Category Archives: Academia

The Big Brain Begins to Think

By Research Scholars Emily Monosson, Arika Virapongse  and Judy Daniels 

At the Ronin Institute, we’ve been working on a Big Brain project that intends to collect and share experiences and insights by scholars operating outside of traditional academic institutions. Our Big Brain project got off to a great start in early March 2021 with two MeetUp sessions.

For the first session, we used a Google Jamboard to brain-storm on different questions–it was a white-board post-it note combination where anyone could add a note to the board. We began with four questions based loosely around: Turning Points; Roadblocks; and Lessons/Solutions as an independent scholar. The last board was centered around Helpful thoughts and tips. For the second session, we spent time organizing the boards by grouping post-it notes together and making sense of them.

The boards are fascinating. Take a look. 

Turning points_Big Brain
Road Blocks_Big Brain Ronin
Lessons and Solutions_Big Brain_Ronin
Helpful thoughts_Big Brain Ronin

From this first MeetUp for the Big Brain, we realized that the questions we posed inadvertently suggested that independent scholars have problems that need solving, and that is why we are all here at the Ronin Institute. However, we learned that some of us are here as a sort of second or third phase of our career, for example, after leaving a full career in academia and elsewhere but still wanting to carry on with scholarship within a community.

One thing that became clear is that Ronin Research Scholars are a diverse group who value community. So, another task going forward from this session will be how to better facilitate community building, networking, and cohesion. In other words, how scholars might find others with the community with similar interests. Importantly, the MeetUp stimulated some great conversation that continued well after the event.

To continue with the Big Brain initiative, we’re planning to have monthly Big Brain sessions that will each focus on a theme that emerged from the boards and conversations. These themes will range from how to find logistical support to time-life management and grant writing.

This is all exciting! Stay tuned for more updates from the Big Brain.

A Simple Plan to Change the Way We Do Higher Education

By Ronin Research Scholar John Paulas

It is time to convert campuses to flourishing spaces for the communities where they are.

Higher education leaders are becoming increasingly aware of a truth that the last year’s catastrophes and social awakenings have accentuated. Colleges and universities have been running an operating deficit that has grown into a huge debt, a deficit of care. The culture of higher education is simply not driven by care for the people of its campus community, let alone the people of the community who live their lives outside its gates. 

As with all problematic systems, the culture, policies, and institutional structures are to blame for this situation, not individuals. However, the ailing culture manifests itself through the conscious and unconscious thoughts, words, and actions or inaction of any individual within the culture.

The ecological study of the “edge effect” has seen that increased biodiversity and interaction happens at the margins of habitats. Think of the border of the field and forest or a riverbank. Let’s make our campuses the real community junction that they can be rather than the pricey gated communities they have become.

A work culture that doesn’t work

Academic labor occurs as if in a monastery. Novices are trained in the culture of the traditional university. They are told from the beginning that only the few “good ones” will “make it” as tenured professors. The others must look elsewhere. Upon taking final vows, they experience firsthand the harsh reality that no place exists for them in any monastery. This discouraging “professional” culture affects all members of the academic community, placing value only on the monolithic outcome of the tenured faculty job, ignoring the individual hopes, intentions, and work of its people, and never seriously looking to the community beyond the monastery walls.

The fact that we can talk about “town–gown” relations, the language presupposing a natural tension, shows the non-organic relationship between communities and the campuses within them. For the knowledge production community to flourish in the future, all boundaries between campus and community must be erased. 

Incredible service done by employees who care is not only a nonstarter in hiring and promotion, but also a de facto impediment to both. This culture of the university must be repaired, and all relationships must be healed through the creation and maintenance of a healthy community. To produce a flourishing culture, care for humans and the practice of humaneness must be prioritized, while care for protecting abstraction, ideals, disciplines, attitudes, outlooks, etc., must be put aside. Attempts at “public outreach” are doomed from the start because of the deprioritizing of humane practice within the culture of higher education, and because the community beyond the campus could benefit from inroads but does not need a helping hand.

Continue reading A Simple Plan to Change the Way We Do Higher Education

Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects

By Ronin Research Scholar Keith Tse

2020 has been a year like no other, and for obvious reasons. It came as no surprise that the word chosen as Word of the Year for 2020 by the American Dialect Society was COVID, since this has been and still is plaguing (literally) our global community since the beginning of 2020. The effects of the worst pandemic in almost a century have been disastrous for all of us, since with travel bans in place and people being discouraged from even leaving their homes many businesses, especially retail and tourist-related ones, have gone into recession, which will no doubt get worse in the coming years and drag our global economy down with it. In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment and many prospective academic hopefuls (myself included) are rethinking their career plans and even established academics are now considering leaving academia for financially more stable pastures (which may perhaps make them want to join our institute for independent scholars, though such causal connections are yet to be established).

