Why I returned my 2014 Lecturer of the Year (College of Business and Law) award

Returning my Award

Returning my Award

It is with deep regret that this morning I returned my Lecturer of the Year award for the College of Business and Law 2014. Before I tell you why I gave back this honour I want to assure you that these are my words and my words alone. I am writing this in my capacity as an academic who has the responsibility to be the critic and conscience of society. Unfortunately, the society in question is also where I work.

Now, to my reasons for returning my award. The University of Canterbury is a wonderful organisation and I have enjoyed my time here more than any other appointment I have had. I am supported in my teaching and research as well as have great friends here. However, there is an underbelly of hate that raises its head from time to time. My earliest experience of this came in my first semester of teaching at UoC when I was reading the anonymous feedback from students. In the section where it asked “what should be changed to improve the course” one student wrote “his ethnicity”. I’ve been brown all my life, so I’m used to racism. Whether it’s the ignorant throwaway comment or the overtly aggressive act, I’ve seen it and experienced it and I know one day my daughters will see it and experience it. This is why I’m taking a stand. Because I don’t want my girls to live in a world where hate exists and I know I’ve done nothing to try and stop it.

A few weeks ago the Engineering Society held the RoUndie 500. Participants of the event were encouraged to decorate their cars and come in costumes and that the more inappropriate these were, the better. This led to a series of costumes that were undeniably racist and sexist.

My race is not inappropriate. The gender of my daughters is equally not inappropriate. But for people to jump on these old chestnuts in order to cause offence just continues to highlight this ugly underbelly. This is offensive and inappropriate.

The University of Canterbury, to its credit, has taken the complaints to heart and come up with some swift actions. I am told that the Uni’s representative on the day censored the most offensive content before participants left campus. I’m glad this was done. But it does not address the fact that the organisers purposefully wanted to cause offence and be inappropriate.

What was missing from the final report was any apology from the organisers or participants or promise to not behave in this manner again. I will not deny that I’ve offended people in the past. I am often told I’m am the least PC lecturer students have had; however, I do not purposefully go out to offend and hurt people. If I do, I sincerely apologise and I change my behaviour to ensure I do not hurt someone again.

I am not confident that the UCSA’s response will ensure that the behaviour is not repeated. As a result, I have no proof that the UCSA has taken the matter seriously. With no apology and no guarantee of ensuring similar behaviour does not occur again I believe that racist and sexist behaviour will continue.  Indeed, this is not the first time that the ENSOC has acted in an overtly racist manner and despite the UCSA’s actions after that matter (the use of blackface to promote a cafe) nothing has changed. This does not make for a safe and inclusive workplace for me.

It is for these reasons I cannot be associated with the organisation that gave me the award. If the UCSA is unwilling to take a strong stance against racist and sexist behaviour by students then I cannot be seen to benefit from them. As such, I returned my award along with $50 to cover the cost of the prizes I received. If you need more money to cover the costs, please let me know and I’ll give you more. I don’t want you to be out of pocket for my decision.

Some will tell me to harden up and learn to take a joke. Nothing seems that funny when you’re the target of divisiveness and hatred.  It’s like the bully telling the victim “we were just having a laugh! It was all fun!”

Some will say that I don’t understand satire (a common argument used against those offended by the group’s actions). Satire can offend, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to ridicule and critique – being inappropriate and offensive is not, in my mind, being satirical.

Some will say that because I didn’t see it, then it doesn’t affect me. I didn’t see Malaysian Airline’s disasters, but my heart still breaks for those involved – to see images of the victims mocked by ENSOC is, in my mind, bad taste. I don’t have to physically see something to be affected by it – it’s simple empathy and decency.

I will lose favour with many for my actions – I know that. I may even be damaging my career. I may never win another teaching award. All of this is worth it to take a stand. As I said at the start of this piece, I can’t look at my daughters knowing I stood by and did nothing.

I want to thank all the students that voted for me for this year’s award. I hope my actions are not taken as a disrespect to the generosity you have shown me. If you voted for me and feel let down or betrayed, please do get in touch and I’ll happily sit with you and explain my actions in person.

Much love

Ekant

I want to assure people that I am not represented by any society on campus nor have I been contacted by any member of any society.

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Shut up and WRITE!

An open letter…to myself

Dear Ekant,

I want you to take this in the best possible way, but I know it’s something you don’t want to hear. That said, someone has to say it. It’s time for you to shut up and write.

I know you’ve had a tough year and you’ve taken on a lot of extra work. Guess what, all this extra work is stopping you from writing. It’s getting in the way of your future and what you need to do. Yes it’s all important and yes it’s helping other parts of your career, but you’re also leaning on these things to seek permission to not get ahead. Frankly, I’m sick of your excuses. You need to shut up and write.

