Friday, July 20, 2012

What's wrong with academia? Part 1A

I wasn't planning to write anything more on the issue of job security, but I've been really pleasantly surprised by the number of people who've taken the time to engage seriously with my previous post, both in blog and Facebook comments and in private responses. Thanks for your thoughts - I really appreciate it. And I hope that the debate has helped a few people to clarify their own position on this issue, whatever that might be. It's certainly had that effect on me.

I should start by saying that I am extremely unlikely to be in a position where I can implement any of the sweeping changes I proposed. That's for the best, for a number of reasons. For one thing, like Neil (Facebook comment), I'm actually more conflicted than the previous post made out; in that post I was trying to take a line of argumentation to its (approximate) logical extreme, and though it's an extreme that I am sympathetic to, I'm not too fond of extremes in general. For another thing, I'm not sure I'd have the balls to make big changes like this.

I think two major issues have been raised with regard to the alternative system I sketched (as well as a host of more minor ones, such as the increased danger of funding cuts under such a system, as Christine pointed out in a blog comment, and the difficulty of keeping long-term projects afloat, as Katie pointed out in a Facebook comment). These are: "juking the stats", and the issue of job security as an incentive per se (the "family argument"). I'll address these in turn.

Juking the stats
"Impact is up 42%, and the Mayor's gonna love our project on the Big Society."
I think this issue was stated most clearly by Tim (Facebook), Lameen (blog) and Unknown (blog), though in different ways. It's closely related to the "flavour of the month" approach to research funding mentioned by Orestis (blog). Essentially the key problem as I understand it is this: the intention of abolishing permanent positions is to force academics to continue to come up with innovative new work. But one alternative for academics is to become cynical, and to try to game the system by either a) producing a load of hackwork (or at best work that's a "safe bet") and passing it off as research activity, or b) deliberately focusing your research priorities on what others think is awesome (grant-awarding bodies, employers, research assessment bodies, the media) and generating hype and hot air rather than ideas. (On reflection, I guess that a and b are variants of one another.)

This is a genuine concern, and a clear potential practical problem for any approach like the one I sketched. It's worth mentioning that it's a problem right now as well. For instance, in Lisbon recently I was discussing with colleagues a project that had been awarded vast amounts of money by a major grant-awarding body but that seemed to us to be mostly spin. Similarly, as I mentioned in my previous post, research assessment as carried out at present is not enormously difficult to juke, at least insofar as the intent of research assessment is to assess research quality and the metrics used by for instance the REF in arts and humanities are a fairly poor reflection of that. (Publication counts, essentially: you have to submit four; monographs count for two [why two? why not four, or ten, or zero?].) Other metrics used as a proxy for research assessment at present are also not great: citation counts, for instance. It's not as if you cite something solely because you believe it's wonderful research.

Given that the problem exists now, it would only be quantitatively greater under the approach I sketched, not qualitatively different. This leads me to suspect that the issue is an independent one: can a robust metric for research quality or for innovation be devised? I've seen no demonstrative argument to the effect that this is impossible either in principle or in practice (though I'm damned if I can think of anything that would work). More generally, though, when it's put this way it's pretty clear that the increased influence of juking the stats under the approach I outlined is not an argument against the approach. Consider an analogy from the school system. In order to assess pupils' achievements (as well as teaching efficacy etc.), exams are needed. This much is uncontroversial, though the exact extent of examination at primary and secondary level gives rise to heated debates. Now consider a system in which pupils only take one examination - in order to assess their suitability to enter the school in the first place (sorta like the old 11+ in the UK) - and then are left to their own devices, without any assessment. They might advance from year 7 to year 8, say, but this (as, ultimately, in the school system) would be based solely on age. This seems to me to be fully analogous to the current system of permanent academic positions. (In particular, though it's not unheard of for pupils to repeat a year, being demoted to the year below on account of poor performance is not something that often happens, to my knowledge.)