In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment

The human cost of the pandemic has also been vast and grave, not only in terms of the number of daily/weekly reported deaths and the soaring number of infections overwhelming our public health systems, but also in terms of our collective mental health which has shown record number of cases of depression and suicide or simply mass anger as seen in recent protests and demonstrations against nationwide lockdown in numerous countries. There is light to be glimpsed from the end of this dark tunnel with mass vaccination now being put into effect by governments and well-credited pharmaceutical companies, though it would be naïve to think that our world will suddenly go back to its pre-COVID state just because we now have something that comes close to being a cure, especially since we have now discovered that it is possible for the virus to mutate and spread asymptomatically. The end of 2020 is truly a pivotal moment in our modern history, and as we transition into 2021, we seem to find ourselves in a crisis that only occurs once in a lifetime (let’s certainly hope so!). Nonetheless, being appointed Community Journalist at our institute since last July has given me a very different perspective on our Ronin community and beyond as I am now jointly (with the amazing Alex Lancaster) responsible for internal and external communications and have learnt a great deal about our members and our scholarly activities. I do believe that there have been some positives which have sprung from our global crisis, and these may prove critical in shaping the new normal in our research-related fields and beyond.

First of all, working from home. This has been encouraged by nearly all governments in countries which have contracted COVID, and our home has become both abode and place for work. This has drawn mixed reaction, since while some welcome it as they like the idea of working from the comforts of their own home, many others have found work-life balance much harder to strike, especially those who have young children to take care of at home. This is certainly reflected in some of the conversations I have had with our members, and although I have full sympathy for their dilemma, I honestly do not have a solution to it. That said, of all the industries that have been affected by our global lockdown (which pretty much includes all of them), non-experimental research fields are probably the least affected, since unless one’s research requires one to conduct experiments under very specific conditions (like in a laboratory) or to go on field trips abroad, our lives as researchers have never been confined to a rigid routine, like the 9-5 office hours which govern large sectors of the working population. In the words of our President Jon Wilkins at one of our meetings, ‘research is a continuous process that does not just happen during one’s working hours’, and we researchers often have to work through the weekend and holidays, especially when we are hooked onto a particular research idea which may end up keeping us awake through day and night. The advantage of this research lifestyle is that everyday is a holiday, since there is no need to go to work, but the disadvantage is that everyday is a working day, since one is in effect working all the time by thinking about the same things over and over again.

Speaking as a scholar who does research in theoretical Linguistics (some of which I managed to present at a Ronin seminar last November for which I am eternally grateful to the organisers, namely Jon Wilkins, Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster and Varsha Dani), my work has pretty much gone on as usual, since, despite the strict lockdown in the UK where I am based, I have managed to supply myself with all the stationary and inventory I need for drawing formal representations, and my electronic devices have worked well enough for me to continue as usual in annotating linguistic structures and carrying out statistical analysis. Soliciting linguistic data from native speakers of foreign languages has been more of an ordeal, but our social media is so powerful that it is possible to get in touch with anyone who has access to the internet and has the relevant social media apps at his/her disposal (Whatsapp, WeChat, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetup, and, of course, Zoom, which has become the default application among all our professional circles). In my case, I have managed to consult speakers of foreign languages on Facebook, WeChat and via email on many linguistic details which I need for my research (and I thank them for their patience, generosity and willingness to address my queries). Collecting and measuring natural data is well-nigh impossible without access to special equipment or going on fieldtrips, but for those who, like me, conduct social scientific research, social distancing should not be an insurmountable problem, even if we may still prefer in-person communication. I hope that COVID has not caused too many obstacles to those who conduct practical research.

Continue reading Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Michelle King-Okoye

This new installment of Better Know a Ronin Scholar” continues on the theme of public health. In late October I spoke to UK-based Research Scholar Michelle King-Okoye (pronoun: she/her). Michelle’s research is primarily in the areas of health inequality, and health and illness experience, including prostate cancer research and research surrounding men’s health and minority ethnic population research. She has worked as a Researcher, Lecturer and a Registered Nurse. She also has an affiliation with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) and is the founder and leader of the Ethnicity and COVID-19 Research Consortium. She describes herself as a content wife and mother who prioritizes time spent with family.

Today I’m welcoming Dr. Michelle King-Okoye to Better Know a Ronin Scholar. Hi, Michelle. How has your 2020 been?

