Unconference Sponsorships Available

The first Ronin Institute Unconference, on the Future of Careers in Scholarship, is coming up soon. It is being held on Saturday, November 5, in Cambridge, MA.

Sponsorships are now available for this unconference. If your organization is interested in sponsoring this event, you can find more information at http://ronininstitute.org/events/sponsorships/, or you can contact us at development@ronininstitute.org.

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A Proposal to Save the University: Everybody Drives a Truck!

Reprinted from the most recent issue of the Ronin Institute newsletter, Kitsune.

If you talk to an academic, odds are it won’t take long before the conversation turns to how frustrated they are with the bureaucracies they have to deal with, both at the university and at funding agencies. The explosive growth of university bureaucracy has been well documented. From the point of view of your typical academic, the university bureaucracy is fundamentally parasitic, and both research and teaching would benefit from getting rid of it, or at least cutting it way down.

On the other hand, much of that bureaucracy is there for a reason, or at least there was a reason for it to have been created. If there is an office full of people keeping an eye on how you spend your grant money, it’s because someone mis-spent theirs in the past. When you have to fill out pages and pages of paperwork before your university’s Institutional Review Board will approve your experiments, it’s because previous generations of faculty researchers did some truly horrific things. When you are sitting through yet another harassment training session next year, it will be because one of your colleagues is harassing someone right now.

So that’s where we find ourselves. We’ve got faculty resenting administration for soaking up resources and keeping them from doing their research and teaching, administration made up of lazy parasites who don’t know the first thing about research, and who care more about making sure the right boxes are filled in than in actually advancing human knowledge. And we’ve got administrators resenting faculty for behaving like overgrown children who think that the rules should not apply to them, faculty who think they should not have to do anything they don’t want to, and who expect that someone else will clean up any messes they make.

Unfortunately, this dynamic is exactly what we should expect to develop when we establish a system in which universities are run by professional administrators. Historically, universities were run by faculty, and even today, most Deans, Provosts and University Presidents are former professors. But increasingly, the day-to-day running of universities is being handed over to career administrators. And many faculty members seem happy, or even eager, to hand over the keys.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable move, and classic division of labor. Have professional administrators administrate, and let the professors spend their time professoring. The problem is that we have been moving from a system in which there are two kinds of work that need to happen — research and teaching on the one hand, making sure things run smoothly on the other — to a system where there are two kinds of people. This erodes the natural human capacity for empathy, as faculty and administrators increasingly view each other as, well, other. And pretty soon, you have these two sets of people who view each other as the problem, the thing stopping them from doing their job, when they should be working together towards a common goal.

This empathy gap and the resulting alienation mean that there is no check on the expansion of the bureaucracy. A certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but a lot of what exists today could be eliminated, or at least streamlined. The problem is that bureaucracy tends to expand by a ratchet-like process. New pieces are added all the time to deal with the latest problem or crisis, but there tends to be little incentive to eliminate anything — or even to seriously ask, “What is the least intrusive thing we can do that will address the problem at hand?”

When administrators are “pure administrators”, they don’t bear the burden of bureaucratic elements that disrupt research or teaching. If they are career administrators, they may not even understand that burden. The more cynical administrators may recognize that any reduction in bureaucracy reduces their sphere of influence, and maybe even their job security. And as they become disconnected from the core mission of the university, they naturally begin to see the bureaucracy in which they are embedded as an end in itself. As Oscar Wilde (allegedly) once said, “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet th needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

In principle, the pressure to limit the scope and growth of bureaucracy comes from the faculty. But when faculty are “pure faculty”, who view administration as something alien and distasteful, they are unlikely to provide meaningful and productive input. In my experience, most faculty view all paperwork as an affront, making little effort to distinguish between the bits that are critical to running the university in a professional manner and the bits that are genuinely unnecessary and onerous.

The dynamic, then, is: Academics divest themselves of ownership of the administrative tasks necessary to running a university, because we all like to think of ourselves as Philosopher Kings / Queens, and we fundamentally believe that things like compliance are beneath our notice. So we bring in administrators to handle this for us, and we resent them for it. The administrators come to view us as spoiled children who can’t balance a budget to save our lives. Every time one of these children breaks a rule, they add another form. We complain about them, but we complain about everything, so they don’t pay attention. Gradually the fraction of the money we spend on tuition and research funding that actually goes to fund research and education dwindles, until the university become nothing but an enormous paperwork-circulating machine with a football program.

