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Feb 22, 2007

On Scholarly Productivity

Some people find joy and satisfaction in research and writing, while others have found happiness in other things. I don’t believe tenured lives should be exactly the same. Most universities developed systems of subtle humiliations and pressures to induce more and more scholarship from both tenure-track and tenured faculty. I don’t find these systems sensible or productive. One of the major unintended consequences is the proliferation of shoddy scholarship. Publishing for the sake of publishing encourages new journals and publishing houses to pop up every minute, each with slightly lower standards than the previous one. Drastic reduction in publishing costs made this even worse. In today’s academia, there are more writers than readers.

It is also clear to me that most people will only have one or two good ideas in their life time, if that many. It is sad to observe a publishing machine consisting of many poor graduate students and one academic superstar; a machine that keeps churning out the same book under different titles every year. I have a great respect for textbook authors, who constantly revise and improve their very valuable texts, but little respect for so-called prolific writers who have ran out of steam decades ago, and still pretend to be original. On a personal note, I believe I have one more book in me, but that’s about it. Who knows, maybe another idea will come to my mind later, and then I will write something else. Of course, some people are genuinely prolific, and keep coming up with new ideas throughout their lives. Those are the lucky ones, and they are rather exceptional.

However, scholarship is essential to the whole business of being a university. If we only consume but do not produce any new knowledge, how do we justify our ability to teach students? Where does our claim to authority reside, if not in the ability to produce knowledge? This is especially important in graduate education, where we are supposed to teach our students to generate knowledge and original thought, and teach it by example. So, universities are right to demand evidence of continuing scholarship from its faculty. Or, rather faculty are right to demand it from each other.

How do we reconcile this paradox? On one hand, the publishing game as a whole does not seem to be very productive. On the other hand, scholarship seems to be as central to university’s mission as teaching. A complicating factor, but also a possible solution is the concern for fairness and equity. Since the medieval times, scholarly communities had a specific ethos: they are places where excellence is valued, and yet they are self-governed bodies of equals. Fairness is important on both counts. So when a professor A teaches six classes and publishes two or three refereed papers a year, but professor B publishes nothing, and teaches the same six classes, we have an equity problem. It’s just not fair. The most honorable solution would be for the non-publishing colleague to pick up another class and teach it, or take on a large service project and complete it for the benefit of the whole group.

As I was trying to show, there is nothing embarrassing or shameful about quitting the publishing game. It is just an acknowledgement of a certain course one’s life has taken. For example, I am a full-time administrator, so no one will accuse of me of slacking off if my publication record slows down, right? The assumption is that I am busy and somewhat useful to the university in another capacity. The same logic of respect should be applied to people who decide to concentrate on teaching, and take a break from scholarship. If someone wants to claim 80% of one’s workload as teaching, and 0% as scholarship, such a choice should be greatly respected and appreciated by others. After all, teaching 30 students might do more good than writing another paper. It might not, but it might.

Again, it is not as much an issue of employee’s contractual obligations, or an issue of money. Rather, this is an issue of simple equity. Every faculty should apply about the same effort, but perhaps to different things. And as long as those things are not self-serving, but useful to the institution, others should accept and respect various choices. Active scholarship is good for the institution, but so is teaching and some service. In general, people are most productive when they do what they like to be doing. A university will gain from promoting a culture of diverse interest and equitable but diverse workloads. Of course, such a culture will demand some level of trust that others will chose to carry their fair share of work, and some administrative and peer controls to make sure it happens.

To most people, fairness is more important than money or the amount of work. Whatever the grumblings, our jobs are some of the best ones around. Feelings get hurt when people perceive being treated unfairly by either administration, or by colleagues. Feelings get hurt when someone is obviously taking it easy, while I have to work hard for the same compensation.

Here I am, always arguing for incentives, entrepreneurship, and against egalitarianism. Yet fairness is not the same thing as egalitarianism. A fair person is OK with someone else doing better in life, as long as those better off truly deserve it. A fair person does not experience much envy, because she has her dignity and is given respect. A fair person wishes that no one will poor; he does not wish that no one will be rich.

