Why people don’t like us

Mr. Chips is dead – and I think I helped to kill him.

There has been a lot of backlash directed at universities over the past few decades. Some of it is very blatant – like the Wisconsin legislators who want copies of a faculty member’s email, or the Georgia legislators who attributed their university budget deficit to “overpaid professors”.

Much more of it is subtle – the continual increase in the number of professors working at jobs that are part-time or non-tenure track positions, from 43% when I was a student 30 years ago, to over 70% now. Speaking of when I was in school, I remember more than once friends commented it was hard to imagine a career as a professor because,

“I mean, yeah, the faculty members are all brilliant and you really learn a lot in class, but are there any of them you’d want to hang out with?”

The answer was clearly no. Yet, even though I majored, or at least minored, in partying as an undergraduate, I, and all of my friends, had sincere respect for our professors. We admired their knowledge. We wanted to be in college. Most of us were attending a selective private university instead of community college in part because our parents encouraged it but in large part because – wait for it – we were honestly interested in learning, genuinely interested in the subjects we chose as a major and wanted to be somewhere we could be intellectually challenged and around other people who were also intelligent and intellectually curious. We even kind of liked the libraries and that relatively new innovation, computer labs (eventually with dumb terminals instead of key punch machines). This isn’t to say that we were paragons of virtue. Let me just suffice it to say that I did plenty of things in college it is best that my grandmothers died without ever finding out.

And yet …. we were not there as a job training program, and we understood that as well as our professors.

I am sure the change is a very long drawn out complicated process with lots of reasons. One, I think, though, is our own fault as academics. We have become irrelevant to a lot of people. A lot of the stuff we do is just plain stupid. I’m not as cynical as Mark Tarver, in his wonderfully accurate article on “Why I am not a professor”, but it is true that I, too, see many, many people who have written hundreds of articles that are just unnecessary.  They remind me of the people on twitter who have 23,000 tweets. Unless you are a record-setting porn star, you cannot possibly be doing something eleven times an hour that anyone else would be remotely interested in reading about.

Research articles are like twitter from spammers, where you get the same message over and over. You’ll find that those people who have published hundreds of articles have dozens with titles like, “Factor Structure of the KABC scale for Vietnamese-American students”, “Factor Structure of the KABC scale for Chinese-American students”,  “A comparison of factor structures of Vietnamese-American and Chinese-American students” and so on and on and on.

Even worse, it’s sort of like twitter with that annoying person in high school English who always said, “utilized” instead of “used” or “I am cognizant of that fact” instead of “I know”. Not only is our writing like that, an Elements of Style in reverse (E.B. White must be rolling over in his grave), but our statistics are just as bad, if not worse.

No one inspects a correlation matrix if they could do a confirmatory factor analysis using the parallel analysis criterion for determining the number of factors. Or wait, no that is too understandable, let’s use LISREL instead. I love computers and I doubly love super-computers because I am immature and it is like a big toy, BUT a negative result has been that it is now easy to do complex survey designs, multiple imputations, maximum likelihood methods and condescend to everyone who does not use the CORRECT methods. We never stop to ask (not within my hearing, anyway) if the added precision and power we are getting from these methods offsets the degree to which more and more of our research is not understandable by the average person.

I can explain the parallel analysis criterion in a few sentences so the average person can “get it”  – You do the analysis on a set of random numbers and find how much each item has in common with the others. It won’t be exactly zero. You’ll find some small relationship just by chance. When you do the factor analysis on real data, any factor you find that isn’t bigger than the ones you found with the analysis of random data, you figure is just by chance. That’s why it’s called parallel analysis. You analyze your dataset and the one of just random (made up) numbers in parallel.

Try explaining item response theory or multiple imputation or proportional hazards models or structural equation models in just a few sentences. Most of those techniques really interest me. In fact, I once left a position because it was just one repeated measures ANOVA after another and I got bored with it, BUT and there is a very huge but here …. it’s not all about me, it’s not even about impressing reviewers or my colleagues – and THAT is what most of being a successful tenure track professor  has become.  You read academic writing and think, honestly, why do we write like that? You look at our designs and think, “Where is the statistical equivalent of Occam’s razor or The Elements of Style?” I have had people lecture me in all seriousness about how IMPORTANT it is to use a semi-colon versus a comma or adhere exactly to the APA style manual.

And I bought into the whole thing, hook, line and sinker. Published articles, wrote grants, got a tenure track position. Damn it, I was good at this stuff.

I really liked teaching, but I knew, as everyone knows, that it isn’t the most important thing a professor does. It doesn’t even really count that much. What counts is getting articles published, getting funding for your research, so you can pay indirect cost rates to the university and get more articles published. We fooled ourselves into saying that people in business really use this stuff, we were doing something good for humanity.

Slowly, it dawned on me – who am I fucking kidding? I’ve run a business for years, I have plenty of friends in business and do analyses for lots of social service and educational institutions and no one uses 90% of this shit that is being cranked out every year. No one uses it. No one reads it except some poor graduate student doing a dissertation or your friends’ students who had it as a class assignment and most of them didn’t read it either. Except for the editors of the Journal of Something Nobody Really Cares About it doesn’t make the least fucking difference on God’s green earth to anyone if you use a semi-colon or a comma unless it is to end a statement in a SAS program or code JCL.

