Killing EJMR, redux

Once again economics Twitter is being forced to confront the racist, misogynistic, and abusive website called Economics Job Market Rumors. This time the catalyst is abuse directed towards graduate students who have been discussing how to advocate for anti-racist changes in their home institution. This is taking place in the context of anti-racist protests and the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. and the world, and the associated discussions of the economics of racism and racism within economics.

Three years ago I wrote about killing EJMR in the context of its misogyny, where it is a symptom of toxic attitudes in the profession at large.Now we are talking about its racism, where EJMR is a symptom once again. Two resources to begin to learn more about the broader context of racism within the profession is William Spriggs’s open letter to economists and Lisa Cook’s work on how the economics profession excludes Black women. I argued before that, in addition to taking positive steps to enhance diversity in our ranks, we could take concrete steps to reduce the demand for EJMR by better supporting students. I want to continue to make that argument here.

I’m reluctant to give oxygen to the dumpster fire that is EMJR. I want to make quite clear that I think that to the extent possible we should never, ever visit the site. Clicks and traffic are the currency of the internet, and we should not spend ours there. I realize that sometimes it is unavoidable—when targeted abuse is being perpetrated, for example, we may have to learn what is being done in order to combat it and protect its victims. But I felt like I wanted to write about it once more to continue to advocate for changes in our behavior and mindset as economists that might contribute to undermining the site.

When we as economists find ourselves in situations where we have power or privilege—because of our professional role, our status in the profession or our institutions, our appearance to the world—we can try to use our power or privilege in a positive way. I want to suggest a few ways in which I think we might be able to, slowly but surely, diminish the influence of EJMR and the role it plays for graduate students by taking concrete actions.

  1. Intervene and speak up in a constructive way when an economist speaks or acts in an explicitly or implicitly racist and sexist way.

When we witness discrimination, harassment, or marginalization, we should try to say something to try to contribute to a change in attitude or behavior. I think this is important because it shows the person who has displayed implicit or explicit bias that you notice, you care, and you would prefer them to behave differently in the future. Even small acknowledgements could make a big cumulative difference, particularly if you belong to a common in-group with the person whose words or actions were offensive or damaging.

It can be exhausting or humiliating to have to engage with racist or sexist attitudes in a respectful way. But we have to do so, particularly because members of the groups being targeted don’t have a choice. They have to navigate the dilemma of speaking up or staying silent in the face of those attitudes every time they hear them.

2. Understand and engage with the fears and insecurities of non-“superstar” graduate students and job market candidates.

If we are in contact with graduate students in our home institutions or at conferences and so on, we must talk to and engage with all grad students. We must not neglect those who are not perceived to be on a trajectory to a top department, top publications, and positions of power.

This is important because economics is a rigidly hierarchical profession and doctoral programs tend to inherently valorize the narrative of academic superstardom. It can be discouraging and scary to be a graduate student in general, but it can be worse for those who are either implicitly or explicitly told by their home department that they are lesser in the eyes of those who should be their mentors and teachers. It is not enough that departments have some faculty who are “nice” to grad students—when there are some faculty members who treat graduate students as the embodiment of their research and not as people, it becomes clear to students that this is a risk that they may face in the profession.

3. In job searches and in hiring, be as transparent as possible with candidates at every step of the process.

This is important because the job market for graduate students is intimidating and stressful but also opaque. An alleged reason for EJMR to exist is to provide scraps of unverified information to anxious students as they navigate a process that, unfortunately, is cruelly deterministic of their professional future.

We have to do this even when it makes our lives as recruiters more difficult or more inconvenient. I understand why we don’t want to tell candidates that interview offers have all been made or that a job offer has gone out to a particular candidate. But it is a generous and kind act to do so, and it undermines a key role that EJMR plays for grad students, even those students who do not at all subscribe to the abusive attitudes and behaviors that flow from the site. We’ve seen a rise in the use of hashtags like #EconJobMarket to try to increase the flow of public information in the last few years, and I think that kind of thing is a nice way to try to reduce demand for EJMR at the margin.

4. Learn, understand, and internalize the truth that there are many ways to be a good, successful, fulfilled economist.

There are many paths to a successful career as an economist—not just becoming a “top academic researcher” with “top publications” at a “top department”. This is a more abstract cultural issue, but I think it’s important that each of us take steps to “deprogram” ourselves from this infectious idea.

