A sort of doomed mission statement

Draft of 2016.08.27

May include: academiapersonal&c.

Things seem to have changed for me, over the last few years, in my constant interaction with the Academy and related institutions. I’m looking for a trend here, trying to identify larger social dynamics that may be in play. I’m also provoked by the juxtaposition of an interview that’s going on in the back channel and a workshop I attended this week; this essay is here to help me try to reconcile some weird threads I’m sensing.


I remember last century when I was a graduate student with an online presence, which was rare at the time, I noticed that folks “born Academic” would send me emails addressed to “Dr. Tozier”, or (because I was even more bossy and self-important then than I seem now) “Herr Professor Doktor Tozier”. Admittedly these were mostly people looking for jobs or trying to fill a docket of speakers, broadcasting their plaintive CVs and CFPs to the four winds and hoping something would land on fertile soil somewhere. Aside from being amusing, it smacked back then of spammer tactics, plus maybe a mutual misunderstanding of academic cultures in different parts of the world.

But it was rarely a mistake made by folks who invited me to speak at conferences or seminars, or even (back then) academic publishers with whom I worked. Even in the nominally interdisciplinary1 fields I tend to inhabit, while there might be an initial assumption, there was always a relatively simple way to fall back to using no honorific whatsoever, which is my preference.

A similar thing happens with affiliations and research work I’ve done. I recall when I would be consulting or running classes at the same time I was a graduate student, I’d occasionally have to clear up the fact that I was not there representing my academic institution. This often didn’t come up, though, because very few of my corporate or government research lab clients gave a damn about the chloroplast genome and its role in the molecular regulation of variegation of the leaves of certain landscaping plants, or origin of life, or astrobiology, or even (though I was usually there to teach about it) fitness landscapes and science bullshit like that.

But it’s horrible now. Just last week I was trying to get Springer to remove an affiliation they’d attached to my contribution to a scholarly volume, because at the moment I have no affiliation. I wrote the thing, I am me, end of story. But no: from the panicky way they are talking, there is literally no way for them to leave the “Affiliated Institution” field blank on their templates. This will not get better next month when I send in the complete volume I’m editing.

That said, this is not a rant about how utterly shitty academic publishing is, not just at communicating and fostering scholarship, but at rewarding its unpaid employees in any practical way. That is not in question.

Then there’s the trail of research “specialties” I’ve rolled through. I still get a constant cosmic background noise of requests to serve on the program committee of various Cash Cow Academic Junket conferences in fields as diverse as nonlinear dynamics, hedge fund management, network theory in international public policy, cellular automata or bioinformatics automation… and so on. Probably because some process somewhere—maybe a mailing list that’s inherited some now-dead professor’s notes that were written on the back of a crumpled up airline ticket and been through the wash a few times—still associates me with those fields. And, as far as misapplication of PageRank algorithms go, those are all pretty good guesses for an automated process running somewhere on a spider-covered Sparc workstation. And of course I get a separate steady stream of job candidates cold-emailing me about their experience with [keywords I refuse to include here because shh they’ll hear me], left over from the StartupLand days and the other stuff.

Just to be clear: Do not send me anything asking for work, especially if you are bothering me just because I used a fancy word you think you recognize and don’t realize anybody else knows about.

Because, yeah, I’ve done some things, OK? But on teams, collaborating with innumerable other people. I know more than most (but less than an average professional farmer) about Pedology, because of a machine learning project where this was one focus. I know more than most (but less than any Paleontology undergrad) about the timing of global extinction events, because of a workshop I was involved in. I know more than most (but less than anybody in the field 20 years later) because I worked on some of the first combinatorial chemical libraries ever built in vivo.

Thus, I can be somewhat useful in a group where one of those things (and many others) comes up in the course of work. I’m not the one you want because I’m an expert in any of those things. I’m the one you want because I probably know who the experts are, or at least—because hey, time passes—where you can visit their graves.

