I’ve been away on holiday for the past week, cowering beneath the clouds, storms and floods this Great British summer has been throwing at us and catching up with some reading. Consequently, I have had more time than usual to scan the newspapers (the print version at that, as I left my laptop and iPad behind), with much about the Higgs Boson and Bankers to amuse, inform and irritate – you can assign the verbs as you like. And in reading Simon Jenkins discussing the case for Bankers to be interrogated by a Parliamentary rather than judicial review in the Guardian, I came across this biting comment towards the end:
I believe that parliament, however ropey its institutions and personalities, is still the best inquisition of the disasters that afflict any community. The reason is that, come the day of reckoning, all professions fight back in defence of their own interest. Bankers, journalists and politicians have recently struck unlucky. Others still lead a charmed life.
When will we hear where the auditors were when the credit bubble burst? When will doctors account for their closeness to big pharma, and hospital consultants for their restrictive practices? When will someone ask the true productivity of academics? As for the fee-fiddling, court-delaying, job-sharing, ambulance-chasing antics of the legal profession, you will wait to Doomsday for a judge-led inquiry into that.
I will leave others to comment on the legal and medical professions, but why does he question the ‘productivity’ of academics? Indeed what does he mean by his question other than a cheap jibe at the expense of a profession he may know precious little about? We academics actually supply plenty of metrics in different guises as we complete the many forms that occupy so much of our lives: numbers of papers in the last 5 years; amount of grant income; numbers of successful grants and failed ones; numbers of talks to schools and numbers of school children reached; numbers of students supervised at master’s and PhD level; numbers of patents granted or applied for; the list goes on and on, if Jenkins did but know. How would Jenkins relate ‘impact’ and productivity? I have no intention of re-opening the debate (or even facilitating the debate to be reopened here) about whether measuring impact is desirable or possible, nor whether a Pathways to Impact statement is the way of the future or the spawn of the devil. Nevertheless the whole point of it is surely that there is some measurable ‘product’ foreseen or, in the case of the REF, already on the books. Putting all these strands together one could argue (although I would hate to do so) that our productivity is indeed being ‘measured’ all the time, in some more or less meaningful way, without the need for a Parliamentary enquiry.
But the question is almost certainly about something rather different than a ‘product’ in this sense. I would hazard a guess that Jenkins is thinking something along the lines of ‘those academics have a cushy life because they only teach for a fraction of the year. Just think how productive they would be if they didn’t have all those vacations….’, which is of course depressingly wide of the mark but a common misconception. As it is, teaching in the sense of the familiar lecture to a hall full of eager 18 year olds is limited to the weeks of the teaching year, which may indeed be only around half the year (as in my own University) or somewhat more, but that is not where our teaching begins and ends. Graduate students are with us year round, and may see rather more of the average academic out of teaching term than in it. Undoubtedly that should count as teaching, as should mentoring students at all levels and postdocs. Teaching involves a great deal more than the standard 1 hour lecture: ‘contact hours’ involve many different kinds of contact (labs and tutorials for starters) and many hours of preparation beyond the formal contact – for instance I’ve heard a mean figure of 12 hours per new lecture hour quoted, and that sounds about right, although it does depend just how ‘new’ the lecture material is and how much passed on by the one who went before – plus marking and ultimately writing references for one’s students past and present. This isn’t simply a case of delivering a lecture in a bored monotone and heading for the pub, whatever Sir Simon may believe.
Nor is it simply scientists who work insane hours, as anyone who keeps an eye on classicist Mary Beard’s blog will know. Her passion for teaching is manifest, although she accomplishes far more than just that. But perhaps Jenkins believes that writing for papers – as she does so readably – is something that should be left to professional journalists like him, or believes that squeezing in jet-setting off to Rome to make a BBC programme which reaches – and educates – millions is ‘fun’ rather than what academics should be doing of teaching, more teaching and nothing but teaching. All the academics I know work ridiculously long hours (which means I find the 37.5 hour week nominally attributed to me on Research Council forms so insulting), doing many vital tasks in making sure the students are educated and nurtured, that ‘internationally leading’ research is completed and that our universities run efficiently (I’d like to write ‘as efficiently as possible’, but that perhaps is too optimistic).
Actually I suspect Mary and I had it easier in our earlier generation (near contemporaries as we are) than those setting out now. We were not required, as the new academics on the block are, to succeed on all fronts simultaneously and immediately, but were allowed a more gradual progression. We didn’t have instantly to become expert teachers – possibly by virtue of attending mandatory courses, as more and more universities require but which may or may not be helpful, or maybe merely by osmosis from watching our own lecturers’ styles; to pull in the pounds/euros/dollars from the day of first appointment to independent positions; to know intuitively how to encourage students as they face the realities of research for the first time; to be cognizant with health and safety lore and law; to contribute to committees and be able to make useful contributions from the outset; to wow schoolchildren at festivals and in their classrooms. Maybe for Jenkins only the first item on that (non-exhaustive) list counts, that he believes productivity can be measured by counting bums on seats (currently held back by all sorts of government policies) and numbers of 2.1’s or better achieved as a result. How Thatcherite and how depressing. Mercifully, the lot of an academic is a lot more interesting, varied and productive on myriad fronts; it would have been nice if he had stopped to think about his casual sneer before publishing it.