Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Don't be a Klutz, Boor, or ...

I am told stories of administrators (deans, provosts, even presidents) who sacrifice their authority when they talk to colleagues.
1. You may not want to give your colleague a raise, but it does you no good to systematically diminish their achievements in front of them.  You might say, I will see what I can do about it, and I'll get back to you by the end of the month. We do appreciate your contributions to scholarship. Our department has become much stronger, and so the competition for salary increases has become much greater. You are surely part of that improvement.
2. You may really wish your colleague to head this major task force, but they tell you their parents are in hospital and need attention. You do not say, I am sorry to see you sacrifice your career for transient family issues. You might say, Please give this a bit further consideration. I fully understand the demands of family, but perhaps in a week or two you will find the inner strength to serve family and institution. We wish you and your family the very best.
3. A faculty member may have caused you great trouble, and have set themselves up to be dismissed. Your letter to them should be circumspect, and include no insulting remarks or personal disrespect. Rather, you might say, We regret the need to separate you from the university, given your years of faithful service, but we have no choice.

You do not have to agree with your colleague. You may have to listen to them go on knowing that they are self-centered and mistaken. What you must do, and this is part of your job, is to listen, make sympathetic remarks, indicate objective constraints you face, and say you will get back to them. And then get back to them, even if you are saying the No you might have said in the conversation--with enough kind words to make you seem both appreciative and incapable of satisfying them.

You may feel inferior, even if you do not recognize that feeling yourserlf (others surely do),  to your colleague who is so strong as a scholar, much stronger in fact than you are. You are the dean or chair, say, and you are no longer evaluated on your scholarship, but on your leadership and administrative capacity. You want to have colleagues who are much stronger than you, and you want to be responsive to their needs, if you can. You want to come from strength, and that strength may be different than their strength.

You never indulge your anger, your resentment, etc. You get paid the big bucks, this is just at your pay grade, and your job is to be responsive and sympathetic while not letting their temper tantrums and special pleading get in the way of doing the best job you can. Moreover, ask your closest friends or your spouse, Am I considerate of those who work for or with me. Do I allow myself to be impolite or insulting to those over whom I have power or who serve me. Of course, if you are inconsiderate or insulting you may well needlessly hurt colleagues and staff. But even more significantly, perhaps, your reputation as a boor or klutz will follow (or lead) you far and wide. It's a smaller world than we believe, and gossip of this sort is the currency in the scholarly world. If you are a considerate and responsive person, that too will be echoed.

Moreover, if you and your colleagues create a welcoming and supportive environment, you will find it much easier to appoint new faculty, at whatever level. That reputation will be well known, and give you an advantage that money and perks cannot buy. On the other hand, if you and your colleagues and your department or university comes to be known as a place where unfairness and "politics" dominate, that too will be widely shared. Money and perks are unlikely to compensate for that. Keep in mind, You want to appoint and retain the strongest faculty you can recruit. Nothing you say will in the end do more for your institution's reputation than the work of your colleagues. If Coca-Cola did not taste good, no amount of advertising about how Coke makes your life wonderful will work.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Contributions to Scholarship, Visibility, Salience, Citations. . .

You want your work to be seen by others, to be used in furthering their work, and take up space in the scholarly realm. You don't want just "another publication." You want your work to be seen and published in a journal of some repute. [I get all these emails from journals promising citations and publication, but they are unlikely to be strong or worthy of my or your effort.] You want others to note your name in the Table of Contents and turn to that page, especially if the title is also informative. You don't need to produce work that is insignificant or weak--it takes just as long to do a good paper as a weak one.

If you find that you are not one of the strongest scholars in your field, and by definition most of us will so find ourselves, you want to do the best work you can, find a niche where your contribution is useful and valued, and go to work. Ours is a collective enterprise, and fields move forward through a wide range of contributions.

Your work must be substantial, and you must present it so that its strengths are evident, and you take responsibility for its weaknesses or limits. In general, most papers should represent about a person-year of work, and if there are five authors it's unlikely that you can do the paper in 1/5th the time. If you have a large project, you may want to publish several papers out of it, but each should be substantial. And having papers appear in different, but strong, venues will make it likely someone interested will find out about the work. Of course, present the work ahead of time at meetings, and if you are more established you have the chance to talk about the work at various departments and so get useful criticism before you do a final draft. But early on in your career this is less likely. 