It’s hard. God, don’t I know it’s hard. You’re about to bare your work to the world and be judged for it. You’re correct, right now, you’re safe, because no one will ever criticise your work. That’s because no one can read your mind. But, the same thing that is keeping you feeling safe is holding you back. No one can judge your work because it doesn’t exist. It won’t exist till you write it down. And no one can learn from you or find joy from your work, if you don’t just shut up and write.image

Don’t get me wrong, I know how much effort you’ve put in so far. But you’ve read enough, you’ve thought enough and you have enough data. When I say “write”, I don’t mean rethink the framing; I don’t mean read another tangentially relevant article; I don’t mean have another coffee with a colleague to discuss your work; I don’t mean re-analyse your data, and I certainly don’t mean collect more data. I mean writing. Putting your fingers to the keyboard and putting letters on the screen. When you start, the words will come. But this will never happen, if you don’t shut up and write.

If the words don’t come straight away, don’t stop. Don’t listen to the negativity that swirls in your head. Don’t make excuses like “I don’t feel it, right now” or “I have writers’ block”. Persevere. Tell those excuses to shut up, because you’re writing. You’re good at what you do, but only you and you alone can do this. At the same time, only you and you alone can halt this. Don’t you dare blame anything, or anyone else. Just shut up and write.

Nothing…NOTHING will happen, if you don’t just shut up and write.

Is Academia Broken? Parochialism

It seems more and more apparent that the words ‘real research’ encroach in to judging academics’ contributions to knowledge.  It’s a thinly veiled insult that doesn’t demean the recipient, but shows the insecurity of the deliverer.  The idea that someone’s work is more ‘real’ than another’s is laughable.  There may be more appropriate ways of carrying out research to answer a chosen research question, but determining one person’s work as being more important than another’s simply because they do not use your chosen theories or methods is simply not true.  In my mind, this animosity between academics can be explained by one of two factors: A disagreement as to what constitutes valuable knowledge, and a lack of respect for alternative expressions of knowledge, which is often driven by parochialism and ego defence.

What is Valuable Knowledge?

Anything (yes, anything) that advances knowledge, even just a tiny, tiny bit, is valuable.  Yeah, even the stuff that seems obvious is valuable – it may not be valuable to you, but it is valuable.  It is valuable to the field – it is valuable as a set up to a larger study – it is valuable to the individual who created the knowledge – it is valuable – the value may not be high, but it is still valuable.

Don’t dismiss a piece of work just because someone has used a methodology different to your preferred one to create the knowledge.  Argue that the chosen methodology is poorly carried out or that the methodology has been applied inappropriately (e.g. using qualitative methods to create findings that are generalizable to a population or an inaccuracy in how a model is calculated).

Equally, don’t dismiss a piece of work because it isn’t using your pet theory. Not every piece of knowledge needs to be framed around a singular trend that you (and your colleagues) are touting.  However, this aggressive defence of one’s own preferred methods and theories seems to be increasingly common and, in my mind, seems to stem from a simple foundation – the academic system promotes parochialism – so much so, that academics are fighting with one another about what the best way to create knowledge is.

Parochialism and Ego Defence

Why are some academics so defensive of their own turf? Why do they care so much about defending how they create knowledge to the extent that we attack others for deviating from their course – as if the chosen course is the best and only course? Because the academic system encourages an aggressive publication game – and to ensure that our chosen research path is publishable, some academics feel it necessary to attack anything that could be seen to counter their world view.  Rather than excel in one’s chosen field, it’s often easier to discredit those in different fields.

The idea that one’s life work could be carried out in a different (and potentially better) manner is difficult for some to swallow – especially when academics are known for their eccentricities and egos.  We are so closely tied with what we do, that an attack on our work is counter-volleyed with a salvo of attacks in defence because an attack on our work is like attacking our creation– our children – and our poor, indefensible children need to be defended – well, that seems to be the justification for acting like an ass.  But our work is not who we are – our work is not our children – our work is simple that – our work.

So, who fired first? Does it really matter?! What matters is that life is too short to care about what others think of you, especially if the other group has little or no bearing on your career.  IF you face defensiveness from an editor of a leading journal or your Promotion & Tenure committee, then you have a different battle on your hand.  Knowing how to defend your work (and promote its benefits) is a crucial skill – but jumping in to every fight in order to promote your value is draining and likely to build heightened animosity between groups who are all trying to do the same thing – create valuable knowledge.

So, when should academics bite?  When you see someone using the wrong methods to answer a chosen research question; when you see someone using a method inappropriately; when you see theories inappropriately applied; when you see holes in the research, and, when you have evidence of research fraud.  Just because someone does something differently isn’t worth your time or effort.  If your entire career teeters on public opinion of your research, then perhaps re-evaluate your career direction (and life priorities).