Feb 16, 2007

Memories and time

The deepest, most carnal memories come uninvited. Triggered by a particular sensation, such a memory pierces your entire life like a threaded needle. It holds together the loose stuff of accidents and self-justifications we call life. Those ephemeral threads are the only connecting tissue; they allow us to claim kinship with younger strangers that used to occupy our younger bodies. The sound of your mother’s voice, the smell of the small creek in your hometown, the breeze playing with your hair; things like that.

One of mine is walking on a snowy path at night, frigid, snowy night. It will inevitably bring a strange feeling of acute loneliness, as if I am the only one left on this inhospitable, cold, vast planet. At the same time, I am elated and happy to see something beautiful, and just in the right place. Squeaks of snow. Pure paucity of colors. Short wind blows that make me gasp for air, exactly like fish out of the water. The strange depth of horizon, more imagined than real. Walking to school in early Siberian morning; the scratchy scarf against my cheeks; too tight, Mama, too tight, it is not that cold.

I can live in all times of my life at once; with no story, no biographic list of selected events, and nothing to explain. It is simply a different sort of presence in my own life outside of time. What is time, anyway? The biographic time of life span? Isn’t it just a convenient way of telling stories? Isn’t it simply a way of separating events into important and unimportant, and then editing them together in sequence? Time is arbitrary and constraining; time is the dictator whose power is as strong as our willingness to obey. In a very real, bodily sense, my trip to the second grade classroom just happened again several days ago, when it was cold in Colorado. It did happen again, you see.

Not only the past, but future is also already here. I remember the distinct feeling of a complete, transparent life already lived when I was just a small child. You might think I had no idea what is going to happen to me, but I know better. All my life was given to me as a preview. I cannot tell the events that will occur, but I know what will happen; those are two very different things.

The straight, artificial biographical time dominates our lives. We deem events to be important or trivial depending on how well they fit into the novel about ourselves we keep writing. This makes sense, because the biographic time is easy to communicate to others. Yet I just communicated my walk, and most people can relate to something like this just as well. Moreover, there is a serious problem with biographic time: it skews the importance of events in one direction. Jobs, publications, awards, evaluations, promotions, successes and failures, rites of passage, birth, death – all of these take too much of importance, and this is just not good. The events of biographical time do not always go well; we do not always have any control over them. This is where a relatively small unpleasant thing begins to eat at our sense of identity. It just does not fit well into the carefully constructed auto-biographical narrative. This should not be happening to me; and if it is, well, it is because other people are evil or I am worthless (Those two thoughts, by the way, are really identical in their origin). We torture each other because we want others to behave like characters in our own novels. But the characters to do not cooperate and stories do not come out as planned.

If human life is a novel, it has to be richer than the narrative. A simple recital of events makes a very boring reading indeed. Narrative should be punctuated with glimpses from other kinds of time, where the insignificant, dismissed, and forgotten bits of human life suddenly come back in full force and claim their unexpected importance. To live happy, full lives, we should always be on a lookout for the carnal memories I began with. We must constantly search for sensations, parallels, strange thoughts and feelings that take us out of the vicious run of the biographic time. We all are still little children, our parents and grandparents are all alive and well; we all are already dead and forgotten; we can have our first love experienced again and again. It is the same day as yesterday, and all e-mails in your mailbox you have read already. You are just here, and it is the time that keeps running in circles around you. So, stand still, and let the piercing memories and premonitions do their quiet job of threading your life together.