Hi, Alex, thank you so much for having me. 2020 has been challenging so far with all the events that COVID-19 has brought especially to individuals and families affected by this dreaded disease.  Nevertheless, in the midst of the pandemic I am pleased to contribute to research in this area and policy-making to support families affected by COVID-19 and address existing disparities.  I’m really looking forward to this interview to share about this.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of interesting work at the intersection of public health and now COVID. What has been your journey to your area of scholarship?

Firstly, I’m a nurse. I’ve been in nursing for some time. I am originally from the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad and Tobago. I’ve worked as a nurse in various specialties: ICU, oncology, cancer care, open heart surgery, pediatrics, as well as working in accident and emergency, and the operating theater. I stayed in nursing for about six years or so. And then I worked as a lecturer, after completing studies at the University of the West Indies in collaboration with McMaster University in Canada. I pursued teaching in evidence-based practice, critical appraisal and oncology assessment. After that I migrated to the UK for my post grad training and a PhD in Health Sciences. So it has been quite a journey.  

My main focus then, and now, is in health inequality, including ethnicity, culture, and health and illness experiences. 

…it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – seeing there is a human being that we are caring for. … I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity.

Traditional academia can be limiting by encouraging people to follow a very narrow path: school, a bachelor’s degree, PhD without any breaks. In contrast, you didn’t take a direct path to research–you worked as a registered nurse for about six years.  How do you think that experience of being a nurse influenced or shaped how you approach your scholarship?

That’s a very interesting question. I wanted to be a registered nurse because I enjoy caring for people. I know that being compassionate – especially at a time when someone is unwell—is very important for them to feel as if you’re caring for them as well as having an understanding of the disease and illness experience. So being from that background has allowed me to see health and illness from a personal experience. I’ve cared for people, I’ve experienced death (while working as a nurse) and I’ve experienced firsthand people suffering from different diseases.

So it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – but seeing there is a human being that we are caring for.  I have worked and cared for people of all different ethnicities, all different races. And that is also critical, because you might be caring for someone who comes from a different culture, family, traditions, beliefs and practices.  For doctors, healthcare practitioners, and all those involved in healthcare, it is so important to see patients in a holistic way. That has shaped my entire view of how I see people.  I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity. 

File released under the Creative Commons license  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_of_the_World_Health_Organization.jpg

If you look at the World Health Organisation definition of health, health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. It takes everything into consideration. Sometimes we forget that. [As a nurse] seeing people being ill, and seeing them recover, and get well that has really shaped how I see people, how I care and how I teach. Now as a researcher – I’ve seen it from all different perspectives. That has truly been a blessing.

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Michele Battle-Fisher

Welcome back to our occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the research and other activities of our Research Scholars. Earlier this month, I talked to Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher (pronoun: she/her). Michele’s interdisciplinary research spans public health, complex systems and bioethics. Michele wears many hats. In addition to being a scholar at the Ronin Institute, she is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in Ohio, a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science, and the author of Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics. She was a TEDxDartmouth speaker and a participant in the MIT Press Pitchfest.

Welcome Michele!  2020 has been a bit of a doozy of a year thus far. How are you holding up?

Thanks for having me today. This is kind of cataclysmic for me. Between Black Lives Matter and COVID, I’m kind of in overload. But I think it also brings to the point why I do the work that I do in public health: looking at the ethics and complexity of health care systems. So right now, the ethics are: “why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?” We have an ethical issue of where we’re allocating our money–whether it needs to be on the clinical end or it needs to be on the preventative end. In addition, public health does well in expressing the overarching social determinants that make staying healthy individually and as a population overwhelmingly difficult. Yet, public health continues that fight. As a true Ronin, I use a new angle to add to the social complexity afoot.

Why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?

COVID-19 is showing that we act in–at least in the United States–very much from a reactionary position. We deal with our problems when they happen. With this pandemic, I hope we will have a larger discussion of the pre-existing health disparities of people of color, LGBTQ, plus disability. The list could go on and on. It illuminates the holes we have in society and how some of us are falling into those holes. And they’re not throwing a rope in order for us to get us out of that well. So I really dedicate myself to that work and I hope that it’s doing some good.

You published your book, the Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics by Springer back in 2016. It seems to have even more relevance now that public health is front and center.  Is there more interest in that scholarship?

In 2012, I took part in a research program with the National Institutes of Health, it was called ISSH (Institute on Systems Science and Health), that brought together 45 competitively selected  researchers in the areas of agent based modelling, social networks and system dynamics. I reaffirmed my love for systems there. 

