Issues, concerns, and anxieties around grant adjudication process abound, as evidenced in a previous post on this blog. Awards and competitions are inherently stressful. Applicants, often working with limited understanding of the various processes going on behind the scenes, often assume their failure to gain a grant is more a failure of the process then of their own application. That might be partial true, but rarely in the manner that applicants think. It is hard to accept that a near perfect application just doesn’t get funded. But that’s the issue with competitive based funding mechanisms. Ideally funding would be need based and equitable in distribution. All learning community citizens would receive the funding that they need to be successful learners. While that is an end goal that I share, I am enough of a realist to accept that for the moment our system is a competitive normative one. It is a system in which the ideals of ‘excellence’ are defined by mandated failure of the majority. For those who would like an informed critique of excellence and the corporatist no-liberal trajectory of the contemporary university look here.
Early May 2014 the Faculty of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies at UBC hosted a workshop on grant and fellowship adjudication processes for faculty advisers. They have shared their presentation and have given permission to share this with graduate students. I’ve attached it here: UBC Adjudication Process Slides. The presentation is quite informative in laying out the procedures and the criteria for awards. One of the key items here is that students should note that there are a limited number of awards offered – far fewer than the number of applicants. Thus ‘success’ is necessarily restricted and designed to engender individualistic behaviours within applicant groups.
These types of competitive processes undermine social solidarity and, in my opinion, do nothing to engender high quality reserach. What they do is train and inculcate participation into the high culture of competitive capitalism. Bertell Ollman, in How to Take and Exam and Remake the World, said it best when he described university and college exams as tools to teach working class compliance. He offered tips to deal with both surviving the testing process AND changing the world. Key to the process was figuring out how to navigate college classrooms and simultaneously to understand what lies behind the industrialized competitive classroom.
Competition can be healthy. In sports like running a competitive spirit drives individuals forward through the seeking and setting of personal goals. The measure of success is a matrix between absolute performance (time over distance) and age category. Academic competition for graduate awards and fellowships, however, has been unnaturally transformed into a poor facsimile of free market capitalism. Rewards are restricted and deliberately constrained, all ‘competitors’ are encouraged to compete against each other within a mythos of a meritocratic level playing field. Mentors blithely give advice on how best to succeed while nearly always turning a blind eye to the fact that they are ultimately encouraging failure. Departmental and Faculty experts give presentations in which the message seems to be that everyone can be a success, everyone will be excellent: all one need do is follow the advice and work hard.
In a society based upon equity and social justice each learner would have the needs and supports to meet their personal bests – the point of comparison would be their own last success, not whether or not they grabbed one of the paltry prizes dangled like carrots. This is a world that still awaits us. We can achieve it.