First Round of Conference Scholarships Awarded

The Ronin Institute is pleased to announce that it has awarded its first round of conference scholarships. Congratulations to John Laurence Busch, Marios Kyriazis, Kristina Markman, and Michael Walker, each of whom will be receiving support to attend and contribute to an academic conference in the coming months.

As we have noted previously, conference participation is a critical to scholarship, particularly for independent and non-traditional scholars, who are not embedded within a department full of colleagues with overlapping interests and complementary expertise. Financial support is also particularly critical for independent scholar,s who lack access to department or university funds, and often wind up paying for conference and other expenses out of their own pocket.

We are currently raising funds for a second round of conference scholarships, and we hope to be able to extend the program to encompass other sorts of expenses, such as publication costs and research travel. If you would like to help to support this program you can donate online. Select “Conference Scholarships” to direct your donation specifically to this program. To find out more, check out our donation page.

Marc Edwards (Flint Water Dude) and the Lie of Tenure

Marc Edwards, civil-engineering professor at Virginia Tech and driving force behind the research that revealed the high lead levels in the water system in Flint, Michigan, gave a great interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has a number of fantastic, and terrifying, things to say about the culture of academic science.

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

But, of course, it’s not just young faculty (although it is definitely worse for them). This is directly related to the lie that we always repeat about tenure. The premise of tenure, of course, is that once you’ve proven yourself, you get job security, which provides intellectual freedom. Once you have tenure, you’re supposed to be able to pursue your research, even if it is controversial or unpopular. And in certain fields that may be more or less true.

But in the sciences, it’s definitely less, partly due to a different treadmill. You need money to do science, and you need scientific results to get money. It is an open secret that most funded NIH proposals are for work that has largely already been done. The researchers then use the money to do the research that will go into the next proposal. But if you have a gap in funding, it is harder to get those results. An extended gap means that your lab shrinks, you may have to take on additional teaching, and you may even lose lab space — putting you in a hole that’s hard to get out of. Which is to say, securing research funding is like being in a relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: if you don’t fund me now, you will never fund me again.

That dynamic contributes to the passive acceptance of corruption by scientists, mainly by making them risk averse. In my experience, most academics want to do the right thing. It’s just that doing the right thing often comes at a cost that few are willing to pay. And, viewed from a certain perspective, they may be right.

When you’re a grad student, you’re told that tenure is the goal, that once you get it, you’re set. What you’re not told is that there are elaborate systems of carrots and sticks all the way up the hierarchy. Critics of the Platonic ideal of tenure will tell you that these incentives are necessary to deal with the accumulation of “dead wood”. And everyone has stories of the worthless professor who got tenure and then quit working altogether. Defenses of the erosion of tenure tend to sound a lot like defenses of mass surveillance: if you keep doing good work, you’ve got nothing to worry about!

But one of the lessons of the Flint water crisis is this: any system of rewards and punishments can be captured and put to work towards corrupt ends. You build a system to punish people for not working hard enough, and someone will figure out how to use that system to make people fearful enough of punishment that they are unwilling to question or criticize authority.

Yes, encouraging people to fight for more and more funding does make them work harder, but if none of them are willing to ask the important questions, what’s the point?

Resources for Independent Scholars

Jacqui Shine has published a piece at Chronicle Vitae where she describes some of the ways in which academics without a university affiliation can access certain library resources. Based on a variety of conversations over the past few years, this seems to be the issue that offers the greatest challenge to independent scholars. I am still cautiously optimistic that, if the current trend towards open-access publishing continues, library access will be less of a barrier to entry over time. However, the extent to which relevant resources are openly available varies from field to field.

Shine’s article mentions a number of resources that I was previously unfamiliar with, so if you’re looking for ideas, check it out. Her list is especially rich on the humanities side — lots of ideas about accessing old newspapers, for example. She put in a call for more ideas in the comments, so hopefully even more stuff will show up there.

h/t Viviane Callier

Jeff Rose Walks Out of Africa

Here’s a clip from First Peoples, a 2015 PBS series about the prehistory of the human race. This clip features archaeologist (and Ronin Institute Research Scholar) Jeff Rose talking about his field work in Oman and the very earliest expansion of anatomically modern humans into the Arabian Peninsula, the first step out of Africa in our rapid expansion around the globe. Check it out!

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Honored with Awards

Ronin Institute Research Scholars Ruth Duerr and Soren Scott were honored last week by the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) at the Federation’s January 2016 meeting.

ESIP_Awards_2016

ESIP Awardees, featuring Ruth Duerr (second from left) and Soren Scott (far right). Photo by Bruce Caron.

Headlining the awards ceremony was Ruth Duerr’s receipt of the Martha Maiden Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Earth Science Information Community, which recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated leadership, dedication and a collaborative spirit in advancing the field of Earth Science information”. Ruth has held numerous leadership positions within ESIP, where she has been a consistent champion of data accessibility and stewardship. The nominating committee noted that “Ruth’s dedication to the principles of Earth science information access and sharing are exemplified by her service as an ESIP liaison on many community initiatives, both nationally and internationally, that have led to improvements in capabilities and understanding of the issues necessary to facilitate access to and sharing of Earth science information”.

Soren Scott received the ESIP Catalyst Award, which “honors those who have brought about positive change in ESIP and inspired others to take action”. Current ESIP President Peter Fox noted that Soren “was able to make stagnant and dormant ESIP initiatives become active again in a very short period of time”.

Congratulations to both Ruth and Soren for this well deserved recognition!