Feb 9, 2007

Symbolic violence

Pierre Bourdieu has introduced a fascinating notion of symbolic violence, “the violence which extorts submission, which is not perceived as such, based on ‘collective expectations’ or socially inculcated beliefs” (Practical Reason, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, 103.). This is when someone reminds you of your duty, or exhorts compassion, or uses value-laden language to make his or her point. For example, someone says to you: “should we not have the interest of the student in mind, not our own personal interest?” This evokes the symbolism of altruism versus selfishness dichotomy. What are you going to say in response? No, we should really protect our own selfish interest and forget about students? Even if that is what you think, the power of social norms make such a statement forbidden, especially in a public setting. Moreover, there are certain things you won’t even allow yourself to think; certain feelings you experience but suppress; which is where Freud and Bourdieu nicely overlap. Everyone has got to love children. No one ever profess dislike for children. Of course, education is important; you can’t say that education is not really that important without losing respect or credibility. Teachers are supposed to love all children, care about them, and accept lower pay gratefully. We are not in it for the moneys, etc., ad nauseam.

We all do this to each other, in small or big ways. “Do you love me? How do I look?” Hmm, let’s see what the right answers are. Or, in another situation: “Students should take responsibility for their own learning.” Or, “This if for your own good.” Much of what appears to be a dialogue is, in fact, thinly veiled power struggle, often using symbolic violence. One has got to be grateful, to return favors, to respect one’s parents, to love one’s own and other people’s kids. In addition, teachers and other educators must appear selfless, not greedy, etc. We all use this; this is just a matter of normal life. This is how we make other people do something they otherwise wouldn’t. Some people are better than others at detecting symbolic violence directed toward them, and some can defend themselves with either unmasking it, or trumping it with another form of symbolic violence. But we all do it.

I recognize symbolic violence as a part of regular social life, but question its efficiency in administrative matters. For example, someone says: “the university is in big financial trouble; we all need to make sacrifice. Let’s find our way out collaboratively.” What’s not to like? Sacrifice, collaboration, solidarity; all wonderful things; one would appear and perhaps feel guilty not collaborating. I’d rather have a direct order: cut your expenses 4%, or better, raise your revenues 4%. Or, something like this: “You are a campus leader; you are a part of this decision making process; you get to decide.” Great, I am a part of the group, therefore I must play along and say what I am expected to say. People want to be helpful, and don’t want to be confrontational. The most interesting part of symbolic violence is that it does not feel like violence; rather it feels like a free choice, except it is not really free.

The symbolic violence is one of many power mechanisms of administrative control institutions use. It works very well in cases of emergency. For example, to fight a war, massive symbolic coercion is needed to mobilize people. If you have one massive financial crisis, it works to get everyone to sacrifice. However, it does not work well as a routine administrative tool. If there is a conflict between self-interest and socially approved norms, self-interest often wins over time. Even if it does not win, people accumulate resentment and feel exploited and demoralized. Sometimes, they don’t even understand why, but in most cases, they do. In the short run, institutional symbolic violence saves resources, because it helps extort more labor for less money. However, in the long run, it backfires, because the quality of labor declines.

I am not saying that only self-serving behavior should be encouraged, or that people should care only about monetary rewards. That’s not the case at all. However, I always like to be clear if I am being to asked to volunteer and to help, or I am expected to do something as a part of my job, or someone will compensate me for doing extra work. If this is a plea for help, I will or will not do it, but most importantly, I’ll do it on my terms, and never ask anything in return. If this is something I should be doing anyway, fine. If you’re paying me, this becomes a different kind of arrangement, where we negotiate a mutually acceptable amount. However, I don’t want to be paid AND feel like someone is doing me a favor; that would be a primitive corruption. I also hate pleas for help which are impossible to turn down, because of the all symbolic BS that’s wrapped around the request. Charity should be between me and my conscience; work should have an accountant sitting between me and whoever wants me to do something.

One can see a clear difference in patterns of performance. If people are really interested in doing something, and are passionate about it, or really need it to be done; they do it really well, because there is a self-serving (albeit non-monetary) component. If they get paid well for doing something, they also perform rather well, especially if a specific accountability measure is introduced. However, when they hesitantly agree to do something, because of the symbolic violence pressure… that’ a whole different ball game. People forget appointments, postpone work, they drag their feet forever, and results are not that impresive either. The paradox is that people may sacrifice their lives for a symbol but they are not able to do a half-decent work for the same symbol, if it is extended through some time.

