Justin Li


Thoughts on Being a Professor

2009-05-06

Faye tumbl'd upon a NY Times article which goes very well with what was on my mind.

Let me give some comments about the article first. There are some things which I disagree with - none more strongly, perhaps, than "young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments." While for some the decision to become a graduate student (and later on a professor) may indeed be an economic calculation, I - perhaps romantically and naively - believe that most choose to do so because they are interested in the field, and really do want to learn more about the subject.

That little note aside, however, I find Taylor's op-ed most accurate, both on economic and academic sides of university education. Let me start with the economic side.

As Taylor noted, the tenure system works against free-market economics. There is no incentive for tenured professors to continue working on break-through research (except the personal interest mentioned above, which for the same reason I cannot consider insignificant). In fact, I think the abolishment of tenure can help academia in at least three (inter-related) ways:

Note I don't mean to imply that all professors slack off after tenure; however, the fact that the system allows them to do so means the system is broken.

Of course, the abolishment of tenure has some implications. A good question to ask to arrive at those are, why was the idea of tenure created in the first place? According to Wikipedia, tenure was created to guarantee the academic freedom of professors, so that they can investigate what they are truly interested in, without fear of an unapproving administration or board of trustees. But in this sense, tenure is no more than a legally binding contract, saying what the university can and cannot fire the professor for. And for that, any legal contract will do, regardless of the length of the contract. Additionally, since tenure approval is given by a committee of other professors, academics who don't folow the majority opinion are unlikely to get tenure in the first place. Examples include Norman Finkelstein (who was mentioned in a reference in the above Wikipedia article) and a whole host of others, the cases for which you can read about on the American Association of University Professor (AAUP) website.

Before I read the NYTimes article, I had spent a lunch talking with a friend about the tenure system. Our conclusions were surprisingly similar to what Taylor suggested. We thought that tenure should not be lifetime, but limited in scope, and subject to regular review. In particular, we thought of something like a year of evaluation, and if it is satisfactory then you get four years of "tenure". The continuous seven year contract which Taylor suggests is probably easier to implement, as one year is not a very long time for evaluation, and there's always the possibility of professors delaying the publishing of results (what?) until their year of evaluation.

Besides addressing the problem of tenure, Taylor's op-ed actually spends a lot of time on restructuring university departments. I have expressed before my concern that I am not knowledgeable enough (the post script for this post) to do anything ground-breaking. I don't know what the balance between the breadth of knowledge and the depth of field is. Taylor seems to lean towards the side of breath of knowledge, with the restructuring of departments to be problem based. There are, however benefits to being around people in the same field. Problems in AI may have been previously solved by people working on systems (for example, synchronization is more often discussed in the latter context than the former), and these problems would be unique to that field. So while I think putting faculty and students into problem-oriented groups is a good idea, I think the current grouping by subject should also be kept. One structure for breadth, the other for depth.

That's all I have to say for now. I recently read parts of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which offers a critique of the education scene. Although it was written over 20 years ago, I find the trends it describes still accurate, if not more so, today. We disagree on the cause of the trends, but Bloom makes it clear that it's a problem. But that's a story for another time.

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