Words of Tomorrow
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Words of Tomorrow

The Troubling Epidemic of Academentia

An update on this terminal degenerative science disorder


So, couple things happened. I’ve just read an article explaining that university professors spend only 17% of their time doing research, and that serious researchers might be better off doing some research on the side while having an unrelated non-academic part-time job. I also got another vastly overqualified colleague in my non-academic job — a third example which proves that I am a type and that what’s happening to me is indeed a pattern.

Considering that professors also get overworked, having to work about 55 hours a week instead of about 40, that gives them around 10 hours, 2 hours per workday, that they can spend doing research. Basically, that’s equivalent to my current situation — having an unrelated full-time job without any overtime, which allows me to do research (if I so choose) after my shift is over. Who, in their right mind, would consider this okay?

No one in their right mind, is my argument. What we’re observing here is a legitimate mental disorder. You might think that I’m using hyperbolic language, that I’m joking, but honestly, am I? People in academia are supposed to be intelligent. This is not intelligent. I, as a person passionate about and perfectly qualified for doing research, am not doing an unrelated full-time job because I think it is a great use of my time.

Speaking of, my colleague(s). It turns out that I occupy a position which like a lightning rod attracts people with the same basic backstory — recent graduates with university education, multiple creative talents, years of experience with NGO work and international environment, and the best level of English one can expect from any non-native speaker. Also, it’s people who can barely get any job anywhere (for being too overqualified), and who on principle decided to avoid any academic position (i.e., would rather starve).

Oh we (since we apparently are a group) are welcome to do great work, for free, as learning institutions merely cannot pay for great work, or employ people who generate it. They can employ people, but it seems that only to fill in forms, attend meetings, grade tests, regurgitate preapproved curricula, publish meaningless crap like crazy, and chase grants. It’s almost as if whoever designed this system is Kafka’s biggest fan. Or the Devil.

In short, the system appears to be “do anything except science, and be sure to never have enough time or energy to do any of the other things well, anyway”. You might be wondering, what is this wonderful job that’s so much preferable to being an academician for aspiring social scientists with great language and writing abilities? Well, it’s correcting job descriptions. At a company that, strangely, doesn’t treat writers like the subhuman creatures that they are.

Sounds exciting, right? Actually, I know you might be thinking that it sounds like one of the most boring things in the world, but you might be wrong. It might be the single most boring thing in the world. Though it does have unexpected benefits. For example, ever since I started doing my current job, I find everything else exciting, like staring into blank walls, waiting in line, cleaning the toilet, etc. You might be thinking that that sounds harsh, but I’m not mad about that. I’m not writing an article about how bad that is.

I’m trying to express how mad I am about the conditions of a job that I don’t have. Oh and I’m not mad about the fact that I don’t have it, mind you, but about how bad it is. I probably could have it, if I wanted to, but I feel it is my obligation to reject it. In fact, one of my creative writer friends just told me that she was offered an academic position recently after graduating as a star pupil. She was basically begged to do it, they needed her to do it, but she had to refuse. Instead, she rather works part-time now as a bookstore clerk.

No, that’s not her dream job. What people like she and I would want is not to be an academician, to have a meaningless title, but to have a humane job doing research. What I feel I have to stress now, for some inexplicable reason, is that it is entirely possible in this reality for an academic job to be both humane and about doing research. Yeah. The fact that it isn’t that way today is a sign of someone having a problem. A mental one, in all probability, as most academic institutions of higher learning are largely self-governed.

Seriously, why are academic jobs this way? Can anyone explain that to me using reasonable arguments and not just appeals to tradition or admissions of ethical, intellectual, or practical failure? Even on the most basic level, almost not doing any science cannot be an effective way to do science, while clearly, there are some funds that are being used to pay for wages. Given how abstract most academic work is, the common conditions of this work cannot be the way they are through some connection to objective real-world results.

Don’t get me wrong, if it was all about getting rich and screwing science, I wouldn’t approve of it, but I would at least get it. I get that there are too many students enrolled when school administrations are paid per head in class. I get that as an (evil) employer, you want to force people to work more hours for the same or lower pay to whatever degree they let you. Greed is rational.