So, we write this stuff to be more and more inaccessible to the average person and tell ourselves (and them) how much stupider they are than us.

What happens when you’re six years old and you tell another kid he’s stupid over and over? After a while, he comes back with,

“No, YOU’RE stupid!”

If our high school students can’t do math, what do we do? We do another nationwide study, another fourteen demonstration grants about minute issues in mathematics education, children’s understanding of the plus sign and a cross-cultural comparison of how you use the Abacus versus Peruvian counting beads (which I just made up) to teach long division. Then we publish all of that using language, symbols and statistics that neither the teachers nor the principals fully understand and certainly not the students, parents or policy makers. And we’re SHOCKED, SHOCKED I SAY, when they want to cut funding for education. [And much of the same applies to any other area of research, not just education.]

These days, whether I’m talking to middle school students or programmers or writing this blog, I try to make whatever I say understandable. People pay me for this. Well, not the blog, I just write that as a public disservice and a substitute for standing on a soapbox yelling at random passersby, like that guy on Lincoln Ave that I once saw talking to a jar of peanut better.

It turns out that when you quit assuming that other people are too stupid to understand you, or, at the very least, that they should attend college for four to six years so they can understand you, they mostly quit thinking that the work you are doing is stupid, irrelevant or, at  the very least, not worth the time they would need to put in to get anything out of it.

The really amazing irony of all of this is that far more people read my blog, download my papers from SAS conferences, or attend presentations I give to schools or at software conferences than ever read an academic journal article I wrote or came to a paper at a scientific meeting.

Many of my former colleagues shake their heads sadly, wondering where I went wrong. I was such a bright graduate student, I had post-doc offers, tenure track positions, and now here I am acting like it doesn’t really matter how many papers you publish each year using Rasch models. …. while the state cuts another $500 million out of the UC budget and the number of full-time faculty at universities drops yet again, nationwide.

I, too, wonder what went wrong, but for different reasons.

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  1. I am also an ex-professor (as are several of my R&D colleagues at SAS, including the company’s CEO), so I definitely understand what you are saying. I enjoy writing software. I enjoy teaching statistical tutorials at conferences. I enjoy blogging about how to use software effectively. At some research universities those activities might not contribute heavily towards tenure and promotion. At my company, these activities are valued.

    However, I also enjoy reading research journals, going to the Joint Statistical Meetings, and talking with my colleagues in academia. I enjoy when we can cross-fertilize each other’s efforts. I use results that my colleagues publish; they write papers about questions that I ask them. We exchange ideas.

    I try to make a difference with what I do, and I suspect most college professors do the same. I’m glad for the academic world…and for business world as well.

  2. I also enjoy talking with my colleagues in academia (some more than others!) and there are SOME journal articles that I enjoy reading but there are A LOT of others that could never have been written and the time better spent by the researcher cleaning his or her bathroom.

    Generally this is not because the research is poorly done but rather that it is just a trivial variation of what’s been done before, published so that someone can get tenure.

    Also, there are techniques and resources that I personally find interesting but I try not to confuse what interests me with what is important. I know people who find the study of the French revolution or the works of Jane Austen to be fascinating. There is no harm in that and good may come of it, but the same can be said, and probably with more confidence, of teaching English to third-graders or farming.

    I think a lot of college professors try to make a difference but I think they usually labor under a perverse system of rewards where great teaching is barely acknowledged and research is primarily evaluated by counts – how many articles rather than the quality of those. Indicators of quality are usually indirect – is it in a ‘good’ journal, how many people cite it.

  3. Sing it, sister!

    “there are A LOT of others that could never have been written and the time better spent by the researcher cleaning his or her bathroom.” I feel this way about my dissertation.

    Seriously, I have the piece of paper, but now know better than to consider the job I have so diligently trained for over the past few years. Instead I will do my analysis somewhere it might get acted upon (quickly), and where it might be able to do some good. I will read the occasional study that is relevant to that work and translate it for my non-PhD peers, many of whom are every bit as smart or smarter than I am but who don’t have the secret journal article decoder ring. [That might just be the ability to tolerate boring, pedantic writing.]

    I value my PhD for all the statistics I learned, which are allowing me to make twice what my peers are making as incoming tenure track faculty at the University of East Nowhere. I value it because I can rub it under the nose of people who annoy me. (“That’s Doctor Protoscholar to you, worm.”)

    But higher education is broken, and we are doing more harm than good by allowing it to continue unchecked.

  4. What a timely post, says a rather grumpy faculty member trying to navigate the promotion system with “not enough” peer-reviewed publications (and the host of dissemination/outreach things which actually have an impact are not counted). So yes, I’m spending this summer getting some ahem crap out, and which should then free up time to do what I want to do…

    have I mentioned lately how much I heart you and your blog?

    Sara, who has a pretty neglected blog so it’s really not worth checking at the moment.

  5. Yes, better than the secret journal article decoder ring is that when some really creepy guy asks me, “What do your friends call you?”

    I can answer, “My friends call me AnnMaria. You can call me Dr. De Mars.”

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