I started writing the book back in 2015.  And it started out from a blog that I had run for about two years previously – called Orgcomplexity.  I started trying to connect this whole idea of systems thinking, which came from general systems theory and systems biology – and also the world of physics with chaos and emergence and attractors. I worked very publicly through those ideas, which to some may be foolish because I was doing something that wasn’t within the norm. I was able to actually work out ideas, have people react to my ideas and work on this framework.  

Is a systems approach always the best approach to public health?

Yes and no: it may surprise some who say: “well, isn’t everything complex?” And do we always look at it from that complex lens? We don’t always do that because it also depends on the question you’re asking. Some questions are best answered from a very linear reductionist standpoint: biostatistics measures for example. Those methods are appropriate for those questions. I am just asking that if the question is divergent in nature that we do not jump to using convergent solutions. We are all susceptible to mental models which is the first step for making sense of our world. Ecological framing is not new to public health and explains well the nested, concentric elements that make up health as we live it. Systems thinking calls us to rely on a more dynamic, time-based understanding of nested interdependent elemental systems when appropriate.   

Why did you write a book, rather than publishing journal articles?

I chose not to do journal articles, because number one, I couldn’t get past the reviewers. Because they said: “well, we had other methods and those work, so why do something new?” And then because I wasn’t doing strictly analytical work, that would just get lost by the next journal article. I wanted there to be some type of salience, the ability for me to have a bigger footprint over a longer period of time. So I thought, “Okay, let’s be foolish and write a book”. And so that’s what I did. The second thing was that I was selected as a scholar at a place called the Hastings Center, which is located just north of New York City. And I was brought there as a specialist, as a visiting scholar. And I brought this really kooky idea saying that ethics are complex and they’re like “that is new”. And they just let me do it. That was the first time I felt freedom to actually push the envelope and try to do something that wasn’t expected. 

Were there others working with this perspective?

I don’t want to say that there was nobody else in ethics doing this, but it wasn’t apparent to me that there was a large cluster who were using this perspective.  Sometimes in academia, people follow each other like sheep. And I just decided to be a cow and not a sheep: I’m chewing cud and they’re just following each other – being herded. But in all fairness, I’m still in the academic world and to be published to have any success in that field. I certainly see the worth and the need for academia, but I also know that academics can be very smothering at times. Innovation is not something that they take to readily. So taking different perspectives just takes time, effort and patience. When you’re going up for tenure, there’s little room or time to be innovative. But I love what I do. I really cannot see myself doing anything else. 

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Measuring the right one thing

By Ronin Research Scholar Emily Lankau. This first appeared in July 2020 on LinkedIn.

City Slickers was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It was released during 1991 when I was just on the brink of adolescence. For some odd reason, the story resonated with me then and still does today.

The movie tells the story of Mitch Robbins, a burned-out businessman who gets dragged along on a cattle drive through the southwestern US. At the start of the film, Mitch is going through a premature mid-life crisis at 38 years old.

Mitch manages to befriend the crotchety old cowpoke, Curly, who is leading the sorry expedition of “city slickers”. Riding along on horseback, Curly and Mitch have a deep conversation about the individual choices we make as we try to make sense of our lives.

Curly holds up his index finger and says to Mitch “The secret of life is this. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

“What’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.

“That’s what you gotta figure out.” Curly replies.

Mitch spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what that one thing is. He eventually becomes a pretty decent cowboy and certainly a better man.

*****

A few months ago, I was considering leaving a traditional job with benefits to return to full-time consulting – possibly as a long-term career decision or maybe as a shorter-term place to land to sort some things out. Either way, there were some really good reasons to go; there were also some good reasons to stay.

While contemplating this decision, this scene from City Slickers got stuck in my head. Ruminating on this scene then led me back to another favorite, a book that I read in a freshman literature class during college – Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.

It all seemed a little random, but the subconscious makes interesting connections sometimes. How is a 90’s Billy Crystal comedy related to an early 20th century philosophical novel? It’s like the set up to a bad joke.

But it turns out that the connection is simple – both offer lessons about how we find and define meaning in life. Both meant something to me as I navigated previous transitions in my life and now were converging as I navigated the current one.

The meaning of life is a common theme in art for good reason – it is the central thing we all grapple with from cradle to grave.

What is my purpose? How can I leave something of value behind in the world?

Work, what we do to earn a living, can be central to answering these questions.

Steeped in careerism throughout my academic education, work and career success had become a load-bearing beam of my self-worth. So much so, that I became paralyzed in a work situation that was not healthy for me or for my family.

