Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dumb Things

Check out this terrific article by Melissa Gregg in yesterday's Australian. It tells you many of the things that are wrong with the Australian research sector. In a nutshell, you are encouraged to do research that will assist Australia's "national interest" (10% of points on our national grant scheme are allocated on this criteron); yet it's almost impossible to publish such research outside Australia (and pretty hard within Australia too, for that matter). Yet without "international" publications, it's almost impossible to get strong rankings on any of the myriad indicators of research success; and also almost impossible to be successful in the same national grant scheme.

I also like this in the article:

When marketing decisions have direct power over career advancement, scholars are rewarded for producing palatable research that appeals to a preconceived audience. Those who choose not to pursue original research about their own country are actually rewarded.

Meanwhile, the time that junior scholars could spend writing original articles to improve their prospects is increasingly invaded by administrative requests.

Hours are spent wading through spreadsheets to correct journal rankings amassed by bureaucrats, and compiling lists to prove the "impact factor" of one's writing.

The situation is nothing short of alienating. The highlight of the job - getting published - has become an exercise in minimising losses from poor odds.

This reminds me of the first many eye-opening things I learned when I did the HeadStart leadership programme a few years ago. We were asked to share an "ethical" issue with the group; and the economist among us raised precisely this problem: he wanted to give something back to the Australian community by studying national issues, but if he did so, his department would suffer in the national rankings. How could he best serve his community if he was to be penalised by serving his community?

So it's not just junior scholars and early career researchers who are experiencing this disenchantment, although I can see that having a degree of job security does diminish the anxiety. But I have certainly spent far more hours and resources than I care to name, wading through bureaucratically-generated spreadsheets and unwieldy databases trying to account for myself and my field.

Yes, I have no problem with accountability. But it would also be good to feel trusted, too.

The latest dumb thing we have been presented with is a proposal for all student essays to be submitted electronically, so that staff can either mark online (l'horreur! l'horreur!), or spend their time printing out student work; and then putting the assessment back on line. One more example of a relentless drive to bureaucratic uniformity, developed in isolation from professional or pedagogical concerns, and that pays no attention to the way we work in the humanities.

Sigh. Luckily, I've had a lovely morning at home, on research leave, sorting out the jumble of Garter stories in the C16 and C17 to the glorious accompaniment of Keith Jarrett's Köln concert. My aim? to try and preserve something of that freedom and passion in my writing.

5 comments:

froginthepond said...

oh! I love the Koln concert. It's almost enough to make me forget the dire state of research policy and funding. But the search for overseas positions reminds me each week.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with the TurnItIn system. Seems to work fine. I caught 15% of my class for gross plagiarizing that I would not otherwise have spotted, in the first class I used it for.

And printing stuff out is something of a waste, unless editorial commentary is called for. What is so special about the humanities that you can't mark online?

Stephanie Trigg said...

thanks, Anonymous. I bet you're right about TurnItIn. I've never used it, but I've heard many similar accounts.

It's true, too, that we in the humanities *do* see ourselves as special! I think that for most of us, the work we assess is all in the form of essays, where in some other fields it might be easier to have quizzes or simple answers. We also do most of our research and writing on a computer screen, too, so it seems another way of tying us to the computer. I think my real beef, now that I examine it properly, is that it will not be done by students sending their essays to me, but to a central system. So (a) I won't have a choice about how it will work and (b) there will be another layer of mediation between me and the student.

But I *do* print out (graduate student) work to read, as I would an article, a thesis or a book I am refereeing, because I find it's the best way to read it critically. Like a submitted manuscript, you know?

crapcyclelanes said...

Actually, TurnItIn only requires students to send a copy to a location that is secured for your use and for your subject.
But it then checks the whole world to see if there is any plagiarism and produces an output. Previous essays submitted on the site are accessed.
I would have thought this is extremely useful in humanities, where liberal "quoting" (without the quotation marks) is not always picked up.
I have heard, however, that colleagues at UniMelb are slow to get on board. Having just read an essay that was 57% plagiarised (partly from other people's essays -yes, it can can access those worldwide) I am keen to see it in wider use.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Apparently tutors will still receive hard copies to mark; so that makes a huge difference to my view. The thought of marking on-line, or printing all the essays myself was really not a pleasant one.