Monday, January 19, 2009

ProfScam - Accurate or Not?

About twenty years ago, when I started teaching at Dartmouth College, a book called ProfScam appeared. Written by a journalist (and now conservative talk show host), Charles J. Sykes, and published by that fountain of evangelical foolishness, Regnery Gateway, ProfScam claimed that American university education was in a terrible state, and professors were the ones to blame.

ProfScam was passed around with astonishment at Dartmouth. Sykes described professors the likes of which we had never seen. Professors, in Sykes' view, were interested in publishing "trivial and inane research in obscure journals that nobody reads". Actually, in my field, publishing trivial results would quickly earn you a reputation for doing so, with the result that no one is likely to read what you write in the future. You won't get tenure, and you won't get promoted.

Professors, Sykes says, "communicate in impenetrable jargon, often to mask the fact that they have nothing to say". Difficult concepts in mathematics and computer science are not always easy to understand, even for experts. The "impenetrable jargon" is usually the result of striving for precision: taking an imprecise, intuitive notion of something (say "information") and trying to make it rigorous. Again, people who have nothing to say won't impress their peers.

Professors, Sykes claims, "are not only indifferent to good teaching, but actively hostile to it". Again, not in my department, where teaching is an essential component of getting tenure, and where good teaching earns you a higher annual evaluation and a commendation in department meetings.

But the main thing that I remember about ProfScam was Sykes' claim about how little time professors spend in their jobs. He claimed that the average professor works only 8-16 hours per week. Again, this didn't agree with my experience at all.

So, this past week, I decided to keep track of the number of hours I worked and what I did. Here is a summary, with times in hours and minutes.

Teaching: 6:22 (includes time walking to class from my office, setting up computer, and talking to students afterwards)

Lecture Preparation: 9:17

Preparing solutions to course assignments: 4:45

Miscellaneous course work: 2:15 (includes meeting with TA's, getting key for projector)

Office hours: 2:00

Departmental meeting: 1:00

Writing recommendation letters for students and faculty: 0:46

Answering e-mail: 6:10

Research paper preparation: 4:00

Research: 1:05

Errata for book: 0:16

Refereeing papers for journals: 2:15

Editing work for two journals: 2:33

Answering questions about the course online and in my office: 1:50

Meeting with graduate students: 2:25

Help another faculty member with grad admission: 0:20

Total time: 47:19

During a non-teaching term, I would have a very different schedule, as much of the time devoted to teaching and talking with students above would be replaced by research time.

Keep in mind that we are paid for 35 hours of work. I'm not complaining - I love my job and am happy to put in the extra hours. But I do object to being labeled as lazy by people like Sykes, who appears to have no idea what professors actually do with their time.


Michael Swart said...

In his essay, "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell, complains about sloppy writing. You could say he criticizes writers that write with impenetrable jargon.

Of course in this case, he's talking about certain politicians or political writers of his time and never once mentions professors.

My guess is that Sykes took a lot of these criticisms and simply changed the target to professors.

My guess is that Sykes is writing about a caricature of a professor that only exists in his own head.

Anonymous said...

When I was in my first two years of an Assistant Professor position, I logged my time as closer to 70 hours a week. I was told that it would eventually drop to about 40 to 50 hours a week after I got tenure, but, sadly, I left academia to pursue a 40-hour-a-week industrial job.

My wife, however, received tenure, and still puts in over 50 hours a week doing academic work (committee meetings, student meetings, office hours, lecture preparation, grading, some research, writing recommendations, reviewing books for magazines, etc.)

Speaking of lecture preparation, it is much harder in the Internet age to do a good job with this. Not only do you have to prepare lecture (which, if you want to be a good teacher, is a lot of prep work in and of itself including trying to make "clickers" work, organizing group work, etc.), but you also have to make up quizzes, homework, solutions to said homework, maintain course web pages, web quizzes, etc., etc.

I keep putting "etc." in the above text because it is so true. I would say the professor is one of the most overworked, underpaid, and underestimated jobs in society today. Sykes knows absolutely nothing about how much work professors actually do.

Anonymous said...

In my experience people work
hard in academia.
Still, I agree with much of the rest of the criticism.

