AMERICAN MENSA MEMORANDUM

Date: August 23, 1982
To: Susan Wantland, Publications Officer
From: Richard A. Amyx
Subject: Editors' Awards Committee Report

Copies to: Editors' Awards Committee, Gabriel Werba, Margot Seitelman


INTRODUCTION

This is a long report; too long, it might seem, for the topic at hand. But I'm going to recommend that the Editors' Awards be abolished, and I'm not making that recommendation without what I feel are good reasons. Because I would like for the people who will be involved in making this decision to be able to come to the same conclusion that I did, I'm including, I hope, enough history and discussion to lead you there. Read on.

I have been involved with the Editors' Awards either as a participant, as an interested observer, or as an administrator for ten years now. The method of determining the awards' winners was unsatisfactory when I began my term as editor of Intelligencer in 1973, it seems to have been unsatisfactory during my stint as Chairman of the Editors' Awards Committee in 1982, and it was at least in a state of constant turmoil, if not altogether unsatisfactory, during all the years in between. During these ten years there have been two main methods of determining the awards' winners, either by selecting the "best" according to group size or by looking for the best kinds of contributions and presentations regardless of group size. From my perspective, neither of these methods has worked well, and they may even be contradictory in nature. When segregation by group size has been used, the divisions have been rather arbitrary no matter how well intended or how logically approached; the groups toward the small end of the divisions (particularly in the larger divisions) feel that they are up against unfair competition; and when a group goes from largest in its division to smallest in the next one up, it suddenly feels cheated. When the specific categories have been used, the smaller groups still feel that they can't compete because of fewer human and financial resources to draw upon. The upshot of this has been that the judging has never been consistent, the Owl Award fell into complete shambles, and nobody was terribly happy. In short, in my opinion, the Editors' Awards have caused more unhappiness than happiness during all the time I've been observing them.

I think that an historical perspective on the Editors' Awards will help you to understand both why I've drawn the conclusions that I have and why I am making the recommendations that I will. I am therefore heading this report with a brief history of the Editors' Awards. This history is drawn from material in the Publications Officer's Editors' Awards file, items that have been published in InterLoc, and my own personal recollections. Some of the details may be a little fuzzy, but I think the gist of it is adequate to support my contentions.

HISTORY

Legend has it that in 1973 the Editors' Awards were made six months after the fact. This is beyond my recollection and cannot be verified beyond mere mention in the Editors' Awards file. In 1974 the Editors' Awards were decided at the eleventh hour by an ad hoc panel that was hastily assembled during the course of the Annual Gathering. Following the 1974 Editors' Awards, the editors were dissatisfied enough with the state of affairs to want to do something about it.

Then-Publications Officer Mary Jane Watson [Stevens] assigned to Beth Pos [Sample] the job of coming up with a better system. Beth, along with Norm Pos, who was then in the process of preparing the first edition of the Editor's Handbook, began exchanging letters with a half-dozen or so of the more vocal editors in an attempt to give the Editors' Awards some kind of predictable form. The result of the communication among those editors was an eight-question poll of the editors that was published in the February, 1975, InterLoc. Though the responses to that poll were few, several things were decided from them: that the editors' awards should be continued; that the awards should be decided by the editors themselves; that the categories should be "best in each of three group sizes (with best overall receiving the owl), plus runners up"; that a category of Special Mention should be added "for some outstanding achievement, . . . to be awarded only in years where a special situation exists and not to be used simply to give something to everybody"; and that all newsletters, including the prior year's winners, should be included in the competition. These, in essence, were the criteria by which the Editors' Awards were made in 1975, and these were the criteria I inherited when I became Publications Officer in July, 1975.

The Editors' Awards file does not show how the awards went in 1975, but by 1976 the glow of whatever honeymoon there may have been had faded. Only 24 out of 80 editors—just 30%—returned ballots, together with a handful of comments about the awards procedure. It was also evident that most of those editors voted for themselves: many of the awards winners were decided by margins of ones and twos. I was stunned, baffled, disappointed, and surprised enough by those results (I had been one of the editors active in getting the system changed to this method of voting) that I wrote a column for publication in the July/August, 1976, InterLoc describing many of the details of the voting that had not been made public in the past and inviting comments or suggestions from the editors.