Make sure the title gives away the whole story. Cute is nice, but substantive is better. "The Market for Lemons," by Akerlof, was cute and substantive, but few of us are so inventive. Better "boring" and informative, than cute and obscure. A typical mistaken title might be, Whose Ox is Gored: A Study in Academic Committee Meetings, when the right title is, Passive Aggressive Behavior in University Committee Meetings.

You want to think in terms of contributions  to scholarship, rather than numbers of articles or pages. The latter matter, surely, but in the end, it is the contributions that make a difference. Cumulative contributions are usually needed, since no one is likely to follow up on your work at first. 

Get your advisor or mentor to help you aim high and appropriately. Good advisors or mentors want their students to do better than they have done, for to have successful students is perhaps the greatest testimony to a professor.

Making Your Papers Credible. Your Need for an Advisor or Protector. The Kindness of Strangers.

Recently, a physician-researcher I know  asked me to read over a paper, since it had trouble with the journals. The problems I found are exemplary, and worthy of note and avoiding:

1. Make your claim credible. If you have weak numbers and statistics, but have found something interesting, present it as such. 

So what I did was the following, writing a new first paragraph of the paper:

We provide tantalizing evidence that the long-term consequences of dislocation, here due to disaster, may be very different than the literature might suggest. Namely, those who are displaced and move away permanently do better than those who stay. The data are not strong statistically, the comparison group and the convenience sampling is not so rigorous as one might desire, and there is reason to believe the leavers are better educated than the stayers. No one has been able to ask this question before, with data, so in part we are writing to encourage further inquiry. We should note that the literature in city planning suggests that those who were displaced by urban renewal and the disruption of their close knit community, thrive in their new environment of suburban homes. (Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers and The Levittowners)

Suddenly, the work is in an entirely different context. And rather than some sort of narrative about the data, I suggested a table of the information and a discussion of where the results were manifestly strong, with a proviso about statistical reliability.

That I have provided a new first paragraph for the paper and a new context is just what I do, and some other scholars might do. I had a friend who would write introductions for his students' papers, putting the work in context.  I suspect I am quite good at this (I listen for the music, and ignore the details, and so see what is going on), but surely not good enough for my own work! 

2.  You need to find an expert in your area of work to get the papers vetted before you send them out. You don't want to get rejected because your paper looks inappropriate or not a fit for the journal. [Recently, I had this happen twice--two different papers. I sent them off, one got reviewed, but the review was essentially What is this doing here? I have done this more often than is prudent, more as a way of getting something off my desk. It's stupid. I've survived, but I do not recommend following in my footsteps.]

3. More generally, your advisor or someone who takes you under their wing is essential to your career. At the beginning, to acculturate you to the particular field, later, to nominate you for prizes and write letters of reference. Some of us might make it without such, barely. But in my experience there is always the kindness of strangers who are supportive. I recently made a list, keeping in mind that my PhD was finished in 1968, that it was in physics, not the field I have published in (all my "physics/mathematics" books are about models we use in social science), etc--and it was a list that made me grateful for those "strangers" who in fact became friends.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Contribution, Numbers, Statistics. Note the Trigger Warning at the end.

You all know what I am saying below...  I am not at all saying that we abandon citation numbers, etc. I've just seen too many manipulations, gaming the system, misleading claims, so that in the end I only ask: what is the contribution?, what is the quality?, did they do the work?  Yes I use Consumer Reports, and I tend to ignore small differences in scores, and go for the higher number even though they tell me that differences of three points or less do not matter--just because it is easy, and the consequences are minor. But here we are talking about something of greater consequence.

Numbers in promotion packets may even be helpful, but in general they are manipulated. I've probably read 1000 dossiers, and so have seen lots of numbers (claimed to be statistics), only some of which are not faked one way or the other. In general, very low or very high numbers are indicative, but they ought be checked against your other evidence, and be treated with suspicion (this is my experience, having been bamboozled at first more than once--if there is a university promotion committee, the best part is that what you miss your colleague will discover). So I have read about 10,000 reference letters, and something like 25%, at best, are really helpful. I know of one distinguished scientist who checks his h-index value each Friday--but he is at the very top of his field, very well recognized and rewarded.