That means taking the time to educate ourselves about career paths, research topics and methods, job types, journals, and pedagogy that are outside the area of our own personal experience. I confess that I learned this one the hard way, though years of my personal career journey and choices. Economists who are primarily teachers, who write about less popular topics, who publish in different journals than you or not at all, who work outside academia, who have chosen a different work-life balance, or who have prioritized different things in their life from you are not worse than you. Luckily, this can be as simple as learning about people who are in different positions in the profession and about their experiences and journeys. There are many economists in the world doing work, living their lives, and traveling their careers. We must not only recognize and celebrate those who we perceive as “successful” according to our own personal measures.

In summary: whenever we can, let’s support members of the economics community in situations where they are less powerful. Our active learning, generosity, and intervention can help us to lift each other up, and wouldn’t that be a great thing?

 

Killing EJMR

For the last couple of weeks, the online economics community has been discussing and reacting to rampant misogyny on a website, Economics Job Market Rumors. A Justin Wolfers post to The Upshot at the New York Times reported on research by Alice Wu that laid bare the ugly, shocking language used to describe women on the website.

I recommend this post by Emily Eisner, Fiona Burlig and Aluma Dembo for a brief overview of recent research on gender inequality and discrimination in economics. Beatrice Cherrier’s post on the topic is rich and thoughtful.

The context of this discussion is that women are unacceptably underrepresented at all levels of the economics profession (source):

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Our profession, our work, and our image suffer from being male-dominated. EJMR is both a disease unto itself, and a symptom of a sick discipline.

Killing EJMR

One: the supply of bullying and bile on this anonymous forum must be stopped. A minimally moderated website dominated by lowest forms of vulgar misogyny cannot continue to be a significant institution in economics. And no, I do not want to hear it that EJMR is “just another” facet of tantrum-and-harassment masculinity on the internet. Don’t even say that. It makes you look like you are grasping for excuses.

Two: the sexist culture of the profession must be changed. Even if EJMR as it is now is mercifully destroyed, the rot is deeper. Smarter people than me have been fighting for women in economics for decades. We all must promote a culture that allows all people to succeed. This means confronting and shutting down “locker room talk” in any setting, including private conversation. It means reflecting on the structure of our institutions, from our classes to our schools to our professional associations, to promote diversity. It means mentoring women at all stages.

In no way am I looking to deflect from, minimize, or excuse these top, difficult priorities. I view this as an urgent crisis.

But three: I think, though, that there is one more thing we could all be more conscious of: what can we do better to reduce the demand for EJMR, or whatever comes next?

The EJMR website has been an open and significant part of the experience of graduate students in economics for many years. It is anonymous and extremely lightly moderated, and it is known for sourness, cruelty, and bullying. As with any online community, there is a core user base who either enjoy participating in the vulgarity or are willing to overlook it. However, the site is also widely used by young economists desperate for scraps of information on the gauntlet of the academic job market.

A narrative is emerging in which there is undeniable value to EJMR that helps to explain its persistence as an institution in the economics profession. It’s a place, this narrative goes, where valuable and mostly accurate information flows that young economists want.

Has a school called to schedule interviews yet? What type of candidate are they looking for? Has a job offer gone out? Who to? Are they going to take it?

What journal should I submit to? Why haven’t I heard about my submission yet? Is my dissertation idea garbage? What kind of research are people laughing at?

The academic job market is an intensely stressful experience. It is hard to surrender agency over where you would like to live and work, to navigate dual career concerns with partners, to fly around the country on a shoestring budget, to have one’s work and worth judged over and again, to compete against hundreds of other talented and deserving people, to fear the derailment of a career before it can even properly begin. It is overwhelming.

I want to reject the narrative that EJMR is an inevitable, valuable salve for the understandable neuroses of the young academic. I think that there are concrete steps that individuals and institutions in the economics profession can take to mitigate the need for something like EJMR, not just clean it up.

Superstars and insecurity

EJMR, like so much else in the profession, caters to the elite. Its tone is dominated by the concerns and perspective of the “top schools” and their students. It belittles “low ranked” students and schools. It devours the perceived weak and shrouds itself in the excuse of “the market”. Like a person who treats waitstaff as subhuman, it is a callous manifestation of the insecurity of the wannabe who feels that they must display their superiority by belittling others.