That column brought another smattering of comments and suggestions, most of which were not too different from all the arguments that had been heard at least once before. Because nothing much was new, I made no further changes in the system. In 1977, however, only 20 editors—just one-fourth of the total—cast ballots for the awards, the winner in the large group category was decided by one vote, and there was a three-way tie for the Owl. Along with the 1977 ballots came yet another handful of comments about the procedures. Still mindful of the responses to the 1976 awards voting, I had scheduled the Editors' Awards as a topic of discussion for the Editors' Workshop at the 1977 AG. We ran out of time at the workshop, so I promised to continue the discussion through InterLoc, and I had a follow-up article published in the July/August, 1977, issue. In that article I cited the two major complaints about the Editors' Awards procedures—namely, that size classification should be based on total circulation rather than parent group size (for those newsletters serving more than one group), and that, because most editors do not receive all newsletters (the average being a little less than half), the editors really are not qualified to vote (inherent prejudices aside). Accompanying that article was a proposed procedure for a panel system, for which pressure was beginning to grow, submitted by Hans Frommer.

Another problem associated with the awards that no one had even thought of cropped up in 1977—the matter of the awards presentation itself. That year, the awards were sandwiched between an interminable after-dinner speaker and the "Mensa 'Gong' Show." The audience had had to move from the dining area to the room where the awards were to be presented; it was already tired of boring stuff, and the background noise during the presentations was just awful. It was therefore subsequently noted that, in order for the awards to be meaningful, they had to be presented in a reasonably well-timed and dignified manner. This requirement placed yet another condition on scheduling options for AG host-groups.

By this time, AMC Chairman Charley Fallon was thoroughly exasperated with the circles in which the Editors' Awards were spinning, and he appointed me chairman of a subcommittee to do something conclusive about them. Please note two things: first, it now had been just three years since an AMC subcommittee had last been appointed to study the Editors' Awards; and second, pressure was beginning to mount for a panel system—the very thing the previous subcommittee had been trying to get away from.

My subcommittee labored on from late 1977 until late 1978; meanwhile, there were the 1978 Editors' Awards to deal with. I was irked about the relatively poor participation and the tendency of the editors to vote for themselves. Because the subcommittee's work was in progress, I was reluctant to make substantial changes in the awards procedure, but I did do two things. First, in an attempt to counterbalance the tendency of the editors to vote for themselves, I instituted preferential voting. Second, in an attempt to increase participation, I had an embarrassing (to me) little ad urging the editors to vote published in the May, 1978, InterLoc. Both these efforts did appear to be successful to one degree or another: in 1978 30 editors (37%) voted, and the winners of the awards were decided with no uncertainties.

On August 15, 1978, I submitted the report of the Subcommittee on Editors' Awards to the AMC. Rather than repeat here much of what that subcommittee discussed and recommended, I am attaching memoranda dated February 13, August 15, September 7, and December 12, 1978; and March 10, 1979, to this report. Read them. You won't like them. The result of that subcommittee work was, in the main, a recommendation that the editors vote from a list of alternative methods for selecting the Editors' Awards winners that the subcommittee had developed. As a final comment in the subcommittee report, I said, "But when the vote is in, the system is decided—until the next time somebody decides to stir it up again." With a 37% return, the editors selected a system of making awards by specific category, with the editors to continue voting for the awards. And so it went in 1979. The only other thing I'd like to emphasize is that the number of categories was established at nine, the same number of awards there had been with best of group size plus two runners-up in each of three size categories (with Special Mention and the Owl remaining the same).

In 1980, Publications Officer Beth Sample decided to try a "best of both worlds" approach by combining elements of both the specific categories and group size methods. The reason for doing this, according to Beth, was that ". . . when we used only categories last year, to our surprise, the small groups were almost entirely overlooked." As a matter of fact, three of the eleven awards the previous year—a tolerably representative sample—had gone to newsletters that I would regard as being toward the smaller end of the scale. In any event, with two of the categories dropped and the three size groupings added, there theoretically would have been one more award—twelve as opposed to eleven—Special Mention and the Owl again remaining the same. However, there were a number of "ties" in the voting for the size groupings, not ties exactly, but near enough for Beth to feel that "it was only fair to recognize those groups who were oh-so-close." The Owl Award was not given because the voting was not adequately decisive, and the Special Mention was not given for reasons unspecified. Nonetheless, with the "ties," thirteen newsletters were cited for awards.

In 1981, Publications Officer Virginia Long carried out the voting using the same categories as were used in 1980. There were no ties or runners-up, except for the Owl, which once again was not awarded.

In May of 1981, however, Virginia had set into motion the action that resulted in an Editors' Awards Committee to make the 1982 awards. So, finally, just seven years after the editors had wrestled to get the Editors' Awards voting into their own hands, the process had come full circle and was back to a panel again.

