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Whither the university?
July 25, 2012 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Terran Lane's short blog post explaining why he is leaving academia (for a post at google) offers concise and damning insight into problems at US research universities. I find the analysis resonates with the Canadian experience as well (though I'm a grad student not a professor)..
posted by chapps (72 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Mass Production Of Education raises some interesting points, but I disagree with his conclusions here.

Post-secondary education (and all education, really) is illogical, depending on the transmission of knowledge from a master to a pupil, almost always in a physical space like a classroom.

This structure limits the capacity of knowledge transmission. If remote campuses and open universities increase access, what can be wrong with that?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:31 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think all underpaid, overworked academics should resign their "cushy" jobs and go work at Google's Cambridge, MA, campus. You know, as a symbolic gesture.

In some ways the author may be right, but what he's doing undermines the credibility of what he's saying.
posted by Nomyte at 9:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


KokuRyo, I agree the developments in open university courses are positive, but as an online MA student myself, nothing matches the face to face portion (one week per year) we have in my program.
posted by chapps at 9:51 PM on July 25, 2012


Leaving one field for another is pretty common! The grass is always greener, even for academics - or perhaps especially for academics who may never have worked outside of academia (and which really makes you appreciate academia!)

The rant is interesting, but not particularly surprising, since all of those complaints are pretty well circulated.

This isn't nearly as shocking, as say, sociologist Joel Podolnoy, very prominent academic who quit as Dean of Yale's business school to run Apple University, which teaches people how to think like Steve Jobs. It would have been more interesting if he left to go somewhere other than a research lab at Google, which is sort of academic-y anyhow.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:53 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought it was an interesting piece, right up until I saw he was in computer science. Am I supposed to be surprised that there is movement back and forth between CS departments and tech companies? Uh, hello, is this the cluephone ringing?
posted by Forktine at 9:58 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


KokuRuo: because that physical proximity and personal connection is part of the learning process.

Some people have the ability to teach themselves, and all they need are the books or the lectures on tape. But for the majority of us, this is not enough. I certainly need lectures, not just books, and the ability to ask questions after and the discussion to explore and understand.

as a technology, the lecture format is hundreds, even thousands of years old. But we haven't dropped it because it works.
posted by jb at 10:00 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


He mentions salary, but not the prospect of a "don't go to facebook" multi-million dollar bonus.

All the academics I know, in things like history, all left long ago to be some hedge fund guy's assistant and are now making like 250k. Fuck medieval history, I want that cash.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:00 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


If remote campuses and open universities increase access, what can be wrong with that?

Nothing. But the implicit put-down of those of us who learn best in a physical space, with other people, is unnecessary. And there's nothing inherent in the remote/open learning model that prevents it from being the transmission of knowledge from a master to a pupil.
posted by rtha at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Learning is fun. Being in a social setting with other people is fun.

The modern college lecture is not fun, though. It is miserable. The students are in a miserable situation, in a miserable mindset, being taught by professors who care about a thousand other things more than they care about having a great classroom setting.

That stuff like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, etc, is available is wonderful. That it is held up as a superior model to our current educational system should fill your heart with pity for those poor individuals who are trapped in it.
posted by billjings at 10:20 PM on July 25, 2012


transmission of knowledge from a master to a pupil.

Spoken like a true Dalek.
posted by swift at 10:20 PM on July 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Workload And Family/Life Balance

Immense amounts have been written about this, and I won’t try to reprise them here. Suffice it to say that the professorial life can be grueling, if you try to do the job well, and being post-tenure can actually make it worse. This is a widespread problem in academia, and UNM is no different. But, as of my departure, UNM had still not approved a unified parental or family leave policy for faculty, let alone established consistent policies and support for work/life balance.

Good move there Professor. Tech sector jobs are well-known for providing ample time for family.

posted by three blind mice at 10:23 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tech sector jobs are well-known for providing ample time for family.


hahah aha ha. That was a good one.

Right before she left Mayer stated she work 130 hours a week at Google.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:27 PM on July 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


But the implicit put-down of those of us who learn best in a physical space, with other people, is unnecessary.

If you think it was an implicit put down, well all I can say is that if I did not write it, I did not mean it.

However, what I will explicitly say is that education has been the reserve of the elite for thousands of years. I will explicitly say that universities are capital intensive, are not pragmatic in outcome (and are therefore aimed fulfilling the aims of an elite), and are not open to everyone for reasons of culture and cost.

As more and more people around the world become more and more educated, it is pretty damn obvious that something is going to have to change - we have to educate more people here in Canada and the US - in order to compete.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:31 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


>transmission of knowledge from a master to a pupil.

Spoken like a true Dalek.


I've been on MetaFilter long enough to expect we're all friends here. I guess I was wrong. Use your words, and explain why you think I am wrong.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:33 PM on July 25, 2012


KokuRuo: because that physical proximity and personal connection is part of the learning process.

At school, the learning is transactional for me: Can I get the professor to have some small amount of respect for me? Being able to come off as listening, and then to make a credible response, gives you more of a working knowledge of the material.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:34 PM on July 25, 2012


"Right before she left Mayer stated she work 130 hours a week at Google."