The point is that one has to doubt any argument that goes as follows: "Assessment (of pupils, academics, the Baltimore police force, etc.) is really difficult, and all metrics so far devised are imperfect reflections of what we're actually trying to measure. Therefore, let's not do any assessment at all past a certain point." At best it's a slippery slope argument, and we all know that slippery slope arguments lead to much, much worse things. ;)

The family argument
"Won't somebody please think of the children?"
This is the argument most clearly and repeatedly made against my position, e.g. by Chris, Liv, Katie and Neil (Facebook) and Darkness & Light (blog) and by more than one person in private responses as well.

There are many strands to this argument, but before I mention them I should perhaps explain why in my first post it seemed like I was dismissing the family argument so cavalierly. Underlying that post was the desire to optimize the individual academic's research output. I was tacitly assuming that this is the only goal of academia - which of course it isn't. There are many other sides to academia: teaching, admin (yay!), training others to become good researchers, etc. While the approach I sketched might be good for the research output of individuals, it doesn't look as promising for any of these other sides.

One strand of the family argument is simply a human argument: it's not as good for us as people if we don't have permanent jobs. We can't plan in advance to nearly as great an extent, and of course it's much harder to do things like buying a house and raising a family. Well, this is all obviously true, though of course it will bother some people more than others. I personally don't particularly want to raise a family; I have no particular ties; I am young and mobile. (To those of you in different situations, this particular bias must have seemed painfully obvious from my post.) To the extent that optimizing individual research output is the goal, however, it's irrelevant.

However, note the word "individual" with which I've carefully been hedging. As Chris pointed out in his Facebook comment and subsequent clarification, if we consider the research community as a whole, that could suffer. People who do want to raise a family might decide that academia is not for them, and we might have a mass exodus on our hands. This reduces the "genepool", and is hence bad.

There are a couple of ways of responding to this criticism, though both are super tendentious. First of all, maybe I think that actually the absence of permanent positions should be something that's not restricted to academia but is more prevalent at large. (As, in fact, it already is among people of my generation. One good friend has had several jobs now, in the real world, and found career advancement to be nearly impossible - putting this down to the fact that "old people can't be fired".) If the whole world works in the way that I've been suggesting, then academia would just be one field among many.

Secondly - and I should emphasize that I don't believe this, though the argument could in principle be made - do we really need all those people who would leave the field? Academia is already massively oversubscribed to the extent of the job market being a joke, at least in the arts and humanities. But the smaller genepool must be a bad thing in itself - unless it could be argued that the people who desire permanence, who want to raise families etc. are inherently less good at research than flexible, asocial freaks like me. But I really don't want to go down that road; I'll just note that it's an open question, which could presumably be investigated empirically. (Actually the argument could be put the other way round, as one private response to my post did. If academia is robbed of all the people who are embedded in stable social contexts such as families, it becomes distanced from the social "mainstream", which encourages precisely the kind of philistinism I was scared of in my previous post.)

The final key strand of the family argument is not about families: it's about the other roles of academics. Certainly for teaching purposes, constant change is bad. Departmental leadership and continuity of that kind will also suffer. Perhaps most importantly, as again emphasized in a private response, the role of senior academics in mentoring more junior academics would be compromised. Again, on a narrow reading of optimization of the individual research output, none of this is a problem. But again, if we consider the output of the research community, it's bad.

In this section I haven't been concerned with defending my original argument, at least not beyond pointing out the tacit (and, ultimately, flawed) assumption that underlay it. There's more to academia than the individual's research, that much is clear.

Well, I think I'll stop here. Other interesting points were raised; in particular, my impression is that a lot of the sort of changes I'm suggesting are already in place in the sciences (and that people heartily dislike them). But I don't have the background or knowledge necessary to consider that further, and I wouldn't want to generalize beyond the arts and humanities (which is itself a stretch from linguistics). So, yeah.

No comments: