Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A new professional chapter

I am thrilled to announce that starting in the fall, I will be working as an assistant professor for the Minerva Schools! I want to resurrect this blog with a post about my decision, and what it means for my career as well as for higher education more broadly.

What is Minerva? Good question. While they don’t yet have the name recognition of some of our older institutions, they aim to be "the first elite American university to be launched in a century". Starting from the question of “what does it mean to be an educated person in our time?” they designed a new type of university, stripped of unnecessary sports teams or facilities. In fact the only physical buildings are rented dormitory buildings in San Francisco and other world cities. Classes are held online, but unlike the MOOC model of video lectures, the pedagogical philosophy is geared towards fully active learning. The teaching platform allows instructors to rapidly give polls and quizzes, and to create small groups with a touch of a button. The students live together and move to a different international city each year.

Why I’m excited about this:
If you’ve read this blog before, you will know that I have been uncomfortable with a number of aspects of a Typical Academic Career. I worry about the consequences of grade inflation, and of how to maintain academic rigor without getting crushed in teaching evaluations. I think about what I call “the ever-accelerating hamster wheel” problem: our research impact is often measured in terms of number of publications, and we are putting out more work than can be read, forcing us to aggressively market our own research just to be heard through the noise. In my field, about 1/3 of papers are never cited! And we hire far more graduate students and postdocs to do this ever increasing amount of work while the number of academic positions for them is dwindling through the adjunctification of the professorship. Funding levels are so low that economists have questions whether spending time on grant proposals is even worth it.

So, is it better to change an institution from within or to blaze a different path? This is the question I have been wrestling with over the course of this job season. Academia (though not academics, generally) is conservative, and its wheels turn slowly. It’s deeply hierarchical, and can lull people with the sweet siren song of the status quo. That said, it’s what I’ve been working single-mindedly towards for the last 15 years. The argument for being at a traditional university can be best summed up by one of my mentors, who argues that while R1 life is not perfect, it's the best of the available alternatives. But what if it can be made better?

In the end, the question I kept asking myself is "what do I want out of an academic career? What makes for a good academic life?" For a long time, I've been uncomfortable with institutions that do not value excellence in teaching. Any one professor's research program, no matter how high profile, is still a small slice in the big pie of human knowledge, while the impact that one can have in the life of a student through teaching and mentorship can last a lifetime. But what about research? Am I shutting myself out from this world? I don't think so. I am testing the bold hypothesis that I can do great research outside of the normal paradigm.

Paradoxically, I think that my research might have more impact when freed from the pressures of "bean counting". The academics whose work I read most are not the ones publishing the most papers, but the ones publishing papers with the most depth of thought. I hope to maintain and develop a number of collaborations, tapping into the best minds and free from the need to be in any one location. And I am working to have a home base where I can mentor the research projects of my Minerva students, sparking the same passion for research in them as I had as an undergraduate.

Stay tuned for the future, I think it's going to be bright.