I doubt that's typical. Or smart.
posted by zippy at 10:35 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


KokuRyu: This structure limits the capacity of knowledge transmission. If remote campuses and open universities increase access, what can be wrong with that?

Well, from what I've seen, it doesn't work - at least not even close to as well as the traditional atmosphere. I wish it did, because it would be really efficient and then academics could be released to do research (which is what most of them would really like to do) but it doesn't seem to. I think the problem is effort.

The thing is, it takes a lot of effort to learn a subject. Learning is like exercise; it can be fun sometimes if you do it right, but doing it intensely requires real effort and is fundamentally difficult. Most people don't have the willpower to be self-motivated at it (and the people who were, could learn from a textbook anyway) - they need an instructor who is personally involved to ride their ass and make them do the work. This doesn't seem to work over the internet, and people drift off, or get distracted, and don't put enough effort into the program. People have nearly unlimited ability to screw around and not pay attention when taking classes at home. The classes never seem to be really rigorous or require any effort.

Plus, you can't do labs that way. And there is always incentive to make the assessment shallow and meaningless (no essays or papers) since real grading breaks the efficiency boost of doing things online. So you end up with the shallow cliff notes version of the class - all the easy content and easy answers, but none of the messy labs or written papers. But those are critical to the learning process!

Perhaps it can be done, but I think when it is done properly, you'll still require a traditional school for lab classes, and the increase in efficiency will not be as high as people think.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:37 PM on July 25, 2012 [17 favorites]


I think all underpaid, overworked academics should resign their "cushy" jobs and go work at Google's Cambridge, MA, campus. You know, as a symbolic gesture.
Yeah... It isn't that "corporate" life is better then "academic" life, bur rather working at google is better then being a tenured prof at the university of new Mexico. I'm sure he'd prefer to be a professor at at Harvard or MIT then work at Oracle or Salesforce.com
Right before she left Mayer stated she work 130 hours a week at Google.
Yeah. That's bullshit. She's claming she was only not working an average of 5.5 hours a day, 7 days a week? she was actively "working" 18.5 hours a day, 7 days a week?

I mean at a certain level, your job is really just to think and intermittently communicate those thoughts to people. I mean, I don't think it would be difficult to think 18.5 hours a day, but that's really far removed from what most people considered 'work' back in the day.
posted by delmoi at 10:41 PM on July 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


First, I worry that mass-production here will have the same effect that it has had on manufacturing for over two centuries: administrators and regents, eager to save money, will push for ever larger remote classes and fewer faculty to teach them. Are we approaching a day in which there is only one professor of computer science for the whole US?

...
Third, and finally, this trend threatens to kill some of what is most valuable about the academic experience, to both students and teachers. At the most fundamental level, education happens between individuals — a personal connection, however long or short, between mentor and student. Whether it’s personally answering a question raised in class, spending twenty minutes working through a tricky idea in office hours, or spending years of close collaboration in a PhD mentorship relationship, the human connection matters to both sides. It resonates at levels far deeper than the mere conveyance of information — it teaches us how to be social together and sets role models of what it is to perform in a field, to think rigorously, to be professional, and to be intellectually mature. I am terribly afraid that our efforts to democratize the process will kill this human connection and sterilize one of the most joyful facets of this thousand-year-old institution.
We don't need one CS proff for the whole country, but it would be better of a comittee of proffs worked together to develop a cohesive program with less overlap of content or style.

As far as the personal connection and individual colaboration, that's what TAs and small groups are for. It was pretty rare for me to interact directly with a professor on anything for more then a few minutes. The vast majority of 'one on one' interaction I had when I was getting my CS degree was with other classmates while working in groups. And of course, our tuition was going to he professor and the administration supporting them, with a tiny bit going to TAs and none going to other group members. I wouldn't have lost much just watching videos of lectures online, and asking questions in the TA sessions.
posted by delmoi at 10:48 PM on July 25, 2012


Yeah. That's bullshit. She's claming she was only not working an average of 5.5 hours a day, 7 days a week? she was actively "working" 18.5 hours a day, 7 days a week?

Yeah, she wasn't operating a punch press like back in the olden days. She was likely "available" 18 hours a day. For me, if I am available it means I am working. If I am online at 4 am I will get IMs from devs in Chennai. If I am not online I get txts.

Thinking 18 hours a day is pretty damn hard too.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:15 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"All the academics I know, in things like history, all left long ago to be some hedge fund guy's assistant and are now making like 250k. Fuck medieval history, I want that cash."

If they are handing out 250k jobs to medievalists, please send one my way. (My MA thesis was on 14th century naming practices in West Yorkshire. This is the sort of geek I am.)

But, really, I'd settle for about $50k at the moment. Or even less.
posted by litlnemo at 11:40 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


As one of those who left a high-paying professional career for academia out of idealistic goals of "making a difference," I empathize a lot with Lane. The economic pressures put on universities today, particularly public universities like my own, do create a negative incentive structure that devalues innovation, teaching and public service.