So how do we repair this empathy gap? Here’s a proposition for you: Everybody drives a truck!

A metaphorical truck, anyway.

Back in the my youth, I remember that one of the big delivery companies had a policy that everyone in the company had to spend one day a year driving one of their brown delivery vehicles, all the way up to the CEO. The rationale was that delivering packages was the core of the business — the reason the company existed. The idea was to tie every employee to the mission in a tangible way.

So what might that look like at a university? If the core mission of the university is education and research, then everyone working at the university needs to be involved in education and/or research at some level. Sounds impossible? It’s not!

A lot of the people who wind up in clerical positions at universities have pretty extensive training, often even a PhD. Let’s say you got your PhD in German Literature, and then wound up in an administrative position somewhere. What if you were permitted (or even required) to spend 5% of your time continuing your research? Everybody drives a truck!

What about the teams and teams of people who do accounting and bookkeeping? What if every one of them spent a few days a year working with undergraduate students who are struggling with math? Everybody drives a truck!

People could function as undergraduate advisors, help out with psychology experiments, or pick bacterial colonies. Everybody drives a truck!

It works the other way, as well. Faculty need to stop viewing administrative work as something that happens to other people. If professors are occasionally required to take on an active, hands-on role in some of the bureaucratic tasks, they would have a better understanding of what the people who manage that side of things have to do. And they might have a better understanding of which parts of the bureaucracy are actually necessary, and where their anti-bureaucracy railing should be focused.

Do you view bringing in grants as a core part of the mission of the university? If so, then maybe faculty members should spend a week a year working in the grants office. Everybody drives a truck!

If you doubt that having faculty actively participate in administration would limit the scope of bureaucracy, I urge you to ask around. I think you’ll find that in departments where the chair is primarily focused on their own research and teaching, faculty meetings tend to be short and to the point. If your chair is someone who took on that role in lieu of research and teaching, they drag on for hours. The same logic applies to the university as a whole.

I can imagine a few objections that might be raised, so let’s deal with those.

Some of the faculty out there might be thinking, “I can’t participate in something like this! My time is much too valuable!” Two things. First, yes, in the short term, it might take some additional time away from your research. But this is about halting, and even reversing, the expansion of bureaucracy. In the long term, you will get a more efficient, more rational university system, eventually reducing the burden on you and on future generations of academics. Second, you should not think that you are too important for administration, or to find creative ways to include people in your research, because those are the thoughts of a terrible person. Those are the thoughts of someone who believes that they should not have to serve on jury duty. Someone who thinks it is never their turn to do the dishes. Someone who skimps when splitting the check at a restaurant. A Defector in the Prisoners’ Dilemma of life.

Some of the administrative types out there might be thinking, “But this would just be adding inefficiencies to the system! Universities need to be run like a business!” I’m sorry, but you’ve been brainwashed by decades of propaganda from right-wing psychopaths. The purpose of a university is not to make money, or to maximize cash flow. Its purpose is the creation and communication of knowledge. Yes, it needs to pay its bills, but if you are not working to make sure that financial concerns are kept subordinate to intellectual ones, you’re part of the problem. It is attitudes like this that are destroying the American university system. If your university’s corporate personhood ever gains sentience and murders you, it will be acquitted under Stand Your Ground laws.

Both faculty and administrators might question the plausibility of having a big sector of university employees — the “non-academics” — participate in research or teaching. You may think the idea of having one of the administrative assistants, or one of the custodians, work in your lab a couple of days a year is an obvious non-starter. After all, they know nothing about what you do. Won’t it be more trouble than it’s worth? In the short term, maybe! But so is a lot of what we do. When an undergraduate works in your lab for a semester, you probably suffer a net loss of productivity, because the amount of work they do is small compared with the effort that goes into training and supervising them. Have you ever participated in “Take your daughter to work day?” Did you make sure that she pulled her own weight? Or did you recognize that you were doing something good for society as a whole. If you view having a custodian or a gardener work in your lab a few days a year as qualitatively different from having an undergrad, or a high-school intern, if you view that as a ridiculous endeavor or an unreasonable burden, you’re not a hard-nosed realist, you’re a classist. You’re willing to spend resources on people without training, but only if those people remind you of yourself. You’re willing to build a community, but only if it’s a community of the “right kind of people”. Your attitude is profoundly unamerican, and in a more just world we would exchange you for a truckload of Syrian refugees.

