Monday, 23 June 2014

Traditional old school blog post

This week I give you an old school blog post. Meaning: I batter 1500 ill-informed words out of my keyboard, because I'm sure the entire world wants to hear the incoherent thoughts I just had while in the shower. I could wait a week and check some facts. I could pore over a first draft with a first edition of Fowler open beside me. But no: you want to hear my ramblings immediately, and that's why I've run sopping from the bathroom and am typing with the keyboard wrapped in a protective plastic bag.

In fact, just to demonstrate that I am a proper blogger, part of this post will involve me asking you, my misguided readers, to send me information. That's right: you get to blend your biassed, unsubstantiated, anecdotal information with mine, and in the end we'll all emerge the wiser.

Just yesterday, one of my eager team of casual researchers (i.e., a Facebook friend), alerted me to the following article, about the rise of adjunct teachers in US universities. Don't worry, there's no need to read it. I read the entire first paragraph myself, and will gladly interpolate the rest for you.

Adjuncts are people hired on a casual basis to teach classes instead of tenured professors. This is presumably because the actual tenured professors are needed elsewhere to do the highly specialized work of sitting on committees, writing grant proposals, and molesting students. The university could hire more tenured professors, but then would be stuck with them, and no-one wants to be stuck with more professors than absolutely necessary. Adjuncts are only hired course by course, and are cheaper. In fact, they are much cheaper, because they receive no benefits. By benefits I don't mean a company car or a box seat at the football stadium. I mean that they don't get health insurance or a retirement plan. Some of them grow old and die miserable and penniless, just like the lower-class scum that they entered academia precisely to avoid.

This got me thinking. When I was a physics graduate student at a US university in the late 90s, I don't remember seeing any adjuncts. There are several possible reasons for this. One could be that I never noticed them, because I was a heartless careerist asshole who didn't notice anyone who was of no immediate use to me. Possibly, although I'd argue that I noticed lots of people, even the janitor, on that one occasion that I passed out in my office and he woke me up when he flung the door open with his mop at 3am. But then I skipped ahead in that article, and noticed that sometimes adjuncts are paid less than the janitors, so maybe they really were refused entry to my consciousness, which is equipped with an elitist's equivalent of a bug screen.

Another explanation is that maybe there are very few adjuncts in physics, and the sciences in general, where casual teaching work is done by graduate students, and sometimes by research postdocs. This explanation doesn't quite work, because there are also graduate students in the humanities, and presumably graduate students can be paid even less than the adjuncts. Plus, there are plenty of colleges where the science departments do not have graduate programs -- do they run on adjuncts? Perhaps the explanation is that the science departments bring in more grant funding, and so the universities provide them with larger budgets, and so they can afford to take the moral high ground and evade the adjunct route. But what kind of efficiently functioning organization ever takes the moral high ground?

It's clear that getting to the bottom of this could take me a very long time, perhaps even several whole minutes on google, and that is where reader input comes in. Can anyone tell me what is actually going on here?

My own dim understanding of casual teaching, before I started to read the aforementioned article, was that it was used as a crutch by people on their way to bigger things. I'm thinking of those generations of great American authors who kept themselves in easy money teaching creative writing while waiting to make it big. In my head is this fantastic letter, which one of them, Kurt Vonnegut, sent to another, with advice following the recipient's recent appointment [1]:



Those were the days [2]. I have moved a total of five times since I received my PhD, and not once did I receive any advice to match that. I'll admit that I did receive excellent advice on finding an apartment and opening a bank account, but I was never appraised of any future colleagues who might have a "paper asshole". Assuming that he refers to some unpleasant personal characteristic and not, although it cannot be completely ruled out, a variety of quirky pornographic origami -- then I have many times shared buildings with people who possessed all plausible options for this colorful label, and I could certainly have done with some warning.

I might add that I first saw this letter in an article in Slate, which noted that Vonnegut seems incapable of writing a boring paragraph. So we can see that he would never have been much of a blogger.

