Academia


As my previous post suggested, since returning to New England after 24 years away I have found the relationship between temperatures and seasons oddly dislocating. The previous post explored how summer temperatures have changed since my childhood, and why I am experiencing them the way I am. In this post, I look at changes to fall and winter in Worcester. This post not only explains what is happening to winter in this part of New England, but also fleshes out something remarkable: the annual structure of temperature in this part of the world has changed in profound ways since my childhood. Where I grew up in a world where wintery temperatures lasted much longer than those of summer, today winter and summer temperatures are nearing parity on an annual basis. Fall transitions into winter much later than when I was a child, but winter ends only a little earlier than it used to. At least when it comes to temperature, Worcester (and New England more broadly) is a very different place than the one in which I grew up.

Let’s talk about fall. Since returning to New England, I have found this season particularly disorienting. I expect it to become cold much sooner than it does, and find myself increasingly unsettled by the temperature across October, November, and December. I have clear memories of a much colder fall, and a much harsher transition to winter, than what I experience now. On November 12, 1990, my high school soccer team won the NH state championship on a frozen pitch in 27-degree Fahrenheit weather (it was 23 degrees Fahrenheit that night in Worcester) 1. I’m not crazy in coming back to that memory. During my childhood, the average high temperature on November 12th was 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average lows of 30.9, so that game was a slight outlier. Today, that average is 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average nighttime lows of 33.2…which would make that game a larger outlier, but also as that average nighttime low is above freezing, it also means that a frozen pitch would be a very unusual event. Further, the onset of winter temperatures, signaled by the first hard frost, has changed. The first hard frost now comes an average of 16 days later than when I was a child (previously October 24th, now November 9th). In other words, even if the game is played on a freakishly cold night, it is unlikely that soccer players in NH will have to play 2 a State Championship game on a frozen pitch again.

If I feel bit adrift in the fall and early winter, I tend to come into port in January, February, and March. This is despite the fact the data suggest that the change in winter is even more striking than that in fall. The period characterized by hard frost, between the date temperatures first drop to 28 Fahrenheit or lower and the last day temperatures reach this point, lasted an average of 173 days each year during my childhood. Today, the average for this period is 148 days, a mind-boggling 25 days shorter. The figure below compares the period of winter temperatures, as marked by the first and last hard frost, across the year as it was when I was growing up and today. As noted above, today the first hard frost is delayed by more than two weeks relative to my childhood. The last hard frost arrives nine days earlier in the year (previously April 16th, now April 7th).

The distribution of winter weather across the year in my childhood and today. The graphic shows how the winter ends earlier, and starts later, than it used to.

Why, then, would I feel most at home in the temperature in January, February, and March? The answer also lies in the data: once we get past December, the temperatures within winter start to converge with the temperatures I knew growing up. We used to average 113 days per year that reached 28 Fahrenheit or lower. Now the average is 93 days, an incredible decline of 20 days in just over 25 years. However, the relative proportion of total days below 28 Fahrenheit in winter has not changed much. When I was growing up, an average of 65% percent of winter days reached temperatures below 28F. Today, that average is 63%. Most of those days are concentrated in January and February. The average temperature in the month of January might be 2.53 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than what I grew up with, but it is still only 25.2 degrees! Similarly, while February is also warmer (by 1.41 degrees Fahrenheit), the average temperature is 27.5 degrees Fahrenheit, still below the hard frost temperature. Today, March is actually colder than in my childhood, though only by .14 degrees. All of this means that these months feel quite similar to those I experienced as a child.

It’s the transitional seasons in and out of winter (particularly fall), the margins of the winter itself, that have seen the greatest changes. The transition to spring, however, is gentler on me than Fall. April, while today an average of 1.21 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in my childhood, has not radically departed that past experience. The spring in New England is still long, still muddy, and still unpredictable. After April, May warms up considerably, and we are into my earlier discussion of changes in summer.