The bureaucratic nightmare is not rational. No one is getting anything from it, other than pain. As far as I can tell, it’s simply a variation of OCD that affects disproportionately educated intellectuals. A need for organization of everything into accountable categories and a need to put everything on measurable scales just for the sake of it. A need for enforcing schedules, even if it kills people’s brain cells. A need for grading performance against The One Correct Standard, even if it destroys learning. A need to oppress minds.

In case you’re confused, this is not how free thought works. This doesn’t create an environment conducive to learning or research. This hurts people, it is in fact psychological torture. It is the opposite of necessary — it’s inadvisable. It is unhealthy, it is dumb, and it is wrong. This way lies insanity.

Of course, accounting and testing do have constructive purposes, like to account for the work that you have done and to know where you stand by various measures. They shouldn’t be running the show. Learning, research, and thought can be enhanced with the help of such structures, but that’s not the situation we’re dealing with. If students and researchers were in control of their schedules and standards, it could be helpful. In our world, schedules and standards are in control, enforcing burnout, conformity, and resentment.

Considering all this, and that most people working in academia aren’t happy with this situation anyway, what do you call it when you keep hurting yourself for no benefit and you can’t stop? A disorder, that’s what one should call that. If it’s a behavioral or mental pattern that causes distress and impairs proper functioning, then it’s a mental one — a mental disorder, Q.E.D.

But what can we do, right? If you truly can’t imagine how else academia could be organized as a functional working environment, allow me to focus not on the job I’m doing, but where I’m doing it, which makes all the difference in the world. I work at Red Hat, the world’s largest open source company. To be clear, I’m not speaking for it, my opinions are only my own, and believe it or not, this is no advertisement. They just happen to be right, in my opinion.

If you only believe that ideas are smart when CEOs tell them, here’s ours:

The point is, if an enterprise is aiming to do creative work and be able to change direction when new information comes to light, the open organization is the right model — an environment where your position in the hierarchy doesn’t determine how good your ideas must be, and where everyone has equal access to information. Oh and let’s not forget, where people aren’t harassed or exploited, but where basic human dignity is respected.

This is not some commie, pie-in-the-sky dream, this is a model upon which you can run a successful corporation. That’s why the people who can do the best work tend to choose to work here — because they can actually do it here. That’s because the only thing you need to do to be heard is to make an objectively better argument, or to demonstrate the results that you can produce. If anything, this model should be much easier to adopt in academia.

It is surprising that such a model really does work, I’ll grant you that, just look in the video how shocking it was to Jim. Yes, this is a first-name-basis-type company, because again, it isn’t built around the dubious authority fallacy. There even is a university as part of the company, Red Hat University, which as a working environment beats any typical university or learning agency.

The only flaw of it is that it is actually the slowest unit to adapt to the open model, precisely because of all of the academic baggage — the normalcy of hiding knowledge behind copyright and paywalls, the organizational OCD, the preference for the most boring methods (because students deserve to suffer), and the stranglehold of standardization and certification for the sake of control as its own reward. Then again, thanks to it existing in the open environment, it isn’t quickly deteriorating, but gradually improving.

If academia was in any way like Red Hat — everyone having equal chance to present ideas and those ideas being heard, everyone having equal access to information, and everyone being respected instead of being overworked or underappreciated — that would be a sane academia that works. That would be a place where capable people would want to work, even if someone else offers them more money, even if they can only work there as a janitor.

It would be preferable for the respect alone, but also for the fair opportunity, just reward, and on general principle. Which is what constitutes Red Hat’s competitive advantage — everyone wants to work like this. Everyone prefers this. Virtually everyone wants to make a living in an inopressive, fair environment, while contributing toward a good cause, when given the chance. Some may not be able to handle it, or have the necessary skills, but they would still prefer that they did, so that they could work like this.

The only thing stopping academia from being an open organization, which makes way more sense for a scientific institution than it ever will for any corporation, is the academia itself. Specifically, its own academentia, coupled with greed, spite, and PTSD. It may sound harsh, but I’m sorry — an intervention is needed. Academia, you have a problem. Admit it, face up to it, and take steps to snap out of it. You need to get your shit together, and now you know how. We may be estranged, but I’m rooting for you.

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