The vacuity of ‘excellence’

 

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Originally published at physicsfocus

This post has been simmering and in gestation for quite a while. This week, however, a number of documents arrived in my inbox to finally catalyse me into putting pen to paper. (Literally. I wrote this out long-hand before editing while typing it up. If you think that it’s vitriolic and ranty now, you should have seen the first scribbled draft…)

The source of my irritation? Well, take a look at the five statements below, each culled from the website of a leading UK university. (The names of the institutions have been omitted to protect the guilty).

 “Through research of international excellence, to increase significantly the range of human knowledge and understanding…”

“We seek the highest distinction in research and scholarship and are committed to excellence in all aspects of education and transmission of knowledge.”

“By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter. “

“.. we want to rise further and be amongst the very few premier global universities. We will achieve this through the excellence of our research and teaching…”

“The University …. combines academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research…”

Do you see a common theme here? Yep, it’s that word – “excellence”. (Those are just five examples out of countless others. Go to any university website and type in “excellence” into the search box – you’ll be swamped by links.)

It’s not only the marketing blurb for universities that is riddled with references to excellence. The tagline for Research Councils UK is “Excellence with Impact”; UK academics have just been subjected to the rigours of data collection for HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework (and the associated game-playing over just who is “excellent” and who isn’t); OFSTED has its “excellence gateway”; the NHS is “energised for excellence”, and even the British Parking Association celebrates parking excellence.

But what does “committed to excellence” actually mean?

Here’s what it means: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s nothing more than the worst form of tedious, clichéd, vacuous, buttock-clenchingly awful marketing hyperbole.

What else is a university, or any type of organisation, going to do than try to be excellent? Strive for mediocrity?  Pursue adequate performance? Try to be a little better than the rest, but not aim too high?

Ugh.

Seventeen years ago, in The University in Ruins, Bill Readings described the many problems resulting from academia’s reliance on the nebulous concept of excellence. (Thanks to my colleague at Nottingham, John Holmwood, for making me aware of Readings’ excellent book). Here’s one particularly insightful argument:

“The point is not that no-one knows what excellence is, but that everyone has his or her own idea of what it is. And once excellence has been accepted as an organizing principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions… if a particular department’s kind of excellence fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system.”

(In this context, changing the name of the UK’s national research assessment exercise to the Research Excellence Framework makes a great deal of sense.)

Readings goes on to discuss what he describes as the “empty notion of excellence”. There’s an important concept in semiotics which captures this vacuity: the empty (or floating) signifier. An empty signifier is literally meaningless – it doesn’t represent any particular object or meaning which is universally agreed. “Excellence” is as good an example of an empty signifier as one could hope to find.

It takes a particularly insidious form of hypocrisy for UK universities to argue that they will develop the critical thinking skills of their students while at the same time they proclaim a commitment to excellence in everything they do. Laurie Taylor’s wonderful spoof University of Poppleton, with its commitment to being “fair to middling at everything”, at least has the advantage of a clear and original mission statement.

Image: Space is mostly vacuum, but it’s not nearly as empty as meaningless commitments to “excellence”. Credit: NASA/ESA

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

17 thoughts on “The vacuity of ‘excellence’”

  1. YES!
    And here’s another word for you….pedagogy. Nothing wrong with the word per se and, as a subject, is undoubtedly laudable. But the use of it associating it with all things vaguely educational is what gets me. I actually had a ‘Pedagogy Box’ on my desk. Every time someone used the word, a pound went into the box; the collection to aid educational charities in the third world. They were very grateful!

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  2. I agree, it’s the same with companies too. Such total bllx.

    My pet hate at the moment is passion. ‘Our people are passionate about our work in central heating pump manufacture’. No they bloody aren’t, they’re doing a job to earn some money to go home and do what they really like.

    ‘We have a passion for excellence’ happens alot too, that will perhaps send us both over the top.

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  3. Dear HR Performance manager,

    Thank you very much indeed for you letter, which pointed out to me that my research should be excellent. It was timely because up to now I have been striving for mediocrity. I now realise the error of my ways.

    Yours
    DC

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  4. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might enjoy this, from Fred Inglis

    “academics in particular of the way the helots of advertising and the state police of propaganda bloat and distort the language of thoughtful description, peddle with a confident air generalisations without substance, and serenely circulate orotund lies while ignoring their juniors’ rebuttals and abuse”

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/branded-to-death/2005732.fullarticle

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    1. That’s a great article, David.

      What’s just as irksome as the tired, cliched marketing blurb is the extent to which mindless management strategies based on this nonsense now infect our universities. The focus on chasing league table/’global ranking’ positions – which are determined on the basis of, at best, questionable methodology – is part and parcel of the marketing and branding of a university.

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  5. I find the ‘Excellence with Impact’ tagline particularly hilarious. As if mere ‘excellence’ simply isn’t enough.

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  6. You wonder if anyone actually believes in this stuff, or whether its just one of those things where everyone does it because everyone does it.

    It has got so bad that even the “community for those passionate about physics” in the Blog About sets my teeth on edge, even though in this case I’m sure its actually true.

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    1. Oooh, TJR, I didn’t spot that, tee hee!

      Definition of passion – ‘ a strong and barely controllable emotion’. For physics? Nah!

      Passionate: ‘Having, showing or caused by strong feelings of beliefs’. Hmm, on the cusp!

      Philip?

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      1. I very much take your point about “passion”. I saw a van with the words “Passionate about People Flow” drive past while I was walking home from work last week. The company in question made lifts…

        But can I feel passionate about physics?

        “A strong and barely controlled emotion”. Hmmm. When an experiment goes right and we see an aspect of nature that no-one has ever seen before then, yes, I can feel rather passionate about physics and science! Indeed, there are some results/papers/data which can give me much the same ‘visceral’ response as a piece of music. One of these is the ‘classic’ quantum corral image from Don Eigler’s group back in the nineties. Another paper which evokes a similar visceral reaction is described in this blog post.

        The abuse of science (in terms of quantum woo, homeopathy and the like) can also get some of us rather hot under the collar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DGgvE6hLAU

        !

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        1. Fair enough Philip, as I typed it I realised you would say that! Not meaning to be snide, I am pleased that is the case.

          Pondering if I get passionate, but think I do too, though most of mine involves being incensed about how things are, and wanting to sort it out, which doesn’t feel like the same word, but probably is. Look forward to reading yours and Stephen’s work on impact shortly. Not sure ‘impactful’ has infected your world yet, but that’s another one to add to the list to the bullsht bingo card!

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  7. PS, I wasn’t even good enough to do Physics CSE at school (showing my age). I blame Mr Gray. Perhaps if I’d had someone like the scientists I know now teaching me, I wouldn’t be so curdmudgeonly about it!

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  8. “Only” forty-three mentions of excellence in the recently released Triennial Review of the Research Councils . That’s an average of one “excellence” per 8.5 pages. Progress of a sort, I guess…

    Interesting that the review panel felt that research “excellence” (however it might be nebulously defined) and citations are directly correlated:

    “Citations and other commonly used measures of Research Council achievement
    focus on the objective of excellence in research.”

    Citations and research quality – let alone research “excellence” – are certainly not always necessarily directly correlated. For example, fundamentally flawed work in my research area, scanning probe microscopy, has picked up high numbers of citations.

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    1. Ooops. That should have been “an average of one “excellence” per 9.5 pages”. That’s an even lower density of excellence!

      Indeed, I’m sure that through synergistic engagement with their key stakeholders, the research councils will be able to leverage the resources they need to facilitate excellence in meeting future excellence density targets. Going forward.

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