Everybody drives a truck!

An Outsider’s Theory of Everything

[Update (5/29): Eric Weinstein will be giving a follow-up lecture this Friday (5/31) at 2pm at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute in lecture room L2 (which, I believe, is at location 22 on this map).

Physicists and mathematicians in the area! I hope some of you will be able to attend, and will post your thoughts / reactions online. Note: if you are friends with an Oxford Physicist, please invite them to attend this lecture — this is apparently a necessary step. Update update (5/30): see also the update at the end of section 2, below.]

Original Post:

So, a couple of days ago, a fellow named Eric Weinstein gave a lecture at Oxford in which he outlined a theory that he has apparently been working on for a number of years. The theory, as I understand it, is an attempt at a Theory of Everything — specifically, a theory that would unify the standard model of particle physics with general relativity, explain dark matter and dark energy, and basically provide a synthesis that would resolve many of the big questions facing physics today.

This sort of thing is always exciting. But this proposal gained particular attention for the fact that Eric Weinstein is not a Physics professor. Yes, he has a PhD in math from Harvard, but he has been out of academia for twenty years, and his day job is at a hedge fund in New York.

The talk was the subject of two pieces that ran in the Guardian on the same day as the lecture. One was written by Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician, and the Oxford professor who invited Weinstein to give the lecture. In it, he waxes enthusiastic at length about the beauty of Weinstein’s theory, how the theory, if correct, is much more elegant than the standard model, with certain constants and masses emerging naturally out of the theory, rather than having to be added on in an ad hoc manner. du Sautoy does not vouch for the correctness of the model, but he notes that it has that quality of beauty and elegance that makes a theory in mathematical physics smell right.

The second piece was written by Alok Jha, a science writer. In that piece, the emphasis is a bit more on the human angle, that Weinstein is an academic outsider. It quotes David Kaplan, a physicist from Johns Hopkins who has seen at least some of Weinstein’s work, as saying that it is phenomenal “that someone from outside academia could put together something so coherent.”

Now, in an ideal world of science, no one would give a crap whether or not this guy was in academia, or even whether or not he had a PhD. But, in this world, maybe it is not surprising that the initial response was an awkward combination of excitement about the lone-wolf scientist and benign condescension.

Also not surprising was the second response. Fairly quickly, a number of posts went up around the web lodging complaints about the lecture and the Guardian articles. Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist at Oxford, wrote a piece in the New Scientist titled “Weinstein’s Theory of Everything is Probably Nothing.” Jennifer Ouellette wrote a blog post at Scientific American titled “Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played.” PZ Myers writes simply that “This is not science.

So what’s the backlash about? Well, I think there are a few different complaints, some more legitimate than others, but the problem is that they all get sort of tangled up together. What I’d like to do here is try to separate those complaints, and evaluate each one on its merits.

1. Where’s the Paper?

The overriding complaint seems to be the fact that, as of this time, there is no publicly available version of Weinstein’s theory, so no one is able to dig into the math and evaluate it. According to du Sautoy’s Guardian piece, Weinstein plans to put the work up on the arXiv, but has not yet done so.

Now, at first glance, that seems pretty bad. I mean, you can’t just go around talking about your research until it has been published, right? Or at least you have to make it available, like someplace on the arXiv, preferably well in advance of your talk, so that people can review the work and come to the talk prepared to ask technical questions.

That all makes perfect sense, and the academic community is completely justified in being outraged about the way that Weinstein violated procedure.

Except . . . bullshit.

The first comment (by “Unity”) on PZ Myers’s post notes that

“This is not how anyone does science.”

Except mathematicians.

Other [than] the publicity, most of which is speculative at this stage, there is nothing particularly exceptional in Weinstein having only discussed his ideas with du Sautoy or in the decision to start floating his ideas in a series of talks without first having published.

This is often how mathematicians operate, on the clear understanding that what they are present is, at this stage, provisional and that publication and peer review will necessarily follow – that is, of course, unless someone spots a serious flaw during the talk and raise it during the Q&A.

In mathematical terms, what Weinstein is doing at this stage is equivalent to putting forward a conjecture, so it necessarily has to be understood that the actual science will follow, and in that sense its really not so unusual at all.

