Scholarship and Mid-Career Self-Assessments: A Brief Reflection on Simkovic’s What Can We Learn from Credit Markets?

Chris J. Walker has written a very helpful series of posts for young professors on “how to become a voice in one’s field.” The last addressed one of the hardest issues: “Am I Asking the Right Questions?” Academic freedom at a professional school comes with serious responsibilities: to choose field(s), to apply methodology well, and to try to establish the importance of one’s findings among one’s peers and (increasingly) among educated publics, as an engaged academic. Both Walker and Michael Rich offer wise perspectives on the dilemmas that inevitably come up during thoughtful reflection on these responsibilities, focusing on a process of discernment.

I also think that we can learn a great deal from the content of successful scholars’ inquiry. Usually, researchers only undertake this type of self-reflection when applying for jobs and preparing research agendas (a mostly private process), or at the end of a career (when a long list of accomplishments may seem too daunting to be relatable to younger peers). But winners of the ALI Young Scholars Medal appear to get invited to give a public talk on their work at an earlier stage of inquiry. Mike Simkovic (whose work I’ve previously praised here) gave such an address in May.

The talk is focused on the questions that led Simkovic to research credit markets. His work helped explain some puzzling aspects of personal finance–for example, why harsh restrictions on bankruptcy imposed in the mid-2000s did not lead to a cheapening of credit. His findings are revealing: consolidation in the credit card industry, as well as confusing contractual terms, helped dominant firms keep the resulting profits, rather than compete them away. As of 2016, even The Economist has caught up to this challenge to laissez-faire orthodoxy–but at the time it was made, complacent assumptions about market efficiency were dominant.

From that inquiry, Simkovic describes a chain of puzzles that led him to challenge widely held preconceptions in corporate, education finance, and tax law. It’s an engaging documentation of a particularly fruitful and insightful trajectory in inquiry.

I recently proposed a paper to the MLA’s annual conference entitled “Beyond the False Certainties of Impact Factors, Altmetrics, and Download Counts: Qualitative & Narrative Accounts of Scholarship.” It arose out of my dissatisfaction with the metricization of accomplishment. As citation counts proliferate, accumulating the ersatz currency of reputational quantifications threatens to overwhelm the real purpose of research–just as financialization has all too often undermined the productive functions of the economy.

Traditional modes of assessment (including tenure letters and festschrift tributes) are an alternative form of evaluation. And an essay like Simkovic’s is an example of a type of self-evaluation that should become more popular among scholars at certain career milestones (like tenure, appointment to full professor or senior lecturer, and, say, every 5 or 10 years thenceforward.) We need better, more narrative, mid-career assessments of the depth and breadth of scholarly contributions. Such qualitative modes of evaluation can complement the quantification-driven metrics now ascendant in the academy.

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