HOW IT WENT THIS YEAR

The AMC action of May, 1981, called for a panel of five members to determine the winners of the Editors' Awards. It was further decided that none of the members of the awards panel should be members of the AMC and that the first panel should be made up of past Publications Officers. Because Charley Fallon was seated on the AMC as Past Chairman, the next five past Publications Officers in line were (or would be, with a change of AMC in July, 1981), Virginia Long (of Tyler and then San Antonio, TX), myself (San Jose, CA), Beth Sample (San Diego, CA), Mary Jane Watson (Victoria, BC), and Stan Bercovitch (Ft. Myers, FL). AMC Chairman Gabe Werba contacted each of us and asked us if we would be willing to serve on the panel. He was lucky, I think; we all agreed. The first action of the panel (which subsequently transmogrified into a committee) was to elect a chairman for itself. I won by a vote of 4-1, the 1 being my own vote.

The first mechanical obstacle to be overcome was to get the committee members on the Special Distribution ("Headquarters") mailing list. Inasmuch as there is about a two-month lag between making a change in the New York-generated labels and receiving the newsletters that use them, the first of the newsletters did not drift into my mailbox until November, and, practically speaking, the newsletters did not start to arrive with any regularity until December. Because the awards plaques had to be engraved with the winners' names prior to presentation at the AG, I established May 1as the date for distribution of the ballots in order to be able to notify the New York office of the winners by June 1. This meant that the Committee's judging period was, in effect, from December, 1981, through April, 1982.

I am attaching a chart that I made up showing, among several things, which issues of which newsletters I received. While I did ask the Committee members to look for relative consistency in their receipt of the newsletters, because of postal vagaries in delivery of our second class newsletters, I did not require that similar charts other Committee members might have prepared match mine exactly (I did distribute copies of my chart to the Committee for its use as a working document), and I did not ask them to submit such charts to me for checking. I do not know, therefore, exactly how the newsletters were distributed or received.

Because of my past poor experience with using group size as the criterion for making awards, I reverted entirely to using the same specific categories that I'd established in 1979. I sent a memo describing those categories to the Committee (December 12, 1981) and asking the Committee if it wanted to make any changes in the criteria. The comments I received resulted only in brief discussion (we didn't have time for much of it), and the categories were not changed substantially. The list of categories and a general description of the judging criteria were distributed to all editors by first class mail (my memo dated January 25, 1982) and published in the March, 1982, InterLoc. Other than these general criteria, I imposed no judging restrictions on the Committee members.

As far as Committee interaction or communication went, relatively little happened from February through April. There were a few comments or questions from editors, to which I responded and notified the Committee as necessary. The crusher came in April: on April 21, Beth Sample submitted to Gabe a letter of resignation from the Committee. While I could not alter the Committee's work when the voting was scheduled to begin only a few days thence (I groaned, but did nothing otherwise), there was a bit of a tizzy on account of the AMC requirement that the committee be made up of five, and no fewer, members. The fear was that if there were fewer than five members on the Committee, then it would not be in conformance with the AMC requirement, and it could not "legally" decide the Editors' Awards winners. Eventually, Beth was persuaded to remain a pro forma member of the committee, but would not be required to vote. Regardless of the legalistic footwork, the result was the same: there were then only four Committee members making the awards selection.

I actually mailed the ballots on May 7, calling for their return within seven days of receipt by the Committee members. Shortly after I mailed the ballots, I talked to Mary Jane Stevens on the telephone and learned from her that regular mail between the US and Canada could take as long as three weeks to be delivered. I therefore mailed MJ a second ballot by special delivery (Canadian express mail), probably about May 12. By June 1 I had ballots from Stan Bercovitch and Virginia Long, but not from MJ. On June 6 I called MJ to see whether she'd mailed her ballot and learned that she was having some family difficulties that had slowed her down. By June 16 I still had not received MJ's ballot, so I called her again. Though she had mailed it, I took her vote over the telephone.

Meanwhile, after learning of Beth's resignation from the Committee, I decided not to vote blind but instead to reserve my chairman's vote as a tie-breaker if necessary. Also, I had decided not to open Stan's or Virginia's ballots when they came in lest I consciously or subconsciously bias my own thinking. And though I had feared all along that such a small committee might have difficulty reaching a consensus, my heart nonetheless dropped when the time came to count votes. I looked at the first category and saw that there were nine different newsletter names—three different preferential choices from each of the three voters.

This threw me into a tizzy. My interpretation of the situation was that it would mean that one person—me—would be deciding who the Editors' Awards winners were, and I had to ask myself whether or not it really was proper for the Editors' Awards to be decided this way. After a couple of days of soul-searching and lengthy discussions with Meredy, I decided that for me to be the sole and knowing arbiter over who received Editors' Awards would make a total charade of the concept, create a deception that a panel could easily decide the awards winners, and perpetuate the myth that the Editors' Awards really did have some deep and inherent meaning.