I don't wish to seem self-centered, but I'll offer my own experience as an example. A few years ago, I was asked to direct my university's LGBT Studies program--the only such program in my entire state. I was asked, and reluctantly agreed, to doing this without pay, course reduction, or other compensation, in addition to my other ever-expanding other duties in my home department. The alternative was the termination of the LGBT Studies program, as nobody else was willing to take the directorship on--and for good reason. The program is unfunded, meaning that it only exists as long as I can bring in external funding to "buy out" professors to teach our courses and pay for programming--which requires a large amount of my time. Having to spend so much time on fundraising for the program, in addition to actually adminstrating the program and teaching hundreds of students every semester for my home department, means that I have little time to devote to writing and publishing, so that my own career advancement stalls. Meanwhile, changes in state policy that demonize public employees have led my take-home salary to contract substantially. Taking into consideration my increased hours in running LGBT Studies and the decreases in my take-home salary, I am effective paid 40% less per hour than I was a few years ago. And even that amount was less than I was making years ago in my prior professional career.

At some point in this climate, people like myself have to ask if we're becoming martyrs, or worse, chumps.
posted by DrMew at 11:41 PM on July 25, 2012 [20 favorites]


Tech sector jobs are well-known for providing ample time for family.

hahah aha ha. That was a good one.

Right before she left Mayer stated she work 130 hours a week at Google.
Of the tenured or tenure-track professors in STEM fields I know, 100-115 hours/week is a mundane workload, and they will never have a hope of making nearly as much as Mayer or having nearly as much influence on the world. 130/week isn't out of bounds for tenure track faculty, particularly with the way that funding works these days. Being a professor is a family killer, and the tech world is a paradise compared to it.

Incidentally, I agree with this author, and fuck everything about the way that modern academic science research is structured. The sooner one bails out of the 20th century research career track, the more likely you are to be able to find some way to continue research.

/disgruntled rant
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:55 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


delmoi: As far as the personal connection and individual colaboration, that's what TAs and small groups are for. It was pretty rare for me to interact directly with a professor on anything for more then a few minutes. The vast majority of 'one on one' interaction I had when I was getting my CS degree was with other classmates while working in groups. And of course, our tuition was going to he professor and the administration supporting them, with a tiny bit going to TAs and none going to other group members. I wouldn't have lost much just watching videos of lectures online, and asking questions in the TA sessions.

This could work. Keep in mind, however, that you have to have professors in the system if you're going to have TAs, since those TAs are graduate students.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:56 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let's see...the corporate world is the worst parts of university politics dumbed down to high school level.

He's really naive if he thinks the grass is greener on the corporate side.

Work-life balance. My ass.
posted by roboton666 at 12:01 AM on July 26, 2012


Being a professor is a family killer, and the tech world is a paradise compared to it.

Where were the academics working 100-115 hours a week when I was in college, I wonder. It's ... so different from observed reality as to be hard to believe. 16, 19 hour days? Seriously?
posted by rr at 12:01 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm in the position of having to decide what to do - continue in academia or go to industry - and from my research so far, it's about the same workload (maybe more in academia if you consider the fact that everyone I know just continue doing work after they leave the office/lab), (increasingly) the same intellectual freedom, stress... and completely disparate payscales, not to mention opportunities to enter either field. Working at a tier-one school might in theory be more prestigious and desirable than working at Oracle or even Google, but industry hires vastly more people which much fewer hoops to jump through. Besides which, the "tenure track" sorts of positions are rapidly fading away, and if I even wanted to attempt to continue in academia, I'd have to complete (an average of) at least two postdoc appointments, which is another 6-8 years of my life. I'm 30 now, being 40 and still not reliably saving for the future, etc... I have to say that's not particularly appealing, for me or for the vast majority of the PhDs in training. Publicly-funded research may start dying out if these trends continue, and it sort of scares me that all of that will be transferred to for-profit corporations.
posted by Tikirific at 12:01 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can people please lay off of the "shocked face" and "cluephone" stuff? To me it's pretty obvious this is not meant to be valued as breaking news, but as a well-articulated explanation of an important problem.
posted by victory_laser at 12:04 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Work-Life balance is important. I wavered back and forth between going into academia or industry for many years while working up towards my Ph.D. (As many have noted, not everyone has this choice, depending on the field).

In the end, I chose to do what was best for my family, which was crystal-clearly to go into industry. Significantly higher (say about double) salary, and waaaay more time to spend with my kids, at a time when it's important to them (when they're young).

Additionally, the reality is that I have more 'academic' freedom in industry, because if I have a good idea that's relevant to the way the winds are currently blowing, I can raise eye-boggling amounts of funding to do it way more quickly than an academic could even dream of. (All of the talk about 'academic freedom' in academia is highly tempered by the fact that you still get to deal with which way the winds are blowing - if you're not doing something the funding agency is currently interested in, it won't get funded).

As long has he maintains his focus on why he's there at Google, he can maintain a better work-life balance, do more good in the world, and make more money to boot. There are, of course, many traps he can fall into along the way to ruin this, but at least he's got a better shot of managing to pull it off where he's going than where he is now.
posted by grajohnt at 12:06 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Work-life balance. My ass.

