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.

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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).

Why students MUST NOT be treated like customers

Originally posted on Bestthinking.com on Jan 13, 2012

I’m not sure who I’m writing this entry for. Professors who struggle with demanding students? Students who think Profs should follow them around ready to answer their every query. Perhaps administrators who have been reading management books on being Customer Focused and assuming students are our customers. What I do know, is that I’m often confronted by students who claim that they are my customers and as such, I should be willing to do anything they demand. I’m usually quite willing to sit with diligent students and aid them with their studies. But this sort of “I pay your wages” approach doesn’t inspire much sympathy in me, and let me tell you why.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a customer is “a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business”. In this sense, my students are one of my customers. If my students were my only customers and my job was to satisfy their needs, then surely the easiest option would be to award all students an ‘A’ regardless of attendance of performance in assessment. This way, students who wish to gain knowledge can attend classes, do the readings and study for the various assessment, and those that don’t care about learning anything can just drink their way through the semester and still get an A. This would be the rationale answer if students were my customers…but guess what, they’re not. The objection from me is when a student assumes they’re my only customer. Notwithstanding the hundreds of other students I have, there are many other customers; most of whom are far more important than students themselves.

Their future employer, their workmates, their corporate clients, their parents, the taxpayer that funds their education and the systems that enable them to receive an education, the government that allocates funding to support their education, the builder who put his or her sweat and blood into building the lecture hall they now sit in and tweet about the contents of the vending machine, the University that houses them while they study…all of these are my customers as well. All of whom I have a lot of respect for. By giving my students everything they demand in class, I disrespect a huge number of other customers who have enabled their education and could, one day, benefit from their education. If I just think about my students’ wants, then I’m not being customer focused at all.

Possibly the customer who is of most concern to me, as a lecturer, are my students’ future employers and the people my students will one day work with. I could be a glorified babysitter for my students and teach them nothing of any value, and hand out ‘A’s to everyone. Their future employers, who trust me and my institution to provide an education, are not exactly going to be satisfied. Indeed, future hirings from my classes may drop if this pattern becomes too widespread. If I don’t push my students to their very limits in class then how will they possibly stand up to the vicious world they emerge into once they’ve left the safety net of University? If I pander to their every whim, will they have a realistic opinion of their line managers when they’re expected to make a profit for their future employers?

No, students are not my customers. Students are more like a product to me…let’s say, a car. When they enter University they are a stock car with a standard engine, plain paneling and the most basic accessories to enable them to work. My job as a University lecturer is to supercharge those cars and have them ready to compete in the race that is to come. This process hurts. It is tough on the car. It might even mean stripping the car down to its most basic elements and building it up again. We do the same with students’ thinking sometimes. We challenge the way they think, we encourage them to critically assess what they know and creatively solve problems they face. Most students can’t do this straight out of high school.

I’m not a nice lecturer that hands out extensions, that listens to them whine or spends hours repeating myself because students couldn’t be arsed turning up to lectures. I’m a mean, mean man, but my students come out supercharged. And guess what, they like it. My students humbled me by voting me the Lecturer of the Year for my Uni, both years I have been employed here. Handing students an education on a silver platter is not only doing them a disservice, as they are unprepared for the cold light of life, but also disrespects the many, many other customers we have.

So no, students are not my customers. Students won’t get everything they want…they will get everything they need, and, if they fully engage with what Uni has to offer, they will be well prepared for when they walk out with their degree.

Is Academia Broken? The Publishing Game

pointing-finger

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.