Tag Archives: research

On success and reward in academia

So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).

Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?

VOID: HI, CHRIS. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.

VOID: OKAY. I LIKE STORIES.

(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)

This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.

First up, here’s Mark Changizi on why he just left academia:

You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.

It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)

Mark again:

in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.

Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.

Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.

Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.

Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:

* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings

Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:

* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)

Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.

So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:

leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.

This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.

teaching vs research time.png

(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)

Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.

So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.

It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.

So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.

And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)

Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.

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Stealing From Geeks, Part 2: Educators need to geek out, big time

Other people’s presentation slides used to drive me crazy. “You’ve got Arial and Times New Roman and fifteen lines of text in 14-point font! Those colours are hideous! Stop with the serif fonts already! Are you going to read aloud every point?”

Then I gave up caffeine.

No, really — about two years ago, a casual conversation with my colleague Andy about minimalist slide design in teaching suddenly sat up and grew legs. We went from idle discussion to brainstorming ideas to me going home over Christmas wondering if I would get my brain to slow down to less than 1,000rpm. We managed to secure funding from the Centre for Research-Informed Teaching, and for the last 18 months, we’ve been exploring the effects of using minimalist slide presentations on people’s memory for information. I blog about it, think about it, and chase down ideas that might relate to it. I have even — *shudder* — acquired new skills to pursue it.

In short, I have well and truly geeked out over my research. And it feels great.

I posted last(ish) time about how education can learn from the technology sector by growing its own storytellers and role models, but I think there’s plenty more to take away from the home of geek, starting with trying to become one.

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you in school: your inner geek is the most powerful learning resource you will ever have. It’s the thing keeping you at your computer or from putting down your book until well past bedtime; the thing needling you with “Hey, that’s interesting …” It holds your attention when you’re unfocused; delights or enrages you in the face of apathy or exhaustion. Your inner geek won’t rest until it consumes you in the fire of your own attention.

Harness this awesome power, and you can do nearly anything you want: a geek illuminated from within by the source of their own geeky pleasure is one of the brightest lights in the universe.

Geek, should you need to know how to get there, is basically a place where your interests and your strengths meet:

your geek space.png

(And since we’re on a Venn diagram jag, why not check whether you’re a dweeb, a geek, a nerd, or a dork?)

Getting in touch with your inner geek is the fast track to achievement. Over the last two years, I’ve worked harder than I ever worked in my life — yes, even during my Ph.D. — and I’ve loved every minute. Hard work isn’t all that hard if it’s doing something you love. I also got to take our work to conferences in San Francisco and Corfu; being a geek comes with some pretty cool perks. (Okay, so I also got to go to Milton Keynes. This was a useful exercise in humility.)

Geeking out provides students with good role models, giving them permission to indulge their own intellect and curiosity. Show me a good educator, and I’ll show you someone whose teaching involves some variation on “Hey, look at this — isn’t that cool?” Students need to see that geeking out can lead to rewarding careers. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters have become poster-boys for scientific curiosity, but they also get invited to the Emmys. I want to give them both a big hug for making being a geek cool; the cooler being curious and knowledgeable becomes, the easier it will be for students everywhere to own their inner geek and move forward in the world.

Education can help shape a culture in which geeking out is not just socially acceptable, but actually desirable. One of the big lies often peddled about geeks is that we’re happiest alone. I don’t think that’s true: the internet in its current form basically exists because geeks liked talking to other geeks. (Or at least reading about them from a safe distance.) When geeks hook up and reinforce their shared geekiness, amazing things happen. You see this in academic departments and at conferences where conversations blossom into full-on nerdouts as two or more people realise they have an interest in common, often kicking off with “Hey, do you know if … ?” It happened to me; you wouldn’t be reading this if it hadn’t.

Most technological developments of the last two decades (centuries? millennia?) were created by geeks who didn’t care whether people knew they were smart; who didn’t worry about looking cool, because they were too busy chasing down their idea. Education needs to reclaim that indifference to what’s “cool” and set about showing that growing and following a passion is one of the most rewarding — and genuinely cool — things you can do.

We don’t geek out enough; we certainly don’t let our students see us geeking out enough. Understanding and enjoying focused obsession is far too good a thing to keep all to ourselves.

Geek out, and don’t look back.

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The Golden Delegate Bridge

(Sorry, that’s a truly appalling title. Let’s move on.)

Just back from the APS annual convention in San Francisco, where I gave a poster and apparently vindicated some people. Which was nice, since everyone got to feel all warm and fuzzy.

The poster was about how putting more material on presentation slides can actually have a deleterious effect on how much is recalled afterwards. And the great thing was, people kept coming up and saying, I’ve thought this for years but never actually tested it. Or, I’ve been doing this; thank you for confirming my theories! Or — and this was my absolute favourite — I want to give a copy of this to all my colleagues.

So it went pretty well. I mean, nobody came up and argued with me
about the work, which I half expected (You did what? How does that prove anything?) I did have some useful discussions about the methodology (we should test recall later/tie it to students’ grades/replicate it in a teaching setting, outside the lab — the latter, at least, is done, though we’re only just about to start looking at the results.) And I got an excellent suggestion about how to test my two opposing theories as to why it all works – though first I need to write up the experiments we’ve actually done.

I also went to some great talks on education and use of technology, which I hope to write about when I’ve finished processing what I want to say about them. One of the unofficial themes of the conference seemed to be that Generation Y (millennials, if you prefer) is relatively narcissistic; another was about the need to eradicate pseudoscience (my colleague the Punk Psychologist would have enjoyed that). But really you could have walked into more or less any hall and found something to get your teeth into.

If there was any disappointment, it was mainly because I didn’t get to talk to enough other people about their pedagogical research, because they were presenting it at the same time as I was – that, and all the stuff I wanted to see, clashed horribly (holding the bulk of the Teaching Institute on one day just seems cruel). But I imagine it’s pretty hard to run a multi-track conference and please everybody all the time.

Bonus: San Francisco is a nice city. People smile there, and it’s
eminently walkable, if you don’t mind serious hills. And the fog! Wow.
San Franciscans dress quite like the Brits (lots of black, even when the sun is out!), perhaps never knowing when the weather is going to turn on them.

I haven’t slept for nearly 30 hours. Take that, body-clock!

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