I've heard Google, depending where you're at, will actively discourage you from staying into the evening regularly to work. Anyone care to verify this?
posted by victory_laser at 12:07 AM on July 26, 2012


It's not one or the other. You work a corporate job and teach as an adjunct. And go to school getting your master's or PHD.

University is a lifelong sunk-cost. It was never meant to feed your belly, or your kids. Either you are educating yourself on the backs of peasants and gladiators, or you are paying your own freight.

Thinking the two are mutually exclusive methods of earning a paycheck is a first order problem that can be solved for free by reconceptualizing reality as you imagine it.
posted by roboton666 at 12:12 AM on July 26, 2012


Where were the academics working 100-115 hours a week when I was in college, I wonder. It's ... so different from observed reality as to be hard to believe. 16, 19 hour days? Seriously?

Did you go to a big research university? Then they were probably in lab (provided we are talking about STEM). I know significantly less about the liberal arts (or smaller liberal arts schools), but based on observing some of my friends in their near-decade long history PhDs, I doubt faculty life would be much improved from that.
posted by Tikirific at 12:14 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've heard Google, depending where you're at, will actively discourage you from staying into the evening regularly to work. Anyone care to verify this?

Anecdotally, my friend that works at Google does tend to go home around 6 pm like a normal person. But she is still "available" to receive e-mails/texts/phonecalls and in reality does a lot of work at home. She is from an academic background though so I have no idea if that is corporate policy or a vestige from being a grad student.
posted by Tikirific at 12:17 AM on July 26, 2012


Right before she left Mayer stated she work 130 hours a week at Google.

I first saw that claim in an interview a few years ago where she was talking about the early days of Google, and though I can't find the source now with all the recent chatter, from memory she said something like 'We were all working 130, 140 hours a week.' 140 takes us to a nice even 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I can imagine that being possible at the early stages of a soon-to-be-huge company for a limited time but not long-term sustainable, even for uber-human Marissa. For people at that level, you also need to expand your idea of what 'work' is.
posted by StephenF at 2:09 AM on July 26, 2012


At Google's Mountain View HQ, in the hardware and OS software groups, the buildings are empty by 7 or 8pm. Most people leave at normal times, say 5-6pm. Some stay a bit later to catch dinner at the Google cafeterias. You will not run into people in the halls or see lit offices if you wander around at 2am.
posted by ryanrs at 2:13 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The important thing to understand about most people working in academia as researchers is that they very very very rarely have experience doing anything else except maybe as summer jobs during their undergrad which we all know are a fundamentally different experience because they end at the end of summer (or more typically before the end of summer so you can have some time off before school).

This leads them to believe that their jobs on lovely campuses with flexible work hours and intellectual stimulation and very little direct supervision are more oppressive and pressure filled than other people's jobs.

I've had a foot in both the regular working world and the academic world at the same time most of my life. Academics are very very wrong. They simply don't understand the hellish awfullness of a boss popping up on the other side of a cubicle wall at 3:30pm on Friday before a long weekend and saying "When you've got a minute....." or "If you get a chance...."

I expect even the lovely trappings of the Google pseudo-campus will fail to cover up the differences in the realities of academics and "the real world".

Don't get me wrong - academics work extremely long hours (they are essentially publicly funded entrepreneurs in a sense) and face tremendous frustration but it just doesn't match the awfulness of most work. No matter how eloquently academics whine about it. I know because I am married to tenured professor.
posted by srboisvert at 2:21 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


As has been pointed out in these threads in the past, most of college teaching is not transmission of facts. The biggest things that my students take out if my biology classes are scientific writing skills and the use of the scientific method. Both of these require intense interaction with me and iterative feedback from me.

I have no doubt you could learn the facts of ecology from a 10,000 person online course from Stanford. But to learn ecology as a science, there is no substitute for:
1) Go walk around a field site. Make observations and discuss what you see with other students + professor.
2) Formulate questions and hypotheses in collaboration with other students and professor.
3) Develop methods for answering those questions and hypotheses. This will generally involve the use of specialized field and lab equipment, and instruction from the professor on the use of it.
4) Collect data. This generally requires collaboration with other students and occasional hints from the professor.
5) Analyze data, generally in collaboration with other students. Most statistical analysis is easy to do, yea, but the trick is understanding when and how to apply each tool. One on one help from the professor is important here, especially in understanding which of the data are important and how to present them.
6) Draw conclusions and write this up as a paper. Most students have not the foggiest idea how to write a scientific paper: how to present lines of evidence to support their hypotheses, how to discuss their results objectively before drawing conclusions from them, how to compare their results to the literature. This is always an iterative process of students sharing drafts with me, me commenting, and students revising, And of course the entire semester is an iterative process: as basic mechanics improve with each paper, I begin offering commentary on use of the literature, drawing conclusions, and the stylistic features of scientific writing.