Now it seems that it isn't just writers waiting for a break who work as adjuncts. It is almost everybody. According to a statistic stated (but sadly not cited) in the adjunct article, 78% of college professors were tenured in 1969, but by 2009 only 33.5%. Once again, I'd like some input here. Is this the case in the sciences as well as the humanities? In large research-lead universities as well as smaller liberal-arts colleges? And what about my old physics department of UNC-Chapel Hill? Is it now full of adjuncts, too -- and not just to fill in for any professors currently holed up in South American prisons? These are the questions I hope readers can answer for me.

In the mean time, I'm reminded of another forlorn beast in the academic zoo, who often complains of neglect: the postdoc. Postdocs are shuttled around the world's research universities on contracts as short as one year ("extendable to two, subject to sufficient progress, and funding"), and are expected to get up to speed with the local research efforts within weeks of arrival, to continue to complete collaborative projects for years after departure, and, while employed, to perform research, supervise students, write grants, and teach classes, all for the benefit of their supervisor who, if suitably pleased, will deign to add their name to the list that is regularly fed into their automated recommendation-letter generator. All of this is endured for the dream of a faculty job, which is about as likely as those old-time writers' dreams of a bestseller -- but at least those guys got to "cancel classes whenever you damn please".

I was a postdoc for many years, and over that time naturally acquired great sympathy for their cause. Of course, since becoming a faculty member I've been offloading it all dirt-cheap on ebay. It's hard to shift, but articles like the adjunct rant help. Sure, postdocs are sometimes treated like dirt, but at least they're given health insurance and a retirement plan. I also assume they're paid a lot more than the janitors, or store managers at McDonalds, or any of the other standard examples that are regularly trotted out in these discussions [3].

Having pointed this out, there is now a danger that all those universities that are working to cancel any benefits they accidentally do award to adjuncts, will now start doing the same for postdocs. But that is one of the advantages of writing these things in a blog. No-one of any consequence reads them.


Notes

1. I hope it remains mandatory for clever people to go through a phase of Vonnegut devotion, somewhere between the age of 16 and 24. Slaughterhouse Five is wonderful. So is Cat's Cradle. Once hooked, the others seem wonderful, too, albeit indistinguishable. Then he's forgotten, until beautiful artifacts turn up, like this letter.

2. I've decided that my favorite sentence is, "Burn this letter". Yeah, right. How many times did Dick return home for a grueling day grading clunky stories and pour himself a bourbon and seek solace in this letter? How many dinner parties ended with him staggering off to his bedroom and returning to recite from it? Or have I got it wrong? Maybe all of his friends wrote like that.

3. One of the amusing sub-texts of the adjunct article is the way it skirts around the delicate question of why exactly someone who gently encourages students to read a few books, should be paid more money than someone who provides for our real human needs by ensuring that we work in a hygienic environment or have food to eat. On this point, we come across perhaps the best sentence in the entire article: "As a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers." That sentence is highlighted in a large-font panel, to make sure that lazy skim-readers like myself don't miss it. But there does seem to be an implicit hand-wringing liberal academic's doubt lurking even in that clever syntax: "But should we?"

Monday, 16 June 2014

The seminar revolution


[Previously: Academics at Play: the seminar.]


When I was a graduate student, attendance at departmental colloquia was compulsory. The talks were so bad that I wish I had done what I am about to suggest to today's grad students. Instead I just stopped going. I hoped in vain that one day the Head of Department would demand to know why, so that I could bravely announce that I would resume attendance the moment the quality rose above atrocious. Of course, he would have threatened to expel me. Then I would have had no choice but to make clear the strength of my convictions, not to mention my level of contempt for his hollow threat, by attending every successive colloquium seated in the front row with a notepad and pen.

There are two problems with such seminars. One is the abysmal quality of the delivery. Rudimentary public-speaking skills can easily be taught to any functioning adult, a demographic into which we can generously place most academics, and these techniques can be quickly mastered by anyone with the opportunity to practice -- for example, by having spent the last decade delivering lectures on an almost daily basis. Nonetheless, academics remain such spectacularly bad speakers that we can only conclude that this problem is insoluble.