People, like plants and other animals, have a degree of photosensitivity – an expectation of what things should feel like temperature-wise at a given length of day and angle of the sun. Nothing has changed with regard to the length of day or the angle of the sun, but for much of the year the temperature in New England no longer aligns with these other factors in a manner I understand. The chart below captures these changes across the year, illustrating how the character of daily temperatures in New England has changed enough to render this place nearly unrecognizable.

What it shows is that while nearly every month has seen some temperature increase, every month has seen an increase in the average minimum temperature, and that increase is larger than the increase in average high temperature. Put another way, the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is compressing, whether gently as in April, or dramatically, as in October and December. The connection between hours of sunlight, the angle of the sun, and temperature that I developed for myself playing in the woods behind my house in the 1970s and 1980s is an artifact of an environment that no longer exists. For someone to understand what I am talking about in a visceral way, they have to be around my age (or older), and to have spent enough time outdoors in daylight to have developed this sense.

The figure below visually represents the radical change in the structure of temperatures across the year since my childhood. It is a to-scale representation of the average duration of the “hard frost” and “summery” 3 temperature periods, both when I was growing up and now. The intervals between the seasons are also to scale. It shows that in the space of the past 25 years, where I live has gone from a winter-dominated temperature signature to one approaching parity between winter and summer temperatures. When I was growing up, wintery temperatures lasted an average of 52 days longer than summery temperatures each year. Today, wintery temperatures only last 13 days longer than summery temperatures. The shift is staggering, and explains my general dislocation when it comes to temperature, particularly in the fall.

Summer and winter temperatures laid out across an annual scale. The shift toward annual parity between summer and winter is clear.

One thing is clear: my children are growing up with a very different sense of the relationship between the amount of sunlight, its angle, and temperature than I did. They live in a different world than the one in which I grew up. Another thing is sure: given the inertia in our climate, my children will have some version of the experience I am describing at some point in their own lives. I worry, however, that they will not get to their mid-40s before this awareness sets in. Rates of change are not slowing, and there is little to suggest that we will stabilize global temperatures (a prerequisite to stabilizing local temperatures) in their lifetimes. I’ve lost a connection to the world that I loved, and I will not get it back. I was gone too long to make the subtle adjustments to my perceptions necessary to overlook this change, and after four years I still feel dislocated every fall. The terrible part of this is that we’ve already ensured that our children will have this same experience. The question is not if, but when.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I had to look the date up. I had no memory of that the game being on a Monday night
  2. The key term is play, which I use advisedly here, as I was a reserve striker on that team and never got into that game. It’s not fun to watch a championship game from the bench. It’s worse when you are freezing
  3. Recall from my previous post that I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees

Resilience is a term that permeates development and adaptation conversations alike. However, it is often used without clear definition, and the definitions assumed or elaborated generally misrepresent the dynamics of human-dominated systems.

TL;DR: We’re doing resilience wrong, and it is screwing up the lives of people who are supposed to benefit from resilience programming.

To address this problem, I recently wrote an article seeking to address these conceptual issues and make resilience a useful, constructive concept for development and adaption. The key points:

  • Socio-ecological resilience is an outcome of projects steering diverse actors and ecological processes toward human safety and stability in a manner that preserves the privileges of those in positions of authority.
  • At even moderate levels, disturbance in socio-ecologies is not a source of transformation, but instead produces rigidity that limits innovation and transformation in the name of safety and stability. When a resilient system provides safety in the context of a disturbance, the system and its attendant social orders and privileges are legitimized. This is why many development projects fail: they gently disturb a project, which rejects the intervention in the name of safety and certainty, and returns people and activities to their initial state.
  • Disrupting resilient socio-ecological projects, whether through extreme disturbance or interventions associated with development and adaptation, opens space for transformation, but creates risk by removing existing sources of safety and certainty. This is another source of project failure, one where the intervention blows up the existing project, but what comes together in its wake leaves some or all of the people involved more vulnerable to existing stresses, or vulnerable to new stresses that leave them worse off than they were before the intervention.
  • Reinforcing existing socio-ecological projects, such as through interventions aimed at stabilizing existing activities, reduces opportunities for transformation by legitimizing their practices and social orders.
  • Interventions seeking to build resilience while achieving transformative goals can catalyze change by easing stress on livelihoods. In the context of reduced stress, the side of these projects aimed at maintaining existing structures of authority relaxes, allowing space for innovations by actors who are otherwise marginal to decision-making.

