one hit wonders in academia
One of the more interesting questions in evaluation an individual’s academic performance is the “one hit wonder” issue. An academic, like any other producer of ideas, might have a single great achievement and produce little else in their career. And I don’t mean a big hit followed by a more modest stream of works. I mean, a big it in grad school or shortly thereafter, with very little else after that.
Outside of academia, one hit wonders present no problems to people who hand out rewards. Music fans just buy what they like, coaches cut athletes from the roster. In academia, this is trickier. First, it is often hard to tell if someone is a one hit wonder or not. Second, some types of research are just slow. We don’t want to punish a ethnographer, just because their CV doesn’t look like a demographer’s. Third, the tenure committee or dean may run into trouble if they suspect that the person won’t do much in the future. How can you fire the person who wrote a classic?
Promoting, or rewarding, one hit wonders incurs risk because professors do more than research. They teach undergraduates, mentor PhD students, do administrative work, and help out the profession by participating in conferences, peer review, editing journals, and other professional functions. Thus, we want sustained engagement from everyone who achieves a degree of stature, such as a tenured position at a reputable university. Also, a long period of inactivity may, rightly or wrongly, suggest that the person is not managing their talent well, or that the hit was a fluke.
In the end, I go on a case by case basis. If the hit was truly epochal, I’m happy to give them a job for life. A little deadwood is fine if we can get the cure for cancer in exchange. But that’s exceptionally rare. From an institution’s perspective, though, you reward people with an eye for the future. It ain’t like paying the guy who just fixed your clogged sink. You have to live with this person for decades.