Tuesday, April 27, 2010

One-way Traffic?

One of the committees I was on this year recently consumed quite a lot of my time, and involved a marathon session in which a group of faculty from all over the university got together and discussed other faculty. I (mostly) enjoyed the wide-ranging debates and glimpses of academic life in other disciplines. I had particularly intriguing discussions with an art historian and a psychologist, and felt overall that my time on this committee was well-spent.

This was my first time on this committee, which I agreed to join in part because I had always found this committee's methods a bit mysterious and I wanted to know how it worked.

Here are some miscellaneous observations about this committee experience:

1. My generally optimistic view of academics was confirmed. There were a lot of nice people on this large committee. These were faculty who devoted quite a lot of time to tasks intended to help other faculty, and in particular early-career faculty. I would say that the committee is moderately powerful -- not as powerful as a P&T Committee but more powerful than most policy committees. Yet these faculty were not in it for the power or for settling scores or whatever other cynical reasons people might imaging would impel professors to take on a time-consuming committee assignment.

2. When evaluating other faculty, the Liberal Arts Professors (LAPs) and Fine Arts Professors (FAPs) were harder on their colleagues than they were on the scientists, engineers, or social scientists. In fact, the LAPs and FAPs were harder on their colleagues than the scientists etc. were on anyone.

I certainly am not going to make a sweeping conclusion about this based on one experience with a particular set of individuals. Nevertheless, I found this phenomenon quite interesting. Warning: I am about to muse about this one anecdotal event despite the small sample size and lack of a control group, statistical analysis, IRB permission, and coffee.

Hypothesis: The LAPs and FAPs were not comfortable being highly critical about research topics far outside their expertise, so they tended to give the benefit of the doubt to science and engineering faculty. They were more critical of fellow professors, even highly successful ones, because they felt that they had a more solid basis from which to be critical.

The converse was not true -- science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) and social science faculty showed no particular propensity to be more critical of any particular discipline than another. Does this mean that we STEM etc. faculty are nicer? Or are we so egotistical that we think we know something about everything? Or is it because we are not intimidated by the non-scientific research in the same way that the LAPs and FAPs are intimidated by more quantitative fields?

These last questions remind me of a part of the novel Solar (by Ian McEwan), about which I will write more tomorrow. The main character is a loutish Nobel Prize-winning physicist. As a university student, he seduced a young woman by intensely studying up on Milton, her major intellectual interest. He read Milton, he read criticism of Milton, and within a short amount of time he could converse as an apparent expert, impressing her greatly and winning her heart. This woman became the first of his 5 wives.

The successful seduction of this woman by pretending to know and care about Milton..

".. was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however, bright, could have passed himself off after a week's study among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard's colleagues. The traffic was one-way.. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficultly he encountered daily in his course."

Once the physicist has this realization, he feels "intellectually free". Remarkably, although McEwan lets many more obnoxious thoughts and actions pass with no subsequent enlightening experiences to alter the physicist's perception of himself and others, this particular episode is later put into humbling context: many years after the seduction-by-Milton event, the physicist tells the story to a professor of English, who says:

".. you've missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end -- the poets, I mean -- and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don't pretend that it's easy."

On my university committee, I don't think any of the STEM or social sciences faculty shared this fictional physicist's view that the liberal arts are "easy". I saw no evidence that we underestimated the LA or FA research, or thought "I could do that with little or no effort" (because it's so easy).

One of the great things about these all-university committees is that diverse faculty are sitting in a room together. It's difficult to feel (too) skeptical about the rigor of another discipline when faculty from that discipline are sitting across a table from you, making interesting and persuasive contributions to the discussion. The LA and FA professors did need to explain some things to us scientists about the culture of their disciplines -- Why did so many LAPs, for example, seem to have determined the outcome of their research before they started the project? -- but I detected no contempt for "unscientific" research. And whenever we were faced with a research project that seemed truly bizarre, no matter what the topic, we all tended to agree about it.

I don't know why the LA and FA faculty were so harsh on their colleagues. I do know, however, that despite this tendency, the committee overall had no trouble reaching consensus on what what we thought were the best of the best of the faculty/research documents we were examining, no matter what the discipline, so in the end, I don't think the LAPs and FAPs were at a disadvantage by having sharks for colleagues.


mOOm said...

