Monday, November 11, 2013

Research, Teaching, and Service: the academic 'mission' all in one?

Most universities consider the duties of their faculty members, and requisites for promotion and tenure, to be the Big Three: Research, Teaching, and Service (RTS).  This is a fine-sounding triumvirate, and institutions are more or less hypocritical in their application of this standard of success.  Too often the triumvirate is  RRR, a worship of esoteric productivity in professional channels where score-counting reigns nearly supreme: number of papers, number of citations, number of grants, and so on.  It's easier for Chairs and Deans to count than, well, than to think.  Bean-counting makes judgments seem safe and unbiased.  Service can more or less be dismissed with a hand-wave and counting more or less anything someone does (having coffee in a local shop and talking with the other customers?).  And teaching?  Often it's done when it can't be avoided, since tuition funds are more or less captive funds, so long as we entertain students with classes not too hard and enough sports to go to.  The RRR push also tends to turn faculty members into oarsmen on a galley always in a battle for supremacy.

Your value from a department Chair's point of view?

But what if there could be change?  What if we are on the doorstep of major unification of RTS into a real, broad and unitary type of contribution that benefits the body of knowledge, the student body, and the body politic all in one?  Could this be in the offing?

The social network
If this is possible in a way visible today, that way is in social networking and the online cosmos.  Journals are moving to the use of electrons rather than trees to disseminate the research results of the academic professions.  Reviewing is becoming more and more real-time, and less and less a way to stifle ideas.  We still have a hierarchy--often little more than a snob system driven by the profit motive (Nature and Cell journals, Science, and others from many for-profit publishers).  Since more journals are online and not associated with society memberships, access is often free and publishing costs may be coming down.

And then there are blogs and tweets. These spread intellectual contributions faster than an Arizona wildfire.  They do this globally.  Blogs reach the posters' friends, social community, professional peers across a spectrum of specialties, and the public 'news' (we're tempted to say 'hype') media.  Blogs can include simple high-viewership rants and demogoguery, but many (and we hope including this one) are responsible attempts to air and discuss serious and important subjects.  Blogs reach audiences instantly and need not wait for perfect literature citation or reviewer approval.  Many academics no longer turn first to journal table-of-contents pages to find new articles but instead rely predominantly on these kinds of venues. 

And there is online teaching.  Online coursework ranges from the purely recreational through the scamworld to the highly academic. Some are currently free, others cost more, but all are cheaper than going to a university and coughing up their tuition bills.  Reaching large audiences, local and virtual, this kind of teaching spread thoughts very widely and rapidly.

And, in addition, all of this is instantly recoverable by web-searching.

These newly available ways of communicating influence many people across the spectrum of society, and instantly, and generally free.  Because of that they truly combine Research, Teaching, and Service.  The are RTS all wrapped up in one package. But there is one little problem....

Getting professional credit
Old sods such as myself have the protection of tenure and at least some respect and audience built up over the years.  I don't have to please a Chair or Dean, and I don't have to worry about job security or salary.  It's very liberating!  But what about the younger generation?

We think that somehow the younger generation (and here we're referring to people in academic careers) need to be given credit for using these new media.  In a nutshell, an effective influential presence on the social and online media should not just be something mentioned discretely on a faculty member's CV.  It should be an integral part of 'productivity', and an influential presence on these new formats should be a criterion for advancement.

But journal and book publishing have had center stage for centuries, and institutions being as reactionary and conservative as they are, naturally tend to stick to the current status system.  This is great for the snob journals, allows them to capitalize by increasing their contents to all sorts of forms, including a lot of things that should be in lesser places, and to play the media for attention (and hence profit) like Heifitz played the violin.

The conventional media still have a strong hold on career snobbery, though at the cost of promoting business as usual while somewhat stifling really new ideas.  In addition, one must admit that if there is chaff in the regular journal realm, there is a huge amount of chaff on the internet.  There are rant blogs, junk journals, scams, pervasive commercial exploitation, and a blizzard of superficial (if personally edifying) social chatter.  But that can be sorted. 

Department chairs and deans need new ways to evaluate their faculty in career terms in ways that are not just based on new sorts of bean-counting (blog hit counts, etc). Indeed, because so much discussion of recent publications—and pre-publications--takes place online, in blogs, in blog or sometimes journal comments, on Twitter or arXiv and other pre-publication venues, and so forth, the old reliable publication citation count can no longer adequately serve as a measure of the impact of a given paper, or a scholar’s body of work.  Indeed, the fact of publication itself was once considered a measure of a paper’s worth when peer review was the gold standard for separating the chaff from the grain.  This is no longer true. 