1. In general, what matters in the end is your contribution to scholarship. That is a substantive notion, and letters of reference and your personal statement should indicate that. MIT's economics department, at least in 1980, asked only that question. Numbers of publications, venues, citations, etc are only secondary. I do appreciate the need for numbers and statistics (if they are really statistics rather than numbers misrepresenting themselves as statistics). And playing Moneyball has proved extraordinarily useful, revealing what human judgment misses. Kahneman and Tversky have much to teach us.
    As for numbers and rankings, it would be useful to have the most elementary of measures of uncertainty attached to them. When rankings differ by a tenth of a point, it surely matters for bragging, but not for actual information. See # 5 below. The numbers we get from citation sources are claimed to be complete samples, but in fact they are often polluted with junk. What should be the errors assigned to them?

2. If you are using numbers, and almost all citation "statistics" are just numbers
    a. comparisons with a relevant cohort are useful
    b. be sure they are not stuffed--
        1. do most of the citations come from when someone was a postdoc with a famous scholar--so that you compare your candidate with someone elsewhere with terrific numbers, but in fact the high-number scholar's number come from that postdoc period
        2. is the source of the numbers reliable--Google overcounts, ISI does not count books but is the most studied by the sociologists of science
        3. do they accord with what you know of the contribution?

3. Again I understand the need for these numbers in rankings etc. Just be sure you are getting what you are paying for. Of course, you may be willing to allow the market to use these numbers and rankings to value your goods, but are you so happy when your value goes way down?

4. Universities are fabulous at pumping themselves up--eg. Best in the West, heralding its new rankings in someone's system etc,...  Again, I want a university the football team would be proud of (said by the coach at U. Oklahoma in 1922 to the state legislature to get better support for the University)

5. Trigger warning, PG or R rating: When I was a little boy, the New York Post regularly gave the stats of women, beginning with the size of their brassiere. Bigger was better, and Jayne Mansfield topped them all, as I recall. (Her daughter, ?Marrissa Hargitay, stars in a current TV series.) Currently, men's claims have entered the political realm, and historically, codpieces for men, and in the 1980s socks stuffed in men's briefs, and pornographic movies of the 1970s and 80s featured such claims or visible evidence. I gather from women I know, bigger may not be better, for it is how you use your instrument that matters. In certain cities, a combination of silicone and exercise have a dramatic effect on the numbers and looks of women. In others, plastic surgery plays a large role. And I was told many times, that you marry someone who would be a good mother or father to your children.
    My point here is that attend to what matters, and use the numbers (pretending to be statistics) to check your intuitions. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Contributions to Scholarship: Books, Deep and Rich Articles, Projects

Recently I received a request for information on publications from Planetizen. We were expected to count publications. What was striking to me was that books and edited volumes were in one category. Scholarly strength is rarely indicated by an edited volume, although the organizational and personal strengths play a substantial role. To write a book is an entirely different enterprise.

Similarly, if we count articles, the venue of appearance matters enormously. And so does the length. If you publish long detailed articles about your research, the amount of work required is likely much greater than if you publish several short articles. Intense detailed work takes a very long time to be done properly. 

Obviously, we will continue to develop rankings and count things in various ways. But I want to encourage colleagues in our field to take on substantial projects, perhaps involving two or three or more years of work. Only then is the contribution likely to be substantial. Yes, there are very influential articles that are brief, or that are think pieces, or controversial. But planning needs the kinds of deep studies that lead, if not to books, to a series of increasingly influential articles. Robert Sampson, of Chicago and now Harvard, provides one such model, for example. I'm sure there are others.

You want to improve practice and understanding, you want to take up intellectual space. 
I realize that if you are in a tenure track job, and your work will be judged about five to seven years down the line, there is a temptation to grind it out. But the moment you have tenure, you ought to consider more demanding projects. Our academic positions are great privileges. Let us take advantage of them. It may be effectively entrepreneurial to organize stuff, edit volumes, publish lots of articles. But if you want to make a contribution that will be recognized over the long run, that may not be the way to go.