There is a lot going on in this article, and I intended it as much as a provocation as a path forward. If any of this is interesting or challenges the way you saw resilience in the world, feel free to read more deeply – the article is here.

Unsolicited publishing advice/reviewing rant to follow. Brace yourselves.

When writing an article based on the quantitative analysis of a phenomena, whatever it may be and however novel your analysis, you are not absolved from reading/understanding the conceptual literature (however qualitative) addressing that phenomena. Sure, you might be using a larger dataset than ever used before. Certainly, the previous literature might have been case-study based, and therefore difficult to generalize. But that doesn’t give you a pass to just ignore that existing literature.

  • That literature establishes the meanings of the concepts you are measuring/testing
  • That literature captures the current state of knowledge on those concepts
  • Often, that literature (if qualitative, especially if ethnographic) can get at explanations for the phenomena that cannot be had through qualitative methods alone

If you ignore this literature:

  • You’ll just ask questions that have already been answered. Everybody hates that, especially time-constrained reviewers who already know the answers to your questions because they actually have read/contributed to the literature you ignored.
  • You’ll likely end up with results that don’t make sense, and with no means of explaining or even addressing them. Editors and reviewers hate that, too.
  • Your results, even if they appear to be statistically significant, will be crap. I don’t care how sophisticated your quantitative analysis is, or how innovative your tools might be, you are shoving crap into a very innovative, sophisticated tool, which means that all you’ll get out the other end is crap. Reviewers hate crap. Editors hate crap. And your crap is probably not actionable (and really shouldn’t be), so nobody outside academia will like your crap.

Please don’t generate more crap. There is plenty around.

Finally, a note on professionalism and your career: Citing around people who have worked on the phenomena you are investigating because you are trying to capture a particular field of knowledge is awful intellectual practice that, beyond needlessly slowing the pace of innovation in the field in question, will never work…because editors will send the people you are not citing the article for review. And they will wreck you.

 

So, I have news. In August, I will become a Full Professor and Director of the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. It is an honor to be asked to lead a program with such a rich history, at such an exciting time for both it and the larger Clark community. The program uniquely links the various aspects of my research identity within a single department, and further supports those interests through the work of a fantastic Graduate School of Geography, the George Perkins Marsh Institute, and the Graduate School of Management. At a deeply personal level, this also marks a homecoming for me – I grew up in New Hampshire, in a town an hour’s drive from Worcester. My mother is still there, and many friends are still in the region. In short, this was a convergence of factors that was completely unique, and in the end I simply could not pass on this opportunity.

This, of course, means that after twelve years, I will be leaving the University of South Carolina. This was a very difficult decision – there was no push factor that led me to consider the Clark opportunity. Indeed, I was not looking for another job – this one found me. I owe a great deal to USC, the Department of Geography, and the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies. They gave me resources, mentoring, space, networks, support, etc., all of which were integral in building my career. Without two Walker Institute small grants, the fieldwork in 2004 and 2005 that led to so many publications, including Delivering Development, would never have happened. The department facilitated my time at USAID, and the subsequent creation of HURDL. I will always owe a debt to South Carolina and my colleagues here, and I leave a robust institution that is headed in exciting directions.

As I move, so moves HURDL. The lab will take up residence in the Marsh Institute at Clark some time in late summer, assuming my fantastic research associate Sheila Onzere does not finally lose her mind dealing with all of the things I throw at her. But if Sheila is sane, we’ll be open for business and looking for more opportunities and partners very soon!