People in Human Resources and Organizational Behavior (yeah, did that) talk about “T-shaped people”. I don’t think I’m T-shaped. Way more pear-shaped.

Back when I was more actively consulting, my card used to say “Encyclopædist” for a while (with the ligature and all), and then “Know-it-all”, and then “Answers”, and for a while “Jack of All Trades” (which, admittedly, is a crappy lame chestnut that makes me sound like such a neckbeard; but it was another era; we were young and naive and yeah maybe I was one; maybe a lot). When we were working on our startup I was the CNO, which was not spelled out on the card but which I always explained meant “Chief Knowledge Officer”.

You get the idea.

Thinking back over what I’ve done—the things I consider successful and important—I find that I’m most proud of work that I can only describe as coaching. I’m sure there’s an Organizational Behavior word that’s more general and appropriate, like facilitator or organizer, but I don’t like those.

I think I’m probably a coach.

This is a serious problem

I spend a lot of time with Agile Coaches these days. Ron Jeffries and Chet Hendrickson (when he’s in town and not coaching) are local. There are also a bunch of very nice others I know online and meet now and them when our geographies have coincided.

Some readers (because of the very things I’ve been talking about above) probably don’t know what at Agile Coach is, or even what “Agile” signifies except as a word they may have heard uttered with disdain by other scientists or Linux Contributors. Any decent explanation I could compose for those folks would involve the very sort of cultural co-immersion and crosstalk I’m talking about, so they’ll have to take my glib and quirky place-holder for now. There is no time for a decent explanation.

“Agile” is, essentially, a movement and a sentiment about the way people can and should work together on projects. It stands against the bad experiences many of its founders had, in the 1980s and earlier, with large-scale centrally-planned corporate and government programming projects. The founding document frames many diverse threads and insights into something that was fundamentally about making collaborative work on software more humane, and more reasonable.

When you look it up online, you’ll inevitably find many differences, many philosophical fights over this sort of wording, cultural spats over professionalization and the relative role of corporate management vs small empowered teams, &c &c &c. But in the moment, what I’d like to point out is that what the Agile Manifesto proposed as a better way of working in the field of software development is mainly unthinkable in the scholarly Academy.

One caveat: I’ve made lists like this before, and the pushback I’ve received from Academic correspondents is often something like, “These are all straw man arguments. Where I work, and in my career experience, I have never heard of any of the things you are complaining about. If I have, well, there are processes in place to address these problems when they arise. Also, those are problems we all acknowledge among the [other discipline], but in [my discipline] we are forward-thinking and progressive and much better than awful old [other discipline]. Oh, and while we’re at it: even though you didn’t mention sexism at all in this list, in my field there is no sexism because I’ve never seen it. Just wanted to get that said before you inevitably bring up that other straw man of sexism.”

Two broad, theoretical notions to keep in mind as we proceed:

  1. Survivor bias
  2. Oligopoly

Ready? Now we shall continue. Here’s a list of the points on the Agile Manifesto, transformed and considered briefly in light of the academic world:

Individuals and interactions

The idea of academic reputation—from the reputation of nations and regional networks of universities all the way down to the Honor Codes that prohibit collaboration among students as a form of “cheating” and the assignment of grades as metrics of merit—means that process always trumps human social dynamics and skills. I’m thinking of some hot-button terms I’ve encountered very recently, here: “diversity”, “crowdsourcing”, “open access”, “reproducibility”, “impact”, “over-generalization”, “professionalism”, “competitors”, and so on.

Then there is the role of administration and bureaucracy in Academic life. How often does a lab head get to do actual work with their team? How much time do graduate students and post-docs, even when they can collaborate closely, get to set their own schedules, amend their own travel plans, write their own blogs? In the worst cases (like some of the ones I’ve experienced, and many I’ve heard directly from those involved) it’s clear that you should not have had a family, should not have gone home for jury duty and missed work for a week, should not have skipped that faculty meeting, should not have wasted your time at the workshop outside your discipline….

Formal processes and the notion of institutional order almost always trump individuals and interactions between them in the Academy.

Working [results]

A cluster of pathologies (enough for a whole book) fosters an environment where disciplines and individual labs write their own crappy software and experimental protocols and theoretical frameworks, publish papers about those, and never look back. The code or the equipment or the archive is handed down the chain to a (hopefully) enthusiastic bright student, who does the work and leaves no more than four years later. The preliminary results of an experiment are kept secret because the paper isn’t “ready yet”, even though thousands of human-years have been devoted to it, because it “might not be right”. And so on.

There is hope, here, in some fields. Preprints and Open Access are gaining popularity, at least in the STEM fields. But in the social sciences, in the humanities, in the professional fields of law and medicine… not so much.

Because ideas can be stolen.

Pause a moment and wonder at the philosophical fantasies embodied in that notion. How can it even be a thing? How can an idea or a reputation be stolen? How can there be a culture in which it is permissible or even possible for ideas to be “stolen”, where people don’t murder one another in the hallways or across the huge fluorescent-lit conference tables after coffee and over-sweet cookies are served on Day Two of the review board meetings?

Ah, of course. You can steal ideas because your merit arises because you present externally as an Innovative Lone Genius. Cf. previous sections.

Customer collaboration

The idea of a “customer” pisses off a lot of folks I’ve met who live the Life of the Mind™. In the original context of software development, the notion of the “customer” also caused some confusion, perhaps because it’s an overloaded word with several definitions. But also because a lot of nerds habitually voice disdain about commerce and trade, and so you can score some rhetorical points by implying that you’re above all that.

But guess what? The customer of code you are writing is not merely the person who will pay cash money to support you and your sleazy corporate bosses. The customer of your code is the next person who has to run it, or use it as a library in something else, or read and understand it. You are most often the “customer” of code you write, because (for reasons involving miraculously simple social network diagrams) you are the most likely person who will read or use or write the code you’re writing now. People you should probably be thinking of as your “team” or “colleagues” or “collaborators” are also very likely customers, because hey! they also will be reading and using and running your code.

And the same applies to humanities scholarship, and to science, and to theory and practice in the academy. The pushback I most often hear from Academic correspondents here is: I’m doing Basic Exploratory Science or Art or Engineering here! This isn’t for laymen! They couldn’t begin to understand it!

Yes, of course. But you will want to read it again, some day, or run the code, or dust off the equipment. You will not want to be inconvenienced by that act, have to reinvent the wheel when you need the next counterintuitive act of wheel-inventing basic research. Nor will your students, or your biographer, or your colleagues, or your peer reviewers, or your publishers, or those attending your public lectures.

You have many “customers”.

Now the counterpoint to “Customer collaboration” in the Agile Manifesto is given as “contract negotiation”, because that comes from a culture of large-scale budgetary planning in corporate life.

Hey, guess what again! I bet if you’re an academic reader, you’re supposed to be writing a grant right now. Make sure you get the wording and the structure of that grant exactly right, and cover all the salient points and references, but don’t use the bad words you know the reviewers will perceive as weakness or lack of rigor. Then they will give you money so you can eat. Also maybe so you can feed a student or two.

Oh look. Your constant stream of absolutely 100% necessary grant applications is non-stop contract negotiation.

Responding to change

Do I really have to go into this one? I’m getting depressed. Here, let me begin telegraphically:

  • How much churn is there in the Academy? Every year or semester there are new undergrads. Every two to four years (on average, because attrition) there are new graduate students. Ever N years (for \(N \rightarrow \infty\)) there are new post-docs.
  • You need to go to your committee meetings. Next time you meet with your students, are you asking them, “Remind me what we talked about last time?”
  • Scholarship and research is hard, and sometimes crucial components of projects just don’t work
  • Your discipline and its particular culture constrains the ways in which you are permitted to address your topics. Except in certain extremely rich fields (Bioinformatics, Big Physics, some but not all of History) any speech (where “speech” is Twitter or blogging or popularization books) outside the norms of formal passive-voice peer-reviewed journal publication is a stain on your institution, your discipline and your race

    OK, hopefully not your race. If that’s the case, you have other problems.

