Saturday, June 23, 2007

Trust And Academia

In response to my last posting,, the blogger Olddeadmeat left a long and thoughtful comment. In the comment, my observation that academia presupposes a degree of trust was cited. Olddeadmeat asked, and then remarked,

"Do you refer to trust between academics, between academics and students or between academics and the public? If the latter, I think the Ivory Tower may risk bankruptcy."

The contention here was then supported by a bunch of studies. I think that this is an interesting topic that deserves some further amplification. I will try and answer the questions too.

I don't think that it is too much of a surprise that the public do not trust academics. The main reason that this is probably the case is because most people do not really understand what goes on in higher education. This is made clear, for example, when being introduced to someone new as a professor, they respond by saying things like "Oh, so you are a teacher then?" Even students seem to have only a minimal awareness of the real role of faculty. Given that we naturally distrust those things we do not understand, this in part explains the reason for public distrust of academics.

Before returning to this issue though, let me address the issue of trust between academics and students and between one another. It is fairly obvious that students have to trust their professors to some degree. When they come to class, they come to learn things. There is a presumption that the professor knows what they are talking about, on the part of the students. Hopefully, for the most part, this trust is well placed. Of course, this does not mean that professors do not make the odd mistake. This is the reason why it is important for students to feel free to question their professors. Such questions can often be pedagogically important too, as they can reveal points about which the students have become confused about. Students must also trust that faculty will grade them fairly. Although there may be the odd complaint from time to time, students seldom question this (it happened to me exactly once in over a decade).

Do the faculty trust the students? I think that, within limits, this too can be answered in the affirmative. We do have to be on our guard against the occasional cheat, or plagiarist, but we seldom scan every paper checking that it did not come from some web site. This would just take too long. By asking carefully worded questions, it is quite easy to make it difficult for students to behave in a dishonest way. Also, with a few years of teaching experience, it becomes pretty easy to spot the students who appear to be odd. Thus, we must trust our students, at least by default.

The question of whether academics trust one another is a little more complex. When we submit papers, we trust that editors will send our work to referees who are competent and qualified to judge our work. This methodology also helps to ensure that badly mistaken, or even fraudulent data and claims do not appear in print. When we read a paper in a respectable journal, we are inclined to trust that the editor, referees and the author(s) have done their jobs conscientiously and that the claims made are at least plausible. There are even rating systems for journals, which convey a crude measure of the amount of trust that can be placed in a paper that appears in the journal. Thus, at least in the context of published research, academics do trust one another.

What complicates matters is that we may not trust our co-workers and administrators. They too are academics. Faculty members who do not publish, I believe to be inherently untrustworthy. If their ideas cannot stand external independent scrutiny, then what certainty is there that their views are really up to date and informed? When it comes to administrators, they are often distrusted by normal line faculty. As administrative positions are inherently political, to some extent, this distrust is quite natural. This distrust is even more natural, when a person's appointment is fundamentally political. I have written about this issue before.

So, I think that the trust that academics have in one another is a function of the roles played by the individuals. In addition, personality also plays a role in these kinds of interaction. This is why the situation is more complex than the case with students.

Now, let me return to the issue of academia and public trust. As I mentioned earlier, members of the public do not trust academics in part because they do not understand what we do. The belief that academics are just teachers is surprisingly common, even amongst students. This is one of the reasons why I believe that it is important to explain to students a little more about the nature of our jobs. If one attends conferences that arise during the semester, then this is a necessity anyway. This is one of the reasons being active in the profession has broader benefits.

One traditional formula is that an academic position should consist of roughly one third research, one third teaching and one third administration. This seems about right to me. If the public only considers the teaching component, then it is no surprise that academics look lazy, with their long vacations. That being said, this is also the reason why 'dead wood' faculty members are such a problem. I believe that non-publishing faculty members are in some sense, betraying the public trust (even if the public do not understand this). Thus, we should do whatever we can to help the broader populace understand what actually goes on in the Ivory Tower.

It is worth pausing here to mention that the requirement of active scholarship does not apply equally to all faculty. Some are employed in primarily teaching roles. For these individuals, the requirements are not the same. However, my comments should apply to all faculty with a research expectation and a commensurately lighter teaching load.

Now the issue arises of whether the public actually should trust academics, even if they do not. I would say, again the answer should be 'yes'. Although at any institution that employs a large number of people there will be a sub-set of individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, and other vices, by an large many faculty members are pretty responsible. Of course, there will also be a few who are terminally idle, who cancel classes for no reason, who spend their time when not teaching decorating their houses, playing golf, or working in their yards. However, there are mechanisms in place at most institutions to ensure that these folks cannot keep up such behaviours for too long, before getting caught.

That being said, it is an unfortunate fact that higher education institutions are inherently conservative bodies. This means that it can take a very long time for problems to get rectified. However, by everybody doing their jobs responsibly, there are reasons to have faith that, over the long term, we academics are providing value to society, even if that society is unaware of what is going on. After all, academic institutions have been around for a long time. There is a reason for this longevity.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're correct about the public thinking we're just teachers. i'm sometimes surprised, though, by how often a person's qualifications are trotted out to legitimate something a member of the public wants to believe. I have a particular scholar's work in mind, here, and I won't name him. He does come up in conversation now and then. When he's mentioned to me by a non-academic and I dispute his conclusions, I'm almost always immediately informed of his position in the academy. He's a scholar of X and a professor at X university and the department chair there. the implication is that he must know more than I do because he's a prof and I'm only a grad student.

I'm thinking...heh? What? He may have a job and yeah, he publishes...but--and this is really significant to an academic--not in peer reviewed places. He's more likely to put out a book with a popular press. That goes with your point, really, because I don't think the public understands peer review.

In fact, they may try to argue that he's more trustworthy b/c he sidesteps peer review and can therefore disseminate all that information that the academics of the world just don't want you to know. He becomes the beacon of light in the darkness of the academy.

Ditto for a guy like Dan Brown. Sure, scholars say he's full of it....but they're just trying to keep the truth away from us.

Anyway, a long comment in basic agreement, just adding some thoughts.

7:51 AM  

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