Power Creep

While I promise (or apologize) that this is a post about academia, let me begin by saying that I am a long-time Pokémon fanatic. I’ve been playing the games since they first came out way back in the 1990s, and have kept up with the series through its twists and turns since. Something that Pokémon players have taken notice of since the early 2010’s or so is how new Pokémon are substantially stronger than ones from the past. Whether new types, new gimmicks, or just flat out higher stats, these new ones tend to kick the old ones’ asses. Moreover, the strategies that the games highlight have become ever more extreme—more powerful evolutions, high-damaging moves, and so forth. This is a perfect example of the concept of “power creep,” helpfully defined by our friends at TV Tropes Dot Org as:

A term used in any kind of multi-player game (including Video Games, Collectible Card Game, and Tabletop Games) to describe the process in which newly-added-content can be played along with the old-content, but with the new content being far more powerful/useful in every sense.

It is the contention of this post that academia currently suffers from an extreme case of power creep, one which, when coupled with trends toward labor precarity and institutional underfunding, and exacerbated by the pandemic, make the enterprise fundamentally unsustainable except for the rare few who already hold power.

I was prompted to write this post by an observation by the Twitter account @v21collective:

which I quote-tweeted and added:

and offered the concept of “power creep” as a way to think through this situation. I’d like to elaborate on that here.

It is a truth more-or-less universally acknowledged that academic standards, particularly for hiring and promotion, have risen stratospherically over the past twenty-odd years.1 I have often heard job seekers and job hirers lament that the standards for hiring now are the standards for tenuring a generation ago. It’s not uncommon to find job seekers relatively fresh out of grad school with multiple articles, book contracts, or even published books themselves—to say nothing of those qualities of academic work that go unrewarded by our hiring and promotion structures, such as years of teaching, advising, and community work.2 The effect is to produce generations of scholars whose quantity of work far exceeds their elders. One might counter and say that work at the tenureable level exceeds work at the grad or contingent level in quality—but then you’d just be an asshole. (To say nothing of the fact that grads and contingent workers publish in the same venues as tenure-track and tenured faculty, so if peer review is doing its job, then this point is moot.)

I find two things useful about the concept of “power creep” to name this set of relations. First, power creep notes the systemic nature of the enterprise. It’s not just that we have a particular generation of highly motivated scholars and teachers churning out unprecedented amounts of work. It’s that we have a total system in which the expectations grow higher and higher with each passing day—and new aspects of that system spring up to meet that. How else to account for the profusion of predatory journals, which exist only to provide citations to those scholars who are judged by little more than their citation count? Or the replication crisis facing a number of different fields, which might be partially explained by the hyper-intensification of the old canard, “publish or perish?”

Second, power creep reminds us that a market logic exists in this system. Why would a video game franchise—or academic field—engage in power creep? One provisional answer is that consumers demand both novelty and intensification. This is a capitalist logic with which we are all now well familiar in the pandemic: everything must go harder, better, faster, etc. or risk total collapse. If we think about power creep in the academic market, we might then ask who the “consumers” demanding novelty and intensification are. Doing so can be uncomfortable, because ultimately the people sitting on hiring and promotion committees are nominally our advisors and colleagues who have been through such processes before. I don’t pretend here as a graduate student to have a sufficient vantage point from which to analyze this further—I have sat on hiring committees before but only for staff, not faculty, nor have I been on the job market yet myself—but it seems to me worthwhile asking how such standards emerge and what we might do to shift them.

In the weeks following the pandemic, many institutions rushed to extend tenure clocks for assistant professors by an extra year. This is certainly to be commended—and should be replicated for graduate students and contingent faculty. But many folks on Twitter and elsewhere correctly pointed out that what we need is not an extension on these clocks, but rather a relaxation of the already stratospheric standards of tenure. Extending a tenure clock is an easy way to put the burden of solving the “problem” of the pandemic back on already overburdened workers. (To say nothing of the fact that it artificially depresses salaries, given that tenure can be one of the few opportunities we have to renegotiate pay in this profession.)

@v21collective’s original tweet also points to another issue: that by basing hiring and promotion almost exclusively on publication, at least for research-intensive institutions, we are effectively farming out evaluative work to journals and university presses. This is something we tried to address back when I worked for Five College Digital Humanities with our New Rigor white paper, which asked what sane and effective evaluation structures might look like for digital projects. But in short: university presses and journals are already stretched to the max or just dying off entirely. How do we deal with a tenure expectation that junior scholars publish one or more books when a cycle that used to take three years now takes five? Or seven? Or you just can’t get in the door because the press is already overburdened?

I am also thinking here about the expectation of grad students and contingent faculty to have a robust portfolio of published work in the first place. This is something I gestured to in my blog post about blogs but that I think bears more explicit address. When I publish as a grad student,3 I do so for two reasons: first, because I think I have come up with something useful and/or novel to add to The Scholarly Conversation, and this is the venue In Which That Conversation Happens; and second, because I hope to use the capital of publication to trade on the ability to continue doing this sort of work, hopefully in the form of a permanent, salaried job. However, I’m essentially doing this work on spec: there is no promise of such a job, nor does the broader Scholarly Conversation much care if I have one or not—what it cares about is the presence and usefulness of the work I publish. As such, if I were to leave the profession—the most likely statistical outcome—I have essentially produced work for free, which can continue to accrue value and use after I am gone, to which I no longer have access.

I’m aware that this is an extremely cynical view, one that I admit I do not fully hold. I like to believe that my work has intrinsic value and that I would want to share it regardless of whether or not I could trade it for work down the road. Yet! These general expectations exist, exerting downward pressure to produce more and more and more on those who, definitionally, are still trying to find their footing and voice the most. Ultimately, I feel that something has to give.

In my original tweet, I claimed that the only way to handle systemic power creep, from a video games perspective, is to do a hard reset of its systems. To be frank, this is a speculation on my part—I don’t really know of a video game that’s gracefully handled coming back from power creep. Given that video games are perhaps the medium of capitalism par excellence, this isn’t entirely surprising. But in any case, I would invite my colleagues to consider how we might use this pandemic not to displace further the burden of “excellence” onto workers who are taxed to their limits, but rather re-evaluate how we construe “excellence” and what we really expect from members of our profession.

  1. This Inside Higher Ed article is a good top-down view across disciplines of this effect. 

  2. Of course, as a friend once confided to me, this profusion of work can work against job seekers, who can then no longer position themselves as the “hot new thing” on the market. 

  3. Which I have! And you can read that article here! 

revision history for this page