All of this could possibly be learned from a book or an online class with no real feedback from the professor. But I don't know a single scientist who has done so, and I think that is just as true for computer science as it is for field biology.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:44 AM on July 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


srboisvert, I'm not sure that's the important thing to understand about this blog post. He's not complaining about the work he's doing. He's pointing out that he could have been making more money in industry but chose academia, where the smaller salary is worth it because he is "paid partly in cool." Now that the institution is changing (centralization of authority, etc.), it's not so cool anymore, and he might as well make more money. Interestingly, when academics point out the effects of systemic change that they see, on the ground, they are, indeed, seen (by administrators) as whining.
posted by Fichereader at 3:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


>If remote campuses and open universities increase access, what can be wrong with that?

Nothing. But the implicit put-down of those of us who learn best in a physical space, with other people, is unnecessary.


Not to mention the distinct possibility that there are important parts of an education which cannot be accomplished remotely. For everyone, independent of so-called "learning styles." I'm talking about the formation of relationships, both with professors and peers, without which most people's higher educational experience would be a pale shadow of what it ought to be.
posted by valkyryn at 3:48 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


the current Republican-led poisonous political climate and Republican-orchestrated congressional melt-down has destroyed any chance of coherent, reasoned budget planning. In the face of these pressures, we have seen at least seven years of flat or declining funding for federal science programs and state legislatures slashing educational funding across the country.

So he places the blame on the political climate that values the private over the public and then, with a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude he does just that--joins the business world and, in effect says they've won and he wants to be with the winners.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:49 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I teach philosophy at a not-great-and-not-terrible university. It's more on the good than the terrible side, going just by the numbers.

It all seems like such a train wreck that I think of leaving about every other day.

It seems to me that most things begin and end with the fact that only some faculty and students are good--smart, dedicated, curious intellectually honest. Oh, the things we could do if all faculty and students were as good as the top, say, 30%. But they aren't. Many of my colleagues--and here I'm talking about in the whole university, not just in my department--simply are not very smart. I am repeatedly surprised by just how not smart they are. I am not kidding.

And, God help us, philosophy is in better shape in that respect that 90% of academic disciplines. And it pains me to say that, because we suck pretty seriously. Some entire disciplines are intellectual wastelands...in fact, some seem downright counterproductive. And they are often the disciplines that attract more students and more funding. I could name some, but when one starts to get specific about this, people start getting mad. Let me just point out that you can look and see how students of the various disciplines perform on tests like the LSAT and GRE. Those rankings map almost exactly onto the conventional wisdom within academia about the difficulty and the quality of majors.

If you let me fix about ten big problems with academia, things would improve massively. But it is simply not going to happen. If I told just the story of my university's attempt to give every student a "critical thinking" class, you would burst into tears. If I told about the attempt to reform our--let us say "sub-optimal"--education major, you would jump off a building.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:54 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


srboisvert, I'm not sure that's the important thing to understand about this blog post. He's not complaining about the work he's doing. He's pointing out that he could have been making more money in industry but chose academia, where the smaller salary is worth it because he is "paid partly in cool." Now that the institution is changing (centralization of authority, etc.), it's not so cool anymore, and he might as well make more money. Interestingly, when academics point out the effects of systemic change that they see, on the ground, they are, indeed, seen (by administrators) as whining.

It is whining. Life is getting less comfortable for academics but the heat that is tickling their toes is from the fire that everyone else has been roasting in for some time. What makes this article ridiculous is that he jumped out of the frying pan into the fire and rationalized the decision with some very very poor logic.

He gave up a sure thing for a temporary job in a volatile industry because he was feeling pressure and struggling with change. It will most certainly not work out well for him. I hope for his sake he will be able to re-enter academia when he realizes his mistake. I wasn't and I regret it more than just about anything.
posted by srboisvert at 5:01 AM on July 26, 2012


Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle: Adjunct as Sharecropper.
posted by gerryblog at 5:42 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I recently declined a 12-month, tenure-track faculty position at a Research I state university, opting to remain a researcher in a federal laboratory. The interview process was eye-opening, and I have a new-found appreciation for how good my current position is. It's hard for me to see how we can maintain research capacity in my area (agriculture) when the US is being dramatically outspent on research by the EU, Brazil, and China. Competitive funds are drying-up, funding rates have fallen to about 12%, and most new positions are 9-month appointments. At the moment, I actually have a good home/life balance, and I still get to work on interesting and important problems. The university route, no so much.

It's simply not possible to have things both ways -- you can't build a system on the principle that faculty are entrepreneurs at the same time that there's virtually no funding available. Think about what a 12% (or so) funding rate means: 88% of your grant applications (on average) will not be funded, and it's actually worse than that because some programs/consortia are funded much more often than others. Perhaps I need to start learning Portuguese, like some of my colleagues.
posted by wintermind at 5:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


It is whining. Life is getting less comfortable for academics but the heat that is tickling their toes is from the fire that everyone else has been roasting in for some time.

A lot of people seem to have focused on the Work/Life balance, which was just one paragraph in that whole post. This prof is mainly talking about deep pressures on the way science is done in this country, about systemic changes that, as he says in the beginning of the article, could affect the U.S.'s place as a top innovator. It's a very eloquent summary, in my opinion.

We've been living off the fruits of robust government funding for science in the '50s - '80s. Money that the government dumped into higher ed research powered the economy of this country for 30-40 years. But, of course, we started cutting all that off in the '80s, so what are we going to have to exploit 30 years from now? Industry R&D only gets you so far.

