15 January 2005

timothy burke has a challenge that exposes the difference between liberal arts colleges and universities (though i think that is not his actual intent). read the following, then tell me which sort of institution he works at. if you said liberal arts college because this sort of idea is unthinkable at a big university, you're entirely correct.

"...Administrations and faculties need to stop caring how much someone writes or publishes or says, or even how important what they’ve published is according to some measurable or quantifiable metric. Not only because trying to measure productivity in terms of scholarship destroys scholarship, but because it detracts from the truly important kind of productivity in an academic institution. What really matters is this: how different are your students when they graduate from what they would have been had they not attended your institution, and how clearly can you attribute that difference to the things that you actively do in your classrooms and your institution as a whole? What, in short, did you teach them that they would not have otherwise known? How did you change them as people in a way that has some positive connection to their later lives? ..."

as far as i can tell from conversations with students, many professors at yale are not particularly interested in whether their undergraduates have had their lives changed. some of them are not even particularly invested in the salience of, or the passion behind, their grad students' work (although i think that my department does a wonderful job in this regard). a year or two ago, i probably would have told you that it was mindlessly cynical to claim that academia as a whole was basically concerned with reproducing itself, and that the production of knowledge to enlighten (think both brighten and unburden) the world placed second at best. now i'm not so sure.

during my final year of college i wrote a paper challenging the primacy of the professions in the syllabus of a course on the working world. the professors liked it, but they were skeptical. burke, though, has similar ideas when he notes that the premium placed on a college degree is no longer increasing without bound, as it appeared it might during my high school years. most students these days are looking for practical knowledge that can be applied to a job that will pay their bills. most students do not go to swarthmore or yale. and yet, the elite institutions, the producers of a lot of weird arcana and a few pathbreaking ideas, continue to believe that academic and other professional careers exist at the center of the universe. political science literature is full of pieces that bemoan the method-drivenness (as opposed to problem-drivenness) of the discipline, and rightly so. but casting about among all these fancily worded 4,000-word pieces, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that hey! this is not a difficult concept! it's just plain irresponsible to do only the social science for which you have access to a good dataset, or only the "perfect" comparison -- rather like refusing some construction project because no one has invented a tool specific to the endeavor.

the point for me, i suppose, is that i'm more and more convinced lately that doing research the right way is fundamentally connected with being a good teacher, in a way that perhaps big universities like mine have failed to grasp. problem-driven research, clearly connected to people and ideas and outcomes that exist in the real world, is the sort of research that may actually change lives, as burke suggests. the perverse incentives that burke identifies are not just about privileging research production over teaching. they are about destroying teaching, and scholarship more generally, through bad research.

one final note: if you happen to have read walter kirn's "lost in the meritocracy" in the atlantic monthly this month, let me know what you think. it fucking terrified me, even though i don't presently feel like i'm faking it.