The Gated Academy

gates_bigI was walking past the gates on my campus this morning and noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. Like at many universities, they are symbolic, and intended to represent the opening up of knowledge and–particularly for our campus, which serves a large number of first-generation university students–of opportunity. But today, I wondered about what it meant for safety.

Honestly, for many who live in areas that are dangerous, the university campus feels like a refuge. It can be a place apart, a space that has different values from your everyday existence, an accepting space. That’s what many of us try to provide, even for those who initially feel like they might not belong here. One of the things that always struck me as strange about living in New York City (among many others) was that you generally had to produce ID to get through the gates into a university building. This was especially true of the libraries. So, if I went to visit someone at Columbia, or Fordham, or New School, I had to first get past the bored security guard. This experience was very different from the college campuses where I had gone to school. It always felt like the space of the campus was one bordered by affinities, not by walls: if you wanted to learn or engage in conversation, you were welcome, regardless of whether you paid tuition.

Today, after what has happened in Oregon (not to mention earlier incidents), I cannot be the only one feeling like stepping onto a campus is a risk. Like it might be nice if those gates were more than notional. Like it would be nice to be locked down as a precaution. Of course, doing so would not help us. I mean, my son’s grade school does this. I don’t pretend it represents any kind of real protection. Anyone who wants to can still get in. But there is another key difference. It’s pretty unlikely that a first grader is going to be an “active shooter” (though, unfortunately, not beyond imagining).

It’s not the outside world that is the perpetrator here–the threat comes from within. No matter how high the fence, we invite students here. We open our arms to those people who have recently been vilified as “threats.” You remove mental distress, substance abuse, financial strains, family struggles, and all of the other (non-literal) triggers, and we would have no student body left, nor faculty to teach them. You put a metal detector at each door, a fence around the campus, and gates that are intended to keep people out, and they will do just that to much of the population.

About a third of households in Arizona have a firearm. Despite the national view of this state as the west’s answer to Florida, this is actually only slightly above the national average. Most of the people who own those guns are sane, relatively sensible people. They approve of background checks, they want to see that guns don’t get into the wrong hands. They are also woefully under-educated.

We need to reform gun regulation in the US, but to do that we need to be talking to the third of households that own guns. This morning on the radio I heard someone suggest that 100 million people own guns and they are not going to give them up, no matter what. This seems extremely unlikely to me. I suspect that a large portion of them would be willing to give their guns up willingly, even happily, if they understood that they were safer by doing so. That requires two things.

The first is finding a way to let them know that by getting rid of their guns today, they will make their family safer. This is a hard sell for many, since it feels contrary to what they think. There is something deeply satisfying about holding the means of another’s death in your hands. It’s the kind of confidence that a lot of training in the martial arts can give. But you can get it a let more cheaply at Walmart. It may be illusory, but it’s important that those who wish to reduce gun violence understand what people with a gun in their hands feel–which is a sense that in the worst case, they have a card to play to protect themselves and their family. So, the first thing that needs to be done is to make clear that that very real feeling is a lie.

Secondly, we need to make people feel safer in their persons and their possessions. This is really hard to do. Some people live in very difficult areas, where crime is something they face every day. Others have allowed themselves to be convinced of mean world scenarios that are extreme: either there will be a revolution in which the rich will lose their homes and their lives, or that revolution will come from the top, and the government will force them to give up their hard-earned wealth. I know people who are stockpiling weapons for either highly unlikely eventuality. We talk about the need to address mental health: figuring out a way around self-delusion and paranoia is a key step in addressing the gun culture in the US.

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Why I Stay


In recent months a number of people have written about quitting academia. A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed indicates that this represents a particular genre of academic Dear John letters: “Quit Lit.” It could easily be imagined that this means that people are leaving the professoriate in droves, but there is little evidence of that. They are beginning to leave less quietly.

That’s probably a good thing. Certainly, they may be accused of sour grapes, and it is easier to attribute their criticisms to cognitive dissonance than it might be when you hear the same criticisms from those who continue to teach. But it would be short-sighted to dismiss them out of hand, as this essay seems to. But that piece does end with a useful suggestion: the writing of “staypieces.”