For the longest time, I couldn’t make the decision to leave because the job and the mission I served in that role had become central to my identity in a way that made it impossible to walk away unscathed.

I stayed too long in a situation that, for reasons that were beyond my control, simply wasn’t for me. I had worked so hard to get there, and I could not accept that it was not what I wanted it to be, that it was damaging me.

My career has been decidedly non-linear because I am the spouse of a tenure-track professor. Like the tail of a comet, I have trailed behind my partner, simultaneously propelled forward and constrained by the trajectory and momentum of his success. I have watched opportunities pass by – green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach due to the orbital velocity that takes me near, but never quite to, a destination that I would choose if I were free to chart my own course.

I am highly trained in a relatively specialized field where job openings are rare and competitive. Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone finds a stable place at the table. Without geographic mobility, the odds of successfully landing one of these prized opportunities are negligible.

I have had to learn to translate and transfer my skills and training into areas far outside of my original career goals for the sake of my family. I have turned myself into a pretzel, time and time again, to fit the available jobs that happen to coincide with our physical location. I have learned to serve and to love the missions that are available to me, to embrace them as my own, even as I mourn the missions I cannot access.

It has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but these contortions have also taught me a remarkable agility and open-mindedness that makes me an asset to clients who are looking for new insights on their systems. I bring a rather unique, outsider’s perspective to nearly everything I do.

Measuring and managing performance is one of the services I offer as a consultant. Because I am the daughter of my remarkably efficient mother, I am innately good at making processes work more smoothly and defining how to measure those improvements. I have had some formal training in program evaluation and performance management to compliment this aptitude. It is a powerful skill to have.

And despite this talent for helping others fix problems and document successes, I have failed to find a satisfying way to steer and mark my own career progress as a trailing spouse. I have walked a Seussean path, all the while celebrating my partner and friends as they make clear, measurable strides forward in their own careers. Perpetually unable to see beyond the next bend in the road, I have often wondered if I am going anywhere at all.

During March, my career had hit an impasse. Nothing was working. I felt stuck. So, I did what I would recommend to a client whose program was not having the effects that they intended. I stood at a white board and drew a massive logic model of my life.

Then I stepped back and stared at it for a while, hoping a pattern would emerge that would point the way forward. I squinted and blinked, trying to find the right plane of focus where the magic eye picture suddenly emerges from the noisy cacophony of colors and shapes.

If a client hired me to do a program evaluation of me, how would we measure success?

What are the right performance metrics for measuring the meaning in one’s life and career?

What’s the one thing?

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisco is a painter who struggles with fear of failure and procrastination. She has great aspirations, yet doubts her abilities. She sees painting as a way to create a bulwark against the chaos of passing time and the detachment of the human experience.

Lily seeks to capture reality on her canvas to “make of the moment something permanent”. She wants to create something tangible to leave in the world. Lily finds meaning in producing something of value, in the identity of being a painter.

Lily spends the whole book trying to find the just-right way to start a painting. Lily is afraid to begin because a wrong decision at the start could spell disaster: “At what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions… Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

I read To the Lighthouse for the first time on the brink of adulthood. I identified with Lily. Not knowing where to begin, I chased what others ordained as markers of a productive scientific life: publications, presentations, book chapters, reports, awards, job titles.

Young scientists are generally taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that their publication counts, journal impact factors, citation indices, and academic titles are concrete measures of their worth. All you have to do to be successful is jump over the bar; publish enough, get tenure.

Young scientists are rarely told that the publish-enough bar is comparative; success in academia is graded on an ever-rising curve and only a small percentage of doctoral-degree holders achieve tenure. Clearing the perpetually-moving bar is an unattainable goal for many scientists and there is no shame in that. The deck is stacked.

Now, nearing 40, staring at the bizarre logic model of my life, I noticed that the concrete products of my scientific efforts were notably absent. The missions I had served and the values that brought me to those missions were there, but the papers, presentations, and job titles held were not. That I had forgotten to list them seemed to mean something.

I realized that this white board was my version of going on a cattle drive. I was having an early mid-life crisis. That realization made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes.

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

Mrs. Ramsey, another central character in the novel, offers a very different solution to finding meaning in a world of impermanence. “Life stand still here,” she said, knowing the whole time that the stockings would always be too short and the children always growing older. Mrs. Ramsay finds meaning in the moments that pass between people, in relationships.

When Mrs. Ramsey throws a dinner party, she looks around and sees that human connection does not happen spontaneously. It takes effort. Someone has to begin. “Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her… for if she did not do it nobody would do it.”