There are cliques in academia
and if you belong to such a clique, your research will be
judged important. Each such clique typically has a small number of alpha males,
who are eager to control their
position in the group.

Such groups are resistive to
real change and new ideas.
It would be ridiculous to claim that
a significant portion of published research is important.

Your comments contain the
words "in my field...".
I am not familiar with your field. It hardly matters.
There are whole fields where
thousands of papers are published, that will never have any practical use, nor will they ever have any aesthetic value, nor do they contain any new ideas or a
new way of exposition.
There are hundreds of people who get tenure publishing such papers.

I'm sure being part of the existing academic social structure makes it more difficult to admit it, but it
is nevertheless obvious.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Why do you think "hav[ing] any practical use" is essential to research?

Why do you think the fact that most papers are not groundbreaking is an indictment of academia. 99% of everything is crap; why should academia be exempt from this rule?

And history is littered with bogus claims that some field will never be useful. Look at Hardy's boast about number theory being of no practical utility.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

The last Anonymous said:
There are whole fields where
thousands of papers are published, that will never have any practical use, nor will they ever have any aesthetic value, nor do they contain any new ideas or a new way of exposition.

And please tell me how can you judge whether a paper written now will have any use in future? And how do you define aesthetic value?

With respect to the former, there are hundreds of examples of papers which were considered irrelevant, only to be found useful much later. (See below.)

With respect to the latter, I know people who do good work in an area and find the aesthetics of another, equally important area, ugly. Aesthetics is not that easy to define.

A couple of examples (to follow them you need to know some maths and science--I'm not sure what you know...):

1. When Lorentz discovered that Maxwell's equations were not preserved by Galilean transformations, he asked the question: which transformations of the 4-dimensional space preserve them? And came up with a set of LINEAR transformations. The paper was a mathematical curiosity.
Later, Einstein dug up Lorentz's work and gave it a physical meaning, namely that of special relativity. This led to general relativity. And it was a curiosity. Was it? And was it of impractical value? If you think it was, then think about this: The GPS you have in your car (I mean the whole GPS system, including the satellites) does use general relativity to correctly identify space and time location of an event. Without it, it would not work accurately.

2. In the beginning of the 20th century, mathematicians were writing curious papers about continuous functions which were nowhere differentiable. They were totally dismissed by the mathematical community as "ugly" and as "irrelevant". When Mandelbrot (and others), decades later popularized what you now know as fractals, these papers played an important role. In fact, the so-called fractals had already been discovered long ago. And, perhaps you know, they are of practical use. For example, there are image compression algorithms using fractal encoding.

Statements like the ones you made come from the mouths of people who cannot see what research is, have never done research, or have not done it successfully. I don't blame you. Discovering what is in (mathematical, say) research is not easy at all. As I said, there are many mathematicians who cannot see the value (or cannot understand) somebody else's field. But, fortunately, the majority of them do not dismiss others' research as irrelevant.

Finally, I will give you an anthropic argument: Research requires concentration and thinking. This, alone, makes the researcher, and the community around him or her, more rational persons; and even if their research does not immediately lead to what *you* would identify as practical, it makes them able to think and judge and contribute beyond their immediate field of study. Can you imagine a society where politicians, for instance, had some mathematical abilities and abstract thinking process? Can you see why this might be good?

Doppelganger said...

Thankfully, I don't spend quite as much time as you do 'at work', I do, however, spend quite a bit of time working from home, weekends and such. But there certainly is a perception about how 'little' work we do - even from those who should understand a bit better.

Like my wife, a school teacher.

She has it in her head that if I am not in class giving a lecture, then I just have free time. This morning for example, my daughter was a bit feverish, and we were debating whether or not to keep her home from school. She glanced at my class schedule, which is posted on the fridge, and she says, 'You're done at 2, can't you pick her up early"

Done at 2 because I have a class that ends at 1:50... Just like that...

Of couerse, we DO have a bit more flexibility in our daily routines, for the most part, than many others do. I suspect that many are merely jealous that they are chained to a desk or a machine all day long. But that was their choice, in large part.

SLC said...

