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Eureka: Q & A on research and academia
by Jay Gutman
2018-01-27 12:04:17
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Contemporary academia in question and answer format.

Question: the media gave academia a bad name. Now it's simply giving it the silent treatment. Why such negative treatment?

academia01_400_01That's a loaded question. I will try to give a four part answer to this question. First regarding changing labor market demands that academia has not kept up with, or in some cases has overprepared or underprepared workers to the labor market. Second, the university as a business who used and abused the trust of institutions, governments, the labor market and students when in came to promises of training an able and educated workforce. Third, university campuses as either a place for what I call raw networking and resume building, partying, or activism, but with no place for academic and educated discussion. Fourth and finally, academia as a place where overpublishing means lectures have become “the world according to me” rather than lecturing based on what the academic consensus was, and there being no more academic consensus.

Let me keep things simple. First point. Academia is either underpreparing or overpreparing students to the labor market. You have French language majors who fail to learn French yet get their degrees, programing majors who can't code yet get their degrees, but also degrees for futile thimngs like TESOL, that being teaching English to speakers of other languages or basic accounting or human resources management, when, in my opinion, certificates can help you work very conveniently in your field of teaching English if it's your first langauge, being an accountant or human resources. I hope they won't start delivering degrees for construction workers and taxi drivers, but that's where we're heading. I use accounting as an example, a 6 month certificate or two year degree maximum is largely enough. Anything over that is overpreparation. As for teaching English, a one-month certificate usually does the trick, but you now have doctoral degrees in English education. That's overpreparation.

Second point. Corporations, governments and households trusted universities to take care of students and educate them, teach them skills that they can use at the workplace. But universities found the trick. If you pamper and organize the best parties in town, students won't complain they're failing their education. So universities came up with all kinds of training programs that are very futile, where the quality of teaching tends to be dismal, but students don't complain to their parents or employers because campus life is fun with all the parties.

Third point. I tend to say there's four types of student behaviors. There's one that I like to call “Havard Business School” behavior, which was briefly my behavior. It's one where students go to any conference they can find, give talks, try to rack up awards and try to network as much as they can, but they do this in “raw” fashion, that is it all seems unnatural and unrefined. Then you have what I like to call the “Arizona State Universrity” way of life, no offense to ASU, but the reputation would be a student who likes to party, bar hop, night club hop, and the rest is shopping and food tasting. Then you have what I like to call the “UC Berkeley” type student, where it's “Feel the Bern” t-shirts, Free Palestine t-shirts, Afghan Berets, and jumping from demonstration to social convention. It's all about social justice, LGBT rights, minority rights, feminism or any cause you can think of. Finally you have what I like to call Rugby High School students, who like to quietly sit in classrooms and quietly read books.

But to the third point. The idea is studying is an individual and individualistic endeavor and only partying or social activism are collective endeavors. That is you rarely have students sit together and chat about academic topics, which is the main goal of academia.

Fourth and final point. Professors lecturing on “the world according to me” and behaving like sultans in some cases. Not all of them do. But even in the old days, professors liked to lecture on topics they thought were of personal interest, that is professors teaching their dissertation rather than the topic at hand. Now even in specialized circles, even at the best universities, if you study accounting or French, programming or English education, you will get professors lecturing you on some odd topic that will neither be useful to your career nor will you be able to use what you learned in any conversation.

So to answer the question, the media used to talk about depressed students and professors, now they've decided to avoid the topic altogether.

Question: What about the whole rising tuitions and degrading conditions for graduate students and even professors?

There have been several attempts at explaining rising tuitions. In my opinion, it's a supply meets demand case. There's a high demand for higher education, the supply isn't that high, so universities bump up tuitions. If I'm a Spanish teacher and suddenly thousands desperately want to take Spanish classes from me, I'll keep bumping up my tutoring fees until no one no longer shows up to my door or answers my ads.

As for the degradation of professors and graduate students in terms of salaries and employment conditions, it's also supply and demand. I remember working for a university with rather low pay rates and fixed contracts, yet hundreds of people were applying to be professors. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people apply to single graduate schools, even if they know it means slave labor. So universities can afford to treat professors and graduate students like slaves.

Question: How do you fix all these problems?

Well, here's a scoop. I''m not a mathematician. Not in the classical sense. I didn't study math in college or grad school, not even in high school. I picked up math here and there, through lectures and books. I know more math than, probably, many math professors or students. But if I decided to try my luck with a Ph.D. in math, I'd probably have to learn from the professors' dissertations and write something along the lines of their dissertations. Neither am I an economist or a linguist or a political scientist or a military strategist.

So how do you fix the problem. It's kind of like plastic surgery. I like anything natural and authentic. But most people don't. I like to call a spade a spade, a cat a cat, a dog a dog. But in academia, as with plastic surgery, people believe you need the piece of paper to be called a mathematician, people believe you need to knife to be pretty. How do you change these perceptions. I try not to. Last time I tried, I was almost killed. True story.

Final question: Where do you see the future of academia heading?

I believe in Adam Smith and in the invisible hand. I think eventually serious people will realize that degrees are not worth it, that students are either being underprepared or overprepared. I believe in justice, and believe that those students who got adequate preparation will eventually succeed. But that's a bit utopian.

People still believe in degrees, people still believe in Harvard French language degrees even if degree holders struggle with French. I'm using this as an example of course. It has a lot to do with connections and fund raising and this and that. But eventually a fraud is a fraud, a ponzi scheme is a ponzi scheme. You can't be an imposter for ever. One thing I learned is that eventually those who plagiarize their dissertations end up getting caught, those who lecture on their dissertation end up getting caught, and those who get phony degrees end up getting caught. You can't be an imposter for ever.

I also believe governments and corporations will eventually realize that they're not getting the raw deal. As an example, if you major in French, you should be able to speak decent French. If you want to be an English teacher, you should be able to do that with a certificate. It's that simple. 

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