Mrs. Ramsey knew how to make of the moment something permanent. All it takes is the courage to risk all happiness on the success of a single small interaction. Like a painter facing a blank canvas, Mrs. Ramsey looks at her dinner party gathering and then makes a sweeping brush stroke, a beginning, an attempt. She encourages others to be open, to connect, and to find meaning in the smallest things, like having a meal together.

When I was 18, I dismissed Mrs. Ramsey’s answer. Finding meaning in relationships felt too domestic, too stereotypically feminine to be the right way to navigate in a world that was and is still quite dominated by male standards of success. There is no resume section for documenting how nice you are*. Kindness does not get you a tenure-track or executive-level job. Those, I had been taught, were decided on cut-throat productivity.

But nearing 40, I realized that I would be solidly identified as a “Mrs. Ramsey” if Buzzfeed ever did a “Which character from To the Lighthouse are you?” quiz. I felt so daft when I finally figured out something that should have been so obvious.

Every career decision I have ever made was about my family, the people I work with, and the missions I serve. I have never made a decision based on salary, productivity, or clout.

Some of my career choices have involved sacrificing all three of the latter at the same time to make space for the former. To have the security to be able to consistently choose based on these values has been a privilege afforded to me by my partner’s success – the thing that holds me back has also, in some ways, liberated me.

Trailing along on my partner’s orbit, I have struggled to feel like I have fully “arrived” in my career for years. We decided together, for very practical reasons, to prioritize his job. I am innately more flexible in my ambitions, so it seemed like the right choice when we made it. I fully own the decisions that have made my career challenging – they are not his to feel guilty about, although he does some days.

I wish I never had to make a choice between a fulfilling job in my area of expertise or my family. I do not, however, regret putting them first.

Staring at the white board, lightning struck, and I realized that I did not feel out of sync because I was making bad decisions, but rather because I was measuring my performance with the wrong metrics. Then I wrote a list down the left side of the diagram – the name of every person who I have ever taught, mentored, supported, opened doors for, or defended against injustice during my career. Often, none of this was in my actual job description at the time. Sometimes, I have even stepped out in front of others with little regard to my own safety and I have borne the consequence of those choices willingly. For if I did not do it, it was possible that nobody would.

Being available to my family and giving other people a leg up on their own journeys – these are things that I have always prioritized over publishing papers or making my own next big career move. Those decisions have shaped my life in so many ways that I failed to take note of because they were not on the list of performance metrics that I was taught to value.

Because their successes are their own, not mine, I had not thought to include all of these people on my own logic model. Yet, I was there to cheer them on, witness their tears and frustration, or protect them when they needed a shield. As they each ran their own races, I was one of the people manning a water table along their marathon routes.

Passing out proverbial cups of water isn’t a contribution that can be quantified or listed on a resume, yet each person on this list is a living measure of my career success.

Trapped by an unfair choice in the tail of a comet, I have found small ways to use the stability and privilege of my partner’s orbit as traction for pushing others towards those green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach. And I am so proud of each of them and their successes, especially the ones who now work in the jobs I dreamed about during graduate school.

It was only then, with that list of names added to the messy diagram of my life, that I could see the pattern in the noise. Only then, did I fully realize how I should always have been measuring success in my own career all along.

This is the one thing. My one thing. The thing that has always been there as the measure of meaning in my life, even when I failed to see it.

*Note that this sentence is not strictly true. There is actually one line on my resume that is entirely about being nice. It is the scientific equivalent of being awarded the title of Miss Congeniality and I cherish that award more than anything else.

The value of independent scholarship in a time of upheaval

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter.  It first appeared as an editorial in the June 2020 issue of Kitsune

“We know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.”

Our lives and institutions have been radically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. This applies too, to scholarly institutions. The consequences for both individual scholars and the systems of academia are likely to be far-reaching. From my perspective as a US-based, early career scientist, I share some observations and reflect on the value of independent scholarship to the scholarly community, particularly at a time when the pandemic is straining traditional academic careers and institutions.

One source of insight into impacts of the pandemic is its effect on the livelihoods and careers of scholars. As an early-career scientist I’m especially attuned to the job market for new hires. This year, 2020, and likely beyond, will feature a horrible academic job market. This spring, colleges and universities froze hiring while many faculty searches were incomplete; those positions remain unfilled and their long-term fate in limbo. As long as student revenue, endowments, and state budgets are depressed, faculty hiring will be scant. New hiring won’t be all that’s affected. My tenure-track colleagues are concerned about lost productivity and inequities in who can still do research at a time when children are home, and while labs and field sites are closed. As we have already begun to see, colleges and universities, especially those whose budgets depend heavily on tuition and fees, will make more radical cuts—including to tenured and tenure-track faculty—in the name of financial stability. Some institutions already in financial peril will close their doors permanently.

