Tyler links today to this interesting discussion of what we have learned from 85 years of research on what are the best predictors of success in choosing new hires in the workplace. General intelligence is #1 predictor, schooling and age are at the bottom. However, an interesting predictor is past performance in what I will call promise keeping. If you promise something, then you deliver. It appears that characteristic is an important predictor.
But I wonder how well these results translate from the for-profit sector to the non-profit world of academia. I'd like to think that various proxy instruments arise in the world of academia to discipline us, but I cannot help but remember this spot-on summary from Ghostbusters of much of my lived experience with university life. And the reality is that I have seen too many examples of promise being rewarded over productivity to believe that the disciplinary mechanisms are that effective. I would also argue that IQ is valued over other attributes, when what is important is IQ plus those other attributes. You cannot invite to a chess-match those who are incapable of playing checkers. But those who master chess also work their butts off learning the game and how to compete. The one's who earn the title "master" have, in fact, delivered more than promise. Smarts is a necessary, but not sufficient ingredient into making progress on problems.
The real question I think becomes critical when choosing between a smart and promising individual, and a slightly less smart but accomplished individual. I'd rather take the person who has a previous record of accomplishment, rather than the one who has brilliant promise. To use a sports analogy, compare Marat Safin to Roger Federer -- Safin had unlimited potential as an athlete and tennis player, but something important was missing. At his best, he was brilliant (remember his demolition of Pete Sampras in 98 minutes to capture the 2000 US Open), but that brilliant display of his talent was on display only a few times throughout his career. Federer has been brilliant day in and day out, year after year, for an amazing run. What is the difference between promise and delivery when talking about exceptionally talented individuals?
In sports and in business, there are direct feedbacks which discipline those who don't live up to their promise. But what about an environment which doesn't have as immediate a feedback mechanism such as academia? In such a world can the smart, but lazy or daydreamers, succeed over those who work hard and grind out research. As McCloskey has put it, we tend to value as a profession those who are "smart" economists, rather than those who are "good" economists. Cleverness is often times more important than being correct in your analysis of a real problem. And in such an environment, I contend that the feedback mechanism on who to hire gets distorted. One of the most important consequences of this distortion is that in academic hiring, the least accomplished graduate from Harvard may very well out-compete a much more accomplished graduate from a lower ranked PhD program. Also, teaching enthusiasm and accomplishment is often overlooked even at teaching schools because of the supposed allure of research skill. Why does this happen?
Bottom line: if somebody does bad in the classroom teaching, they will most likely continue to do poorly teaching no matter what environment they find themselves in. Teaching at the college level is not really about bells and whistles, it is about enthusiasm for the subject matter and bringing a curiosity about understanding the material (and the world) to the classroom. Teaching is an invitation to inquiry, not spoon-feeding given material to students. And research scholars who are low productivity scholars will remain low productivity scholars despite circumstances. The number one factor determining scholarly productivity is again curiosity and the pleasure of finding things out --- whether working on black-board puzzles, interpreting texts, or figuring things out in the world (historical or contemporary). The best are amazingly curious people --- confident yes, but not know-it-all types. If they were so smart that they already figured it out, then they wouldn't need to work on it and they wouldn't be that curious anymore --- and with that comes the idea that research wouldn't be required nor would teaching be all that interesting.
So the bad equilibrium in academia is to get a department full of very very smart individuals who are no longer curious because they have figured it out. What translates from the information provided in the linked article on what works in hiring practices that could avoid this equilibrium in your department?