Re Takis Konstanopoulos

Actually, It is my information that Dr. Lorentzs' musings were more directly related to the result of the Michaelson/Morley experiments. In fact, he proposed that the reason for the result that M&M got was that the arm of the interferometer oriented in the direction of the earths' motion was slightly foreshortened. The amount of foreshortening was just such as to cause it to appear that the earth was motionless with respect to the aether. Einsteins' contribution was to posit that the velocity of light was a constant, independent of the velocity of the observer, as implied by Maxwells' equations. The Lorentz foreshortening falls out immediately from this assumption. It should also be noted that time dilation also falls out immediately from this assumption.

Anonymous said...

There are whole fields where
thousands of papers are published, that will never have any practical use, nor will they ever have any aesthetic value, nor do they contain any new ideas or a
new way of exposition.
There are hundreds of people who get tenure publishing such papers.

Then that is an indictment of such fields alone.

Sure some professors are dead wood and some subfields are in need of a shakeup, but Sykes wasn't criticizing isolated cases or subfields, but the entire concept of academia.

Anonymous said...

Without having read the book I can't say what exactly he is hinting at, but I do think there is a big difference between arts colleges and engineering and science college (I am an assistant professor of computer science in an engineering college), but on the other hand he is not completely off the track. I have witnessed full professors rake in 140-180K a year and doing little more than teaching the same course over and over again and once in a while to keep the publishing record up to date publish a completely useless paper in a completely useless journal. It does seem that the administration does not look at quality, but more so at quantity, something I have been struggling with; from my time in graduate school in Canada I learned that you should publish good well written papers on a reasonable topic, not just LPU (Least Publishable Unit), or in other words, have some integrity in your work. I find myself working like I did in graduate school, that is, evenings, NIGHTS, and weekends as well. I answer emails at 2 am if students have questions and if my door is open (which is always is) it is fair game to come and get help. I have come to the conclusion that the culprit is the beast called TENURE. All assistant professors I know work their behinds off to stay on top and to aim for tenure, because if you don't get it you get fired!!! There is no way out of that. It seems that once you have tenure and cannot get fired it becomes a holiday because you cannot get fired. If you don't steal from the coffers, molest a student of are a racist bastard, then you are home free. 5 years of untenured work and you are done. Sounds sweet? This is where you personal integrity counts, will you join the club of holidaymakers or will you continue to work? Now, if tenure were removed, and yearly assessments were done correctly, and non performing faculty could be cut (e.g., in the situation of a financial recession like the one we are going through now), then perhaps they would return from holiday in lala-land and actually get some work done. I prepare NEW finals every year - they recycle; I aim for highly ranked journals, they call their buddy who is the editor of the west african journal for underwater basket weaving and get their journal papers accepted in 2 weeks, where mine might take 6 months or more and come back with comments that require months of extra work, but I feel GOOD when I achieve what I set out to do.
If I get tenure next year I promise that I will not join the ranks of the holidaymakers, and continue to keep my personal and professional integrity high, after all what else do you have?

John Beck said...

No doubt academia has high-powered thinkers, and they are capable of exploring many aspects of any given subject. My question is, if the shear collective brain power of all the academics in just the U.S. alone cannot solve fundamental problems such as how to control our national debt, the feasibility of self governance, or how to plug an oil leak in the Gulf, then are they really as intelligent as they purport? Is there an ultimate, pragmatic truth that knowledge leads to in these matters? And why is central planning and socialism always the default option for most academics?

One of the central tenets to education is that it allegedly frees humans from ignorance and tyranny; yet, most of the higher education establishment leads society to the almost inescapable gravity of statism.

We are seeing a national (and even international) conversation about the feasibility of the free market system, and even questions about the sustainability of the U.S. Constitution. If free markets and our Constitution are not feasible, then why are all the alternatives tried around the world failing (or failed)?

I say academics are intelligent, but not all-knowing. My takeaway from the Profscam debate is that there is still an enduring difference between self interest, and "self interest rightly understood" (Alexis de toqueville).

The formula for the latter not understood by most academics today.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

John Beck -

I think you're quite confused.

What makes you think academia can't come up with solutions to "fundamental problems such as how to control our national debt, the feasibility of self governance, or how to plug an oil leak in the Gulf"? Academia has solutions to problems, but that doesn't mean those solutions are easy to implement by politicians. For example, I think a carbon tax would go a long way to reducing pollution and global warming, but that doesn't mean this solution will be easy to convert into legislation that can pass?