Of course people want to gossip about the “stars” of the market and to know where the “best” research is coming from. Page Six prints gossip about celebrities, not little people. Let us leave aside for a moment that “best” is located in a Catch-22 of “top school” path dependence. We could agree, maybe, that a little luck and a little path dependence do not undermine the achievements of the top economists. Excellence is rewarded. But that’s all a question for another day.

Here’s a funny thing, though. As Trevon Logan pointed out on Twitter, the imprimatur of Berkeley, Harvard, and the New York Times has helped to elevate this story to the attention of the profession at large.

 

EJMR itself could not distract the attention of the profession’s most powerful until it was graced with the formal attention of the elite. It is by the top schools, for the top schools, of the top schools. The vast majority of graduate students desperate for help and reassurance must go begging for scraps at a table of people who will mock them for their perceived shortcomings. It is vulgar in the extreme.

In this it is not alone. For example: there are many “guides” to the job market out there for graduate students. They include such concerns as how to politely turn down an interview when you simply cannot fit any more into your busy schedule. They are not helpful to a student who is ill with worry that their handful of interviews will not convert to a job, who will give a job talk to three people in a broken conference room rather than a shiny hall of power to a faculty of famous faces. The guides become useless and scary.

Edited to add (8/31/17): In my haste to make a case for reform, I made unfair generalizations about job market guides. In particular I was remiss not to acknowledge that John Cawley’s guide is one that has helped countless students over the years (myself included) and indeed addresses many of the concerns that I have raised in this post. This is an example of the kind of document that would be complemented by the kind of real-time and in-person information that I have suggested in my proposals would undermine EJMR. I apologize to John and to others like him who give up their time to provide information and advice on the job market process.

For example: insane paper turnaround times on submitted research favor the students of top schools. If each rejection takes most of a year—conservatively—and if you do not have elite mentorship and an elite network, mistakes will happen and be exceptionally costly. Here is the order in which you submit to journals, they say. They are survivors. They are there to advise you because they hit those journals. Their work is surely excellent, and they also managed to place it well. If you are a little less lucky, or a little less brilliant, where will their advice lead?

The profession has no mechanisms to help the average student.

Almost no graduate students can usefully call on the direct experience of the faculty around them. Each Ph.D.-granting institution hires fewer new faculty than it graduates. The bucket overflows. Students will do worse than their advisors. It is in this context that EJMR thrives. Students see how it is. They are desperate for help. They find it, poisoned by insecure hatefulness, in an anonymous forum that in a tragic twist of fate exhibits the very same elite bias that drove them to it in the first place.

What can we do?

1. Formalize interview information reporting through Job Openings for Economists

This is the most obvious way that the AEA can undercut EJMR. I appreciate that the incentive for schools to report when they have made calls or offered interviews is not clear cut. Too bad.

A more radical approach here would truly centralize interview offers on a clearinghouse schedule, but I accept that a centralized mechanism like this is not going to happen in economics.

2. Establish formal cross-school, cross-rank mentorship networks

Students need help and support that their own school’s faculty cannot adequately provide. We must have institutions that connect students with the economists that they will become, not the economists that they are shamed for being unlike.

This is probably awkward on both sides. No-one wants to admit that they are not a top dog. That means some bravery, humility, and discretion is required.

3. Formalize practical information on journal policies and characteristics

If we were starting with a blank slate, I would imagine most economists would have plenty of ideas for how to design research dissemination—submitting, refereeing, editing, publishing.

Given that we’re not starting over, we need a living database of relevant characteristics of as many journals as we can corral. Turnaround times, journal policies, fees, readership, citations, even the distribution of authors’ affiliations.

The Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has an excellent document on navigating the research publication process. This provides a great template for the kind of concerns we need to address. The more concrete we can make the advice, the better.

Treat the disease

There are two traps here. One is that we succeed in reforming or replacing EJMR without having an impact on the sexist and racist culture of economics. There may even be a risk of backlash as that certain type of Internet Man resents being prevented from being hateful.

The other is that we achieve a minor miracle in affecting true, even if slight, change on a profession that is overdue for it, but that we miss an opportunity to implement complementary positive reforms.

We can take this opportunity to support young economists whose mental and physical wellbeing suffers under the pressures of our job market and early career concerns. A tiny fraction of graduating economists can choose their own adventure. The vast majority can hope, at best, to get a decent job in a decent place, to uproot their life and their family and their support network, again: to survive.

Let’s all commit to helping each other.