In fact, I think we can go a step further. This is how ALL OF SCIENCE operates. Just think back to the last time you went to a conference. Did any of the talks include data that was not yet published? Or did pretty much ALL of the talks include data that was not yet published?

If someone gives a seminar in your department, and they present their latest work, do you sputter with rage: “How dare this person present research without providing a written copy to the audience in advance”?

No, you don’t do that, because you’re not an asshole. If they present something really exciting, you ask them some questions. Maybe you walk up to them after the talk, and you ask them to send you a copy of the manuscript when it is ready.

Now, should physicists around the world drop what they’re doing on the basis of this talk? Of course not. These, like all scientific claims, should be treated skeptically. But no one should be running around pretending that giving the lecture represents some sort of ethical violation.

2. The Physicists were not invited.

According to Andrew Pontzen’s piece:

Yesterday Weinstein, encouraged by du Sautoy, went public with a loud splash in British newspaper The Guardian and in a 2-hour presentation in the main physics lecture theatre here at the University of Oxford. “I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian.

Sounds fair enough, until you discover that no one thought to invite any of Oxford’s, er, physicists.

While Weinstein was delivering his lecture, the theoretical physicists were in a different room listening to a different speaker discuss a different topic (a new source of CP violation in charm physics and its implication for the unitarity triangle, if you’re curious). Only afterwards did anyone spot news of the revelatory talk that had taken place next door.

Pontzen’s complaint was repeated in the other pieces.

Okay, so that’s pretty bad, right? He’s giving a lecture on a new model for physics, but did not invite any physicists!

Except that, um, what?

I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here, but Pontzen almost makes it sound as if this lecture was kept secret. I mean, what does it even MEAN to say that the physicists were not invited? In my experience, lectures are announced via pre-existing e-mail lists, and by flyers stuck on bulletin boards. Did these things not happen?

Also in my experience, the only time you go around and explicitly invite people to a lecture is when you are worried that there will not be enough people in the audience, and it will be embarrassing for the speaker and the organizer.

It’s a little bit like when your kid has a book report due the next day, and they’re all, “Why didn’t you make me start my homework earlier?”

Weinstein was also apparently scheduled to give a more technical version of the talk the day after the big public lecture. This would have been after Pontzen published his complaint. Did the physicists attend the next day’s lecture? The one geared towards presenting more of the technical details?

Or is there something I’m missing about how Oxford works? Are science lectures typically by invitation only? Do you get a hand stamp?

[Update (5/30): The following correction has been attached to the New Scientist piece by Andrew Pontzen:

Correction: When this article was first published on 24 May 2013, it stated that no one thought to invite physicists at the University of Oxford. New Scientist acknowledges this is not true and regrets any embarrassment caused. Marcus du Sautoy had emailed the head of department asking for the talk to be advertised. Du Sautoy was unaware that this advertisement was not widely circulated or posted on the internal website. Du Sautoy had also sent A3 posters for display in the physics department and advertised the talk in other media. Andrew Pontzen would like to apologise to Marcus Du Sautoy for not investigating these circumstances more thoroughly.

That makes sense to me. Also, full credit to Pontzen for the apology here.

Also, according to a comment from “oxfordanon” on Peter Woit’s post on this, Weinstein’s Thursday lecture (at 4pm) conflicted with the particle theory group’s long-standing weekly seminar slot (Thursdays at 4:15). So, there’s maybe a combination of unfortunate scheduling and a breakdown in the flow of information — both common failures in bureaucracies, but nothing here to require, or even imply, that anyone was acting in bad faith.]

3. Who is this guy, anyway?

The complaints and criticisms don’t come out and say, “This guy is not an academic. He’s not part of the club. He’s a nobody.”

Of course, in polite society — or even in academia — you can’t come right out and say that sort of thing. It makes you sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century cartoon villain.

But, there does seem to be a bit of an undercurrent of that sentiment.

Here’s Pontzen, for instance:

Until yesterday Weinstein was largely unknown to us. He has a PhD in mathematical physics from Harvard University, but left academia years ago and now makes his living as an economist and consultant at a New York hedge fund.

That is not to say he doesn’t have anything to contribute, but he will have to go through the proper channels.

“Proper channels” Ha!

I take it back, apparently you CAN sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century villain!