Going beyond the bean-counting
But there are new metrics that aren't like the old bean-counting metrics.  Alternative metrics.  Altmetric, for example.  "Altmetric Explorer.  A powerful and intuitive web application that helps you see all of the attention surrounding your papers."  It'll track blog posts, Mendeley links, Tweets and more.  And, there are multiple analytical tools for tracking blog traffic, including Google Analytics and many others.  And there's always the new old standby, Googling a scholar's name.  So, really, given that so many academics have Twitter accounts, and more and more are blogging, or migrating to Mendeley or Linkedn and many other social media sites, including those I don't know about, administrators now have every reason to take online scholarly activity into account, and numerous ways to do it.

With enough pressure from below, from the younger faculty whose careers will be affected, perhaps it can happen.


Anonymous said...

I suppose the first question I have is not how to reform the present structure, but rather whether it's a structure worth reforming.

Start with this: College in the U.S. has gone the way of medicine and incarceration - it has become big business.

College enrollment is up 33% in 20 years, but is now showing signs of tapering off. Which makes sense. In a down and falling economy, with job prospects reduced for young folks, the numbers should trail off.

But, more fundamentally, why do people even go to college?

1. To prepare for a job.
2. To learn.
3. To put off growing up/nothing else to do.

2 and 3 are going by the wayside as luxuries that most can no longer afford now that the expansionist economy of the late 1900s is failing.

That leaves job training. But is that really why young folks go to college? I mean, as wonderful as it is to be educated, do you really need Psch 132 and Calc 122 and World Geography to do whatever job it is you end up doing? With the exception of engineers, some of the applied sciences (perhaps bio/chem), and those who actually work in their major after matriculation, most of what is learned is not used.

So then why do it? Why pay the money?

And the answer is the key to understanding the corporatization of the American education system.

The answer is, of course, to get the card. Because you need the card to get the job.

And you know this is really about the card and not about the education because there is no other way to get the card.

You want to be a nurse? You got a perfect score on the NCLEX? Okay. Do you have the card? No? Sorry.

You want to be a lawyer? You know more about the law than most of the hacks running around with bar imprimaturs? You passed the state bar exam? Okay. Show me the card. No? Sorry.

Point is, colleges have become the gatekeepers of the cards, and you have to pay them their cut if you want to enter into one of the many fields that require explicit cards. Of course, there are many fields that require an explicit card - that is, you need a college degree of some kind to get hired.

Which comes back to professors. What is their use today? What was it 100 years ago?

Fact is, a substantial portion of the population could become as educated as any college grad without ever meeting a professor.

So why does the current college/professor model still exist?

Money. Corporate profits. Protection of vested interests (including professors).

If they allowed people to get the card upon a showing that the person was properly educated, by whatever means worked for them, then that would have the immediate effect of killing about 50-80 percent of the colleges out there, as a huge proportion of students would simply study on their own, pass whatever tests were required, and forego the time and expense of attending conventional institutions.

It's clearly not about the learning, and I'm not sure it ever has been about the learning.

It's simply about one more societal mechanism that exists to perpetuate profits through protection of one or more groups using the protection of regulations (and in this case, of cultural norms and expectations).

You know what would be great? Make the bar exam substantially more difficult and then open it up to any 18 year old who wants to take it. You pass? You're an attorney. That would have the effect of 1) Dramatically increasing the quality of attorneys, and 2) dramatically reducing the cost of using an attorney.

Of course 4 year colleges and 3 year law schools would lose billions of dollars, so there's that to consider . . . .

Ken Weiss said...

I don't think it's quite as cynical as you seem to, but you have certainly identified the issues. First, I'd say that in the past education was hardly available outside monasteries and universities, and by and large only the aristocracy or other privileged people had access. Second, even then, much of what went on a unis was acculturation: learn the classics, French and Latin, the Bible and so on (perhaps military history and the like) and you could be a pastor, military officer,political leader, or operator of your estate and fit into the symbolic world of upper social strata.

Now, it's a middle-class venture to a much greater extent (the privileged still populate the traditional elites, and there rather than job-training it's who-you-meet opportunities to warrant your value and future success).