So was this an internal grants committee?

Anonymous said...

"He read Milton, he read criticism of Milton, and within a short amount of time he could converse as an apparent expert, impressing her greatly and winning her heart."

That ain't gonna cut it for Sanskrit.

Just sayin'

Anonymous said...

I can think of two possible explanations for the liberal arts profs being harsher on each other. One is related to your example from Solar - maybe profs in the liberal arts feel like they are experts in each other's fields (I'm a historian but also a well-read person so I can comment on philosophy etc). Second, are there contradictory approaches to the same topic (ethics should be studied from a philosophical point of view / in a historical context / through a feminist lens etc). Either or both of these might lead people to critically assess work from a different but related domain of liberal arts. In contrast, both a biologist and a physicist might recognise that the other is studying something difficult and important. As long as the work falls within the framework of the scientific method, with a testable hypothesis and valid stats, we accept it. Of course, we might also marvel at why someone wants to spend their live studying one tiny piece of the universe, but I hope we can appreciate that it matters.

Anonymous said...

What does "P&T" stand for in the post?

female Science Professor said...

promotion and tenure

Norm said...

Hmm. Perhaps the scientists feel that their objective (ish) publication records are sufficient to evaluate each other. Since people in the humanities don't publish as many individual things and there's not as much corresponding referencing going on there isn't as much data for them to evaluate each other so they've got to generate criticism on the fly, so to speak? (hooray run-on sentence, but I'm a scientist myself so I'm excused ;)

Ms.PhD said...


I had a similarly warm and fuzzy feeling from the first committee I sat on at my university. I was very impressed with the faculty and their collegiality. I was optimistic that I could someday be faculty, and that I would like it.

However, back in my department... it is more like you describe the LA and FA faculty being toward each other. It was a rude awakening. And then I realized that all the related science departments on my campus are that way. On the scale of nice to nasty, they are much closer to the nasty end.

I think some of these committees, like this one you're on, are composed of the Best of the Best. These are people who genuinely care about community.

Unfortunately, most departments are lucky to have even one of these people.

I came to realize that hiring committees would be less like that first committee and more like my department. And then I realized that nobody really wanted to help me become faculty, or knew how to help me. Even the nice people I met on that first committee.

I never said all faculty are mean and nasty. But I think the mean and nasty ones are many.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the reason LAPS are so much more competitive toward each other is because what they do, and their findings, seem a lot more subjective. My understanding is that it can be much harder to publish in the established journals, for example. In the sciences, it's far more clear-cut what is solid and what isn't, and in my field, 90% of submitted articles are accepted (after R&R) to the most rigorous journals.

On a related note, I once sat on such a committee, and it was excruciating. The LAPS talked SO much more, waxing eloquent over all kinds of things, and going down various digressions. Whereas the scientists seemed bored and wanting to get to the point. It may have been the committee chair's fault, who indulged all the aimless yakking. The committee accomplished absolutely nothing.

mOOm said...

In economics less than 10% of papers are accepted (after R&R) at the most rigorous journals.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, the lesser the potential for grant funding, the greater the criticism. I am a highly interdisciplinary scientist and the craziest battles occur in the field with the least funding while the well funded one has incredibly supportive peers. The other areas I work in fall in the middle on both accounts. I've heard similar analyses from the humanities perspective.

Anonymous said...

maybe the reason that the STEM faculty on your committee were "nicer" or more respectful than the LA/FA faculty is because your particular university happens to have "nicer" STEM people in general. This is evidence by your overall positive blog posts about your (science) colleagues which is often complete contradictory to the STEM faculty I know and have worked with. In other words, probably you just happen to have an exceptionally "nice" bunch of STEM in your university.

John Lawler said...

In my academic career (45 yrs post-BA in STEM, FAP, and LAP), it has been my consistent observation that creative people are much more likely to behave cooperatively with one another when they are not constantly being thrust into competition for insufficient resources.

It's distracting, it's enervating, and it encourages pointless determinism, which is the bane of academic (and other) life.