4. Excessive Media Hype

If there is a legitimate complaint to be had, it might be here. To my taste, both Guardian pieces overreach a bit in their efforts to convince me how cool the theory is. On the other hand, both pieces also acknowledge that the paper is not out yet, that the work has been seen by only a few people (and that they have not deeply evaluated the work), and that we have a long way to go before we find out if this theory is going to have legs or not.

Jennifer Ouellette’s criticism focuses on the media coverage. In particular, she calls out Alok Jha for deflecting criticism by preemptively playing the non-academic victim card:

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

Now, it’s hard to disagree with that. Theories need to stand on their own merits. In an ideal world, your work should not get treated with kid gloves just because you’re a non-academic, just as you should not get special treatment by virtue of having a prestigious professorship.

So, what are these disingenuous quotes from du Sautoy and UC Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel that make it impossible to criticize Jha or Weinstein? Let’s have a look, shall we:

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” says du Sautoy. “Science is very much an evolutionary process and [Weinstein’s] is such a wide-ranging theory and involves such a wide area of mathematics and physics, this is an invitation to say, ‘This is speculative and it’s claiming a lot so let’s see where it can go.'”

Whatever happens, says Frenkel, Weinstein is an example of how science might change in future. “I find it remarkable that Eric was able to come up with such beautiful and original ideas even though he has been out of academia for so long (doing wonderful things in other areas, such as economics and finance). In the past week we have learned about an outstanding result about prime numbers proved by a mathematician who had been virtually unknown, and now comes Eric’s lecture at Oxford.

“I think this represents a new trend. It used to be that one had to be part of an academic hub, such as Harvard or Oxford, to produce cutting-edge research. But not any more. Part of the reason is the wide availability of scientific information on the internet. And I think this is a wonderful development, which should be supported.

“I also see two lessons coming from this. The first is for the young generation: with passion and perseverance there is no limit to what you can do, even in high-end theoretical science. The other lesson is for me and my colleagues in academia – and I say this as someone who on most days takes an elevator to his office in an Ivory Tower, as it were – we should be more inclusive and more open to ideas which come from outside the standard channels of academia, and we’ll be better off for it.”

Umm, okay. Obviously. I mean, we have an acknowledgement that information is now widely available, and a suggestion that people should be more open — or, as Ouellette puts it, “touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.”

Something here is disingenuous, anyway.

She follows up with this:

Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.

This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like.

Well, I certainly hope that none of these top physicists spoke about any ideas for which there was not a preprint available!

To conclude

So, is this going to be the Theory of Everything that unifies physics and earns Weinstein the Nobel prize? Heck if I know. Statistically speaking, most efforts like this don’t pan out. On the other hand, sometimes they do, and the ones that pan out in the end look an awful lot like the ones that don’t at this stage.

I’ve never met Eric, although I’ve interacted with him a bit online. I know several people who know him, and the story from all of them echoes the image presented in all of these stories: he’s a really smart guy, and not a crackpot. So, this is at least a serious attempt at a theory, and if you’re someone out there with the skills and knowledge to evaluate it, you won’t be wasting your time by having a look.

Hopefully, the preprint will hit the arXiv soon, and people can start digging into the math. And, if that math holds up under the first rounds of scrutiny, hopefully the top physicists will engage with Weinstein in a free and open scientific discussion — maybe even at a conference.

And hopefully that discussion will be a little bit less dismissive and condescending than what we’ve seen so far.

[Update (5/30): There’s an excellent post from Peter Woit here, including a great discussion in the comments.

Zen Faulkes also has a nice post here.]

Risk it ALL!

Hey, here’s a cool video. It’s a sort of advice column from designer James Victore. The advice is obviously framed in a way that is specific to design (and probably art /achitecture as well), but it’s amazing how much of it carries over to, well, everything. It’s something that all you scholars out there should listen to.

Also, this guy’s face is like a crossbow, because just look at his facial hair, and then listen to those truth bolts shooting out of his mouth!

Now get out there!

No one true path for PhDs

So, there’s a nice little op-ed piece up at the Chronicle for Higher Education. (For the non-academics out there, it’s sort of like People magazine, but with History professors instead of Kardashians.) It was written by Jon Bardin, a current PhD student at Cornell Med School, who is planning to abandon the canonical academic path. Unfortunately, it’s behind the Chronicle paywall, but basically he argues against the idea (much hyped, recently) that there is an over-production of PhD students. At least in the sciences.