These events play out on top of existing flaws in the system. I made the choice to leave a traditional academic path pre-covid for a constellation of reasons. Most importantly, I face limits on my career growth at my current institution that I find untenable. At the same time, I am unwilling to pay the personal costs of moving to a different part of the country, even for a “dream” tenure-track job. For me, these costs would include disrupting my spouse’s career, leaving a community we love, and the inability to support a disabled family member living nearby. Others experience different barriers to and strains on traditional academic careers, but the outcome is similar: many scholars are considering whether to leave this path. The pandemic fallout in academia suggests that many also will soon be pushed off, less than willingly.

In this environment, I believe independent scholarship may be more important than ever. I study ecology, in which a key principle is that biological diversity makes ecosystems more stable, and even more productive. Analogously, independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole by enabling more paths through scholarly careers, and expanding who is actively engaged in scholarship at any time. As the pandemic exacerbates academia’s shortcomings, I see potential for the number of independent scholars to grow. This, I think, can be a good thing, even if the events leading to a scholar’s independence might be traumatic and unjust. Extending a bit further the metaphor on biological diversity, we know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.

One thing standing in the way of this vision is that relatively few recognize that independent scholarship is an option, or that groups like the Ronin Institute exist to mitigate some major pitfalls of independent scholarship. The costs of independent scholarship’s low visibility are two-fold. On one hand, scholars who don’t realize it’s an option can’t ask whether it’s right for them. On the other, structural factors hindering independent scholarship might be ameliorated if our position were better known. Understanding that not all who leave academia will become independent scholars, nor should all independent scholars be Ronin Scholars, I hope that Ronin Scholars and friends of the Institute will spread the word.


Jon Walter is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. He is also affiliated with the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. He is the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research, a research and consulting firm and co-hosts a podcast called “Major Revisions” that comments on topics in ecology and academia from the perspective of three early-career scientists. You can read more about Jon and his research on his website.

An academic Strike For Black Lives being held Wednesday June 10, 2020

As part of the ongoing protests and calls for action to address systemic racism in our institutions and our society following the murder of George Floyd, the group Particles for Justice is calling for all academics to pledge to suspend their academic duties for the entirety of today, Wednesday June 10:

We will stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

We will also stop activities that advance our own scholarship, including performing research, reading and submitting papers, or sending e-mails about research.

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Many scientific organizations, including arXiv, some publishers, and many other academics, including some Ronin Research Scholars are taking part in this day. You can pledge here:

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat

Note: This is a guest post by Research Scholar Jose Luis Perez Vazquez, whose book, The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat, has just been published. Enjoy! — JFW

Through the years I have seen trainees wanting to perform research in academia only to abandon the idea due to what they perceive around them, due to what they sense will become of them after joining the professorial ranks. I have also met many lay people who were impressed, to say the least, by certain aspects of research in academia. Thus I decided to write a book on scientific research in our times to inform lay audiences and young trainees about the rise of a new type of scientist: the scientist bureaucrat (https://www.springer.com/in/book/9783030123253). It is a brief account of how the practice of science and its academic environment have been transformed due to current socio-economic circumstances.

There is no room here to go over the many details about this matter that are touched upon in the book, for the topics are many, from peer review to the publication game, passing through the funding tendencies and the assessment of scholars by institutions, things that all professional scholars know about (but perhaps not the young fellows and general populace). I have illustrated current shortcomings with some of my personal experiences … and a touch of humour. Suffice to say that today’s researchers are buried in bureaucracy and financial issues. The driving forces behind a scholar ?e.g. creativity, curiosity, motivation? are drowned in the monstrous sea of administration, corporatization of academia, and intense competition for funds and positions. In contrast to past generations, we “new scientists” are left with almost no time to dedicate to what we should be doing: research, creative work, experiments, data analysis. Now, principal investigators (PIs) have trainees and technicians doing all these things for them, whereas some PIs are so busy with administrative chores and searching for money to keep their laboratories going that barely step into their laboratory. This is one of the various paradoxes expounded in the text, for after all we were taught how to do good quality experiments, data analysis, in a word, research;  yet after joining the professorial ranks we change habits, now we research for funds, we “analyse” bureaucratic data.