In Europe, there are at least some systems much more like what you suggest: pass a test of expertise, and you get your degree. The apprenticeship system was like that in its way as well.

There are somethings that are so intricate that you do need someone to help you through them (well, most people do). We need far more engineers and doctors than self-learning would produce or could produce, I think.

College is today a huge middle-class place to have fun, meet people, and stay off the streets for a while. But I'm old-fashioned enough and, based on my own personal experience, sanguine enough about the experience to believe in the value of residential education.

I think an appreciation for the proverbial finer things in life (understanding the arts and history and evolution, for example--but not referring to Swiss watches and Rolls-Ryces) can be distributed more broadly in society by having them explained. This knowledge isn't necessary for living, but may be important in quality of life and in quality of citizens.

Maybe that's a luxury or even an illusion. Clearly, we are bloated beyond need and for many of the reasons you describe. But our post was more about faculty activities than whether the whole enterprise is in need of radical change. I think that if we rebalanced faculty work criteria, we would or at least in principle could improve society.

I'll say also that the universities were happy to take research off the shoulders of industry, so they could pay us to do their work, for their profit and some status for us, and that this certainly commercialized the university environment--even in the sense that non-profit sources of funds like NIH or NSF grants provide profit ('overhead' funds) for the U's to play with.

Social organizations always have problems, and we've been discussing some of them here. To me personally, when we know there are problems, we should do something about them. Unfortunately, hierarchies and inertia usually impede that sort of reform until the situation is already so bad that it becomes painful to do it.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Learning, even learning how to learn independently, is a social activity for many if not most. Therefore schools.

Jim Wood said...

Anonymous, I don't know who you are, but I like your style. Personally, I don't think you're too cynical at all. In Denmark, where I lived for a couple of years, they actually begin tracking students early in secondary education. By what we'd call your junior year in high school, you would be clearly in either the academic track or the technical track (there is some limited room to switch tracks). Very few students end up in the academic track and go on to university. Which may sound invidious and discriminatory except for one thing: the technical track is well-funded, well-respected, and actually USEFUL in real life. No one that I ever observed was disrespected for being in the technical track. As I recall, physicians (to take one example) come out of the technical track, as well they should. And they're well-trained. I was initially shocked at the system, but I came to appreciate it more and more.

Manoj Samanta said...

My thoughts are more in line with Anonymous above. The higher education system acts like a cartel and is unsustainable+not worth saving. Maybe some universities will survive in a much reduced form compared to today, but the largest fraction of the existing university system will follow the way of paper newspapers.

> I don't think it's quite as cynical as you seem to

Your lack of cynicism comes from lack of knowledge. Since 2008 crash, the entire academic system has been sustained through exponential amount of student debt and hiding new graduates in parents' basements. Sooner or later, there will be a reality check.

Ken Weiss said...

There may be a reality check, but on-the-ground universities serve many purposes, and not just for graduate students. Small classes, research laboratories, social connections, and even social behavior will keep students wanting the real thing. There may be change, and some of us have tried to nudge our schools to make them without just pandering for money, but that's hard to achieve.

Nonetheless, universities are here to stay. They are not like newspapers, I think.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting discussion. Ken Weiss - thank you for your response. Manoj - not okay to tell somebody they have a lack of knowledge. It's a bit of an argumentative crutch. In essence, you're saying, "I'm right, and the reason you don't know I'm right is because you don't have the same information I have."
Better to just provide the information and a good argument as to why the information is dispositive.

I suppose my "big picture" view of the world taints all of my opinions. True enough. We have just passed through the heart of the oil age, and our prior social, cultural, egalitarian, and economic gains will now be given back, bit by bit, as the oil age winds down. College is caught in the same net as is personal wealth, opportunity, per capita GDP, and so on. There must be a shrinkage, because all boats fall in a lowering tide.

Better question is what comes next.

Andrew B.

Anonymous said...

One of the most difficult thing any person will ever do is question the world into which they are born.
Prior to about age 40, it never occurred to me to question the academic structure of which I was a part.
Now I see it more as a control system of vested interests.
I suppose that's cynical, but are cynicism and realism mutually exclusive?

Andrew B.

Ken Weiss said...

It's oversimplifying, but I'd say that 'education' really is 'enculturation', that is, teaching people how to be a part of our culture. There is a mix of what we take to be important in the 'factual' world (e.g., molecules, chemical reactions, grammatical rules, mathematics) and what are our 'values' (politics, religion, aesthetics, sports, media,.....).