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, would you describe the pain of academic institutional conservatism as “ow” or “hey stop it” or “I cannot drink enough to assuage it” or “I write mysteries on the side and hope for the best”?

This is exhausting and depressing. Moving on….

On being “anti-establishment”

I am not the only person to see all this trouble. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about it, and will write a whole lot more, shortly.

I haven’t seen anybody else draw the analogy between the problems called out in the Agile Manifesto and the degradation of the Academy. I’d like more people to see the similarities, but there are so few people in between both disciplines that am not optimistic. Let me know if you are one, and we’ll commiserate over beers.

But nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Including me. Spoiler Alert: I have no idea what to do about it.

A long and wide-ranging career has made me seem (at least initially) like I might be useful in diverse contexts—even sometimes in Academic contexts that are not strictly my “discipline”. So now and then I end up giving talks at Schools of Information on digitization, and Bioinformatics departments on the philosophy of science, and Applied Mathematics conferences on how ants exhibit emergent behavior.

And when I am there, I watch. Graduate students come up to me in the breakfast bar at international conferences, because I’m the only one who’s not in a hurry to run off and give a talk, and they want a followup conversation on that leading question I asked after their excellent and charming presentation yesterday. Or young faculty squint across the long noisy table at me when we go out to dinner after Day One, and wonder aloud why they haven’t met me before at their field’s national meetings, and then look relieved and a little bit bothered (at the same time) when I tell them I don’t actually work in their field.

I also rely on the kindness and patience of friends and their colleagues at Universities, when I can. Several very nice ones (thanks, Jason!) have through the years let me come and spend some time being a mysterious old dude who’s hard to explain for a few days. I can see the postdocs and professorial colleagues wondering why I’m spending all my time listening to the graduate students and undergrads explain their little technical problems. But I’m not there to hear the PI talk about their next grant, I’m there to listen to the students tell me how proud they are to have taught themselves Python over the summer so they can use it to cure cancer with self-written machine learning tools they modeled on stuff they read somewhere (seriously, this exact thing has happened three times so far). And also I’m looking at the bookshelf above their little crowded carrels in the hallway, or looking them up on GitHub or Twitter, trying to suss out how well and safely connected they are to the world.

The ones who are already professional professors, they are safe… to some extent. The ones who are still “on the track”, though, they are at serious risk. When they fall off the track—which they inevitably will, at some non-vanishing rate, because of cancer or marriage or insight or depression or their entire fucking department getting mothballed by their University system—I am trying to imagine what will happen to them.

And I cannot imagine it. I’ve been through it myself, but that was a long time ago and I Have Mad Maven Skills, and so I literally cannot imagine what is happening, constantly, in the penumbra of the Academy around the world. Grants and tenure-track jobs and even Adjunct and Technician jobs are scarce in all fields. Professionalization and the accelerating bias of scholarly “impact metrics” and the top-heavy administrations and the pervasive tendrils of Neoliberalism in global culture conspire and play off one another to drive the hiring cut always closer to the notional “top” of the market.

Increasingly I am driven to say this out loud, even to close friends who I know will be hurt by the implications:

How very full of merit you must be.

You are full of merit compared to the dozens or hundreds or (in some real cases) thousands of job applicants you won out over. And I want them to look around themselves, and see the shadows on the wall. I want them to look at their own worklives, and wonder why they have no time left to work because they are constantly “working”. I want them to continue their excellent and well-meaning “outreach” programs, which expose young and old people to scholarship and the life of the mind more than our culture normally permits… but I also want them to ask themselves where their graduate students’ time for experiencing the other lives of the mind have gone. When does the big-S professional Scientist actually get a chance to do art? When does the big-A professional Artist get a chance to do science?