Unfortunately, I think most people stay in academia for some of the reasons many people go to graduate school: to escape the alternative. I was certainly initially in that camp. A year in a cubicle and a suit was as much a spur for me to go to graduate school as was my thirst for knowledge. But that is not why I stay.

ABQ: Always Be Quitting

This morning I had coffee with a doctoral student and we started talking about the life of an academic. She came from the corporate world for the greener pastures of academia. She’s had conversations with faculty and students who see the corporate world as a Mecca of predictability, salaries, and benefits. Of course, neither side of the hill is all that grassy.

A decade ago, I left the University at Buffalo, just ahead of news that the college in which I was teaching was on the chopping block. Naturally, I wasn’t alone in jumping ship. I noted in a blog post that I had submitted my last grades at Buffalo, and many assumed I was quitting academia, rather than just moving to another university. I wasn’t, but not because I was dedicated to the endeavor. My Plan B, my BATNA, has always been in play.

When I was in grad school, I had a Plan B. When I got my first job, the Plan B was always there, along with C and D. Today, were ASU to suffer the coup de grace the state seems intent on delivering, it would be a huge disappointment. And I would go to my Plan B. I’ve suffered far worse set-backs, and I will again. The pessimist in me requires that I be prepared for imminent disaster, and that preparation provides me with a great deal of comfort.

So when a former chair took me aside after a faculty meeting and told me I shouldn’t ruffle the feathers of senior faculty until after I had secured tenure, I could tell him honestly (though perhaps not calmly) that I wouldn’t want tenure in a place that made not ruffling feathers a requirement of the non-tenured. I said it because it was true.

Now, with the seeming security of tenure, I’m in the same position. I make accommodations, of course. But generally, if tomorrow I was told that I no longer could research what I want, write what I want, build what I want, or teach what I want, I could walk away from the job and do something else that required less compromise.

The trick is, at least for me, being a professor strikes a balance between security and freedom that is difficult to find elsewhere. It also provides me an opportunity to change lives in a way that would be difficult in many other places.

Changing the System From Within

When I was still a grad student, I vividly remember a conversation with two of my fellow TAs. I was railing against the way in which we taught and how universities work. One said I sounded like an anarchist. (And he said it like it was a bad thing!) Another asked why, given my antipathy toward institutionalized education, I was on the professorial track. I had a lame answer—one that I’ve heard many others use—I wanted to change the system from within.

Of course, institutional capture is always looming. I find myself working in a university structure that—sometimes in spite of the rhetoric often associated with ASU—is Byzantine, bureaucratic, and technocratic. I face the same kinds of fears many academics do: Am I doing enough? Am I making the kinds of choices I should? Am I making use of the freedom and security that the university job provides?

I think now the greatest challenge to changing the system from within is changing the system within. Graduate education is the feeder for a kind of strong culture that is far more binding than the gears of bureaucracy are. Make no mistake: the greatest obstacle to a revolution in higher education is the faculty.

Job Requirements vs. Reputational Income

Part of the problem with the freedom and security of faculty positions is that people so rarely take advantage of them. We may complain about the lack of remuneration offered by work in the Academy, but that lack is balanced against relative job security and autonomy. But who collects on those fully?

There are certain things you need to do to earn tenure at a Research I institution. They almost never involve creative teaching, taking on administrative roles, or community service. I’ve done all those things because I wanted to; because the university let me. Except in the rarest of cases, we do this to ourselves.


Getting tenure is hard, to be sure, but most people seem to be determined to make it harder than it is. As Nagpal noted in The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life, treating the tenure-track job as a 7-year job, rather than the start of a life-long commitment to a single institution, makes it a much more interesting proposition. I would love to see universities desperately trying to retain their tenure-track faculty, who are fielding a range of other possibilities at that stage of their careers. Unfortunately, most have burrowed their way into the self-imposed anthill of Academia.