I’ve been writing here on Open the Echo Chamber since July of 2010. Good lord, that is a long time. I’ve cranked out well over 250,000 words on the site (plus or minus 30 articles, or about three books, worth of writing). And for all of that effort, I have received exactly no credit at all for this in my academic job. In my annual reviews and promotion packets, I can shove this work under “service”, but 1) most of my colleagues probably wouldn’t agree with that categorization and 2) nobody in academia gets much of anything for their service contributions unless they are a full-on administrator. I don’t blog for my academic career, I blog as a means of getting ideas outside the rigidity of the peer-review publishing world, the ways it gates off knowledge from those that might use it, and the ways it can police away innovative new thought that challenges existing powers. So, when I recently stumbled across The Winnower, I got excited. “Publish my posts with review and a DOI?” I thought. “Make my posts citable in major journals and technical reports?” I chortled. “Further blur the lines between my academic publishing and the stuff I do on this blog?” I fairly giggled. Yeah, I need to give this a try.

Let me explain:

According to the lovely people at Google Analytics, in that time nearly 50,000 users have committed to over 100,000 pageviews. For a blog that is home to some long, wonky posts, that is pretty amazing. Readership comes from all over the world, with the top 10 countries looking like this:

  1. United States 37,530(52.18%)
  2. United Kingdom 7,990(11.11%)
  3. Canada 4,186(5.82%)
  4. Australia 1,949(2.71%)
  5. India 1,339(1.86%)
  6. Germany 1,019(1.42%)
  7. Netherlands 834(1.16%)
  8. Kenya 773(1.07%)
  9. Philippines 722 (1.00%)
  10. France 695 (.97%)

It is remarkable that Google lists visitors from 192 different countries and territories. And when you drill down to cities, it gets pretty cool as well:

  1. Washington 5,023(6.98%)
  2. London 3,419(4.75%)
  3. New York 2,965(4.12%)
  4. Columbia 2,326(3.23%)
  5. Irmo 1,273(1.77%)
  6. Toronto 769(1.07%)
  7. Seattle 713(0.99%)
  8. Fonthill 676(0.94%)
  9. Melbourne 642(0.89%)
  10. Nairobi 604(0.84%)
  11. Sydney 532(0.74%)
  12. Cambridge MA 517(0.72%)
  13. Oxford 500(0.70%)
  14. Ottawa 466(0.65%)
  15. San Francisco 459(0.64%)
  16. Arlington 457(0.64%)
  17. Chicago 429(0.60%)
  18. Durham 393(0.55%)
  19. Boston 367(0.51%)
  20. Montreal 364(0.51%)

I’ve known who I was reaching for a while – I get informal notes and phone calls from people at various institutions letting me know they liked (mostly) or disliked/had issues with (sometimes) things I have written. Compared to many blogs, I don’t get that many readers. But my readers are my target audience – they are the folks who work in development and climate change. Well, that, and my students here at the University of South Carolina (hence the Columbia and Irmo numbers).

The one big problem for me, and this blog, has been the level of effort it requires, and the ways in which it could (and could not) be used in my primary sectors of employment, academia and development consulting. Though the world is changing fast, the fact is most people still will not take a blog post as seriously as an academic article. That is probably a good thing – there is a lot of crap out on blogs. At the same time, there are really good blogs out there, some of which produce better work/scholarship than you find in the peer-reviewed literature. Finding ways to help people sort out what is good and what is crap, and finding ways to make social media/blog posts viable sources for academic and consulting work, is important to me.

