In this essay, I argue that the problem with merit is not that people should not be given what they deserve, but rather that what certain people deserve is devalued in a merit-based system depending on their identity. This means that quite often achievement is not evaluated equally in academia for minoritarian faculty, graduate students, and staff members as countless blogs, scholarly presentations and papers, and tweets document.
The problem with merit is not that people should not be given what they deserve, but rather that what certain people deserve is devalued in a merit-based system depending on their identity. Achievement is not evaluated equally in academia for minoritarian faculty, graduate students, and staff members as countless blogs, scholarly presentations and papers, and tweets document. Therefore, merit is not assigned equitably by employers, deans, chairs, and promotion committees. The language of a merit-based system is designed to gloss over this fact, despite ample evidence to suggest that minoritarian scholars must work harder to even have the opportunity to be regarded as equal to their majoritarian counterparts.1 This is no truer than with scholars of color.2 Although this essay will use the phrase minoritarian scholars because it is not only scholars of color who must go above and beyond what white scholars do, but also queer scholars, trans scholars, working-class scholars, formerly incarcerated scholars, and others who suffer under whiteness's merit-based shell game, white scholars disenfranchising scholars of color (Black, Latinx, Indigenous) is central to the danger of a merit-based system's rhetoric of objectivity.
The recent editorial published by Martin J. Medhurst highlights the academic shell game that is merit-based recognition for minoritarian scholars.3 Merit-based systems have a long history of being administered unfairly in the workplace, school, and other venues.4 In this essay, I first explain the shell-game metaphor and its applicability to Medhurst's merit-based argument and then explain how the concept of merit functions as coded language for discriminatory normative valuations of minoritarian scholars.
The shell game assumes the ease with which participants can achieve success (find the ball or token under the shell) by remaining focused and persevering, much like the old short-con practiced on street corners in cities worldwide. However, the everyday shell-game operation is not like the baseball-under-the-cap version on minor and major league scoreboards where the purpose is for fans to be able to find the ball. The everyday shell game features three identical containers (cups, bottle caps, shells, etc.) under which the operator places a ball or other token. The operator moves the containers around occasionally displaying where the token is kept to keep the player involved and hopeful. Yet, the game operates by sleight of hand such that the operator will often remove the token, making it impossible for the player to locate it under any container. As such, the odds favor the house, and depending on the unscrupulousness of the operator, the player may never have the ability to win.
The three cups in scholarly employment represent research, teaching, and service, all integral to playing the game right, hiding the magic ball of merit-based reward (e.g., tenure for those on the tenure track). As one attempts to gain a raise or promotion, perhaps even tenure, one has one's eye on the ball, hoping that by choosing the right cup, by emphasizing that cup over others (research at a research university, teaching at a community college, etc.), by tracking the prized possession, one will be rewarded. Yet, as many of us know, it is never that simple. Research, tenure, and promotion committees are subject to bias, lack of attention to individual cases, and outright discriminatory action. Bosses at every level of the university system move the ball, emphasizing one thing in one meeting, another in the next, changing course to follow a never-ending litany of best practices, claiming to communicate clearly and be objective only when questioned, using language direct enough to be taken seriously but vague enough to not reward those they deem unrewardable. And all of that does not even factor in the overt and covert ways academic administrators discriminate against minoritarian faculty, graduate students, and staff.
In Medhurst's editorial, the house is the established communication studies literati, partially represented by his defense of the largely white National Communication Association's (NCA) Distinguished Scholars. Medhurst argues they are the scholars who have gotten where they are because of merit, implicitly arguing that those who have not become NCA Distinguished Scholars (or other high-ranking academic positions) lack merit. Of course, the Distinguished Scholars are scholars who have published often, succeeded at their various universities, and served the NCA with countless hours of unpaid service. But the problem is not so much with who is a Distinguished Scholar as it is with who is not one. The house wins because the house does not want the players to find the ball—to be Distinguished Scholars or be recognized for their merit. Just as one might happen across a shell game in Barcelona's La Rambla, Frankfurt's Bahnhofsviertel, or Manhattan's West 53rd Street, so too might one be unwittingly subject to an elaborate academic swindle in communication studies especially when one is a minoritarian. All the merit-based rhetoric in the world does not address whiteness's possessive investment in minoritarian failure. That is how the house continues to win—how the house accrues social and monetary capital in the shell game of merit-based schemes.
For minoritarian scholars, the ball is always missing, always hidden by the operator, often in their palm and not under the cup. Try as they might, the ball is never under the cup the player selects. This means that publications are never good enough: “It's great that you published an article here, but what you should have done is publish it there.” Write a book about an important research topic: “It should have focused less on race (gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.).” Win an award: “Well that's a niche award that doesn't really represent what you were hired for.” The ball is never present yet the operator is always assuring the player that it is. That is how the game continues and why it is so successful. As such, many minoritarian scholars come up against a set of practices designed to assure they lose. The sleight of hand at play is too good; whiteness keeps winning because it keeps moving the ball. Nothing is ever good enough; the operator is always too quick.
When necessary and appropriate backlash occurred on CRTNET, the discipline's listserv, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and other venues,5 Medhurst demurred, eventually issuing a statement that was more apology for causing anger and disrupting the standard back-and-forth of CRTNET than for his call for merit at the expense of minoritarian scholars.6 The apology hardly phased the critics because it offered only one line that seemed to address concerns made by scholars across NCA and across the world: “I do not believe that intellectual merit and diversity are a binary.”7 There is not a word about discrimination, bias, or identity. The operator has assured us that the game is meant to be fair, that the operator does not oppose people of any sort winning, and that the operator hopes to conduct a fair game as anyone in the operator's shoes would. That is, the operator has not revealed that the ball is always on the move, and usually under the table.
Of course, Medhurst synecdochally represents the communication studies discipline. The problems his editorial highlights are not solely his problems or Rhetoric & Public Affairs' problems. If scholars think the problem is Medhurst, they are unfortunately mistaken; as many NCA Interest Group statements have pointed out, there is much more at stake and the problems are not reducible to an editorial, a scholar, or a journal. The problem is systematic denigration of scholars who are not white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, tenure-track, middle-class, US-born men. These problems occur in the various organizations that represent the discipline, in research universities and community colleges, in faculty meetings and graduate student organizations, and on the job market and in the tenure-review process. Medhurst did not invent that discrimination. He is not the cause of communication studies' problems.
The call for merit never helps communication studies address these issues, however, because it assumes the objectivity of the merit-based system. Merit-based systems never have to check themselves because they are, well, merit-based.
The shell game continues if Medhurst is the only target of remonstrance, criticism, and rage. Minoritarian scholars become the shills (those who are allowed to win the shell game a few times before losing the big bet) able to find the ball on their one-dollar bets, only so that they can be set up to lose the $500 bet come tenure, new job application, or raise time. Acting as if Medhurst is the only operator in town fails to understand how widespread these problems are, and while the Distinguished Scholars controversy may shut down his shell game, it does not stop the other shell-game operators on our campuses and in our discipline. The shell game is resilient. Finding this ball this time ignores the operators' short-con for the satisfaction of the minor payout. To be sure, one might walk away from doubling one's bet, but that does little to address the last 100 players who lost big. As scholars continue to organize, it is important to remember that we must not simply ensure the ball is findable by some sometimes, but rather knock the shoddily constructed table over and prevent the game from being played on communication studies' corner.