The paper “Excellence R Us: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence,” by Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel O’Donnell, and Damian Pattinson, is not about language as such, but it’s on an important topic I’ve been mulling over myself, so I’m shoehorning it into LH based on the discussion of what the word “excellence” means, as well as the paragraph about literature I quote from Joe Carmichael’s Inverse.com post about it:

In fiction, as well as many other fields, it’s impossible to quantify excellence. We can recognize excellent writing — somewhere halfway between our gut and our noggin, normally — but there’s no numerical value that explains a novel’s greatness. “Could you imagine if there were a bar that you had to cross as a fiction writer, where you had to show — you had to show — that you were measurably more excellent than Faulkner or Joyce?” O’Donnell asks. “How would you do that? There’s no way it would be good for fiction writing.” The fact that objective criticism is much harder in literature cushions writers from some of the blows scientists routinely take. Good experiments don’t always lead to world-changing results, and world-changing results are quantifiable. It’s possible to be a good scientist while remaining inconsequential.

I have been thinking about this because as I read my way through Russian literature I realize ever more strongly that it is ludicrous to restrict oneself only to the “greatest” works; I love War and Peace, but I also love The Sebastopol Sketches, and I understand the former better for having read the latter. One can love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without having to look down on his mandolin music. Celebrate the good, and the excellent will take care of itself. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. torkirra says

    Kathryn Allan has written about the language of excellence in “Excellence: a new keyword for education?

  2. David Marjanović says

    Excellence in academia is a political buzzword. That’s it. “Let’s found a Center of Excellence and/or an elite university, and that’ll make our country great again and grant us everlasting reelection” appears to have been a common “thought” among politicians in, say, Austria 10 years ago.

  3. A few years ago, our department changed our teaching evaluation system. The numerical ratings didn’t change, but to harmonize what we were doing with the rest of the university, we changed the descriptors associated with the numbers. At the top of the scale were “outstanding,” “superior,” and “excellent.” I questioned the usefulness of these terms, since they all literally mean the same thing. I grant that “outstanding” does feel a little higher than the other two, but I have no feeling whether “excellent” is better than “superior” or vice versa. (“Excellent” and “superior” do have different pragmatic connotations, but those basically govern where one or the other is more appropriate, rather than which one is higher.)

  4. I guess it’s like a logic puzzle. “Outstanding” is lowest because something can be outstanding for reasons other than being good. “Superior” is middle because something can be superior without actually excelling in an objective sense (e.g. if all competitors are notably poor). “Excellent” is top because it’s the only one that requires that the phenomenon being described is actually good. How’d I do?

  5. Just so.

  6. Now I thought you were saying that outstanding was the highest of the three, but Matt gives reasons for thinking it the lowest. Which shows, I suppose, how unreal the whole exercise is. I think Northrop Frye nailed it (as I often think he does), in Fearful Symmetry this time:

    […] Blake says that “Real Poets” have no competition: the primary impression which the real poet makes on the reader is not that of comparative greatness, but of positive goodness or genuineness. And this sense of genuineness is the unity of the positive impressions we receive. […] When we try to express the “quality” of a poem we usually refer to one of its attributes. Blake teaches us that a poem’s quality is its whatness, the unified pattern of its words and images.

    And the same, of course, applies to real scientists, real teachers, real Presidents, and indeed real post-hole diggers.

    I love the phrase “fiending for excellence” (for “funding”) in the Carmichael post.

  7. I’m with Brett — “outstanding” has clear connotations of “best of the best”, placing it above “superior” and “excellent”. “Superior” seems weakest to me — something like “definitely better than average”, but not necessarily near the top.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “Outstanding” is common in job offers: “The successful candidate will have an outstanding publication record and outstanding abilities in…”

  9. David Marjanović says

    Kathryn Allan has written about the language of excellence in “Excellence: a new keyword for education?“

    The abstract is, shall we say, outstanding:

    Excellence is a term that stands out in modern educational discourse, and one that has attracted ridicule from some education commentators. In his critical commentary on how the notion of a university has changed, Bill Readings claims that excellence acts as a ‘non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system’ and an ‘empty notion’¹. Similar observations have become commonplace. One ironically humorous example of the kind of contempt shown towards the use of excellence as a technical term in educational discourse is presented as Appendix 3, drawn from a website written by an academic. Here it is suggested that the frequency with which excellence and excellent are used by a university in printed materials is an indicator of whether that institution is third-rate. The implication is clear: excellence and excellent have become effectively meaningless terms in such contexts. While such an assertion seems naïve from a linguist’s perspective, it certainly appears that the word has been subject to a process of semantic change, and this process can be traced through its increased use in mission statements, governmental initiatives and education journals. In this article I suggest that an examination of the history and present-day use of excellence can illuminate key developments in higher education in recent years. The word’s semantic ambiguity makes it a keyword, in the sense that it offers access to current perspectives in this important area of culture and society.


  10. The people who wrote those mission statements were clearly fans of Bill and Ted.

  11. His visits are occasional to the ‘Senior Educational’,
    For it is against the rules
    For any one Cat to belong to both that
    And the ‘Joint Superior Schools’.

    —T.S. Eliot anent Bustopher Jones, the St. James’s Street Cat

  12. Sir JCass says

    The people who wrote those mission statements were clearly fans of Bill and Ted.

    Was the lowest grade “most heinous” then?

  13. I like the old latin school grades: (failed), non contemnendus, haud illaudabilis, laudabilis, laudabilis præ ceteris.

    And again, distinguished is better than just good.

  14. Northrop Frye in at least one of books (The Great Code?) seems to suggest that literary criticism will find a way to quantify such notions as ‘excellence.’

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    From “Decline and Fall” (Levy is explaining the [equivalent of Rabbitarse and String’s] classification system to Paul Pennyfeather, doomed to seek work as a teacher after being sent down from Oxford for gross indecency):

    “Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,” said Mr Levy, “‘School’ is pretty bad…”

  16. I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to be named either Gabbitas or Thring (the founders of the actual agency in question, which found both teachers and parents for its school customers, an obvious conflict of interest).

  17. “The fact that objective criticism is much harder in literature cushions writers from some of the blows scientists routinely take.”
    Loved the garden path – what in the world are literature cushions?

  18. Oh no! Not the literature cushions!

  19. marie-lucie says

    They are fancy cushions on which poems or quotations are printed or embroidered in fancy calligraphy. Just the thing to renew the look of your old sofa.

  20. I have one, which says “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”

  21. marie-lucie says

    Nice! But is it a “literary” quotation?

  22. I suppose not. Though there are compounds with literature that have no literary implications, like literature search.

  23. marie-lucie says

    True, but ‘literature cushions’ suggest “Literature” with a capital L.

  24. If Happiness is being married to your best friend, should you rejoice in your friend’s good luck or does it depend on Happiness?

  25. Nothing is better than eternal happiness,
    but a ham sandwich is much better than nothing.
    Ergo, a ham sandwich is much better than eternal happiness.
    And if you are a New York D.A., you can get a grand jury to indict it.

  26. “fancy cushions on which poems or quotations are printed or embroidered in fancy calligraphy”

    Aer Lingus are way ahead of you, Marie-Lucie. The seat covers on the aircraft are embroidered with quotations from Irish literature, in tolerably fancy calligraphy:


    The picture’s not great, but you can make out “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”. I think that may be a dig at Ryanair.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Very nice! This is the upholstery material rather than separate cushions, but the idea is the same.

    I was not inventing the cushions I described, I have seen some of them for sale. And a cushion cover can be (and often is) made and/or embroidered at home by someone handy with a needle.

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