If you read the article, this prof talks about freedom and creativity to follow weird ideas, ideas that might not have immediate profitability or other obvious payoff. For every wacky idea the government funded in the Cold War, we got an Internet or a GPS. Industry R&D does research along lines that look potentially profitable -- it has to, it's under pressure to deliver profit to shareholders. How long did it take to discover DNA? What industry lab would have allowed that kind of trial and error?

If you don't fund the wacky stuff, the foundational "huh, I wonder what will happen if I do this?" ideas, you will lose out in the end.
posted by lillygog at 5:45 AM on July 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


It would have been more interesting if he left to go somewhere other than a research lab at Google, which is sort of academic-y anyhow.

Why? He has goals for what he wants to do and the problems he wants to solve. Ostensibly, universities are supposed to be the places to do that, but increasingly, they aren't anymore, so he's moving elsewhere.

So he places the blame on the political climate that values the private over the public and then, with a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude he does just that--joins the business world and, in effect says they've won and he wants to be with the winners.

There's really no reason to set oneself up to be a martyr. Sometimes the sweep of events is bigger than you are, and you have to take care of yourself first, rather than spitting into the wind. I realize that the "ideal" is for an academic is to spend his life adjuncting in a futile effort at getting a TT position while indefatiguedly fighting for structural change in the hopes of improving things for the next generation, but... not worth it.

The thing is that there will always be people desperate enough to stay in academia, because they have no place else to go and don't have anything else they want to do, either because they prefer getting funded off grants, because there simply aren't available research opportunities in industry, or because they don't have the interest/temperament for the various consulting-type careers that some PhDs do outside of academia. They might not care about academics, teaching, etc. as much, but they will be able to master the game being set up for them to play in a modern university. Don't cry for UNM-- they'll find a replacement.
posted by deanc at 6:01 AM on July 26, 2012


At Google's Mountain View HQ, in the hardware and OS software groups, the buildings are empty by 7 or 8pm. Most people leave at normal times, say 5-6pm. Some stay a bit later to catch dinner at the Google cafeterias. You will not run into people in the halls or see lit offices if you wander around at 2am.

I wonder, though, how many of those who leave at 5, are then sitting down at their home computer, VPN'ed back into Google and continuing their work? That, increasingly, seems to be the standard work model anymore.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:15 AM on July 26, 2012


GO AND LOTS OF LUCK.
posted by Postroad at 6:54 AM on July 26, 2012


> I wonder, though, how many of those who leave at 5, are then sitting down at their home computer, VPN'ed back into Google and continuing their work?

When I worked at Google, I'd send code reviews out in the middle of the night and get responses back almost immediately fairly often.

I'd say that's extremely common in Google culture...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:10 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


All this butthurt about leaving the Phd track never ceases to amaze me.

If you're a grad student, take a look at your advisor.

Size up his coterie of advisees.

And realize this: only one of that coterie will get a tenured position like the advisor. All the others have to have a plan B, and it better be good.

And if you have a plan B, you may notice you don't actually need to finish the thesis for it to be a good one.
posted by ocschwar at 8:10 AM on July 26, 2012


Do you know why everyone's individual experiences here seem in conflict to everyone else's -- ie, why some people have seen academic faculty members who work nearly impossible hours, while others only had professors who enjoyed sinecures; why some people's friends at Google leave at 6pm, while others' Google friends left at 2am? Because everyone is comparing their own anecdotal evidence, and very few people have a sufficiently broad experience to make an accurate comparison between different institutions.

How many universities have you attended or worked at? I've only got three as a student and two as an employee, with an overlap of one element in those two sets. How many IT jobs have you worked at? Perhaps more, but how many of those firms are unusual in some way, as some would claim Google is.

Anecdotal evidence is likely to be of limited utility in understanding the nature of academic and corporate jobs.

Moreover, the question 'how many hours did you work' is likely to be a poor metric to study whether or not one side of this academic-corporate divide enjoys more or less favourable conditions. In part that is because it is not the only variable in play; if you work 80 hours a week and come home with a bounce in your step because your job is thrilling, I suspect your work-life balance will be more comfortable than that of a person who works 30 hours a week in a job she or he finds brutal and tedious. But more importantly, it's because this is a question that is, in my (anecdotal (therefore useless, I know, I know; but. Anyway)) almost always answered dishonestly. My first advisor in grad school frequently complained of the quality of students in our institution, which he blamed for his lack of success in recent years. He suggested that his own peers at MIT had been too driven, as they had worked 100-120 hours per week. This is bullshit. I was working 70 hours a week, and probably telling people I worked 90 hours a week. This was yet more bullshit. 'How many hours did you work this week?' is one of those questions we feel conditioned to answer dishonestly. There are a couple of weeks during grad school where I worked 120 hours. I got the flu every single time, without exception.

You know what? I wasn't even working 70, then. I just thought about it, and it's more likely I was working 55-65 hours a week. But I wanted to write that I was working 80.
posted by samofidelis at 8:24 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where were the academics working 100-115 hours a week when I was in college, I wonder. It's ... so different from observed reality as to be hard to believe. 16, 19 hour days? Seriously?