So, starting today, I have linked this blog to The Winnower. When I produce a post with enough intellectual content, I will cross-post it to the Winnower, where it will be subject to a review process, after which it will receive a DOI, making it a real publication in the eyes of many journals and other sources (hell, it will fit under “other academic contributions” on my CV, so there). I’m excited about what The Winnower is trying to do (as you might already know I find academic publishing structures deeply frustrating: just look here, here, here, and here), and if my work serves to further their mission, and their efforts serve to further blur the lines between the ways in which I disseminate my work, I’m happy to give it a go.

Here is my author page at The Winnower. I’ve currently got six old posts up for review – six posts that were viewed by an average of well over a thousand readers each. So I know you all care about these posts and topics. Go ahead and review them, comment on them, help me make them better…and help The Winnower succeed.

Welcome to the future. Maybe.

Five and half years ago, at the end of the spring semester of 2009, I sat down and over the course of 30 days drafted my book Delivering Development. The book was, for me, many things: an effort to impose a sort of narrative on the work I’d been doing for 12 years in Ghana and other parts of Africa; an effort to escape the increasingly claustrophobic confines of academic writing and debates; and an effort to exorcise the growing frustration and isolation I felt as an academic working on international development in a changing climate, but without a meaningful network into any development donors. Most importantly, however, it was a 90,000 word scream at the field that could be summarized in three sentences:

  1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
  2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
  3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire

The book had a generous reception, received very fair (if sometimes a bit harsh) reviews, and actually sold a decent number of copies (at least by the standards of the modern publishing industry, which was in full collapse by the time the book appeared in January 2011). Maybe most gratifying, I heard from a lot of people who read the book and who heard the message, or for whom the book articulated concerns they had felt in their jobs.

This is not to say the book is without flaws. For example, the second half of the book, the part addressing the implications of being wrong about the global poor, was weaker than the first – and this is very clear to me now, as the former employee of a development donor. Were I writing the book now, I would do practically nothing to the first half, but I would revise several parts of the second half (and the very dated scenarios chapter really needs revision at this point, anyway). But, five and a half years after I drafted it, I can still say one thing clearly.

I WAS RIGHT.

Well, I was right about point #1 above, anyway. The newest World Development Report from the World Bank has empirically demonstrated what was so clear to me and many others, and what I think I did a very nice job of illustrating in Delivering Development: most people engaged in the modern development industry have very little understanding of the lives and thought processes of the global poor, the very people that industry is meant to serve. Chapter 10 is perfectly titled: “The biases of development professionals.” All credit to the authors of the report for finally turning the analytic lens on development itself, as it would have been all too easy to simply talk about the global poor through the lens of perception and bias. And when the report turns to development professionals’ perceptions…for the love of God. Just look at the findings on page 188. No, wait, let me show you some here:

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 10.05.06 PM

 

For those who are chart-challenged, let me walk you through this. In three settings, the survey asked development professionals what percentage of their beneficiaries thought “what happens in the future depends on me.” For the bottom third, the professionals assumed very few people would say this. Except that a huge number of very poor people said this, in all settings. In short, the development professionals were totally wrong about what these people thought, which means they don’t understand their mindsets, motivations, etc. Holy crap, folks. This isn’t a near miss. This is I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-talking-about stuff here. These are the error bars on the initial ideas that lead to projects and programs at development donors.

WDR’s frames these findings in pretty stark terms (page 180):

Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives.

And their proposed solution is equally pointed (page 190):

For project and program design, development professionals should “eat their own dog food”: that is, they should try to experience firsthand the programs and projects they design.

Yes. Or failing that, they should really start either reading the work of people who can provide that experience for them, or start funding the people who can generate the data that allows for this experience (metaphorically).

On one hand, I am thrilled to see this point in mainstream development conversation. On the other…I said this five years ago, and not that many people cared. Now the World Bank says it…or maybe more to the point, the World Bank says it in terms of behavioral economics, and everyone gets excited. Well, my feelings on this are pretty clear:

  1. Just putting this in terms of behavioral economics is actually putting the argument out there in the least threatening manner possible, as it is still an argument from economics that preserves that disciplinary perspective’s position of superiority in development
  2. The things that behavioral economics have been “discovering” about the global poor that anthropology, geography, sociology, and social history have been saying for decades. Further, their analyses generally lack explanatory rigor or anything resembling external validity – see my posts here, here, and here.

