Saturday, 17 April 2010

What do academics do?

This is something my neighbours probably wonder about, and my mother certainly does! And it's quite tricky to answer, because we do so many different things.

Our contracts don't help much here, as they are usually pretty vague. Our job description is usually no more than a line or two, stating which department we are in and that we shall do whatever work is agreed with our line manager. It doesn't always even mention teaching or research, so I suppose in extremis we could be asked to do the gardening or clean the corridors.....I'd better not pursue this line of thinking, though.

More seriously, the presumption is that our main activities are teaching students and doing research, together with whatever administrative tasks are needed to fulfil these duties. When I first came into academia in the early 1970s, this was all taken for granted, and there were no targets, performance indicators, and the like to guide us; nor was there any teaching assessment (either by students or externally run) or research assessment. Nowadays, of course, life is more complicated. As in many other areas of life, academics are no longer trusted - either by their institutions or by the wider community - to be competent professionals who will simply get on with the job if left in peace. So we do have targets and regular monitoring of what we do, and these serve both to make sure we don't idle around too much, and to influence promotion and other rewards.

On the face of it this all sounds eminently sensible, and some might say long overdue. But the key problem with targets is that they inevitably pick out bits of a job that are readily measurable, and miss out the less tangible, more qualitative aspects. For an academic, that means I can be told how many hours to teach, and perhaps even set a target of how many papers to write in a given year. But it's hard to make me deliver quality unless I have the inner motivation to do so, and even worse, focussing on such targets might make me neglect other important parts of the job that can't be summed up in a few targets.

The point is that academics are not only employees of a given institution, but part of a wider academic community - usually based around our individual subject areas - within which very strong values of collegiality are still very important. This wider context leads us to do all sorts of things for which we receive zero or minimal reward, for instance: reviewing research grant applications, external examining, refereeing papers, reviewing book proposals for publishers, writing book reviews, informally commenting on colleagues' papers before journal submission, and so on. It seems to me really important that we do these things, and do them well, but the institution-based performance indicators that increasingly influence what people do offer no encouragement whatsoever. I think this is a great pity.

I'm not sure what my mother would make of the above remarks, but I hope that some of my academic colleagues will find that they strike a chord.

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