Most of us want open access scholarship, but we publish in commercial journals. Most of us want to just do research. In the social sciences, that very often does not require funding. But we pursue it because it is perceived (or actually) needed for either social capital within the university or for extracting resources for our students. In practice, many of the stressors that lead to 60-80 hour work weeks are self-imposed. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love for 60 hours a week, but we delude ourselves into thinking that a citation count, a funding goal, or perfect teaching evaluations are somehow required by our jobs. In most cases they are not. Many, in an effort to do everything well, find themselves in a circuit of time-consuming mediocrity.

If these needs are not directly and obviously dictated by the university (and I recognize that in some cases they are, but I think this is often the exception), where are they coming from? Mostly from our peers and a structure of competition for attention and reputation that we willingly engage in. This isn’t Hunger Games. The creation of a dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all academic structure is certainly encouraged by the policies of many of today’s universities, often with the aid of state legislatures in the US. But it’s all too often one we make ourselves.

The Joyful Professor

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

As I said, I don’t think I can claim to be all that different from the rest. I’ve played into the game as much as anyone else has. And now, in the mid-point of my three-decade-long mid-life crisis, I recognize a lot of wasted effort on things I did not love and could not change. I dream of winning the lottery and starting my own shade-tree school or university. In the meantime, I can do the same, quietly, from within.

It takes a lot to get rid of a tenured faculty member. I am staying a professor, at least today. I’m not going to get rich doing it, but I get paid plenty. I also have the freedom to do the things I want to do. If I don’t do those things, that is no one’s fault but my own. I don’t want to increase my h-index. Things being what they are, I don’t expect I’ll ever catch up to the leaders in the field when it comes to publications or citations. I don’t want perfect student or peer-teaching reviews. If someone wants to give me grant money, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to waste time writing grants with little chance of being funded just to support a university that needs it to offset the lack of public funding. That’s not what I signed up for.

If I don’t use the freedom that makes academia so attractive to so many people, that’s not the fault of the institution. And I strongly suspect that if more people had that attitude, the institution would be a much better one.

The Hagakure, which lays out much of the “way of the samurai,” gives clear advice on this front:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

We enter into something of a contract as a faculty member: we trade income for autonomy and security. If we do not use the latter, we enter a fool’s bargain. This is why I stay, and why being ready to quit is an important part of staying.

Posted in General, Teaching | 3 Comments

Back to the Blog, Quitting Everything Else


And I’m back. The time away for me has been enlightening, and has led me to think a bit about how the shift more generally from personal blogs to other platforms (like Facebook and Instagram) has changed our social media discourse. I’ll write more on that soon, but this is a more personal post about changing my practices on social media and in life.

I find myself as always at a crossroads. I like being a professor–sure, more some days than others, but generally I like the autonomy it provides. And receiving tenure should have provided me with even more of an ability to do the kinds of things I really like doing without having to worry much about what a promotion and tenure board would really like to see. The funny thing is that–sometimes to the consternation of my colleagues–I didn’t care much about that pre-tenure. Now, it seems like I am paralyzed by often doing things I think I should be doing instead of just doing the fun stuff I went into academia for in the first place. In other words, I’ve started caring way too much about what other people think, I suspect.


Along the way, I’ve also been joined by two young sons, who have their own demands on my time, and doing fun stuff more and more often means doing fun stuff with them. I am in some ways in awe of other researchers who are able to do it all–spend time with their family and remain focussed enough to produce influential bodies of research. I’ve decided I need to give up.

So, I’m going into semi-retirement, or taking a semi-sabbatical, or something. I’m kind of blowing up my “to do” list. I have a few things I’m going to write up, and turn to writing a new edition of my search engines book and some other stuff–but no more deadlines or timelines. I’ll finish stuff, and I’ll look to publish it.

And I’ll teach and worry a lot less about programs and departments and administration generally. I’m happily handing over my duties as interim grad director for our new MA in Social Technologies program to the amazing Greg Wise. I have stepped down as lead for the undergrad sociology and political science programs. After IR16, I am leaving the executive committee of the Association of Internet Researchers for the first time in more than a dozen years. While I haven’t done a spectacular job at any of those things, I like to think the contributions mattered. But they also took a lot of time.