Also, the WDR never makes a case for why we should care that we are probably misunderstanding/ misrepresenting the global poor. As a result, this just reads as an extended “oopsie!” piece that needs not be seriously addressed as long as we look a little sheepish – then we can get back to work. But getting this stuff wrong is really, really important – this was the central point of the second half of Delivering Development (a point that Duncan Green unfortunately missed in his review). We can design projects that not only fail to make things better, we can actually make things much worse: we can kill people by accident. We can gum up the global environment, which is not going to only hurt some distant, abstract global poor person – it will hit those in the richest countries, too. We can screw up the global economy, another entity that knows few borders and over which nobody has complete control. This is not “oopsie!” This is a disaster that requires serious attention and redress.

So, good first step World Bank, but not far enough. Delivering Development still goes a lot further than you are willing to now. Delivering Development goes much further than behavioral development economics has gone, or really can go. Time to catch up to the real nature of this problem, and the real challenges it presents. Time to catch up to things I was writing five years ago, before it’s too late.

From my recent post over on HURDLblog, my lab’s group blog, on the challenges of thinking productively about gender and adaptation:

My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read the full post here.

I’m getting a bit better at updating my website…probably because I have more to update. Specifically, I’ve put up some new work on the publications page. There, you will find:

On the preprints page, I have two new pieces up:

Also be sure to check out the HURDL website. We’ve got new pubs up, and the last member of the lab (Bob Greeley) finally has a bio up!

Nick Kristof’s piece decrying the distance between academia and the rest of society has, predictably, triggered a screaming firestorm in academia. That’s what you get when you poke the (over)educated, seriously literate beast. A lot of the criticism is very well written and thought out (outstanding examples here and here). But I fear that Kristof’s central message, that society needs a more engaged academia, is getting lost here. My main problem was not that Kristof was arguing for a more engaged academy, but that his prescriptions for how to bring about that engagement did not address the real incentives and barriers that academics negotiate when they try to engage with public debate.

So, in the interest of constructive criticism, I have some suggestions for things that Mr. Kristof might consider looking into – throwing a light on these challenges would actually serve to highlight the real, and often absurdly unnecessary, barriers between the academy and society. This is obviously just a tiny sample of potential topics, drawn from my own experiences in a top-tier department in a large, Research-1 state institution.