Thus, while I did vote to break two real and deserved ties, I felt that, in all honesty, the Committee had to return no recommendations on five of the awards categories, including the Owl. The ultimate decision to award an Owl was more politic or diplomatic than anything else.

DISCUSSION

The functioning of this year's Committee.

In general, there were three major difficulties in working with this Committee: first, the lengthy lead time between establishing the Committee and getting the newsletters distributed to it; second, the difficulties of communication between myself and the Committee members; third, the resignation of one of the Committee members.

It might be suspected that the delay in getting newsletters to the Committee members was due to the fact that this was a new situation, but I'm not convinced that that's true. It's my understanding that current plans call for a committee (of more than five members) to carry out the awards in similar fashion next year. Apparently the new Committee was not named until after the old Committee had discharged its duty; thus, as of late August, I am still receiving newsletters. The new Committee will still have to do its voting with the same time constraints that have always been present, so, though there will be a year's worth of newsletters going somewhere, the new Committee will be making its decisions on only some portion of the year's lot.

The problems in communication were trouble with the mail between the US and Canada and the fact that Stan's charter boat business often calls for him to be away from his home for a week at a time. Presumably, using special delivery mail solved the first problem; when it came to getting hold of Stan by phone, all I could do was wait. While these things may seem to be unique to this Committee, I would be willing to bet more than even money that something similar would exist with any similar committee.

Beth's resignation really didn't affect the Committee's functioning as such. More than likely having another voting member would have reduced the number of "no recommendations," but that's mostly conjecture. What her resignation signified most to me was confirmation of my contention, hammered on more than once in the attached memos, that a committee such as this is a very tenuous thing at best.

This Committee's timetable ran awfully late due mostly to MJ's personal problems and the time I took to decide what I was going to do. It is possible that we could have carried out a second round of balloting by telephone, but because Stan and Jenny left home about a week early to drive to the AG from Florida, even this measure might not have worked. I didn't try it, and all I can do is take my lumps for it.

It is also possible that this Committee made an unwise selection of its chairman. I am biased by my previous experience with the Editors' Awards, and I make no bones about it. A more naive chairman doubtless could have injected more vigor and a larger dose of the gentle untruths and deceptive enthusiasm that often are inherent in public relations-type efforts. Future Editors' Awards Committees should stand warned.

This Committee's work and its attitudes.

Italics below indicate questions I asked the Committee after the balloting was over.

Are there any particular criteria you used in making your judgments that might be helpful to the editors for the next year's awards? Stan: Establish ground rules and very specific criteria . . . . Virginia: I may not know what's really good, but I do know what I like when I see it . . . just the overall feel of a newsletter . . . . MJ: [Your criteria] are not necessarily the ones I would have established on my own, but I think it necessary for all members of the committee to have more or less uniform standards.

Personally, my feeling is that there is a certain kind of artistry involved in both creating and judging newsletters, much as there is artistry involved in creating and judging paintings, music, dance, and the other traditional art forms. Certain criteria—the mechanics of English, neatness, parallel lines, and so forth—can be quantified, but with an expert panel they shouldn't have to be. The very reason for using a panel of experts is that the experts are supposed to know what they're judging. Judging the newsletters is, ultimately, largely subjective. While there has in the past been quite a voice for "objective" criteria by which the newsletters might be judged, trying to state criteria too specifically would be restrictive by concept and insulting to expert judges, and it probably wouldn't make a whit of difference in the editors' performance. The judges may be expert; the editors, by and large, are not.

What was your reaction to the work you actually had to perform in order to carry out the charge of this committee? Stan: [No specific response.] Virginia: I put in a lot of hours and certainly didn't begrudge it. MJ: It was flatly impossible to do it as it should have been done. . . . it is TOO MUCH for each committee member to read EVERY newsletter.

My opinion is that the time and effort required to do this job right just plain stunk. There are lots of grunt jobs in Mensa, and I've done more than one of them, but usually there is some kind of more or less concomitant reward: the dubious status of holding Mensa office, the pleasure of seeing a finished product, an extra-large pat on the back, and so forth. This job gave me no pleasure and no reward. As the Army phrase puts it, it was one of those jobs that had "all the responsibilities of command and none of the privileges." In judging newsletters as an editor, or even just in reading them as Publications Officer, I rather unconsciously selected those that I felt were best as the year went along, and my mind really was made up by the time the ballots came out. Under these circumstances, where every vote literally did count, I felt awfully pressured to be sure that I had made the right choices and that I could justify them. The "let's you and them go out and vote" nature of the panel philosophy shares a lot with "let's you and him go out and fight." You and him take it in the shorts every time.

