Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Academic Rankings of All Sorts

This is perhaps not the best time to write about anything, having just emerged from a 5+ hour meeting in which I and fellow members of an awards committee attempted to compare excellent philosophers with excellent aerospace engineers. It was kind of fun, but I am not as lucid as I could be. The ancient science guy who annoyed me so much last year was not on the committee this year -- this is the person who said I was biased and showed favoritism to women because I had 2 women in my top-10 list (he had 10 men in his top-10 list but this was not showing favoritism to men, though I can't remember why he thought not). This was a much more congenial committee, but we still had an impossible task. It was interesting to see how everything came together. We have been toiling in isolation for 2 months, poring over lengthy files, and then today we got to see how our individual rankings and opinions compared with the others. For some reason, my rankings correlated most closely with those of an historian and another physical scientists on the committee, and were most disparate from the biomedical faculty.

And I see in the newspaper today (NY Times) that we at public universities are all striving to be in the top 10. This is not news to those of us who live with endless strategic (re)positioning initiatives exhorting us to provide deliverables to our student-clients so that we shoot to the top of the rankings.

And to continue the theme of ranking: I have just finished grading. Grading final exams is gratifying and depressing, involving violent mood swings from exam to exam. How can Student X have gotten that question wrong even though it was on the practice final and we went over it in class several times and I clearly identified it as a major concept? Why didn't he/she come to talk to me before the exam? But then in the next exam.. Student W writes an amazingly clear and perfect answer to a difficult question, and I feel really pleased for them and for myself.

Maybe now is a good time to finish up some reviews.


admin1 said...

I am sorry, can you explain why you were trying to compare philosophers with aerospace engineers? And can you give some names from lists proposed?


Female Science Professor said...

I can't explain in detail -- it was an internal university award thing for early-career faculty.

Ms.PhD said...

So, can you say how your rankings were different from the biomedical (read: my field) faculty? Were they more political, more sexist, more something or less something than you, in general? Was there a pattern?

What do you think makes an award-winning early-career faculty member, in any field? Do you have a formula (3 parts teaching + 2 parts research + 1 part community service)?

Female Science Professor said...

It's hard to separate personality from a generalization about fields, but if I had to generalize.. I'd say that the biomed people were more supportive of pure biomed candidates and more critical of people who were trying to integrate bio with other science/engineering fields. In contrast, I think that attempts to merge bio with engineering, chemistry, astronomy, geology and so on are kind of cool.

Service played no part in the evaluation for this particular early career award. The ability to write a statement/proposal for a general audience with minimal jargon was essential (why is your research important? can you convince a general audience that your research is cutting edge, rather than just very competent?), and it didn't hurt to have some publications and grants (though we assessed each case in the context of the norms for that field). Teaching was also critical -- both in-class teaching and grad/undergrad advising/mentoring -- but it had to be a complete package of excellent research and teaching, not either/or.

Some committee members assigned points for each category, but others of us took a more holistic approach for getting a sense for each candidate. It was rather free form, but overall the results came out consistent, with only a few outliers. I think that's kind of fascinating. It seems to be an example of 'you know it when you see it'.