  1. Examine the system by which departments are “ranked” in the United States: The National Research Council (NRC) ranks departments at (not so) regular intervals, creating a sort of BCS ranking of departments, with about the same amount of accuracy and certainty. By and large, academics know these rankings are garbage, but administrations love to trot them out to demonstrate the excellence of their institution, and therefore justify the institutional budget/tuition/etc. But here’s a fun fact: if you dig into what counts in the rankings, you can quickly see why university administrations don’t necessarily care for academic outreach. For example, did you know that authoring an NRC report (which is seriously prestigious) DOES NOT COUNT AS A MEASURABLE PUBLICATION IN THE NRC RANKINGS? I know this because my department ran into this problem the last time around, with at least three members of our faculty losing multiple publications because the NRC did not count ITS OWN PUBLICATIONS. If those pubs were excluded, you can imagine that basically all reports in all contexts were excluded. So if administrations love rankings, and rankings hate outreach, you’re not going to get much outreach.
  2. Consider how academic evaluation’s over-focus on the number of articles produced creates less interesting, more arcane academic outputs: The production of knowledge in academia has, for some time, been driven by expectations of ever-greater output (as measured in research dollars and publications) with less input (fewer faculty members). These expectations govern everything from the evaluation of departments to individual tenure decisions. As a result, the publication requirements for tenure have become ever-more challenging, with expectations for the number of publications produced rising so steeply that many who recently got tenure might have published more articles than their very senior colleagues published to become full professors even two decades ago. This is driven by everything from departmental-level politics to the NRC rankings themselves, though I suspect a strong trickle-down effect here. In any case, this has created a crisis of knowledge production in which professors are incentivized to produce what my colleague Carl Dahlman once called the minimum publishable unit (MPU). Because expectations of performance are more and more heavily based on quantitative output (thanks, NRC!), as opposed to the quality of that output, it makes sense for faculty to shy away from “big question” articles that might chew up a lot of their data and interesting ideas, and instead package that same set of ideas as two or three smaller, much more arcane publications. This is a very real pressure: when I put out my retheorization of livelihoods approaches a year ago, more than one colleague suggested that I would have been better cutting its 15000 words into two 8500 word pieces, as it would have counted for more in my annual evaluation. Nothing has driven us toward a proliferation of small, specialized journals carrying tiny, arcane articles quite like this drive for quantification and greater production. Undoing this really awful trend would help a lot, as academics would be freed up to think big thoughts again, both in journals and in other fora. One way to help: publicize the alt-metrics movement (start at the LSE Impact Blog and work from there) that attempts to move beyond a system of academic assessment that reflects a long-dead era of publication and communication.
  3. Focus on how for-profit academic publishers wall off knowledge from the public: Academics must publish to survive professionally, and the best journals in nearly every field are the last profitable properties for a number of publishing houses. These publishers benefit from free labor on the part of authors, reviewers, and the nearly-free labor of editors, and often the subsidy of taxpayer-funded research, yet charge exorbitant amounts for subscriptions to their journals – in the case of public universities, bleeding the taxpayer once again. Academics are absolutely responsible for this situation – after all, we collectively define what the good journals are, and as I’ve argued before we could change our minds if we wanted to. But academia takes time to change, and could use a push. Where is the push from the federal government to demand that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made available to the taxpayers immediately? What happened to the initial push from the Obama White House on this issue? It seems to be a topic ripe for a good investigative journalist.

And, for good measure, an interesting trend that will likely lead to a more engaged academia:

  1. The shift in acceptable academic funding: Until very recently, academic grants from traditional agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health were given exalted status, with all other forms of funding occupying lesser rungs on the great chain of funding. Thus, to get tenure, many (biophysical science/social science) academics really had to land one of these grants. The programs associated with these grants very often rewarded pure research and actively discouraged “applied” work, and even today the NSF’s requirements for “impact” are fairly surficial. Contracts were very second-tier, and often not taken seriously in one’s academic review. Now, thanks to funding crunches in both universities and the funding agencies, any research-looking dollars have started looking good to university administrations, and contracts are more and more being evaluated alongside more traditional academic grants. There is a tremendous opportunity here to engage academia through this mechanism. [Full disclosure: I’ve been funded in the past by NSF and by the National Geographic Society, but today roughly 90% of my funding comes directly or indirectly from development donors like USAID in the form of contracts or grants]

This is hardly a comprehensive list of things into which a serious journalist could shed light on, and perhaps help leverage change. I’m just typing quickly here. If you have other ideas for things that journalists should be examining, please leave them in the comments or email them to me: ed at edwardrcarr.com   I will append them to this post as they come in, attributing them (or not, depending on the wishes of contributors) in the post.

Edit 17 February: If you want to move beyond criticism (and snark), join me in thinking about things that Mr. Kristof should look into/write about if he really wants a more engaged academia here.

In his Saturday column, Nick Kristof joins a long line of people, academics and otherwise, who decry the distance between academia and society. While I greatly appreciate his call to engage more with society and its questions (something I think I embody in my own career), I found his column to be riddled with so many misunderstandings/misrepresentations of academia that, in the end, he contributes nothing to the conversation.

What issues, you ask?