We need to be able to see through symbolic violence, and make our choices outside of this sort of pressures. I bet, we’d do more things better. I like to hear things like “ OK, I’ll do it, I need some service on my resume, and it might be entertaining.” Or: “I’ll do it, I need the money.” Or, “if I don’t do it, people I care about will be in jeopardy.” When people assume martyred look and pretend they’ll do it because some one has to,… it always smells fishy. In other words, they are saying: “OK, but now you all owe me big, because I do this for the Cause.” This is the symbolic violence directed at the institution, not from the institution. So, we all do it. Let’s just learn to see beyond it.

Feb 2, 2007

Merit, Shmerit, or “Evaluate not and thou shall not be evaluated”

It’s that time of the year when all university faculty in two thousand plus colleges across this great nation are getting ready to evaluate and be evaluated. Some schools have strong performance-based systems, where any salary increase is tied to merit, while others have much more egalitarian practices. The latter group may symbolically reward higher performance, but most of the available money goes to cost of living increases.

Let’s call these competitive and egalitarian approaches. Roughly, this is the difference between capitalism and socialism; both have clear advantages, and both have endemic problems. The competitive system encourages excellence, encourages the super-achievers to achieve even more, while encouraging or penalizing their less successful colleagues. However, the fights around merit policy, and actual evaluation process can get really nasty really quick. Academic communities can be destroyed, feelings hurt, and as a result, morale may suffer and productivity actually decline. In addition, a strong competitive system requires a highly structured, formalized system which can be manipulated (for example if each presentation is worth a point, people go to a lot of local conferences and present a lot of the same stuff. If editorship is worth 50 points, people create their own journals just to be editors, etc.). These are real, not theoretical risks, and one should never forget about them.

Now, egalitarian system promotes collegiality, and encourages solidarity. Everyone is above the average, and feels good about that. Even those super-achievers sometimes support the system out of solidarity with their less successful colleagues. Let’s not forget, that many university faculty have strong egalitarian leanings, so it is philosophically appealing to sabotage what administration wants (merit incentive), and just declare everyone above average. I am not being sarcastic here; egalitarian approach works well to sustain group cohesion. However, this system also caries long-term risks, mainly, the risk of becoming less and less competitive as an institution. Socialism has the same problem on a larger scale: such societies (whether Communist ones, or European social democracies) work well when isolated; they tend to lose when exposed to all those workaholic aggressive peoples like Americans or the Brits. So, Soviet Union collapses, Swedes reform their tax system, and even Germans think of cutting their welfare benefits. This happens not because of the internal problems, but because of the economic pressure from without.

Universities have been monopolies, fairly isolated from competition by state subsidies or by big names, as well as by historic high demand for their services. This is less and less the case. States tend to cut subsidies; enterprising neighbors steal their students, on-line competition makes it more difficult to recruit on-campus students. Student mobility makes transfers easier. The long-term danger of the egalitarian merit system is apparent: an institution may decline, because people relax to the point of doing very little besides teaching their course the way they always have taught them. It is difficult to encourage innovation without some sort of incentive. Why would you do it, if it takes very little to be excellent? Of course, everyone subjectively feels overworked all the time. But I am not talking about working more, I am talking about innovating, and working smarter. That’s the name of the game – productivity, not sheer effort.

It is very difficult to put the interests of the institution above your own short-term interests. It is also very difficult to agree to a policy that may or may not get you to the highest level of excellence. It is easier to avoid conflict and just agree to the lowest common denominator. Judging each other is hard; getting nosy about other people’s business is irritating. So, people should decide for themselves where to go – back to USSR or forward to the brazen cut-throat world of competition. The irony is, you might have no real choice about which way to go, only a choice about when change is going to happen – now and less painfully, or later, with a lot of pain. Do we make this university competitive and innovative, or we wake up one day with programs closing, tenured faculty being let go, enrollments shrinking, and the State imposing drastic cuts. Everyone complains about too much work, but think about having no job at all. I’d rather be slightly earlier, then constantly risking to have missed the train.