You ask, "why are all the alternatives tried around the world failing?" The answer is, they're not, as you would find out by doing a little homework. Canada and the European social democracies have different views of economic and social legislation, and they're prospering.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

John Beck:

1. "No doubt academia has high-powered thinkers, and they are capable of exploring many aspects of any given subject. "

Academia has many "high-powered" thinkers but many not-so-high-powered ones as well. In fact, Academia contains the whole spectrum: from very intelligent people to outright morons.

2. "how to plug an oil leak in the Gulf"?"

Academia is not a place where people come up with solutions in a matter of days or months. Also, many academics have warned companies about the great danger of underwater oil drilling. The problem was caused by greed.

3. "If free markets and our Constitution are not feasible, then why are all the alternatives tried around the world failing (or failed)?"

Have you ever wondered what, say, Communism would be like, (i) if it was not in the hands of Soviets and (ii) if it wasn't being undermined, year after year, by countries who didn't like it? This is a theoretical question, and, even if academic research proves that such a system can work, it won't work if it doesn't get properly implemented. (Anyway, it is silly to think that a political system can be the result of academic research...) Your constitution is good but also contains stupidities such as the "right to bear arms".

3. "I say academics are intelligent, but not all-knowing."

You are wrong. (i) Not all academics are intelligent. (ii) Intelligence is not necessarily constrained to Academia. (iii) The "all-knowing" characterization is naive. Of course nobody is all-knowing. Even the union of knowledge of all academics may leave out things which are not knowable.

4. "The formula for the latter not understood by most academics today."

This is probably true, because a large fraction of academics probably have not heard about Alexis de Toqueville, but how do you know that? Can you substantiate your statement.

Unknown said...

I was led to this blog via a review of Profscam. I was once an academic myself on three continents, having held tenure at Natal University in South Africa, Liverpool University in the UK and the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, all in Engineering, for a total of 25 years, followed by 25 years as a consulting engineer - yes that does add up to 50 years in all; I am now 78. In that time I wrote 0 papers, wrote one textbook, took out several patents and offered a dozen short courses to industry. I believe I have sufficient credentials to comment knowledgeably on the state of university education in the USA, at least as it applies to the training of engineers. The situation described by Mr. Sykes is essentially accurate. The counter evidence offered by outraged academics in this blog only serve to reinforce his thesis. When, in a "real job", which is what my first graduate student at the U of I described the offer he extended me to work in advanced product development, would 2 hours discussion with a colleague be counted as "work"? In the real world, real work is counted as effort that can be charged to aproject which, in turn, can be invoiced to a client. There is very little of the toil listed by the contributors to this blog that would qualify by that definition. I have worked the odd 60 hour week, and a couple of 100 hour weeks, and nothing required of me, or of any of my academic colleagues in the university environment came close to the effort that entailed. In terms of substantive WORK, Mr. Sykes is far closer to the truth than his detractors. As for research, this is, in the main, the biggest boondoggle ever pulled on honest people. Yes there is undeniably good work done by a few, like Bardeen at Illinois, but most academic research sits on the level of "studies of the leg twitches of the Upper Amazonian Newt", worthy of a paper in one of the too many scientific journals in circulation - and in the main, acceptable only as a means of perpetuating the existence of these journals. The justification for the large body of academic research, being its attraction of funds to the university, is false. The funding provided by a university, in order to supplement the expense of accepting a research contract, far outweighs the grant in most cases, the disparity increasing with the size of the award. And this money, sucked OUT of the university is why the students are paying over the odds with their fees. This practice of siphoning off student fees to pay the shortfall on research grant awards has been admitted, on camera, by a Stanford professor in a recent PBS special. In the meantime, tertiary education that might be worth a damn, i.e. vocational and community colleges, are neglected and derided, because everyone wants be "middle class" and "working class" is considered an epithet. Well the chicken is coing home to roost. Trades and artisans are beginning to get better rewards than liberal arts graduates with a practical qualification that bearly xceeds asking whether the customer wants fries with that?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You are simply wrong, and surveys of the amount of time spent by university faculty demonstrates this conclusively.

You're also wrong about grants. In the US, NSF grants typically provide something like 70% in overhead costs, which goes directly to the university; only about 30% or less goes to the grantee.