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Sun, 15 Sep 2013

Academics: Evolution or Revolution

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There are quite a few articles (for example, see here and here) that are bitterly critical of academia and research.

It is easy to dismiss these as cases of "burnout" or "frustration". It is equally easy to dismiss these dismissals(!) as "status-quo-ism" and "defense by the entrenched".

On the one hand, as a mathematician who does not depend on extensive funding like some other sciences, or on an army of graduate students to help me carry out my research, much of what is described has not been personally experienced by me. That said, there are issues raised in these articles --- like the problem of evaluation of "merit" --- that cut across all academia. Moreover, one has heard first-hand or second-hand accounts of research in a number of sciences which seems to mirror what is written --- about the "slavery" of PhD students, for example.

Confession time: I enjoy the entire experience of academic life --- right from the hours spent in the library cracking one's head over a one or two pages, and the hours spent in the laboratory tinkering with stuff to get it to work (of late this was more often about debugging code on a computer), and the hours spent discussing theory with colleagues and students, to being part of campus life in various other ways.

So when I hear people describing their experience with academics as being bitter, it is perplexing to say the least.

Are the problems that face academia in the nature of "bugs" that can be fixed by "re-factoring" or are they serious enough that one needs a "re-write"? Evolution or revolution? Most articles and posts that describe the problems are like honey-pots for those who would like to revolutionise or replace current practices. Phrases like "paradigm shift", "holistic research" and "relevance and utility" are bandied about.

On the other hand, senior academicians try to "explain away" the problems by saying that academia should be thought of as an industry and each university, institute or research centre as an enterprise. Any enterprise has its own social, economic and political strucures. The anarchic pursuit of knowledge, whether for its own sake or for the common good of mankind, may seem to be lost in personal or organisational goals that seem far more crass and mundane. The "defenders of the faith" point out that this no different from any other human activity that grows beyond a certain size. Some may also say that compared with other large human undertakings --- for example, the banking and finance sector --- the academic community offers more room for diversity.

It may very well be the case that the questions asked and solved by "big (money) science" cannot be unraveled by small, informal, essentially anarchic organisations. Can the lack of sufficiently many motivated and competent teachers, that currently plagues education, really be solved by MOOCs and "Khan Academy" clones?

Questions like these are difficult and each one of us will have to make choices about whether to "change the system from within" or start on a radical new approach. The first often looks like a compromise that will only strengthen existing institutions along with their known flaws, while the latter runs the risk of fading into irrelevance. Neither risk must prevent those who belive in these approaches from trying to correct existing wrongs.

Mon, 11 Feb 2013


Sun, 08 Jan 2012

Simplification in Research and Teaching

Sat, 04 Jun 2011

Escaping Mediocrity

Tue, 21 Sep 2010

Can Mathematics be taught?


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