Do you have any recommendations for either lightening an awards committee's work or improving the awards process? There were a number of suggestions. Because several of them were made by more than one person, I will just list a few briefly without identifying who all might have mentioned them.

  • Use a committee as a screening device that can then offer, say, five choices for the editors to make the final choices on.
  • Use a larger working committee.
  • Make the selection based on just one issue of a newsletter. The issue would be one published before it was announced which issue would be used for judging.
  • Make each committee member responsible for judging only one or two categories.
  • Make each committee member responsible for judging newsletters from only one region.
  • Change the categories: newsletters are not literary or artistic showcases and should not be judged as such.
  • Return to the group size classification for judging.
  • Do away with all Editors' Awards!

In other words, the various dissatisfactions with this method of judging would take us just about back to where we started five and ten years ago—namely, trying to figure out how to make the Editors' Awards.

The awards process in general.

As I stated at the outset, the Editors' Awards process has been in a constant state of turmoil for ten years. Without belaboring the point too much further, let me list just a few of the highlights.

  • A complete AMC-sponsored study of the Editors' Awards was commissioned in 1974. The main reason for the agitation to make changes in the awards procedure was dissatisfaction with a panel system.

  • The editor participation in the awards has never been commensurate with all the hullabaloo it's caused: 30% in 1976, 25% in 1977, 37% in 1978, and 41% in 1979.

  • A complete AMC-sponsored study of the Editors' Awards was commissioned in 1978. The main reason for the agitation to make changes in the awards procedure was dissatisfaction with several aspects of the way the awards were being made. There was strong pressure to go to a panel method. The editors themselves voted on the method they would prefer, and with a 37% return selected a structure using specific categories, with the editors continuing to vote for the awards.

  • In 1982 the awards went back to a panel procedure.

  • There was three-way tie for the Owl Award in 1977, no Owl was given in 1980 or 1981, and the Owl was awarded by compromise in 1982 (the Committee returned no recommendation).

  • The Editors' Awards have been made six different ways in the ten years from 1973 to 1982. The method was changed in 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1982.

Another major problem with the panel is people. I sometimes think that if the liberals' solution to a problem is to throw more money at it, then Mensa's solution to a problem is to throw more people at it. I doubt that too many people would want to serve on an Editors' Awards Committee on a continuing basis, and the larger the committee, the faster Mensa will deplete its supply of qualified committee members. Making the committee larger—seven to ten members—can be only a temporary measure at best. Who will be available to serve on such committees just a few years hence?

Finally, if the panel method is to continue, some attention ought to be given to the costs. There were 122 newsletters participating in the awards in 1982. The current subsidy cost for the Special Mailing Program is $0.40 per newsletter mailed. If 122 newsletters continue to participate in a panel method, the subsidy cost to American Mensa will be 122 x 12 x .40 = $585.60 per panel member per year. Total subsidy cost for a five-member panel would be $2928; for a seven-member panel, $4099; and for a ten-member panel, $5856. Viewed another way, if there continue to be eleven awards, then with a five-member panel the cost of each award is $266; with a seven-member panel, $373; and with a ten-member panel, $552. This is just the subsidy cost and does not take into consideration the cost of the plaques themselves and the engraving on the name plates. If I were an editor, I think I'd rather have the cash.

In conclusion, I feel that the Editors' Awards program really never was very well thought out. It has been unsettled and inconsistent for ten years, it has caused far more rancor than satisfaction, and now it's becoming significantly costly to boot. There has been so much dissatisfaction no matter what method of making the awards has been used that I doubt that any further tinkering or tuning would make much difference. It would only be applying more new paint to the same old rotten wood.

In our daily lives we make countless decisions based on a personal notion of cost and benefit. What will this option get me? What will it cost me? If we deem the cost to be too great, then we don't do it. In my opinion, the cost of the Editors' Awards moil now far outweighs its benefits in all ways. And we should ask what the cost to Mensa will be if we do away with the Editors' Awards. Practically nil, I think.

I think it would be a cost with benefit to mail a copy of this report, in its entirety and complete with all its attachments, to every editor. At the very least, it should be distributed to the AMC as a whole.

RECOMMENDATION

That the AMC dissociate itself entirely from the Editors' Awards. This is another of the details of Mensa activity with which its board of directors should not be concerned. If the editors feel that the awards should be continued, then they should be left free to pursue them when and as they wish.

Respectfully submitted,

RICHARD AMYX
Chairman, 1982 Editors'
Awards Committee

Back