Friday, March 29, 2019

Intellectual death by a thousand cuts

My business is thinking. Let me be a little less succinct. My profession as a Professor of Biology is my passion, and I am fortunate enough to be paid to think about how the natural world works and to come up with possible solutions to global problems. I was trained to do this and my past training (all 11 years) and my current salary are paid by taxpayers to do this. This all seems rather straightforward, but yet why does it feel like the universe is conspiring to prevent this intellectual work from being done?

As pointed out brilliantly by Cal Newport in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article titled “Is E-mail Making Professors Stupid?”, Professors are being buried under a pile of administrative work at the expense of intellectual pursuits. The amount of time and effort spent on managing people and money, sitting on departmental/university committees, representing the university externally, and applying for research funds and awards have all increased significantly over time. Professors are increasingly being converted into middle managers, the victims of a culture of bureaucratization and downloading.

At the organizational level, this all makes sense. The necessary regulatory obligations and internal checks and balances are very robust, and appear, to outside scrutiny, as though tax-payer funds are being used correctly and efficiently. However, the reality is that university bureaucracies have grown substantially over the past couple of decades while student enrollment and faculty numbers at many institutions has been stagnant or even declining. And a byproduct of this increased bureaucracy has been an increase in internal programs and procedures that require communication and paperwork.

This increase in internal communication and administration has been paired with increasing external demands for professors’ time. Increasing requests to perform grant and manuscript reviews, participate in panels, pressure to include outreach and knowledge mobilization in research projects, and the inundation of predatory journals and conference requests have been experienced by all researchers.

All these forces conspire to eat away at the ability for professors to do the thing they are actually paid to do –literally the death of the intellectual by a thousand cuts. If I were to properly answer all of the e-mails I receive, I would be spending 3+ hours a day doing this one task. Not to mention meetings. Professors spend much more of their time in meetings today than a generation ago. I just looked at the next week in my calendar (an uneventful week by my standards), and there are 14 hours of meetings scheduled. I also need to schedule these meetings myself an increasingly frustrating activity that requires multiple attempts. So e-mail and meetings alone would amount to about 25-32 hours a week.
What should I be doing with my time? Well, working on manuscripts (my students and my own), editing and reviewing for journals, writing grant proposals, teaching, participating in student committees, data analyses, research projects and training, and reading are all necessary. My estimation of the time needed to optimize these, or at least do a minimally acceptable job, would be about 30 hours a week. So, either I work a minimum of 60 hours a week, or something has to give. I am fortunate that I have the resources to hire a lab manager and do not need to deal with lab management and ordering supplies, etc., which would require an additional 4-8 hours a week.

At the moment I am faced with a dichotomous decision, work evenings and weekends or purposefully prioritize certain activities over others. And to the frustration of colleagues and administrators, e-mail tends to the bottom of the priority list. But this cost of bureaucratization should not be burdened by professors alone.

Cal Newport highlights several mechanisms to relieve this burden in his article. Minimally, professors should schedule e-mail time, like one hour a day. And, filed under “do as I say, not as I do”, professors should say 'no' to many of the unsolicited requests that pull them away from their core responsibilities. Yet institutions have a role to play. Newport suggests that Professors require executive assistants to manage e-mail correspondence, scheduling and paperwork and these should come with their positions (not one to one, perhaps shared amongst groups of faculty). Since professors routinely work extra hours to stay on top of all the demands, they should start to be compensated for this additional work. Further, there should be an agreed upon fixed amount of administrative service they are required to do (e.g., 10 hours a week), and going beyond this should require teaching buyouts or other forms of compensation (e.g., funds for assistant).

While the onslaught of demands seems so overwhelming, there are solutions. They just need to be pursued and pushed to university administrations.

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