As a student, at least at the undergraduate level, you likely only saw their teaching time and office hours. These two things are actually a very small component of most academics' jobs (unless they work at a school that is primarily a teaching college and not a large research university). Most of their time is actually spent researching, writing papers, and working with graduate students (who are likely assisting them in their research and writing).
posted by asnider at 9:03 AM on July 26, 2012


gerryblog - has that essay about adjuncting appeared as an FPP? because it's excellent and if it hasn't been posted, you should.
posted by jb at 9:20 AM on July 26, 2012


At the large software company I work for, normal work hours are really about 8 hours a day ... Until about 2 months before a release, when everyone starts staying till 9 or 10. Still it's a vast lifestyle improvement over academia.
posted by miyabo at 9:29 AM on July 26, 2012


The modern college lecture is not fun, though. It is miserable. The students are in a miserable situation, in a miserable mindset, being taught by professors who care about a thousand other things more than they care about having a great classroom setting.

In spite of other issues I have with my university education, I liked my college lectures. Most of my my professors clearly did care about their subject. It seemed to me that it was mostly other students who couldn't give a rat's ass about what was going on down in the front.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2012


I'm with KokoRyu re the potential of some teaching as remote 'mass' courses.

Potential advantages:
- wide access and low or no cost. A step closer to universal education. A casual viewer will get something out of it, even if they don't do classwork or sit the exams.
- I'm assuming that the 'mass' course would be better-prepared and supported, possibly from a collaboration of different institutions, and with well-prepared course materials, labs and assignments
- your best profs shouldn't be stuck giving Introduction to X 101 lectures over and over again to bored and uninterested undergrads
- it has the potential of providing very high-quality instruction to a very wide group at a lower overall cost

I would make the following caveats:
- I am NOT suggesting that a whole undergrad degree program could or should be done as mass or remote learning, nor would it have much application in post-grad studies
- 'mass' learning is mainly for presentation of the 'canonical' stuff normally conveyed by lectures and reading
- there should be a prof or TA available for one-on-one assistance
- it should be accompanied by labs, assignments, discussions/fora, etc
- reduced lecture workload would hopefully make more time for a prof to lead interactive discussions or workshops

More on-topic: I don't necessarily agree that going into the workforce is necessarily harder than academia. For a person as valuable as the post's subject, I imagine he could name his terms, including arrangements re hours worked, work from home etc. When someone's talented enough, quality is better than quantity.

Sadly, the decline of academic and R&D support is right in step with the dismantling of the consumer economy. Our plutocrat overlords can cherry-pick the world for their victuals and diversions, and consequently have less need for educating the serfs.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2012


In spite of other issues I have with my university education, I liked my college lectures. Most of my my professors clearly did care about their subject. It seemed to me that it was mostly other students who couldn't give a rat's ass about what was going on down in the front.

I went to an excellent university (two in fact), and maybe that's why, but I have to second this. My professors were all pretty solidly committed both to their subjects and to teaching. They much preferred teaching their subjects, rather than intro courses or general requirements, true.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2012


So, Prof. Lane is my PhD advisor (and continues to be so; I'm in the last year of my PhD, and the university is letting me finish with him as my committee chair, so there's no problem there) - you can imagine my surprise when I saw his name show up on the front page of MeFi. I've spoken to him about the article, and he too is surprised by how much attention it's been getting; someone pointed him to a Reddit thread about it as well, and it's kind of been spreading from there. He's writing a followup to address a lot of the common concerns and questions people have been having, and when he finishes that, I'd be glad to link it here if people are still interested.

More on-topic, in my own experience as an undergrad, a grad student, and teaching summer courses, the university really feels more like a three-way struggle between the students, who just want to get their work done and get out, the teachers, who want to do their own research get students interested in whatever their specialty is, and the administration, who - at least at UNM - want to run the campus like a business. I share Prof. Lane's frustrations (having had to deal with many of the same people as him), and I think comparing academia to the corporate world is a sidetrack from his real point.

We're trying to make science happen because we think science is cool, and we and all the rest of us in the research group have been busily running experiments and submitting papers and going to conferences (I myself was at ICML a month ago), and it's incredibly frustrating having to swim upstream both against administrators trying to pinch pennies and an awareness that what we're doing is both very abstract and possibly only an incremental improvement over the state of the art anyway.

Kiri Wagstaff's paper, linked to in the article, is one I saw her do a presentation on at ICML, and I think it's well worth a read if you want to know more about some of the issues and frustrations related to our specific subfield (machine learning, formerly known as artificial intellifence).
posted by wanderingmind at 10:10 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I am NOT suggesting that a whole undergrad degree program could or should be done as mass or remote learning, nor would it have much application in post-grad studies

While I doubt that MOOCs have much application for graduate studies, online/remote learning is far from unheard of at the post-grad level. As long as the courses are designed to promote a higher level of discourse and interaction, I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I am doing my MA online.
posted by asnider at 10:27 AM on July 26, 2012


Having said that, I should probably provide the caveat that online/distance learning at the master's and PhD level makes far more sense in the humanities than in the STEM fields, since STEM typical requires a lot more "hands-on" lab work.
posted by asnider at 10:28 AM on July 26, 2012


wanderingmind: the university really feels more like a three-way struggle between the students, who just want to get their work done and get out, the teachers, who want to do their own research get students interested in whatever their specialty is, and the administration, who - at least at UNM - want to run the campus like a business

The tension between teaching and research is one of the reasons I was so dismayed to read in this post that the university is "punishing" failure to obtain research dollars with teaching time.