That doesn't matter. If the audience are learning something, they can excuse any quantity of mumbling, rambling, digressing, backtracking, garbling or even outright drooling and gibbering. I myself have enjoyed many seminars. But my level of enjoyment is inversely proportional to the topic's distance from my own expertise. And here-in lies the second problem: the material is invariably impenetrable [1].

This problem would evaporate instantly if the audience asked questions. But they cannot. The primary goal of any academic is not to learn, but to be learned. The learning is done in private. The public sphere is for the dispensation of wisdom, and to exhibit the superiority of your fine mind and the inferiority of everyone else's. If your question doesn't make you look smarter than everyone else, then why the hell would you ask it?

This puts us at an impasse.

But I have a solution.

There is one group of people gullible, naive and frustrated enough to hack through this Gordian knot. Yes, that's right graduate students, I'm talking about you. Aren't you sick of being ignored, put-upon, and treated as an irrelevant nuisance? Now is your chance to make a difference! Sure, it may only be a superficial modification to an irrelevant academic culture, but let's face it, it's much more revolutionary than your career ambitions to date. And, for once, also achievable.

All you have to do is ask questions. Not just a few of you, occasionally, but all of you, every time you don't understand what the speaker has said. No-one else can do this. The postdoctoral researchers are too deeply degraded in sycophancy to even consider it. The faculty are too dull and responsible to dare. The undergraduates don't turn up. Only you can do it.

It won't be easy. You have to work together as a team. Before the talk, gather together and make a vow of solidarity. Consider the noble tradition to which you belong. Think of Gandhi. Think of the Civil Rights movement. And this time no-one is going to abuse you, spit on you, beat you, or imprison you. A hunger strike is unlikely to be necessary. The worst you'll get is a strongly worded email pointing out that if you are unable to dutifully submit to long periods of intense boredom, then you are not cut out for a life in academia. Surely you can handle that? If you suspect not, have a few drinks first.

Are you ready? All right, off you go. Sit together near the front. Make sure you have your hand signals ready. The instant messaging apps should be open on your smartphones. Now the speaker comes in, an awkward introduction is made… and it's time for that roller-coaster ride through a protein structure, or Monte-Carlo simulation of the global climate implications of bovine flatulence, or periodic table of relativistic particle orbits.

And already on Slide Number One we have our first question.

"What is a Carter constant?"

"You mean the Carter constant? Everyone knows what the Carter constant is."

You were ready for that. Another hand goes up. "I don't."

"My God! Haven't you all taken a standard course in advanced general relativity?"

Whoever prepped with three shots of vodka announces, "No." She suppresses the urge to vomit and continues: "This is not a specialist seminar. This is a general departmental colloquium. So please tell us what a fucking Carter constant is, you condescending insufferable shit."

Once you've set the right tone, the rest will be easy.

When another fifteen minutes have passed, and the speaker is still on Slide Number Two, it is likely that a faculty member will turn on the rebellious mass of graduate students and pompously request, "Could we please let the speaker continue?"

To which one of them politely asks, having practiced for the last week: "How are we to make the most of the visit by this illustrious scientist if we cannot ask questions?"

Professor Fuckwit may well reply, "There are some of us who possess a sufficient understanding of basic science, and we would like to hear the rest of the seminar."

Now three-shot Sally steadies her voice and announces, "Then please excuse those of us who do not." Then you all rise as one from your seats, and file out. Perhaps to the bathroom.

The immediate outcome of this admirable performance will be much huffing and puffing from the faculty. But remember: academics are sissies. They save up their small store of wheedling passive-aggressive combativeness for email exchanges over minor details of their inconsequential research. They have no power to stop you. If you behaved this way in their lectures, they could fail you. But who is going to dare to suggest failing all of the department's graduate students, just because they ask questions in a seminar?

There are only two reasonable courses of action. One is to relieve the students of the duty of colloquium attendance. But they can hardly ban the students, can they? So you should continue to turn up.

The next option is that the seminars improve. Visiting academics are apologetically warned that the impertinent students in this department have the audacity to demand actual explanations of what they're being asked to listen to. Word spreads. A colloquium invitation from your department is received with dread. Speakers arrive shaking at the podium.

