In Defence of Academics

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.


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13 Responses to In Defence of Academics

  1. Mary Beard says:

    Thanks Athene.
    SJ should know better….!

  2. Austin says:

    Who could disagree? Simon Jenkins has a long-standing animus with academics, often leading one to suspect that some long-ago don must have magisterially shredded one of SJ’s essays, possibly to the sniggers of SJ’s contemporaries.

    Jenkins also often seems to have a special place in his demonology for scientists, so I suppose scientific academics are doubly dammed. A couple of years ago one of his attacks on scientists (light on facts, and including some statements that were plain wrong) provoked Jenny Rohn’s hilarious ‘Spoof Jenkins’ day (I won’t add the URLs or this will go in the Spam filter, but they are easy to find). My own contribution to the same is here.

  3. Jayne says:

    I think problem is the tutors who “don’t want to timetable classes on Friday or Monday, before 10am or finish after 4pm”. Also, those that don’t return assignments within 28 days, with very little written feedback. Those that resist changes to the academic year – moan about marking exams but find the time to buy a new car in the middle of a working day, don’t want to do personal tutoring….I could go on….

    • Sorry, can’t let that one go. I hear you, but I have to point out that in my own experience, the ‘reluctance’ to schedule tutorials on Friday afternoons / before 11 am comes from the students.

      If you try and schedule something like a tutorial on a morning when the students are not already in the Uni then about 2/3 will respond with ‘Can’t do that one’. This year I had to resort to getting out the timetable to work out exactly when the students in one of my groups were available. To be fair, once I pointed out politely that there was no reason why the slot WASN’T OK, they all agreed. But it is complete nonsense to say this kind of thing all comes from tutors.

  4. Perdita barran says:

    I suspect Jenkins has no idea about science academics. I suspect his first degree and those of most of the people he knows was in a humanities subject. And this raises an interesting question: now that fees are with us all (even Scotland) will the 6-10 contact hours provided to arts/humanities students represent value for money? I am sure M. Beard does give her all, but the contrast between the numerous expected outputs of science and engineering academics (which in the main is what this post covers) and those of humanities academics on the same pay, is ever more stark.

  5. Farah says:

    Perdita: I am a Humanities academic and many of my friends are science academics. We’ve sat down many a time and compared. It’s swings and roundabouts. Mostly I don’t have to spend all day in a lab and write reports and no one expects them to fit in archive hours and produce monographs.

    We get nowhere if we play divide and rule.

    I suspect the problem is that you see the likes of me reading and think “cushy” but I have to schedule time to read a book “just for fun” and there is never enough time to read everything I actively need to read.

  6. Jayne
    I think it is misleading to talk about tutors only fixing certain hours for office hours as implying they don’t work hard. Firstly, as Austin says, sometimes it’s to suit students not tutors. But secondly, I think it is confusing a 9-5 work culture with working extremely hard but at different times of day. Many academics like the flexibility of when they work (after meeting the children from school, for instance, or indeed buying a car in the middle of the day), but it doesn’t mean they aren’t then working till late at night and during the weekend. Most academics I know do one or other if not both, but it may not be particularly visible (unless you check the times they send emails).

  7. Stephen says:

    When it comes to science, Jenkins is a troll. Nothing more. He seems to revel in his ignorance of matters scientific and it is a shame that The Guardian gives him space to broadcast the full spectrum of his anti-science prejudice. In the past I have tried reasoned argument and ridicule.

    He is best ignored as an irrelevance.

  8. James says:

    I am one of the academics who also does a lot of ‘popular’ work. The resentment can come from both sides. I have had colleagues who resent my popular work, my newspaper articles, broadcasting, TV and radio, even popular books. Some of my more ‘academic’ work has been questioned because I am well known for the popular. For me, impact is about reaching the people who can be affected by your work. When I publish in a highly rated journal which I know will not be read by many of the people who work on the chalk face in my field, I get some recognition from the powers that be in academia. When I publish in a professional journal or newspaper read by the people I wish to reach I am told that I am wasting my time and should concentrate on international journals.

    This led me to produce a ‘law of academic worth’ which is the exact opposite of the REF criteria, that is, ‘the academic worth of your publication is inversely proportional to its readership’.

    I am currently ‘off’ popular writing but ‘on’ academic writing. The most bizarre thing was that just yesterday I was sent a paper to review for an international journal, as I have ‘recognised expertise in the field’. I have to say it was the best paper I have ever read, but then I would say that, as it was my own paper submitted to the journal three weeks ago! (Note to self: must remember to ‘decline to review’ today).

  9. rpg says:

    While I agree with Stephen that Jenkins is a troll, he (Jenkins) sometimes makes cogent and sensible arguments. Let us for a minute give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

    “When will someone ask the true productivity of academics?”

    It is my experience that productivity of academics is assessed all the time, often to the detriment of that productivity (the question of whether what is assessed is ‘true’ or not is one for the philosophers and theologians, however). So taking Jenkins at face value, the problem isn’t that academics are not assessed; rather that he and (by extension) the Grauniad-reading public, don’t realize it.

    However, you won’t make Jenkins change his mind, so maybe there needs to be more public awareness of academic productivity assessment (using all possible outcome measures).

    And perhaps Parliament should indeed ask the question. Because all y’all have nothing to fear from such an enquiry, right?

    • rpg says:

      (PS. I’d actually argue that such an inquiry is in fact necessary–academics funded from the public purse should be held accountable to that same public.)

  10. Pingback: Yet another defense of academics : The Shifting Balance of Factors

  11. Ewan says:

    Athene, I really enjoyed your article until I got to the part starting with, “We were not required, as the new academics on the block are, to succeed on all fronts simultaneously…”

    As someone currently applying for such “new academic” jobs, I keep telling myself that if I’ve got this far and a department deems it sensible to appoint me then everything will be okay. The challenge will be a fun one, but listing everything as you did has reminded me that not all parts will necessarily be as fun, or easy, as others!

    Great piece.

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