In Canada, I worry that the more the university takes a business--rather than public good--focus, and the more cutbacks to universities impact on the quality of education and research available in the university, the less reason there is for the public to invest through their taxes in public universities.
posted by chapps at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2012


On the distance learning question ... my experience has been that my university has provided zero training for professors on how to manage the software, so experiences have ranged from clunky to awesome on the interface.

Ironically, my university has a policy that *more* resources are needed to run on line graduate programs, not less, while simultaneously online offerings are seen as a cash cow.
posted by chapps at 10:53 AM on July 26, 2012


my experience has been that my university has provided zero training for professors on how to manage the software, so experiences have ranged from clunky to awesome on the interface.

I've heard that this varies from school to school. Most schools see distance ed as something that they've tacked on to earn a bit of extra cash. But schools that were distanced-based before online education really ever existed tend to have a better grasp of how to use the technology (because they already understand distance education, online just gives them a new/better delivery method).
posted by asnider at 11:07 AM on July 26, 2012


I think it's interesting that he complains about lack of autonomy, yet he's going to work at a large, highly-structured software company; Google is not the adventurous company it was in 2004. I'll be surprised if he's actually happy there, but wish him luck nonetheless.
posted by knave at 12:03 PM on July 26, 2012


Yeah... It isn't that "corporate" life is better then "academic" life, bur rather working at google is better then being a tenured prof at the university of new Mexico. I'm sure he'd prefer to be a professor at at Harvard or MIT then work at Oracle or Salesforce.com

Here is a blog entry by a tenured Harvard CS professor that left to join Google.
posted by meijusa at 12:14 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would still argue quite strongly that post-secondary education is really aimed at a very limited range of learning styles, and is also limited according to socio-economic background. While I doubt Harvard or whoever has the best interests of an underrepresented demographic in mid when they virtualize and scale up their curriculum, it's still a valid model (the virtual, open university model) for allowing more people to be educated; education is the biggest challenge facing most established OECD countries at this time.

If the US wants to raise its infant mortality outcomes in order to resemble a developed nation, for example, getting more people educated is the answer. We often forget how privileged we are to be able to get that postsecondary degree.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:32 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not even awake for 130 hours a week.
posted by grog at 1:49 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


transmission of knowledge from a master to a pupil.

I've been on MetaFilter long enough to expect we're all friends here. I guess I was wrong. Use your words, and explain why you think I am wrong.


No offense intended, and I don't necessarily think you're wrong. I just can't read that sentence without hearing a dalek voice in my head. It happens to echo some cliched phrases in cheesy old sci-fi movies.

I don't think that you are literally a robot, or even robot-like. But maybe a good education is more than moving data from one humanoid to another.
posted by swift at 2:18 PM on July 26, 2012


swift - But maybe a good education is more than moving data from one humanoid to another.

You bring up an interesting point; in undergrad I found that I understood the material better if I was teaching to someone else, and the questions that they would ask would sometimes prompt me to think about things from a different perspective or realize that I was wrong.

In grad school, true, I learned directly from my supervisor and my peers but most of this just the transmission of skills. There was also a lot of two-way synthesis, too; we'd tackle the same question together and while the supervisor typically suggests the direction, everyone would be contributing to the collective understanding of $new_thing through experimentation and discussion.

Distance education is particularly difficult in fields that require hands on time. I know a few mathematics/physics/programming type grad students who were able to complete large parts of their degree in a different city than their supervisor. In contrast, that would simply not be possible in experimental biology due to the limitations of requiring expensive and generally non-portable equipment, not to mention infrastructure support like the acquisition and disposal of hazardous/controlled materials.
posted by porpoise at 3:34 PM on July 26, 2012


But maybe a good education is more than moving data from one humanoid to another.

Sorry, I was using jargon I picked up as part of my education degree and experience as a teacher. However, traditionally in scholastic settings, knowledge is transmitted from teacher to pupil. Why else do you have huge lecture halls with hundreds of students? Education has always been this way in the West (and "transmission of knowledge" is also pretty central in Japanese Buddhism, notably Zen). The teacher is passes on knowledge. Experiential learning is pretty new.

Note that, sure, there are seminars, but once again that particular format is limited in terms of the number of seats there are. It's for an elite, the "1%" as it were.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:31 PM on July 26, 2012


Community colleges and "directional" state universities generally have small class sizes and use a ton of experiential methods because pedagogical research suggests that they are the most effective. Nothing elite or 1% about that.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:40 AM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's the followup post.
posted by wanderingmind at 11:01 AM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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