He mentions the common complaint that graduate school has become a sort of pyramid scheme, where huge numbers of PhD students enter, with the implicit promise of a tenure-track position waiting at the other end of the tunnel, while there are not nearly enough such positions available.

This is true, but he argues that we should look at the situation from a different perspective.

First, he argues that there are many alternative careers for PhDs. Of course, we all knew this already. After all, Starbucks is almost always hiring. But, actually, he argues that the skills that you develop in grad school are widely applicable. He talks specifically about the humbling experience of having his first manuscript rejected:

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

These are great points. Now, the availability of funding varies a lot from field to field, but, at least in the sciences, I think the typical graduate student stipend is somewhere on the order of $30,000 per year. Now, that’s not huge money, but it is enough to provide a comfortable living. Add in the fact that grad school is a great social environment (at least, it is if you’re a dork, and you like hanging out with other dorks, which, if you’re reading this, you probably are, and probably do), and you’ve got the makings of a pleasant and rewarding five years.

The trick, of course, is to find an advisor who’s not a jerk, but that’s a topic for another post.

The other point that Bardin makes is that the problem is not one of the availability of a certain type of job, but of the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one. What is needed is a change in attitude, from the students themselves, and from the advisors responsible for them. In Bardin’s words:

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor’s time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

In a way, maybe we need to start viewing graduate school more like undergrad. After all, professors don’t resent teaching undergraduates who are smart and engaged, but who are going to do something other than academia.

Or, rather, most probably don’t. I’m sure there are some who do. (Those are also the ones you want to avoid when choosing an advisor.) But, they probably also resent the students who are going to follow in their footsteps, just for different reasons. What are you going to do? Resenters gonna resent.

h/t to Ronin Kristina Killgrove.

Universities as Resource Aggregators

This was originally posted at Lost in Transcription on October 26, 2011.

So, I had not realized until I got a twitter-prompt from Kiona Strickland that so much time had passed since I put out my call for opinions on what one would need to successfully do academic research outside the confines of traditional academia.

The call was put out in the context of my own goal of incorporating as a non-profit called the Ronin Institute to pursue my own scholarship.

A remarkable number of people shared extensive and thoughtful comments. I hope to respond directly to each of you quite soon as well.

Responses came from people who are already functioning outside of academia, people who are thinking about doing so, and people who are successful and reasonably happy professors at this or that institution.

There were a huge number of specific things that came up in the responses, but they seemed to cluster around the following five things:

1) Money

2) Library access

3) Colleagues

4) Legitimacy

5) Infrastructure

It occurs to me that each of these needs points to the fundamental role of universities are resource aggregators. By that I mean that they facilitate what in economic terms would be called “economy of scale” (or in voodoo complexity science terms “emergence”). I’ll take each one of these in turn.

1) Money. This is of course, the biggest thing that many scholars are worried about, especially these days. You’ve found something that you love. You’ve gained enormous expertise in it. Quite possibly, there is some particular thing (maybe a behavior in some species, or a period of history of some specific location) on which you have become the most knowledgable person in the world. It seems like you ought to be a way to turn that into a paycheck, right?

Fundamentally, we all have to work within the constraints set by how much funding there is out there to support scholarship in a particular area. You can total up the budgets of then NSF, private foundations, and so on, and it provides a sort of upper bound on what can be supported. In many fields, there is the perennial problem of over-production of PhDs, which is constantly putting pressure on this upper bound, but that’s a post for another day.

Within those constraints, an independent scholar has to deal with two things. First, the money available for their research may not be enough to live on. Second, their grant support may fluctuate over time. In most fields, universities help with the first by creating ways to subsidize your scholarship through teaching or other activities.  If you are, for instance, a clinical researcher in a university hospital, you may have an arrangement where the less grant money you have, the more time you spend treating patients.

Universities help to address the inevitable fluctuations in grant support by effectively averaging financial support across individuals and over time. I may have a grant shortfall this year, but they keep paying my salary (at least nine months of it). Presumably, this is, on average, compensated by the overhead they take in when I do have grant support, from the classes I teach, and from donors who are impressed by the prestige of my department.

It is not obvious to me that the Ronin Institute will be able to do much of anything on this front, unless I win the lottery. However, I believe that it could serve as a hub for communication among independent scholars, many of whom might have more creative ideas to share.