But there are those who rise to the task. They return home proud to have triumphed. Suddenly, a successful seminar in your lucky department is seen as a badge of honour the world over. The best speakers are begging to get invited. They're paying their own travel costs. They're highlighting the experience on their resume. They're bragging to their friends.

"The students all took me to the pub afterwards, and told me it was the best seminar they'd ever heard."

"Oh yeah? I was there two months later, and they presented me with a certificate and a bottle of champagne."

"That's nothing. I was taken to a student party and spent the entire night writhing naked in a drug-filled orgy."

"You're making that up."

"You're right. I haven't been there. They didn't even acknowledge my email request to speak! If I don't get an invitation soon, how will I ever get tenure?"


That, my dear graduate students, is my infallible plan for you to revolutionise academic seminars.

So, you think it's just fantasy, do you? Come on! Where is your imagination? Where is your thirst for revolution? Where is your backbone?

Oh, sorry. What was I thinking? You're all academics in training. In that case, forget it.



Notes.

1. Admittedly, my experience is restricted to science seminars. Maybe out there in the wider world of the humanities, the audiences are rolling in the aisles, the applause is deafening, and the adoring crowds have to be held back by security. But somehow I doubt it.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Academics at play: the seminar

Some believe that academics take a sadistic delight in making other people feel stupid. This is not quite true. They also delight in making themselves feel stupid. For immediate proof, you need only attend an academic seminar.

Academics endure countless seminars, maybe several each week, and understand none of them. They sit for one hour at a time, under a weary blanket of tedium and shame -- shame brought on by the conviction that everyone else understands perfectly what is going on. But no-one has a clue, except for the three specialists in the same arcane topic, who aren't listening anyway, but whose feverish minds are instead using every piece of obscure jargon to prompt either a narcissistic flashback of their entire academic careers, or an irritating question that can invariably be translated as, "Could you please explain to everyone just how brilliant I am?"

Why do the academics do this? They concoct elaborate justifications.

They may charitably concede, "You're right, that seminar wasn't exactly in my area," as if they attend seminars that are in their area more than once every 18 months. In reality, if only the relevant aficionados had attended the seminar, it could have been held in a bathroom stall.

Sometimes they attend "general" seminars, and have to pretend that they understood the whole thing. And it is true that in departmental-wide colloquia, the speaker will on occasion kindly provide comprehensible background information, sometimes for as long as five minutes.

It is difficult to fathom the true purpose of these seminars. To the outsider they must appear as an especially abstract form of postmodern theatre, a perverse entertainment comprising of cryptic symbolism and bizarre traditions, an experience so intensely cathartic that some participants pass out, and even snore. It is Powerpoint Kabuki. Or is it an act of penitence? Surely it is no accident that the seminar room is devoid of any means of suicide? Any object with the potential to put an audience member out of their misery was removed years ago, along with their body.

The attendants themselves are convinced that the seminars are informative. The entire procedure is akin to a religious ceremony. Just like church attendance in a community of evangelicals, seminars are sacrilege to skip, tedious to attend, and if anyone leaves half way through they fear they will be damned for eternity. Plus, everyone believes that this time, finally, there will be enlightenment. If faith means a belief that cannot be shaken irrespective of the weight of evidence to the contrary, then academics truly have faith in the instructive power of the seminar.

The speakers are equally deluded within the solipsism of their performance. They would be dismayed to hear that they delivered anything other than a crystal-clear exposition of their topic. Didn't they spend all those harrowing hours in seminars in their youth, furiously thinking, "I could do this better!"? What they didn't realise was that all that time their sensibilities were being numbed. Their understanding of what constitutes a clear explanation -- let alone an engaging public performance -- was undergoing the befuddling educational equivalent of electro-shock therapy. They were quietly absorbing the same dreadful techniques as their predecessors. Learning plain speaking in academic seminars is like learning compassion in a torture chamber.

In fact, seminar attendance for students acts as anti-training in public speaking. You will receive better tips on oratory from a Best Man speech delivered by a drunken kindergarten dropout.