While I am open to going up for full professor at some point, I’m going to be trying an experiment. First, I’m only going to do projects that I am really in love with and that I can foresee remaining relatively in love with until completed. That means saying “no” to a lot of projects that sound exciting, or that I am flattered to be asked to do, but that will ultimately feel like a chore. It also means I’m going to step back a bit from conferences. While I enjoy them, they are too often a large bite of time and money that seem to have limited returns. I’ve already been tapering these off, and often only attend one or two a year. I will certainly make exceptions, particularly for small meetings and workshops that seem like they have a real impact, or to give larger talks about my work.

Second, I’m going to chart my time, and limit myself to actually working 40 hour weeks, with very rare exceptions. That’s a bit crazy, but I want to prioritize spending time with my sons while they still want to spend time with me. I also want to make sure that work is actually productive. I will do a bit of cross-over–especially bits on learning with technology and the like will benefit from my unwilling test subjects. So there will be a bit of bleed-over. But I hope to really limit myself to those 40 hours for all of the things that are not “leisure.” Of course, this is cheating a bit, since I’ve just noted that a large portion of those 40 hours will be doing things I’m actually excited about: so not so much “work.”

I also hope that some part of that will be moving toward knowledge in areas where I am a novice. I’ve had free tuition to take courses at three universities over the last fifteen years, and haven’t really taken advantage of that. Nor have I taken the time to seriously engage in self-study toward new skills. I want to do that.

I’m also going to return to blogging and Twitter, and try to do a lot more in the open. That means previewing a lot of my writing here at the blog, and getting back to Twitter. I think it was awesome when Liz and I wrote a (sadly, unsuccessful) NSF proposal in public. I fully recognize that blogging is now dead–and as I said, I’ll be writing a bit about that. But it seems somehow appropriate that I blogged before it was cool, and now get to when it feels somehow anachronistic.

I thought about doing a redesign here at the blog. The theme isn’t really to my liking–it was never intended to actually be my theme. But I think at this stage that is yak-shaving. Instead, I’m just going to make sure that some part of those 40 hours each week is dedicated to putting words on screen here. Welcome to Web 4.0, which looks a lot like Web 2.0.

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Dear Blog

It’s been a good run, but I’m breaking up with you. We just haven’t had enough time for each other in the last few years. There’s the kids, and sexy young things like Twitter and Facebook. We’ll always have the memories, and I’ll make sure your links don’t rot, but I think it’s time we face facts and move on.

Really it doesn’t mean that things are over, just that they need to change. And frankly those changes may take some time, because you aren’t a priority. Let me give you an idea of some things to expect.

First, let’s talk about looks. You look like this largely by accident. I developed this theme as a teaching object for one of my courses, showing students how to use their new HTML and CSS skills to theme a blog. I don’t love it and not just because the footer is mismatched (a simple tiling issue I haven’t had time to deal with in the last, oh, five years.) Many of the choices here had a didactic rather than design reason. Those icons? Made them for a quick lesson on image sprites. Frankly, my design cue more naturally would be Daring Fireball. Keep it simple.

Actually, Medium has largely done what I would do. Some of you may recognize those side-notes–I had them in an earlier iteration of the blog, when I was on a Tufte fanboy kick. I also experimented with tweet-comments. It’s still a little too busy for me, but it’s close.

Second, I tend to be a bit more diffuse in where I write things. I used to tweet on this blog, before there was a Twitter. I didn’t really do anything with Facebook. Now, I split things up more by length than by audience. Twitter for the very short or mobile. Facebook for the largely in-between (and a slightly less public audience, though generally the posts are world-viewable), and then here for longer form. And, I guess, journal articles and the like. I think this becomes an aggregator for all that, slurping up my tweets, posts to FB, Pinterest pins, YouTube videos, and everything else, and slapping them together locally.

There may also be a more cloistered space–perhaps a separate blog–that will be for friends and family and sharing pics and the like. I’m a little sick of Flickr, and FB isn’t a great place for hi-res photo archiving or sharing. It may be I go for one of the OS photo archiving systems for that–I haven’t really decided.

Third, I need to do a better job of putting forward my scholarly and professional side, once I discover it. At a minimum, that means collecting self-archived preprints and the like in an easily grokked space.

So, this probably won’t happen this week or this month. But it will happen, someday. Until then, blog, just chill.

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