1) He misdiagnoses the problem

If you read the column quickly, it seems that Kristof blames academic culture for the lack of public engagement he decries. This, of course, ignores the real problem, which is more accurately diagnosed by Will McCants’s (oddly marginalized) quotes in the column. Sure, there are academics out there with no interest in public engagement. And that is fine, by the way – people can make their own choices about what they do and why. But to suggest that all of academia is governed by a culture that rejects public engagement deeply misrepresents the problem. The problem is the academic rewards system which currently gives us job security and rewards for publishing in academic journals, and nearly nothing for public outreach. To quote McCants:

If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.

This is not a problem of academic culture, this is a problem of university management – administrations decide who gets tenure, and on what standard. If university administrations decided to halve the number of articles required for tenure, and replaced that academic production with a demand that professors write a certain number of op-eds, run blogs with a certain number of monthly visitors, or participate in policy development processes, I assure you the world would be overrun with academic engagement. So if you want more engagement, go holler at some university presidents and provosts, and lay off the assistant professors.

2) Kristof takes aim at academic prose – but not really:

 …academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.

Well, yes. There is a lot of horrific prose in academia – but Kristof seems to suggest that crap writing is a requirement of academic work. It is not – I guarantee you that the best writers are generally cited a lot more than the worst. So Kristof has unfairly demonized academia as willfully holding the public at bay with its crappy writing, which completely misdiagnoses the problem. The problem is that the vast majority of academia isn’t trained in writing (beyond a freshman composition course), there is no money in academia for the editorial staff that professional writers (and columnists) rely on to clean up their own turgid prose, and the really simple fact that we all tend to write like what we read. Because academic prose is mostly terrible, people who read it tend to write terrible prose. This is why I am always reading short fiction (Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, etc.) alongside my work reading…

If you want better academic prose, budget for the same editorial support, say, that the New York Times or the New Yorker provide for their writers. I assure you, academic writing would be fantastic almost immediately.

Side note: Kristof implicitly sets academic writing against all other sources of writing, which leads me to wonder if he’s ever read a policy document. I helped author one, and I read many, while at USAID. The prose was generally horrific…

3) His implicit prescription for more engaged writing is a disaster

Kristof notes that “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.” In short, he sees engagement as prescription. Which is exactly the wrong way to go about it. I have served as a policy advisor to a political appointee. I can assure you that handing a political appointee a prescription is no guarantee they will adopt it. Indeed, I think they are probably less likely to adopt it because it isn’t their idea. Policy prescriptions preclude ownership of the conclusion and needed responses by the policymaker. Better to lay out clear evidence for the causes of particular challenges, or the impacts of different decisions. Does academia do enough of this? Probably not. But for heaven’s sake, don’t start writing prescriptive pieces. All that will do is perpetuate our marginality through other means.

4) He confuses causes and effects in his argument that political diversity produces greater societal impact.

Arguing that the greater public engagement of economists is about their political diversity requires ignoring most of the 20th century history of thought within which disciplines took shape. Just as geography became a massive discipline in England and other countries with large colonial holdings because of the ways that discipline fit into national needs, so economics became massive here in the US in response to various needs at different times that were captured (for better or for worse) by economics. I would argue that the political diversity in economics is a product of its engagement with the political sphere, as people realized that economic thought could shift/drive political agendas…not the other way around.

5) There is a large movement underway in academia to rethink “impact”.

There is too much under this heading to cover in a single post. But go visit the LSE Impact Blog to see the diversity of efforts to measure academic impact currently in play – everything from rethinking traditional journal metrics to looking at professors’ reach on Twitter. Mr. Kristof is about 4 years late to this argument.

In short, Kristof has recognized a problem that has been discussed…forever, by an awful lot of people. But he clearly has no idea where the problem comes from, and therefore offers nothing of use when it comes to solutions. All this column does is perpetuate several misunderstandings of academia that have contributed to its marginalization – which seems to be the opposite of the columns’ intent.

Next Page »