An expert seminar speaker will be sure to make unforgivable mistakes right on their first slide. Most likely they will attempt to summarise the entire talk in order to explain the 17-word title. If not, they are sure to do so in their next slide, the Outline. This is where even the most devout audience member starts to panic. The Outline reveals the abyss. The Outline is a comprehensive list of the topics that the audience will still fail to understand at the end of the talk, even though the speaker will now sink a vast swath of their precious time into trying to explain all of them before the talk.

Having wasted so much time on the Outline, the speaker must now scramble through the rest of the seminar. They may become frustrated, even angry, and in their panic will skip slides at random. The whole exercise is a regrettable missed opportunity. If only they had been given enough time to properly demonstrate their expositional ineptitude!

It is important to bear in mind that every one of these speakers has witnessed this same dire spectacle in countless other seminars and every one of them has vowed, "I will never do that." I might also add that these people are amongst those members of the population who have most often been praised as "observant", "intuitive" and "quick learners".

The seminar lasts for an apparent eternity, as the blind guide leads the audience on a stumbling excursion through Hell. The only sign of hope is the obligatory moment where the speaker looks directly at the clock, realises that they have been speaking for 70 minutes, and innocently asks "How much time do I have?" Is this because they are sometimes asked to give seminars that are four hours long? Or in countries where the clocks measure time in different units? The audience turn their pleading gaze to the organiser. Who politely answers, as ritual demands, "We have plenty of time. This is extremely interesting."

Eventually the audience becomes restless. This can't go on any longer. Then, just as the tension becomes unbearable, and the speaker announces, "Only one more slide," for the seventh time, and the crowd veers towards mutiny -- suddenly it's over. The audience are so relieved that they applaud. The torment is immediately forgotten, and people rush to congratulate the speaker.

"That was one of the best seminars we've had!"

And they really believe it.

Can we break this cycle of abuse? Maybe this is an example of my own mindless devotion, but I believe so. I have decided that seminars should be instructive after all, and have devised a plan to bring this revolution about.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A brief service announcement

I have decided to restrict posts to once per week.

In the beginning I said that I wanted to write blog posts that were mulled over, not dashed off. So far there has been little mulling, and much frantic dashing.

The new arrangement means that either the posts will get better, or I'll get lazier. As always, your prediction is as good as mine.


Monday, 2 June 2014

A barbershop quartet sings of science

Last week I finally learned the value of pure science research. From my hairdresser.

By pure science I mean science without any obvious industrial, medical, or economic application. Science without any obvious application at all. In pallid political parlance: without "impact". In short: useless.

I do useless science. I study black holes. No, worse: I use massive taxpayer-funded supercomputers to calculate the sound of two of them colliding. And if you think that smacks of postmodern Zen philosophy high on the hallucinogenic of an outrageous grant, it gets even worse: what I really care about are the subtle variations in these cosmic whispers for thousands of only very slightly different collisions. Is one black hole bigger than the other? What if you put a bit of spin on it? That's what I do. Occasionally the government asks me for a "research impact statement", and I struggle to write ten A4 12-point-font pages that convey a sheepish shrug of the shoulders. Isn't there an emoticon for that? If I found one, my relative usefulness to society would skyrocket.

Each month I am amazed when my salary arrives. They are paying me for this? With that money I can buy food. I can pay the mortgage. I can send my toddler to daycare. I can support my entire life, and purely on the basis of answering questions for which I can see no conceivable practical benefit to anyone ever. I understand why two colliding black holes are partially converted into an exploding tidal wave of energy. That's easy. What I don't understand is how the gravitational waves are converted into my groceries.

Yes, I know all the arguments. I got the "Why Science Matters" brochure when I signed up. I know that it answers a deep human need to understand the universe. I know that around the world there are millions of people starving, diseased, or fighting in pointless wars, who may appear to be dying in writhing unbearable agony, but in fact deep inside they are at peace, because they know that somewhere some tireless scientist is diligently ensuring that their latest black-hole paper contains the maximum number of self-citations.

Yes, I know all that. And ordinary people know it, too. They have told me, on those unavoidable occasions when I've met them. "Wow!" they gush when I tell them what I do. "That's fascinating! The work you do is so important!"