Think for a moment about the work the big-S Scientist, the big-A Artist, the big-H Humanities professor, of for that matter any of the scholars of the world are doing. Right now. In Universities.

It’s not as hard as they think.

I have come to realize that they think it’s hard because of where and how they work. Not what it is.

Here’s why I believe it’s not that hard: (1) I am pretty stupid, actually, though smart enough to know a bit of how stupid I can actually be, and (2) I can at least carry a tune and ask a helpful leading question in almost any scholarly field. Through the years I’ve met more extremely bright and well-trained people who had been scientists and scholars, than I have ever met inside the Universities of the world. Those of us who have left tell ourselves two or three stories along these lines:

  • that despite what might really have happened, we chose to leave
  • that despite what our personal experience tells us, only those inside the Academy can do the work
  • that it is almost as nice to be an aficionado of a technical or scholarly field, as it was to be in the thick of it; in other words, that reading about it in New Scientist or The Atlantic now and then is a reasonable substitute for doing the work itself

These are, as it happens, coping mechanisms. Not (as I suspect some folks I’ve met through the years will imagine) ways of coping with our own proven lack of merit. Rather, these are ways of coping with the realization that dawns on us:

What was I thinking? What were any of us thinking?

Some time back, somebody I had met recently at a technical conference noticed me talking about this work, and was surprised because he assumed I was a traditional professional scholar in the field in which he first encountered me. He said in reaction that I seemed to be “anti-establishment in everything I do”.

So backwards, but not without merit. What is the “establishment”, when the only people claiming that it isn’t broken are those with permanent positions guaranteed by contract? Is the “real establishment” something I should be fighting for, the way it used to be fifty or a hundred years ago when amateurs could become professors… but wait, wasn’t it also the case that brown people and women weren’t allowed? So maybe that is an Establishment to be “anti”…. On the one hand, people can change when they are reminded of their privileged position. On the other hand, one doesn’t ever want to be That Asshole.

It’s a tricky call. I think things could be better, and I am driven to add my voice to those of the few other people I’ve run into—now and then, here and there—who are willing to say that the system is broken. But unless one is particularly stupid, to be “anti-establishment” entails having some viable alternative to propose.

I have none. The system (whatever that means, and however you want to draw its outlines) is broken. But I literally have no notion of what to do to fix it. And the people who talk about “replacing” or “disrupting” it are morons. You don’t discover your child is terminally ill and immediately jump to the conclusion that having another child would snap that first one out of its funk through the spirit of competition and market wisdom. What kind of monster would even consider “disrupting” it for commercial gain?.

Oh wait, no hang on, now I say it I guess I actually know exactly what kind of monster that would be. Silly me.

Besides, politicians and administrators are doing a fine job tearing down the Academy as things are already.

So when it comes down to brass tacks and the leather hits the gridiron and the fat lady sings, I cannot find it in myself to be anti-establishment in anything I do, let alone everything. I have no better solution. I don’t care about the “establishment” because it’s background noise, it’s a natural systemic process against which human lives are played out. It’s no more effective to be “anti-establishment” about the Academy than it is to be “anti-establishment” about cancer or starvation or stupid politicians.

I think maybe that I care more about individual human beings much more than I do about the idea or the principle of what they’re doing. To be frank, it doesn’t really matter how they’re doing it, as long as they have the room and the skills to consider whether the things they’re doing are working, and the support they need to see what happens if they do something different.

And so my question becomes: What can I do to make people’s lives inside the decrepit meat-grinder better, working under the assumption that nobody can ever fix it?

Here to listen, not to talk

The Agile Coaches I sit with have complaints a lot like mine. It’s informative for me to talk about their problems here, and then draw the analogy to my own longer-term quixotic empathic goals below.