But not all is about complaining, or rather, describing the reality as it is. I present too in the book sections on possible solutions to circumvent some of the aspects that prevent us from doing what we (or at least most of us) really like: real research. While most of the solutions are just specific workarounds to overcome certain things (that, again, professional scientists know about but may be informative to trainees), I wanted as well to propose some general solutions to, at least in part, go back to what true scholarship is. It perhaps should be acknowledged that the current state was inevitable; it had to happen because science is immersed in society, and modern society is governed by financial concerns and bureaucracy. If I were to point out a central theme that brought about the current status quo, it could be the result of the current global economic situation which together with the spread of administration and the deep involvement of politicians into the fabric of academia is deviating scholarship from what once was. But there may be still time to revert.

To me, the main cause of trouble we face today is lack of balance that pervades many aspects of research. Imbalance in funding big groups versus the individual scientist (somehow in these days funding agencies prefer to award grants to big groups, in spite of the fact that it is the individual scientist the driving force behind research and that putting many heads together does not equal to better scientific outcome); disparity in funds for infrastructure versus operating research; inequality in the scientists’ time dedicated for administrative work versus real research in the laboratory; disproportion, inequity in the appraisal of research favouring the administrative and lucrative outcomes over work done in the laboratory … It is my opinion that the general situation in academia and science in particular would be greatly improved if an equilibrium was found in these aspects: a fairer distribution of resources between big groups and individual researchers, between hypothesis-driven and question-driven projects, between utilitarian and holistic grant proposals, a balanced evaluation of scholars considering work in the laboratory and administration. Because the problem is not that some administration has to be carried out ?I don’t think anybody would complain if some bureaucracy occupied a little of our time? but the problem is that these activities occupy most of our time as scientists, and we have little left for what we really like: to think, to reflect on questions, perform experiments, analyse data, and interpret results.

In the text I mention what perhaps is the most intriguing situation, the most paradoxical of all. While the majority of researchers disagree about what academia has become, we scientists proceed doing things as though we did not notice. If almost all of us realise the present condition, why don’t we change it? Some reasons have been advanced, for instance in Eliane Glaser’s article “Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?” (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/bureaucracy-why-wont-scholars-break-their-paper-chains/2020256.article). But I am not sure why. Inertia comes to mind, perchance herd mentality. To some extent one has the impression that we behave as if we did not know, or decided to ignore the situation. It has been my experience that one day I discuss matters with a colleague about the folly of impact factors or any other aspect, both of us voicing our disapproval, and yet, a few days later I meet my colleague in the hall and starts telling me with great enthusiasm that they have a paper accepted in this or that journal of very high impact factor…

Nonetheless, things appear to be changing thanks to initiatives talked about in the book like the Bratislava Declaration, the Leiden Manifesto, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and others. These provide reasons to be optimistic, but it will take time, and most likely I won’t see it, but I think some aspects will revert to what academia once was.

One action that I think is fundamental to solve the current situation has been in fact alluded in the aforementioned Glaser’s article: “Ultimately, resistance is impossible without collective solidarity.” I agree, it is in the collective realisation, agreement, and behaviour where the real possible solution stands. Politicians and bureaucrats may have the money and resources but in the end are we, scholars, performing these tasks of, say, using impact factors or numbers of publications to judge colleagues and institutions or to award grants. Imagine all scientists, simultaneously, refused to use these metrics. What are the policy-makers going to do? They cannot evaluate grant proposals or papers, or scholars applying for promotions; they don’t have the knowledge.  But if only a few decide not to comply with the bureaucrats’ commands, then it will be futile, for other, more compliant, academics will be found and ask to perform those duties. Hence, in the final analysis, it all depends on us scientists.

The Ronin Institute at Performing the World in NYC

Performing the World (PTW) is a biennial conference with a focus on building communities, social change and performance. This year it is being held in New York City on September 21-23. Here’s the description from the conference website:

Since the first PTW in 2001, the conference has been a gathering place to explore and celebrate performance as a catalyst for human and community development and culture change. PTW is now a global community of hundreds who creatively engage social problems, educate, heal, organize and activate individuals, organizations and communities, and bring new social-cultural-psychological and political possibilities into existence.

Building on the conversations started in the related CESTEMER meeting  last year, several Ronin Institute Research Scholars will be holding a session “Performing New Models of Scholarship at the Ronin Institute” at 5:15pm on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be joining Research Scholars  Kristina Baines, Victoria Costa, (Kristina and Victoria are also co-founders of the Cool Anthropology collective), Jocelyn Scheirer, and Jon Wilkins. They will be giving short presentations on their different projects and how they feed into new models of doing research in their fields and beyond. The panel after will invite the wider PTW community to collectively explore a better future for scholarship.

If you’re in the NYC area and interested in attending, come join us! I believe it’s not too late to register. Let us know if you do!