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Saturday, October 8, 2016

teaching and research

Here's what I've noticed from more than 20 years of helping to prepare colleagues' promotion cases.

Many are excellent at both teaching and research. It is not at all unusual. There is a folk belief that abilities / accomplishments are inversely related. Let me suggest some reasons why this isn't the case. (Of course, I would never deny that it could be the case in a subset of people. That some people do not manage to to both well.)

1. Capable, talented people are ... capable. The ability of someone to one of their job tasks well may correlate with their general ability to do things well. By the same token, people who are not capable in general tend to have many things going wrong at once. So badness in one area is not a predictor of goodness at something else. "Oh, you are bad at sports, you must be good at math." I guess there is a folk belief to the contrary, a kind of equilibrium in which smart people aren't pretty, etc... That says more about our dichotomous thinking than about the real state of things. For example, my sister was the musician, so I kept my accomplishments modest. Maybe she is an 85 in musical talent, and I am a 60, but that is just a difference in degree, not a dichotomy between the musical and the unmusical.

2. Intellectual curiosity, knowledge of the field, self-confidence, a strong work-ethic, etc... There are several traits that underlie excellence in both areas.

3. The best people I have seen (and I'm not including myself in this) seem to be able to do much more than other people. They have more books and articles and are also capable administrators and mentors. They just manage to do more while complaining less about it. They often don't exude the typical academic negativity (again, this is not me, always).


Anonymous said...

I was reviewing another department last month and talking to many faculty members. And it's really interesting how there are people who are glowing with contentment and there are also those who are so miserable they cried during interviews. These are all tenured professors I'm talking about who are working in the same conditions, with the same teaching load. But the degree of contentment is incomparable. It's a fascinating phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

The dichotomy is partly just a stereotype: brilliant writer who is shy and gets befuddled in class, or person with a fantastic bag of tricks for teaching algebra, and reads, but doesn't really have a research program.

It's also at the low levels: there really are great Spanish 1 instructors who don't have a research program, and people who do but who cut too many corners on Spanish 1 to really be what you'd call good at it.

In my department the content ones are the ones who are getting, or taking what they need. Technically the conditions are the same for all, but when you look more closely they are not. I swing wildly in attitude, depending on how recently and how badly my natural optimism has been dashed.

Leslie B. said...

I have been thinking about this. I am in a year of Leo Bersani admiration, as he was good at all things, although of course I never knew the man well enough to know of faults he surely had, as we all do.

My father hated academia because it was a racket, he said: he was very upset with all the insincerity, all the corruption, all the unfairness, all the counting as first tier non first tier journals if your friends publish in them, counting as non peer reviewed first tier journals that your enemies publish in, and so on, and so forth. The falseness. His own father had been a bank inspector for the state of CA and his job was to keep Wells Fargo in check and save smaller and local banks from their machinations.

I share this characteristic with him, I notice, and also with his grandfather (the supposed failure), I have discerned: sincere to a fault and therefore easily discouraged, not by the things that usually upset people (having to revise your article, not being chosen for x, y, or z, etc.) but by the falseness, by the way people lie to your face and tell you they really believe you are stupid enough to believe them.

I have been thinking about my colleagues. I have decided that I might like academia if I could work with people interested in research and teaching but that they are interested just in having a job, obeying, they have no particular interest or commitment. Then, at our state's Stanford equivalent, so many are just interested in acquiring a new cultural identity, it is so much about self and not the work. Of course I am interested in life and adventures first, work second (and that makes me different from you -- adventures include fruitless work or work that does not lead to production, I jump up and down about perceptions and am satisfied, whereas you are very much about production, achievement, competition --) BUT at work I am still interested in actually working, not just in marking time. And I think most people just are into having a position and marking time, and that is why I do not like professors.

Leslie B. said...

*** I want to know about "typical academic negativity," though. I have not experienced it except from:

-- Ivy educated graduate students and assistant professors at Berkeley
-- Assistant professors at R1 institutions that grant the PhD in Spanish

Otherwise I don't notice it. My dissertation director, and other people like that, would go on about how if we were not more negative, we could not be taken seriously (yet would not take serious complaints seriously), but I think these are exceptions and not rules -- what is your experience of "typical academic negativity"?

Leslie B. said...

*** Also: what about "typical academic Pollyannaishness"?

My experience of people is not about negativity but about fear of saying anything that isn't positive. You never know who is listening or what they might do, or who might disapprove, so you have to present a happy-happy image and that means never saying anything at all is wrong! You have to be very grateful and happy for the institution and everything it does! Again, you never know who will hear you and what they will do! You will hurt their feelings personally and they will not get over it. This is my experience as a person who shoots straight, i.e. says the fact that study abroad programs can only be done in way X is directly prejudicial to Spanish. That is VERY negative and VERY mean and you just can't.

So: what do negative people do?

Leslie B. said...

Still more on negativity: what if they really are oppressed, and people just call that "negativity" ?

I was at a meeting the other day with a lot of people who were about to benefit from one of the university's scams. They couldn't say it in that way, of course, but they knew it and were winking at each other. Yes, they were happy. (And yes, I am filled with anger, and I do hate a few people for what they have done, but I deny that that is "negativity" -- I consider that the negative ones are the ones who steal, who lie, who are corrupt, etc.)

Leslie B. said...

And finally, finally, finally: what about negative atmospheres? Why is it incumbent upon regular individuals to "be positive" all the time in the face of extreme negativity, rudeness, destruction, etc., from above? Why is it we who are supposed to smile and keep a stiff upper lip, for fear of being called "negative" and not having enough school spirit or something ???

Leslie B. said...

And, postscript: I have thought about it. It is this:

1. Academia is a really abusive environment.
2. Some people have protection from this. (I know what that is like, I have had it sometimes)
3. Some people actually function well with it. (Although most of the time, these people are only "successful" in more minor ways)

Leslie B. said...

So: what is "typical academic negativity"? I take you to mean the snobbishness of New Yorkers claiming to suffer at their brilliant Midwestern jobs -- but *is* that what you mean?

Jonathan said...

It can take many forms. I don't mean this post to mean that people shouldn't be negative. I am just pointing out that some people are not, even when they could be.