Remember, the Agile “movement” was (and to some degree still is) aimed at improving the lives of real human beings in companies. It’s not about increasing productivity, except insofar as people are unproductive because they’re not well. It’s not about making your company go faster, except insofar as your company is an obstacle to the insights of the people who work there. And so on.

To work as an Agile Coach, there seem to be two main paths. One of those will get you paid, but it erodes your soul very quickly. The other path is heartening and fulfilling, but you will probably go broke doing it.

The first path involves touting “Agile” to managers and executives at large companies. The movement has entered a mainstream phase of adoption in the corporate world, and companies are hiring a horde of Agile Consultants and touts to come in and “enable transformations”. But really, just between you and me, these are people who are selling something that was intended to help people as a way of fostering efficiency.

I’ve been in several situations through the years where I’ve been on the Management Consulting Team. Literally once I was in the room when the lead told C-level executives that they should move their organizations towards the Edge of Chaos so they could be more adaptive. I’m sure the same sorts of things happen when Agile Touts come in; I can visualize the chubby black-and-white fellow in a three-piece suit behind a large mid-century desk in a top-floor office pressing a button on his desk and yelling, “Miss Simpson, get me one of those Agile fellows on the line right away!”

OK, well maybe that was a movie I saw once.

Still, that’s the sense I get, listening to my colleagues and friends who are coaches: When that happens, or even a non-stylized real-world version of that happens, and Agile is imposed on the employees as a requirement and to foster productivity and leanness and innovation and flatness and bullshit like that? People don’t get better.

That’s the one that erodes your soul. You are brought in to help people because of the expertise you have. But really your “expertise” is just contingent on who you are and how you live: along the way maybe you’ve accumulated an ability to recognize a few common interpersonal symptoms, and you can sense a few of the typical organizational anti-patterns, a few simple ways to step around those problems, and for the most part to be a good listener. You’re not a Surgeon, you’re a GP.

You don’t coach people from a position of power, not if you’re actually trying to help them. Thus, despite everything any management consultant will tell you, when you are brought in to fix things you almost never can fix things. If you think otherwise, please review the list I provided earlier consisting of “Survivor bias” and “Oligopoly” and begin again.

And the other variant, that’s just impractical. I am being hyperbolic, a little bit, but really it amounts to sneaking in to help people without management knowing about it. The best stories I’ve heard, the times when the coaches I know smile and sigh and mutter, “Those were the days?” Those are the situations in which there is the least management “interference” in their work. Those are the gigs where management was wise enough to get the hell out of the way and let the people on the team actually do their work. Those are the situations in which the pressure to increase productivity is low enough that a company can do without metrics and annual reviews and can actually focus—for a while, at least—on producing value in a sustainable way.

Pause and look at that phrase. It’s a wonderful phrase, but anybody I know in an Academic setting would laugh out loud to hear it: producing value in a sustainable way.

And yet people out in the world actually can, now and then, live that way. For a while.

So, as I said, this is a problem for me. First, because I agree with my coaching friends: Any situation in which I was brought in by a University or a Dean or a Chairman or a PI to “coach their scholars” in some to-be-determined way, I can assure you that the reason would be to improve the fucking metrics. Journal impact is down. Attrition is too high. Grant funds are down. Monograph sales are way down. Graduate students or adjuncts or postdocs are protesting and demanding fundamental human rights and stuff we don’t have time or money or attention to give them. And if it isn’t those, then it’s the more insidious one: Maybe we can boost productivity if we Work Smarter™!

Hyperbole, maybe a little? Sure. But just a little.

And any situation in which I “sneak into” an Academic setting—which I just pointed out above is a thing that I have been doing for nearly twenty years—there is no support available. I will go broke even if people were to pay me to do it.

