates want to go, from Morgan Stanley to Teach for America.
Now, it is true that, over 20 years ago, I postponed my admission to an American graduate program for two years in order to take up a Marshall Scholarship, but that was at a time when Marshalls were not uncommonly awarded on the promise of academic performance. I have few illusions that the old me, put into this new world, would win one. And I’m conflicted: Part of me thinks that’s OK, part of me doesn’t like it one bit.
Depth of knowledge is extraordinarily important, both in academia and elsewhere. On the other hand, there is quite a lot to be said for breadth as well, by which I mean both breadth of knowledge and breadth of experience. Undeniably, Princeton rewards breadth of knowledge. But whether the University rewards breadth of experience depends on who you are. If you are an undergraduate, you are encouraged to throw yourself every which way, to pursue an academic passion while also playing the viola, tutoring in Trenton and assuming a position of leadership in at least one campus organization.
But for professors, it’s different. Nominally, we are graded — I don’t think it’s wrong to use this verb — on three criteria: our publications, our teaching and our service to the University and the academic profession more generally. The reality, however, is quite another matter: It’s almost all about the publications. Princeton does pride itself on paying more attention to teaching than certain peers, but when it comes to awarding tenure and determining salaries, good teaching won’t really help and bad teaching won’t really hurt. And the same goes for service, which is unfortunate since the University, despite hiring ever more administrators, relies heavily on members of the faculty to volunteer to sit on committees, act as academic-athletic fellows and, yes, comment on draft after draft of students’ scholarship applications.
Is being in the University’s wider service a good use of professorial time? If a professor’s reputation comes from scholarly work, does he or she have any incentive also to be a good citizen? Yes and no. Professors who want to produce little versions of themselves, mini-mes, will not be entirely wrong to encourage their students to focus on acquiring deep knowledge in one area and may actually be setting a good example by engaging in as few extracurricular activities as possible. But saying this unsettles me since it is clear that doing just one thing, however well, is neither the way to get into college nor, for most people, the way to get out.
Joshua Katz is a professor in the Department of Classics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/17/31116/