Universities do both. In the past, they were largely the preserve the wealthy, training them for status positions and how to behave in those roles. Now, as a middle-class phenomenon, it has broader impact.

Any institution tends to become arthritic and self-preserving, and often more in service to its personnel than to those it claims to serve (e.g., church, government, university....).

Part of this is what you call a control system of vested interests. It is cynical only if you confuse what people say they believe (what in anthropology is called their 'emics') and what they actually do (their 'etics'). So one can even be non-cynical and say that this is how societies are, including routine hypocrisy that protects peoples' belief in their own worthiness etc.

Josh Nicholson said...

I think it is a great suggestion to start to evaluate scientists in a more comprehensive way. As a grad student all my committee ever wants to know is: "where are the papers?" This is an important question but it is not the only question that should be asked. My "services" are acknowledged but it is apparent that they don't really matter in terms of my success as a grad student.

I have held off from blogging on a personal basis because it is a lot of work with little or no reward. Whereas many blogs can be written as formal papers and then added to your CV and counted.

So basically, I think your suggestion to count other beans or more beans is a good one.

Ken Weiss said...

Blogging is quick, and so a bit sloppier than 'real' publications, but it need not be that way. And one can reach hundreds or thousands of readers, and much faster, with thoughtful blogs.

It's true that new theory or formal data and the like are not very suitable for blogging. But with online publication, even that can be much faster--as the founder of Winnower, you know very well.

Anyway, reform is in the air and it should be, I think.

Josh Nicholson said...

I agree with you that blogging is a great medium to reach many readers but in terms of me moving up in academia it is not counted. That was my point. Students, like myself, are being trained to pursue only what "matters" (i.e. pubs/presentations).

I also agree with you that reform is in the air and I think it will come from all levels of scientists.

Anne Buchanan said...

Josh, there are other benefits to blogging for students, I think, even if it doesn't count in the pile of beans. Blogging encourages thinking more broadly than does your typical data report paper, and it is a way for (hopefully) well-formulated ideas to make it onto the public stage. Not a bad thing -- unless of course you're advocating the overthrow of a potential employer's institution.

Ken Weiss said...

I'd go farther, and say that if there is enough grass-roots resistance and proactive pressure for change, then what 'matters' has to be changed, so that students can pursue not just their dreams (and why not that, after all, in wealthy societies?), but also pursue the trail of knowledge however and wherever it leads.

There will always be a hierarchy and those who want to chase it with intensity, and they may on average 'succeed' more (at filling what the hierarchy expects), but there could be much more sane lives for the majority in a reformed system.

Holly Dunsworth said...

"With enough pressure from below, from the younger faculty whose careers will be affected, perhaps it can happen."

How does a non-tenured faculty member change tenure expectations??

Ken Weiss said...

It will take concerted action from many directions, including the academic grass roots (you and your fellows). It will evolve as administrations realize (hopefully, not too gradually) the nature of the changing landscape. Senior people like me might be able to nudge chairs and deans a bit, but from their perch they tend to be conservative (less risk that they'll be accused of lowering standards, bias, using 'undocumented' criteria, or that they're just plain stodgy)

Anne and I have submitted a commentary on this to a journal; it was invited and we hope it will be accepted and published.

I am also starting to put live links to relevant social media 'product' of people in letters I write for them and to refer explicitly to their open, public contributions etc.

Education of administrators shouldn't have to be necessary, but they' re human and tend to be older and hence more reactionary. So it has to be a process.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Maybe one way to do this for someone like me is to call attention to the usefulness and power of social media and blogging when I have a larger audience, like at college colloquia or faculty summit type events. Even Darwin Day.

Ken Weiss said...

It's like proselytizing for a religion: spread the gospel every chance you get. Lead people to explore it for themselves, to think about it, and so on. To experience it, and thus 'see' what it's all about.

That's why, until I find reasons not to, I'm going to be embedding links to things like blogs or other online things by people for whom I write letters of recommendation--to get those who read, and hence who judge, to 'see' rather than just hear about, what the person is doing--or to see them in action, because you can learn a lot about someone from the 'tone' as well as content of blog posts etc..

Unless this is just a passing phase in our culture, it has to be advocated so people are entrained to a new way of thinking.