Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

With SOPA protests gumming up the internet yesterday (and leaving me prone to distraction by websites like this one), my evening was free to try something new, so I headed to the Bell House to learn a little bit about the universe. Happily, my first trip to the Secret Science Club was a delight, even though I couldn’t get in the door. By the time I arrived, NYU cosmology professor David Hogg had already gathered an overcapacity crowd in the event space, so I figured I’d warm up a bit and have a drink before heading back home.

The premise of the event is simply great, and I love how much of a crowd it gathered.  People kept pouring in, packing the front lounge, all of them disappointed to have missed their chance to hear a free talk about astronomy. (The recent coverage in the Times couldn’t have hurt.) Actually, I love that it was so full that I couldn’t get in. When 8 p.m. hit and the talk began, I was even happier to find that the lounge had decided to broadcast the session into the bar area–so I could stay cozy on a sofa with my drink and still get my fix of black holes and red shift.

Despite all the mysterious talk of dark matter and neutrinos, the thing that stuck with me most (undoubtedly because I had already been thinking about it) is that our current academic system doesn’t really know how to reward good work on theories that don’t end up holding water. Hogg emphasized the importance of taking risks in order to do truly innovative work, and noted that many times such risk is at odds with the academic credentialing system. Incorrect theories don’t result in published papers, lines on CVs, or items for a tenure dossier. But without risks and innovative thinking, research will only progress by small increments, because incremental advancement is the safe way to garner professional rewards of publishing, tenure, and promotion.

I like to think that at their best, funders can help encourage innovation by cushioning the financial risk that accompanies professional risk, and also by providing a certain validation of the work being done. Still, what matters most in the academic system are academic credentials. As means of scholarly communication are changing and tenure dossiers are beginning to look different (for instance, the recent MLA convention featured a workshop on evaluating digital materials for tenure), I hope that we might be in a moment when the credentialing system is undergoing some changes and is therefore a bit more pliable than usual.

But it’s hard to know how exactly to fix the problem. What would a tenure and promotion system that fostered risk and innovation look like? How can universities incentivize inquiry and exploration that may not result in a provable theory? These are major questions relating to systems deeply embedded in university structure, so I don’t expect simple answers. Still, I find some hope in the fact that the question is being raised not only in academic circles by incredibly smart and thoughtful people, but also at a free science talk at an out-of-the-way Gowanus bar in a room filled with non-specialists who are thirsty to learn something new.


On scapegoats, opportunities, and MLA occupation

This post is a little different from my usual book chatter, and it’s on a topic that matters a lot to me: the choices that humanities PhDs face once grad school is over. When I started writing the post, Occupy Wall Street was at its peak in New York, #mla12 chatter was revving up on Twitter, and a group of people tweeting under the @OccupyMLA handle and using the #omla hashtag had just begun causing a stir over the lack of tenure track jobs available to humanities PhD grads. As I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on the matter, the circumstances have shifted a bit, but I still want to post a few thoughts.

While the @OccupyMLA group generated a good deal of attention (even eliciting articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed), ultimately they badly misplayed what could have been a great opportunity to open up a productive dialogue about the state of the profession. Instead of thoughtful critique, the feed was full of scathing posts illogically directed at people in alternative academic professions (famously, “Stick your alt-ac advice squarely in your variorum”), weirdly personal revelations by and about members of the group, and toxic infighting as the members tried to determine the future of the account and the movement it was trying to launch. (Here’s a glimpse into the dialogue; see also this thoughtful rant from Bethany Nowviskie, which includes additional tweets and links to other resources.)

By now the @OccupyMLA account has crashed and burned in such spectacular ways that a number of people in the MLA community on Twitter became convinced that the account was fake (not unlike Rachel Maddow’s insistance that the only logical explanation for Herman Cain’s antics is that he must be a work of performance art). Legitimacy of the account aside, the problem with the @OccupyMLA storm wasn’t the premise; many, many people in the humanities community (myself included) recognize the fundamental problem that PhDs are trained almost exclusively for jobs as professors, but there aren’t enough of those jobs to go around. The problem, rather, was that the @OccupyMLA people were perpetuating the same narrow-minded focus that contributes to the problem in the first place, and they seemed to be looking for scapegoats instead of opportunities. (How else to explain the bizarre stance of seeing the alt-ac community as an enemy?)

Part of the problem with the @OccupyMLA group is the continued tunnel vision that sees only two options: either a PhD lands a tenure-track job (and therefore succeeds), or a PhD does not get a tenure track job and is relegated to the world of contingent labor as an adjunct (and therefore fails). They may allow for a long purgatory between the two, but as far as I can tell, that’s the gist of their worldview. They seem to think the only problem is a lack of tenure track jobs; they think they deserve a tenure track job by merit of having completed a PhD; and they think anyone who has a PhD and does not have a tenure track job is miserable.

They’re forgetting something hugely important: many PhDs who pursue careers outside of academia are happily earning good salaries and benefits in stable positions that provide all kinds of satisfaction, challenge, and growth. The discourse around @OccupyMLA continues a tired conversation that needs to change. As long as PhDs continue to buy into the notion that there is no measure of success for us outside of academia, the mentality will continue to feed back through departments and graduate students, who will continue preparing for tenure track jobs that they may not get and who will become bitter when they don’t know how to do anything else.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fates of humanities PhDs who, for whatever reason, do not become a part of the academic machine of the tenure track. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the widely varied nature of this group: there are many, many reasons people end up outside of the tenure track, and many, many other paths that they (we) pursue. Too often, however, people who leave the traditional path feel isolated, and have no real means of connecting to a true network of peers who have made similar professional decisions. There are so many people in this position–however, to my knowledge no good network exists to help us connect in a useful way. (I would *love* to see such a network develop, and I’d love to be a part of it!)

While certain individuals and organizations do provide useful and thoughtful perspectives on these issues (including many who will present at MLA this year), the overall tone of the conversation hasn’t changed, and it should. It could be incredibly useful to connect the @OccupyMLA folks (and the large, silent body of embittered PhDs that they represent) with the happy post/alt-academic crowd so that they can start hearing a voice that differs from the one from within the walls of the university.

Happily, in the wake of the @OccupyMLA thread I’m hearing much more constructive conversation on the same topic from a variety of voices (such as this one), and if nothing else, I’m relieved that the community recognized the problems with the @OccupyMLA and sought more reasonable counterparts to direct people towards. It’s going to take a big push to shift the momentum of the dialogue, but maybe the time is right for it to start changing. I know that many people have been working hard on this issue for a long time (Anthony Grafton at the AHA being one great example), but it’s far from enough.

I’ll be heading to the MLA convention in a couple days, and I’m curious to see how the dissatisfaction of the @OccupyMLA group manifests itself. I’m also excited to see the ways in which the MLA and individuals within the organization are working to improve the situation in various ways–whether by advocating for better and different training for grad students to prepare them for much more than the tenure track, or by presenting on other types of job searches and career options, or simply through informal conversations that validate alternative academic work rather than marginalize it. Not because the work needs external validation, but because grad students need to know that there’s so much else out there, and they need to know how to become a part of it.


*Addendum: For an excellent set of #alt-ac perspectives and resources, make sure to check out the #alt-academy project on MediaCommons, edited by Bethany Nowviskie.