Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Perils of Being a Good Professor

When I was in graduate school, the idea that being a good professor might be a problem was inconceivable. When I first got hired in a tenure-track position, I worked hard and tried to publish. It never occurred to me that this might be a problem. I have since learned that such a view is naive.

I like research. I have a pretty good publication rate. Some stuff does not get accepted, at least at first, but most of it comes out eventually, after revisions. I am also fussy about where I submit my work. A journal needs to be good and apposite to my topic, if I am going to send my written work there. This may be a mistake, however.

Some time ago I learned that being a good professor has an unexpected downside too. This amazes me. I always thought that publishing good work was a non-negotiable form of academic gold. It seems that I was incorrect in this judgement.

If one works in an (allegedly) academic environment in which few people publish much, then being a good professor, in the sense of being a good publisher, can be a dangerous thing.

There are two kinds of response that are most worrying. Some weaker co-workers will bother a productive individual asking for 'help', and 'their input' on their work. Unfortunately, this is often a shorthand for "will you write my stuff for me". While this is a pain and fundamentally dishonest, it is not the worst kind of response.

Other people will evaluate the productive professor as a threat. This is truly pernicious. As I worked through my time on the tenure-track, I would meet with others who were doing likewise. Some told me that they could not be like me, that I was some kind of 'publishing machine'. I tried to offer suggestions and support of course. Sometime they paid heed, sometimes they did not.

Now that I have had tenure a while I find that there are people in the tenure stream who are getting tenured for remarkably little work. I think that this is a worrying development. One reason I find this worrying is that it is often these same individuals who find active researchers a threat. Any excuse they can get, they will pass stories about how it is 'so easy for so and so, because of their field'. I hate hearing such things. If this was the only effect, it would be a minor annoyance.

However, recently I was in a situation where the work of a productive individual was under discussion. To my profound amazement, one person in the discussion claimed that the productive individual was successful, because of their gender! I guess these folks have never heard about blind refereeing.

Another individual chimed in that they had evidence that the person under discussion's work was not really so great. With a dramatic flurry they produced a copy of an e-mail. It turned out this individual had gone to the effort to make an enquiry about the publication rate of a particular journal. They brandished the e-mail response as a kind of talisman. They then handed out copies.

To my utter amazement, the e-mailed response was not from the Editor of the journal, but rather from the publisher's editorial assistant. In the e-mail they said that they really did not know what the publication rate was, but made what they explicitly called a guess. This was the purported evidence against the productive individual!

What followed was even more amazing. About two-thirds of those present looked at the e-mail in a sage like manner and begun to 'tut-tut'. The other third, which included me, began to raise questions about the reliability of this so-called evidence. In a moment that was a cross between high drama and high tragic comedy, a person in authority looked across at us sceptics and enquired why we did not believe the evidence before us? I have never seen such prejudice, or stupidity.

Thus, the inner workings of things were revealed. It seems that productive faculty members should be 'brought into line' with the mediocrity of their peers. When a rather frail individual opined that this person only published quite a few papers and went to some good conferences as a means to oppress their colleagues, I utterly lost it.

Now I fear that I will no longer be invited to such meetings. I too will probably be called a threat. Watching someone lose out on a well deserved pay rise, for being productive, whilst another individual got a good boost for making a web site, was utterly nauseating. I happen to know that the productive person has made many such websites, but they do not list them on their report, as being too trivial a matter to be worth mentioning. I guess it was about that point that I decided that it was time to go back on the job market next year. However, know this, being a good professor can have down sides too.

The CP


Blogger Bruce said...

Perhaps the issue of publication needs some reevaluation. We are undoubtedly undergoing an information explosion. It is impossible for me to read even a good portion of the material that is published in my field every month; I could use a graduate assistant simply to filter the material for me.

Given this critical situation, in which publications, through their volume, actually hamper the pursuit of knowledge, publications in and of themselves should not be automatically considered as a criteria for tenure and promotions. The quality of the publication really has to be considered, and objective criteria should be established.

3:11 AM  
Blogger Tenured Radical said...

This is just revolting behavior -- of course, I see it all the time from Drs. Fee, Fi, Fo and Fum -- people who do not publish but who claim authority to jusdge the work of those who do. I once sat in a tenure meeting wher a colleague, whose book had just come out with Harvard, was criticized because in Haarvard's effor to get their books into actual stores they had become "practically a trade press."

As part of hte counter attack, I noted that Richard Hofstedter had only published with trade presses. But yuck.


8:06 PM  

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