Thursday, May 5, 2016

Quantity vs Quality in Academia: The Illusion of Doing a Good Job

by Joern Fischer, Ideas for Sustainability:

Academia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A little while ago, I published a bit of an outburst about academia’s obsession with quantity. Some people have interpreted this to be in favour of a lower output academia.

However, that’s not quite what I meant: I’m not at all against productivity. Rather, what does concern me is the frantic, incoherent production of “stuff” at the expense of theoretical coherence, social relations and reflection.

It is possible to be productive and reflective - to a point. What troubles me is that most of us academics are evidently bad at judging when we take on too much.

Hardly anyone will admit to being addicted to “quantity” at the expense of quality. Yet, it’s quite clear when taking a look around that there are many instances in which academic life is less pleasant than it ought to be, because someone, somewhere took on too much (and is now a nuisance to everyone else).

Since, collectively, as academics, we are apparently not very skilled at judging when we’re doing a good job, I thought I’d put up some indicators that we might treat as warning signals. If these things are going well, it means we’re probably working within our zone of meaningful productivity; if they are going badly, it might be a sign that we’re compromising the quality of our work. So, we might ask ourselves:
  • Are products of your work routinely well received by your colleagues?
  • Are the people you work with generally happy with your contributions?
  • Are you able to attend meetings you planned or do you frequently cancel them?
  • Do you generally respond to all emails within a few days?
  • Do you provide timely, quality input on papers you are a co-author on?
  • If someone asked your students to confidentially report on the quality of your supervision, would they praise you or criticize you?
  • Do your papers show consistent messages, or an evolution of your thinking - or are they mixed messages bouncing back and forth, depending on the paper?
  • Do you stop to talk to the people around you, or just rush past them?
  • Do you find time to read and think about what you read? (Or do you just read the titles of papers, their abstracts, or tweets about them?)
How we do with respect to these questions might be something we ask ourselves, or we might ask colleagues to tell us if we’re not doing a good job on these things. To me, quality is about focus, about knowing what’s important, and about delivering what we commit to - it’s about being meaningfully productive, not just busy.

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