Wednesday, October 11, 2017

More pennies from heaven, once again, the MacArthur Foundation waffles in its distribution of Big Macs (Fellowships)

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It’s that time of year, folks. The MacArthur Foundation has announced its latest round of so-called genius grants – a term they coyly back away from – and the world of elite institutions rejoices in the largesse it bestows on “the creative class”. In its annual flurry of air kisses to the Foundation’s Big Mac program (aka The MacArthur Fellows), The NewYork Times quotes Cecilia A. Conrad, leader of the fellows program, as saying
the goal was to find “people on the precipice,” where the award will make a difference, but also to inspire creativity more broadly. 
“We hope that when people read about the fellows, it makes them think about how they might be more creative in their own lives,” Ms. Conrad said. “It does something for the human spirit.”
Gimme’ a break. What a whopper. The program’s mostly special sauce, with only a little beef on a nice fluffy bun.

Yes, since the beginning, the program’s nattered on about helping people on the edge, “where the award will make a difference”, but it has mostly given its awards to people who are safe and secure, that is, to people like the good folks at the MacArthur Foundation. To be sure, most of these people are very creative, but most of them have secure gigs as well. They are not on any precipice. They aren’t making a living waiting tables at Mom’s Miracle Meal, doing temp word-processing at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, hustling pool at Benny’s Billiard Emporium, or any other make-do gig. They don’t have to work day gigs to pay the rent so they can be creative at nights and on weekends. Their day gig IS their creative gig.

Why doesn’t the Foundation come clean and stop giving awards to people who have secure jobs? Yeah, I know, that would force them to look outside the circle of elite institutions which they serve. It would make their work harder. It might even force them to be, you know, creative. What a novel idea!

* * * * *

I’ve been writing about this public relations campaign – for that’s what it is – since 2013. In the first year I did more than simply gripe about the unadventurous class of 2013; I also recounted the history of the MacArthur Fellowships. Then, in a series of four follow-up posts, I elaborated on that original critique. In subsequent years I’ve tallied the current class. I have been accumulating those posts into a working paper:

The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before? Version 5, Working Paper, October 2017, 52 pp.

Waffle Tallies

Here’s the Big Mac “waffle” tally (percentage of awards to people with secure gigs) for the last five years, including 2017:
2013: 63%
2014: 52%
2015: 54%
2016: 57%
2017: 50%
The 2017 tally is a first, 50-50, half at secure university gigs, half at other gigs. Note, however, that two of those other gigs are a tenure-track university posts, and one of them is with The New York Times. No guarantees there, unlike the secure jobs, but they’re pretty safe. There are no starving artists in this crowd.

Current Class

I’ve divided them into four groups:
Secure university posts: 12
Pre-tenure university: 2
Other-employed: 6
Self-employed: 4
Here’s what those categories mean:

Secure University Positions: These people have the rank of Associate Professor or above. As that rank normally carries tenure I assume these people have lifetime employment. They DO NOT need this award in order to put a roof over their head, or food on the table. For various reasons, above and beyond the mere fact that life is tough, these people may not be happy with their secure jobs. But that’s a different matter.

Tenure-track University Positions: These are assistant professors, which is normally pre-tenure. I am assuming that they are in salary lines intended for tenure, but tenure is not guaranteed. For example, Henry Louis Gates failed to get tenure at Yale even though he’d won a Big Mac (maybe it didn’t have enough cheese).

Other-Employed: These people work for someone else, but not a university. In a number of cases they’re working at organizations they’ve founded.

Self-Employed: Just what it says. There people are on their own, though most of them have some substantial recognition along with high-class track records.

And here they are, the MacArthur Fellows for 2017:

Secure University Jobs – 12                
Sunil Amrith, 38, 

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Regina Barzilay, 46

Computer scientist
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
Dawoud Bey, 63
Photographer and educator,
Columbia College Chicago, Chicago
Emmanuel Candès, 47
Mathematician and statistician
Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
Jason De Léon, 40
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46
Fiction writer and cultural critic
University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Kate Orff, 45

Landscape architect,
Founder and partner, Scape, and associate professor, Columbia, University, New York
Betsy Levy Paluck, 39

Professor of psychology and public affairs
Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
Derek Peterson, 46

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Stefan Savage, 48

Computer scientist
University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, Calif.
Jesmyn Ward, 40
Fiction writer
Tulane University, New Orleans
Annie Baker, 36
New York
Pre-tenure University Jobs - 2
Tyshawn Sorey, 37
Composer and musician
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.
Gabriel Victora, 40

Rockefeller University, New York
Other Employed - 6
Greg Asbed, 54

Human rights strategist
Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fair Food Program, Immokalee, Fla.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, 41
The New York Times Magazine, New York
Cristina Jiménez Moreta, 33
Social justice organizer
Co-founder and executive director, United We Dream, Washington
Rami Nashashibi, 45
Community leader
Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Chicago
Damon Rich, 42
Designer and urban planner
Co-Founder and partner, Hector, Newark
Yuval Sharon, 37

Opera director and producer
The Industry, founder and artistic director, Los Angeles
Self-Employed - 4
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34 

Los Angeles
Rhiannon Giddens, 40
Singer, instrumentalist and songwriter
Greensboro, N.C.
Taylor Mac, 44

Theater artist
New York
Trevor Paglen, 43
Artist and geographer

Previous articles about the MacArthur Fellow Awards

 23 Big Macs for 2016: More special sauce for the elite few,

MacArthur Fellowship Update 2014: Still favoring elite institutions,

MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free – This is the original post in the series and tallies the winners for 2013,

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