Conference Scholarships Program

Season’s Greetings!

The Ronin Institute is pleased to announce that in 2016 we will be providing our first round of conference scholarships for Research Scholars. Conference attendance is a critical aspect of any academic career. Conferences are where you meet colleagues and collaborators, where you present yourself and your work to the world, and where you keep up with the latest developments in your field. Conferences are even more critical for the independent scholar, who does not have the day-to-day access to colleagues in a University department.

We will be soliciting applications for conference scholarships from Ronin Institute Research Scholars in the first part of 2016. That means we’re also soliciting donations to help support and expand the program. The more donations we receive, the more scholarships we will be able to provide! If you’re so inclined, you can donate securely online here:

To direct your donation specifically to this program, simply select “Conference Scholarships” from the Program pull-down menu. If you have any questions, or if you are interested in learning about other ways to donate, contact our development office, and we’ll try to help you out.

Thanks to your help and support in the past, the Ronin Institute has expanded to a network of nearly ninety Research Scholars, who work on topics ranging from Physics to Biology to History to Philosophy. Your donation will help us to better support these scholars and to further our mission of building a more efficient and inclusive to traditional academia.

Happy holidays to all, best wishes for 2016, and, of course, Scientiam Consecemus!

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!

Shop and Support Ronin (10% today at Amazon)

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Just a quick reminder that you can make a charitable donation to help support the Ronin Institute AT THE SAME TIME and FOR FREE!

If you use the Amazon Smile program, they will donate 0.5% of what you spend to the nonprofit of your choice. The trick is you have to go to Amazon Smile and select the Ronin Institute as your designated charity. Then, set that link up as a bookmark, because it only works if you shop using the “smile.amazon.com” URL.

And just for today, if you’re set up with Amazon Smile, and you go through Giving Assistant, a full 10% of what you spend will be donated to Ronin. So set your Amazon Smile to Ronin, then head over to: https://givingassistant.org/coupon-codes/amazon.com, and do the shopping you were already going to do anyway!

Two Academia Horror Stories out of UC Berkeley

Two stories came out of UC Berkeley over the weekend that will make you question your opinion of academia — or maybe reinforce your opinion.

The first story comes from Michael Eisen’s blog and has a bad news, good news, bad news flavor. The bad news is that a prominent astronomy professor at Berkeley named Geoffrey Marcy has been accused of “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping” in a complaint to the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination filed by four women.

The good news is that the process worked as intended! An investigation concluded that Marcy was guilty, and the results of the investigation were made public. The matter was not swept under the rug. The university did not attack the women. Hopefully this will mean that other victims of harassment at Berkeley will feel comfortable coming forward in the future.

The bad news is that the process worked as intended! Marcy issued a non-apology apology, and it seems that he will face no further repercussions for his actions. None. This is a real win-win for the university. It presents the veneer of justice, thereby maintaining the university’s ability to present itself as a committed champion of victims. But at the same time, it does not have to deal with the consequences of losing a prominent faculty member — or doing anything really, besides making him feel mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes.

The message to faculty seems fairly clear. You should not sexually harass or assault your subordinates. But if you do, ¯\_(?)_/¯.

Story number two comes from the UC Berkeley math department. Alexander Coward has a long post about why he is leaving his teaching position there. Basically, he is being forced out of the position because his teaching is too successful. Compared with others in the department, he teaches larger numbers of students, receives higher evaluations, and produces better results (in terms of student performance moving forward).

A department that cared about teaching its students might look at this situation and ask, “How can we replicate what he is doing? Maybe adopt his techniques across the department?” But of course, a real department says, “Oh no! He’s making the rest of us look bad. Stop him!”

Now this is, of course, just one side of the story. However, it rings true to me, and it is difficult to imagine what additional perspective the department might offer that would make this look like anything other than gross malfeasance on their part.

One of the interesting parts comes at the end of the post, which points out that this is not just a question of bruised egos:

In the April 18th, 2014 memo to me then Chair Ogus wrote: “We explained to you before you accepted the position that the idea of employing a full-time lecturer is controversial in our department.” This raises the question of why it was controversial. It was controversial because the way the Mathematics Department justifies its size on campus is through the teaching of large service courses for other majors. I have been told by Craig Evans that around 15,000 students take classes with the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department each year. On the other hand, mathematicians typically do not bring in giant grants like experimental scientists, and compared to most other departments that do not bring in super-grants the Mathematics Department is large. The Mathematics Department uses its privileged role in providing service teaching for undergraduates in all the sciences and social sciences to justify its size and all the trappings that go with that like funding and office space. The problem is that their reliance on teaching to justify size and resources is not commensurate with a commitment to doing a good job.

 

Indeed, it is an open secret on the UC Berkeley campus that the administration and other departments are jolly cross with the Mathematics Department for not preparing students adequately. The argument used by the Mathematics Department in response to this is to say something like “It’s easy for you, you teach these cool subjects that students are interested in and choose to do because it’s their chosen major. Take it from us. Teaching these kids calculus is just impossible. That’s why our student evaluations are terrible and students aren’t prepared for your courses.” The argument then concludes, as articulated by a member of Senate Faculty in his response to my open letter of December 15, 2014, something like: “Give us more money and more resources and we’ll do better.”

 

Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument, and that is why so many people conspired to make it not so, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me.

This is a scam you see everywhere — the expansion of the national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11 comes to mind. If you do your job poorly, you can blame it on not enough resources. If you can keep that cycle going, you can get paid more and more to do less and less. It’s good work if you can get it.