I should add that in some fields the norm is the article that reports on a particular study, the contribution being a series of such articles. I have no objection to that. Just be sure that that series adds up.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Binding Your Strongest to Your Institution: Acting Proactively

1.       I was emailing with a friend at another institution, and she wrote me:

I have a long standing policy of not negotiating using outside offers. This is built on the idea that all information is available ex-ante as well as after an external offer is obtained. Good management acts ex-ante. If one  has to act ex-post, then it is better to take the outside offer. 

Over the years, I have seen many an institution not being proactive, that ex-ante move, and wait for an offer from a peer institution. I understand why, given the not-so-rare promise of a dean that someone is “world-class” or whatever.  The institution may well have been burned more than once, and the confidence needed to act proactively may need to come from the Provost’s office I suspect.

The cases I am thinking of are standouts, and the record speaks for itself. The institution would do well to act proactively, and with those standouts make sure they are bound to the institution as far as the institution can provide as long as the colleague is not being overly greedy (greedy is fine).

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Who visits the blog?

United States
United Kingdom

It is striking to me that the two main visitors outside the US, Ukraine and Russia, are only slightly less in sum than from all other countries.

Mentors and Mentees and the Rules of the Game

Most scholars, usually somewhere in graduate school, learn how to make their CV be presentable and effective. They are perhaps guided by their advisor, or by following the practices of someone thought to be exemplary. What is crucial is that their CV from then on is standardized enough so that they can be evaluated  without irrelevant considerations.

Once someone receives a very high prize (Nobel, National Humanities Medal,...), they might well have a very short CV, at least for public consumption. But in general, the CV covers the achievements over the years. In some fields, a CV might well be 40+ pages long since every talk, presentation, etc, is listed. However, in general it is much better to have a CV that is scannable--major awards, degrees, positions, scholarly work, and maybe a list of doctoral students supervised, significant service, and some more popular work. The idea is not to dilute the impression by combining less significant achievements with truly important ones. Moreover, once one is a professor of some sort, or has the advanced degree, achievements earlier on are not mentioned.

If there are so many publications, one might well list those of the last decade with a few significant ones that were earlier. If there are so many presentations, again selection may be useful.

If you have received many honorary degrees, so that your basement-office walls are completely covered by framed documents, you will want to figure out a way of listing them that does not go on forever.

And if you have had many collaborators in your work, it's not clear that you ought bold your name in the list of papers' authors. Better just let people find you.

The idea in all cases is to make sure that by page 3 or 4, you've quietly displayed your most significant vitae--the books, the awards, the grants, the positions, the leadership... Ideally, pages one and two give most of it away. If you've published 40 books, and been the major  author on all, then you might well still have only a selection of the books listed.

And if you do not have too many achievements, say because you are just starting out, don't fluff it up.

Public Administration, National Socialism Style

In reading about the Third Reich, one is impressed by its bureaucratic professionalism. As in all bureaucracies, people go around the rules and bosses may well violate them with especial force. But for most public administrators, the bureaucratic processes are normative and not to be broken except in small ways. So in Nazi Germany, if there were to be "arrangements" to exterminate "undesirable" populations, that would be done according to the rules and the bureaucratic processes. Evil can be quite banal. Moreover, there are conflicts among bureaucracies, so that if the Foreign Office thought that Axis allies might be upset by such arrangements for some foreign-nationals (who surely were Jewish, perhaps only of mixed descent), and the cooperation of those allies was needed by the State, those arrangements would not be followed through. So in Berlin, some Jews were "protected" by Sweden, for they were in some sense Swedish, or the Swedes had decided to so treat them--for the Foreign Office prevailed over the efforts to make Berlin "Judenrein." The interests of the State might some of the time conflict with shipping people "East." Since Sweden represented countries such as the Soviet Union, in German, Russian Jews would in fact not be sent East. And if the bureaucracy was too busy with other tasks, or was only partially assiduous, other Jews might well survive since they slipped through the bureaucratic processes.

None of this makes Sweden or bureaucracy wonderful. Rather, that Weberian bureaucracy, a feature of the modern state, can surely do wondrous evil but some of the time its processes become entangled in higher bureaucratic demands.