Monday, April 24, 2017

Have universities lost sight of the big questions and the big picture?

Here are some biting critiques of some of the "best" research at the "best" universities, by several distinguished scholars.
The large numbers of younger faculty competing for a professorship feel forced to specialize in narrow areas of their discipline and to publish as many papers as possible during the five to ten years before a tenure decision is made. Unfortunately, most of the facts in these reports have neither practical utility nor theoretical significance; they are tiny stones looking for a place in a cathedral. The majority of ‘empirical facts’ in the social sciences have a half-life of about ten years.
Jerome Kagan [Harvard psychologist], The Three Cultures Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century
[I thank Vinoth Ramachandra for bringing this quote to my attention].
[The distinguished philosopher Alasdair] MacIntyre provides a useful tool to test how far a university has moved to this fragmented condition. He asks whether a wonderful and effective undergraduate teacher who is able to communicate how his or her discipline contributes to an integrated account of things – but whose publishing consists of one original but brilliant article on how to teach – would receive tenure. Or would tenure be granted to a professor who is unable or unwilling to teach undergraduates, preferring to teach only advanced graduate students and engaged in ‘‘cutting-edge research.’’ MacIntyre suggests if the answers to these two inquiries are ‘‘No’’ and ‘‘Yes,’’ you can be sure you are at a university, at least if it is a Catholic university, in need of serious reform. I feel quite confident that MacIntyre learned to put the matter this way by serving on the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committee of Duke University. I am confident that this is the source of his understanding of the increasing subdisciplinary character of fields, because I also served on that committee for seven years. During that time I observed people becoming ‘‘leaders’’ in their fields by making their work so narrow that the ‘‘field’’ consisted of no more than five or six people. We would often hear from the chairs of the departments that they could not understand what the person was doing, but they were sure the person to be considered for tenure was the best ‘‘in his or her field."
Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University, page 49.

Are these reasonable criticisms of the natural sciences?



    A Caltech Physicists blog.
    He says about teaching....
    Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc. I don’t think being good at these things actively hurts you, although I did once hear a senior faculty member say that he was negatively predisposed to candidates who had good teaching evaluations. (He was joking, I think.) Why? Because you’re spending time on something that isn’t research. But generally it won’t hurt, it just won’t help. You will typically be told (as I was) something like “teaching isn’t really important, but if your case is very close, it can help put you over the top.” Everyone agreed my case was very close, and my teaching was among the best in the department; it didn’t help. The point is simple: this stuff is not research.

    This one has heard from almost everybody. Teaching on the decline. Very sad situation.

  2. I agree with the main idea of the post, but I think for a path forward, the focus should shift a bit:

    The title of your post focuses on the institution, whereas I think most of the quotes focus on the actions of individuals, whether they be tenure-track professors, committees, or department chairs.

    I am not sure that the focus on "the university" doing something is productive - it is the people that cause this. While there is certainly a social dynamic going on because the people form a group, I still think that attempts at reforming things should focus on people. Specifically the people that matter (e.g. department chairs, committee members, tenure-track professors etc). Otherwise no one feels responsible; no one person feels (s)he is the university.

    Just a thought.

    1. As usual, I agree with your correction :)
      Furthermore, I think the idea that we are "helpless" is lame. If all the people (esp. senior people) who read this blog just don't give in and change how they discuss and review grants, papers, hiring and tenure decisions something small but significant can be achieved.

    2. "all people": Agreed.

      Sorry if I'm too critical/nit-picky... I generally quite agree with the ideas you try to convey in your posts, and (therefore...:-) ) I think it is important that your opinion is heard. Maybe that is not as apparent as it should be.

    3. i don't think you are too critical. I really appreciate your comments. Thanks.

  3. There are multiple issues here. At "research universities" in general, there is little question that research quality and impact (both things that can be very difficult to measure) are prized and rewarded more than classroom pedagogy. It's a whole separate discussion to decide whether that is the direction that we want research universities to go.

    In tenure decisions, supposedly it's the external letters that are meant to give context - what has this person really contributed intellectually, are they making an impact or moving the field, and are their accomplishments comparable to those who are considered successful in that discipline? An inability to explain what the point is to someone not in the discipline is a problem. That problem is exacerbated in jargon-heavy disciplines - pure mathematics can be very difficult in this respect. I'm more concerned with reliance on metrics that (i) may not measure what you want to measure, or much of anything sometimes, and (ii) effectively slant the reward system to favor behaviors that are not good in the long run (churning out papers just because there is some publication count criterion regardless of quality; greatly overvaluing publication in a tiny number of journals at the expense of rigor or correctness of papers).

    1. To the first point I would like to add an extreme example. In Indian science, in order to concentrate the small population of top quality researchers in the early years, a decision was made to basically separate research and teaching. we had a few very prestigious research institutes that didn't engage in undergraduate teaching and that - seeing as they provided an atmosphere of pure research - acted as a sponge for all future talent. This meant the vast majority of indian undergraduate institutions were deprived of all research, all funding and most talented faculty. I came from one such institute and have watched myself and my fellow students struggle to make up the deficit ever since. Moreover I continuously hear the prestigious research institutes bemoan the lack of graduate level talent ( 'There are only ten good students a year and all of them want to do string theory' one professor once told me) I hear things are improving in India and I know some very good examples of some of the most creative scientists, at least later in their careers, choosing to man undergraduate outposts.

      I just thought this was a good example of a long term problem that occurs when people "capable" of creative research are rewarded preferentially for lab work rather than required to pass on their skills at the undergraduate (and school ) level.

    2. Metrics, the numerical machoism has even resulted in quasi McCarthyism in some univ depts. For example , one academic who concentrated on teaching and went for comprehensive research work , questioning metrics was told to go and teach in high school.

  4. Your efforts ( esp the physics and maths academics) in making poeple aware of the sweeping changes taking place in univ. tenure, questioning metric etc needs to be appreciated. Engineering academics do not write about this till a very critical article was published on perverse incentives by Prof Marc Edwards and S Roy. Eng depts love metrics very much.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. I posted about the perverse incentives article earlier.