That's very kind of you, generous tax-paying plebeian. But you're only saying that because you have not actually seen scientists doing pure research. You have not seen the research institutes that public money has purchased. You have not been to the high-level managerial meetings at these institutes, where the top scientists argue exhaustively over what brand of espresso machine to put in the kitchen. You have not flown to the conferences in exotic locations, where the scientists gather to discuss new variations on a single term in a pages-long equation that describes a minor physical effect that they are all proud to admit cannot conceivably ever be measured. You have not realised that none of them even noticed the latest breakthrough result for this equation because they were too busy answering a vitally urgent email that could finally clinch the espresso machine argument. And you have not witnessed the one session where they actually come alive with passionate debate over carefully prepared arguments, to decide the location of the next conference.

That is what these "pure scientists" are doing with public money.

So I don't think it is so surprising that I felt a tad guilty until now.

But not any more. Now I understand.

What happened?

I went to the hairdresser.

I propped myself up in the big chair and put on the big bib. He asked how I wanted my hair. I thought hard over just what elaborate new styling would best translate my complex inner feelings into a bold outward statement, and replied, "Shorter." Then we tried to have a conversation.

The hairdresser asked me what I do. I told him. I waited for the inevitable "Wow!" response, and yet another twang at my conscience.

It never came. He lowered his scissors, stepped back, and bluntly asked, "What the hell's the use of that?"

How did I respond? Another sheepish shrug of the shoulders? In the circumstances that could have been fatal.

"It's not very useful at all," I apologised. He snorted in disgust. That was the end of the conversation. Then, while I sat in shame, he circled with his scissors, proud in the execution of his own ancient profession, and cut bits off me.

But as I sat there, I began to think.

How much taxpayer money does the government spend each year on pure science? At most 10% of the whole science budget, which is maybe 1% of the total tax revenue. If the average tax rate is about 25%, and the average income is around 30,000 pounds (or whatever currency you pay tax in, dollars or euros or Swiss francs), then we're left with each person paying, every year, less than a tenner for pure science [1].

Now ask yourself: how much does the average person pay every year to get their hair done? Even scruffy scientists spend more than 10 pounds.

Now, which is more useful?

Sure, a truly useful scientific discovery by those intentionally useless scientists is a long shot. Maybe only one of them does something worthwhile every ten years. Maybe you can argue that 99.9% of them are self-indulgent layabouts whose contribution to human society is roughly on a par with the prison population. Maybe. But then you realise: however small their contribution, whatever minuscule number you come up with after the most cynical estimate, it is still greater than zero.

And isn't zero what you get from the hairdressers? Or, as I should perhaps henceforth refer to them, the hair care industry. The aesthetic-industrial haircare complex!

What sort of bizarre, perverse notion is it that we should spend vast amounts of money, and time, and effort, and, for some people, great mental strain and anxiety, on the way we arrange a natural bodily growth? Most men shave off their facial hair. Why don't we all just shave off the whole lot? If we assumed that it was the height of preposterous superficiality to judge another human being by something so inconsequential as their hair, would our lives really be any the poorer? We could just as well decorate ourselves with artfully designed skull caps [2].

Well, we haven't done that. And I don't think we're going to. After all, no-one seriously begrudges spending a bit of cash to get their hair done. When you think too deeply about it, it does all seem a little silly, but in the end it doesn't cost very much to indulge these silly whims. In comparison, pure science is far less silly, and costs far less money. So if my hairdresser can strut around his salon with no hint of the onset of a metaphysical crisis, then surely I can sit in my office and stare into space and feel positively content. And when the next "research impact statement" request arrives, I can cheerily submit a jaunty charcoal sketch of my middle finger.


Notes.

1. I have no idea what the actual numbers are. That doesn't matter. Physicists are highly trained at making excellent order-of-magnitude estimates that prevent anything so pedestrian and proletariat as looking up numbers. More precise calculations are welcome.

2. Obviously the skull caps would have to incur a cost of far less than 10 pounds per year, otherwise my argument would be rendered absurd. And we couldn't have that -- not with it looking, up until now, so profound and water-tight and not in any way contrived or childish.