No, really. Work it through: Some naive but empathic PI who I’ve connived into this crazy “anti-establishment” stance I’ve developed decides she wants to “help” her graduate students and lab staff in this way. Whatever it is; she probably can’t get her head around what I’m talking about, but I seem earnest and talk a good game. So I come in and sit and listen to the students and how they work together, and I try to help them learn to do things like testing their code, and sharing their preliminary insights more broadly on social media, and maybe even I convince them to interact with their superiors as if they were peers (which they are).

That’s when the PI I connived should step in and kick me out the door. No matter how much better I make their students’ work lives while they are students, I am ruining their prospects in the cut-throat world of academic hiring. Where is the place on the CV where I put “being mindful about my work and its context”? Do I start my Job Talk with a slide about working in a sustainable way? Why do they frown when I tell them I have a lot of amazing comments on my blog?

Because being human is cheating. It’s unoriginal. It’s giving away ideas. It’s self-destructive madness. Career suicide.

The problem of Chet’s success

When I bother them about this existential concern, Ron and Chet often trot out the anecdote of Chet’s Most Effective Agile Coaching gig. Let me see if I can do it justice:

The corporate setting was surprisingly unhealthy. The programmers had poor technical skills, not because they were dumb but because (essentially) they weren’t allowed to use good practices in their work, or learn from one another. They were encouraged to carve up the projects they worked on into little fiefdoms, and they would all be the bottleneck on some other individual feature or library. And management brought Chet in because they wanted to make things better so the team would ship something, some day, that was of value to the company.

And so Chet came in. I’ll elide all the things he did like removing or side-stepping some of the institutional obstacles management culture had placed to keep them from learning better technical practices. And the subtle tricks he showed them for providing real value in the code they wrote despite what they had been ordered to do by the “designers”. And so on.

And it worked.

So then all the developers left and got better jobs.

That right there is my problem, when I look at the Academy and think about how to help the people there. Suppose some salvageable students or adjuncts or postdocs or technicians or librarians learn to do a few things better in their work…. That would be great.

Except. Unless this happens in many places, all the same time, then in general I think we can agree it’s unlikely that the larger institution in which these better people were working will adapt to fit their new habits. There’s one thing institutions are good at, and that one thing isn’t rapid adaptive transformation. Now if the institution were a company, and the sustainable better-working people were software developers, and there were other software companies in the world, then Chet’s anecdote offers sound advice: People in that situation—who were better, but whose workplace was not better—would and should probably leave and find work elsewhere. As the old saw goes: Change your job, or change your job.

But what do you do when there is no other institution? That’s the problem so many of my friends and colleagues and relatives face even now. There is no “other Academy”. There is often no other place where they can do the same research. There is often no non-worse place they can find, that a thousand other needy searchers isn’t already swarming all over.

It’s a hirer’s market. Workers are cheap. Positions are dear. Quantities limited. Call now.

Hey, I know! Let’s do an Optimism-Destroying Exercise!

This is what the abusive villain says in the movies, sometimes:

What alternative do you have? Where else do you have to go?

I want you to read that aloud, in the voice of the villain at the climax of some movie. The genre of the movie is totally up to you. Then close your eyes and visualize what happens next, right there in that same scene. Is there a gun? Does somebody plummet off a catwalk into a vat? Is there a sudden phone call? Is this when the superpowers are revealed?

Oh, right, and also the villain who says that is “the System”, and it’s composed of thousands of institutions of higher learning around the world, each filled with well-meaning bright and helpful people who want to make a difference on others’ lives as best they can, and also there’s a vast and ominous publishing monopoly in the background pulling the strings, and oh right there’s a long-standing tradition of government support and blithe public policy utopianism in the mix as well. And wait! wait!—just one more constraint: Make sure that whatever happens next will also lead, inevitably or at least with high probability, to a happy ending.

Yeah, so that’s the problem. Who among us is volunteering to fix the meat-grinder from the inside?

  1. Remember, being interdisciplinary just means you’ve got more than one group of people who claim your work is off-topic and shallow.