Professors of the World…You’re Boring

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Originally posted Jan. 8, 2012 on BestThinking.com

I appreciate this title is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but bear with me for a little bit. We’re boring…if you don’t know it, you should. I’m not talking to the socially incompetent academics or the classic “talk to the board” teachers out there; I’m talking to everyone who has the job of teaching in front of a class of students. You may have decent teaching scores; you may have a shelf littered with teaching awards; you may even have a chilli pepper next to your name on http://www.ratemyprofessor.com. However, you’re boring compared to other things in the students’ lives when you walk into the lecture theatre.

So what’s my point? Simply this: for some reason, some teachers, work ourselves up into a frenzy of stress to make our lectures so fun for our students that they place its importance above everything else. We try to, some how, compete for their limited attention, in order to perhaps make a difference. But, in my mind, this is a waste of energy and time.It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching first year undergraduates or a doctoral class, it is unlikely you are the most exciting thing in their lives. Even if you force them laugh with your cringe-worthy jokes, as is my strategy, or regail them with war-stories from your past life in the field, you are unlikely to be as exciting as them enjoying time with their family, friends, or alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, you may be the most interesting lecturer in your University, perhaps even your field, but you’re still boring compared to other things that the students could be doing.

Students don’t want you to be the ‘coolest’ thing in their lives. They have fun things to do and far cooler people to hang out with. You are there to facilitate their learning. If you need to be lighthearted, fun or relaxed to do that, then so be it. If you need to be forthright, dry or stern, then that’s fine too. As long as their learning, and not your ego, is at the heart of what you do. Being exciting is secondary to being good at your job as a teacher. Students don’t look at you and think “I’d rather be learning from them, than hanging out with my friends or going on holiday”. No, they think “this is the best class I’m taking this year” or “I really enjoy this class”. They compare you against other studies and other lecturers, not other pursuits that make up their, hopefully, well rounded lives.

Good teachers engage their students. You might need to be fun to do this. Equally, you could be interesting. You could be knowledgeable. You could be passionate. You could be charismatic. All are valid paths to being ‘less boring’ but it is unreasonable to suggest you would be so important to the students that they are willing to drop everything in their lives to attend your class, complete their assignment or study for their finals.

One final note before you launch into writing your retorts as to why you’re not boring; think of the converse. If you organised everything in your life, as a professor, from the most fun to the least, I suspect teaching would not be near the top. Perhaps a class you teach has the most interesting group of students this year, but is it as much fun as spending time with family, reading a new book, watching an old movie or writing your revisions for the latest journal article? Students not near the top of your list, so why do you demand that you be at the top of theirs? For the time you spend with them, you should give them your undivided attention, and and they should do the same in return (I have no time for people texting their friends in my class – leave the room or wait till the break). Take your egos elsewhere, you’re not that important to them…

So, stop worrying. Stop trying to come up with kooky ways to make your class more fun than the beach or ski field. It’ll never happen. Your students are adults and have a responsibility for their own learning. Don’t bore them to death when they come to your class, but you don’t need them to follow you around like the pied piper or salivate outside the lecture theatre, desperate to learn from you. You will never trump the other people the students want be with in their lives. But if you do come across a student who would rather spend time with you than any other person, then perhaps a little professional distance would be in order 😉

Is Academia Broken? The Publishing Game

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In my mind, there’s no point being in Higher Education unless you’re willing to advance knowledge through research. Teaching and administration have their place in aiding the dissemination of knowledge, but knowledge creation through research is why I’m at a research university and not a teaching institution.  But there’s something wrong with the academic system that has started to see the light – the publishing game has been plagued by cheaters.

We can talk at length about the morality of high profile cases, such as Diedreik Stapel or Japanese Anaesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii, but the reality is that these are extreme examples of what I believe is a deeply ingrained problem within academia – that is, a belief, by some, that data fraud is acceptable and necessary.

But, let’s not jump to crucify every academic who has made an error of judgement by liberally removing an outlier or 50, or even creating whole datasets to tell a story.  There’s more to this than a few crooked academics – in my opinion, it’s a systemic degradation of what constitutes valuable knowledge and how an outpouring of valuable knowledge by an individual affords him or her the security and rewards that come with being a successful academic.