2) Library access. Access to scientific journals and books is an absolute necessity for any real scholarship. Here, the resource aggregation is perhaps most obvious. A university will typically have institutional subscriptions to a huge number of academic journals, and affiliation with the university gives you access to those journals. University libraries also usually have huge number of “books,” which are sort of like the web, but printed out on paper.

Legend has it that in an era before the invention of the blog, people used to buy, sell, borrow, and occasionally read, books. Image via Wikipedia.

This, again, is something that would be difficult for the Ronin Institute to replace. Fortunately, there are work-arounds available to many independent scholars. For books, many universities have mechanisms to make their collections open to the public. You’ll want to contact the school(s) closest to you to find out.

For most scholars, the most important thing, though will be electronic access to the journal articles, preferably via some mechanism that works while you’re at home in your pajamas. The trick is to acquire some sort of (non-paying) affiliation with a university. You might be able to use your alumni status do this with your alma mater, or you might be able to arrange some sort of adjunct or visiting position with a university close to you.

3) Colleagues. The most valuable resource that universities aggregate is people. At a university, you can be surrounded by people who care about things as obscure as the things you care about. You get continually exposed to new ideas both in formal settings like seminars and in informal ones like waiting in line for a latte. Some of these colleagues may then become collaborators.

It is easy, I think, for an independent scholar to recede into isolation. Your research can suffer from a general lack of intellectual stimulation. It can become sloppy if you are not being challenged by smart people who have expertise that overlaps with and complements your own. And, of course, some of the most interesting projects are those that integrate knowledge, expertise, and ideas from different areas. Those projects will absolutely require strong communication or collaboration among multiple people with different backgrounds.

Being an independent scholar has the potential to be a lonely existence, even if you do have a balloon.

Then, of course, there’s the purely social / emotional component. For most of us, being a truly independent researcher would be a terribly lonely and unsatisfying existence. I think we all need someplace where we can go and say something like, “I’m so sick of working on this grant proposal,” or, “You won’t believe what Reviewer 3 wants me to change,” where people will get it.

In principle, this is an area where the Ronin Institute could make a contribution. It could serve as an online hub where independent scholars can share their ideas and experiences, maybe even find collaborators. What do you think? If there were a reasonable online community of Ronin, would you participate? Do you imagine that it would help?

4) Legitimacy. This, to be honest, was one of my primary motivations. If you submit a grant proposal or paper from your home address, the reviewers are probably not going to take you seriously. It’s a shame, but the fact is that most reviewers are going to be traditional academics themselves, and may be instinctively distrustful of alternative careers.

This, again, is a place where the Ronin Institute might be able to contribute something. I am leaning towards creating a mechanism through which independent scholars could acquire some sort of affiliation with the Ronin Institute. This would come with an e-mail address and the ability to cite the Ronin Institue as an institutional address. My instinct is that if you have a way of publishing under a university address (e.g., as an adjunct professor or visiting scholar), that will benefit you more, but who knows. I’m still weighing the pros and cons on this one, and am trying to think about just how open the affiliation would be. In any event, it would probably be somewhat restrictive at the beginning, as I would want to limit the numbers for logistical considerations, at least to start.

5) Infrastructure. The last thing that universities provide is all the other people and stuff that you could never have on your own. This includes grant administrators, accountants, clerical support, IRBs, etc. It also includes equipment. In the experimental sciences, it might be expensive lab equipment, which only makes economic sense when it is shared among three labs, each of which has fifteen or twenty grad students, postdocs, and technicians working there. Even if your work is primarily theoretical or computational

This is an area where the Ronin Institute could, in principle, contribute. It is conceivable that, in the future, independent scholars could run grants through the Ronin Institute, and the overhead from those grants could support one or more people who could administer the grants. Similarly, maybe it could pool money to pay for shared software licenses.

This is not anything that is going to happen anytime soon, however. If a sufficient (and sufficiently active) community grows here, though, it is something that we might consider a few years down the road.

The Hall of Doom would have been difficult for any one supervillain to afford on his or her own.

In the meantime, we might be able to compile a list of resources, ways to access those science-y things that you need occasionally, but could not possibly hope to own.

Next Time: 

As you might expect, many of the responses also focused on all the things that don’t work for them in traditional academia. That will be the next update.