So, why does a person choose to fake their data – even just a little? It’d be irresponsible of me to assume to know the motives of every person who has tampered with their data, but let me provide one explanation.  Clean results help one get published in the best journals.  Just the other week a reviewer commented on how ‘messy’ my data was – I saw a colleague post on Facebook the same reviewer comment about their own work a couple of days later.  I felt like replying to my reviewer with “I’m working with people – real people – my data will reflect their lives – expect it to be messy” – indeed, I tend to say the opposite when I receive a very ‘clean’ dataset – I usually comment privately, to the editor, that the data is “too good to be true”. It’s quite simple, we should blame these crooked, filthy academics who have no moral standing.

Hmmm, I wonder if it’s that simple, though.  Right now, the best journals demand significant results for non-tautological interactions.  Basically, the top journals are demanding weird findings that are almost impossible to find without some level of ‘messiness’. However, years of clean data (and potentially ‘cleaned’ data) has led the journals to expect a high level of weird findings that stretch our imagination of the human psyche.  Why would one publish a paper that explains a part of everyday life that people already know about – and with messy data, at that? Nah, what a waste of paper – it’ll never get cited and will hardly attract any media attention.  No, wait for the weird paper with the crazy interactions that are too good to be true…it’s the journals’ and editors’ fault, clearly!

Ok, let’s take another breath and think about this.  Can we blame the journals? The number of submissions to top journals has increased substantially in recent years and they’re presented with more and more papers that are great for pushing the boundaries of human understanding.  Besides, is it the journals’ fault that they don’t pick up fraudulent behaviour? Is that their role? So, why are the top journals targeted so feverishly by an increasing number of academics? Because universities demand publication in these top journals to satisfy their criteria of ‘valuable knowledge’. Don’t believe me? Try going for promotion or tenure at any leading research school with a poor publication record.  It doesn’t matter if your research had social or practical impact, if it’s not well received in the academic literature, then your career suffers.  P&T committees are demanding their faculty to publish in the best journals – as a result, these journals are targeted more and more by anyone desperate to keep their jobs in an increasingly competitive environment.  Let’s face it, it’s all the universities’ fault.

Ok, I think you know where I’m going with this. Can you blame the universities for demanding higher standards of their faculty.  After all, some manage to publish regularly in the top journals.  These academics drive the reputation of the university up, aiding in the generation of much needed teaching, government and research funding.  Students will flock to the schools with the best rankings and those schools are often judged on their research performance.  As a result, research is put on a pedestal above teaching. So much so, that I believe universities put undue pressure on academics to perform beyond what is reasonably possible, because that’s what the people want.  Society is looking for value from their academics.  You cannot ‘hide’ in academia, especially if you draw taxpayer funding.  The public voice is getting louder and expecting more from academia – and I don’t just mean poor reviews on Rate My Professor, but commenters on academic press releases who demean higher education as an institution; who demand professors be fired because they’re not doing ‘real research’ (yes, I’ve had this one a few times, myself!) or the broadening gap between understanding what professors actually do (and it’s not have long holidays and wear tweed jackets – I don’t own a tweed jacket).  Yes, it’s society’s fault for placing huge demands on universities as a result of a burgeoning consumer economy where the customer is always right – and society is paying a lot for universities to be kept open.

By now, I’m guessing you’ve worked out that there’s no single party to blame.  Equally, it is rational to assume, that no one party should bear the burden of fixing the problem of dodgy data.  So why is the pressure heaved upon academics to clean up their act? Why not encourage journals to start publishing replication studies? Why not demand P&T committees take a broader view of an academic’s ability beyond which journal he/she has published in? Why not explain to society that they don’t get to decide what happens within a university? Why is it all up to us as individuals to take the blame and bear the punishment?  Why? Because the only way to break a cycle of abuse is for one group to stand up and demand a change – and stick to that change.  If all parties do this, then the change is quicker and more effective, but rather than pass blame around, let’s take some responsibility, with dignity, and make a change in areas we can influence.

So, if you’re a dean, a research director or head of a P&T committee, then take a stand and demand more be done to review an academic’s impact, beyond journal publications.  If you’re the editor of journal, then why not take a zero tolerance policy on data fraud and encourage submitters to do research that uses messier data? If you’re an academic, then why not be open, as I am, about the pressures and risks associated with our work, so you’re held accountable for your actions.  And if you’re part of the general public (well done on making it this far!) then why not look to engage with universities, rather than deride the work academics do – understand that your taxes don’t entitle you to have a say in the work academics do or decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Don’t drool over the various rankings published in the newspapers, but take a holistic, reasoned and open minded approach to understanding academia and academics.

Is the academic system broken? At this moment, there are failings that need to be fixed.  Not by patching up the problems or parading a few scapegoats around, but by changing the system that eventually leads to fraudulent data use.  Academia is not on its knees, ready to be executed – there is still much value that higher education brings, beyond awarding bits of paper and awesome parties – but we do need some time to regain our dignity and strength.  Give us that time.