Academic life is extremely busy, and gets soul-crushingly more so each year as the ruling clown show attempts to wring every last microdrop of blood from the stone to prevent the ultimate collapse of ponzidemia. It’s easy to think about little else in the desperate rush to keep your head above water and survive the surging torrent of endless work. But sudden tragedy has an interesting way of ripping your attention away…
Life also has an interesting sense of humour on the timing of events. One week you’re paddling hard as usual, happy to have survived the rapids of the teaching term for the calmer waters of a well overdue sabbatical. On the weekend you get a 8am phone call that no academic ever wants — a student you are close to has taken their own life — and then less than a ridiculously busy & traumatic fortnight later, you find yourself alone and relatively unloaded in a new country for six months… no friends, partner still working back at home, a huge language barrier and a shoebox apartment living out of two suitcases, with endless hours to think about your predicament. Watching from afar, as everything back home finds its way back towards equilibrium without you. Powerless, isolated, invisible.
If there’s any good to come from this, it’s that it somewhat forcefully presents the opportunity to ask yourself some really tough questions, and then to think very deeply about them. And being in Japan, a country with strong Buddhist traditions, this is well facilitated — there are places and rituals perfectly designed for deep mental explorations, be it sitting silently in some ancient temple or a solo hike through mountainous jungle in the near 100% humidity of August, sweating bullets and trying to stave off heatstroke, snakes and hornets.
Six months of meditations is too much for a blog post, so let me hit my top three. Maybe they’re pointless drivel, maybe they’re obvious and I just woke up, maybe they change the way you see things too. No particular order.
1. Talk is noise only the actions matter: 99% of those who read this will have done so via social media. Social media should have been a blessing. It has become an utter curse. I became so horrified with what it had become, and how it made me feel and act, that I deactivated & burned my twitter account, by that point aptly named 死亡フラグ, deleted facebook from every device I owned and only used instagram to share my best Japan photos and Messenger to keep contact with non-work friends and family for several months. I also ignored all news sources except the Japan times, which I only used to keep up with local big events (e.g., typhoon warnings, sumo results, etc).
It was fantastic, I immediately felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, particularly on burning my twitter account. The ‘crack addict’ impulsive phone checking was gone within days. I was once again aware of the world around me, in a good way. Even today I solidly think about never going back to twitter, having missed only the occasional contact with a few new friends I made via my time there.
But as an interesting experiment, I phoenixed my account just before getting home, and set myself the rule of no tweeting, just observation only, for several weeks. Essentially, it was a sort of ‘twitter meditation’, where I let the tweets just pop up, observed them dispassionately, and let them disappear again, without interacting. I just asked myself at the end of short sessions looking at it: What do you see in all these 280 character chunks?
You know what I noticed almost immediately: 99.99% of what you see on social media is pointless irrelevant bullshit. Toxic crap. Brain farts that shouldn’t exist outside the brain that farted them. People hurling outrage and abuse at each other, flipping out at the slightest perceived infraction, jumping totally off the deep end. The outrage floats in this endless sea of irrelevance, tweets that only exist to seek validation from a public that doesn’t even care, as though we lived in a universe where anything not tweeted (and not liked or retweeted) simply doesn’t exist, or worse, makes you a loser or a nobody. It’s the electronic equivalent of a septic tank, where we all contribute our mental excrement several times a day.
Another thing you notice quickly is what I’ve come to call ‘virtual signalling’ (as you can probably tell, I enjoy coming up with new terms). It’s the same ‘virtue signalling’ we normally think of — whether you consider that good leadership or an insult is irrelevant — except that there’s no real action tied to it at all. It’s just a glib statement of desired behaviour, a virtuality rather than an actuality. You see it a lot in academic accounts, and anywhere there’s an easy perception that if you aren’t ‘lefty enough’ you will get shunned by the community (I don’t believe left and right have relevance any more, but I won’t digress, the usage I just made is clear enough). I won’t give specific examples, lest I have them pinned as me firing arrows at specific targets, but let’s just say, it’s interesting to notice the dissonance between the tweets and actions of some you know both as tweeters and in real life. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that you notice.
Indeed, the whole merry-go-round of twitter, LinkedIn, facebook, etc is interesting when you really step back from it for a while having been deep inside it. It really reinforces that classic old chestnut: “Talk is cheap, actions are expensive.” The big lesson in all this, maybe we all need to say a lot less and start doing a lot more. Be the change you want to see in the world. If you are being it, then you don’t need to talk about it because it’s happening. And people see actions, and talk about them — if others are talking, then you don’t have to say so much. On the flip-side, if you have to make a lot of noise, maybe it’s because the action isn’t there.
This isn’t to say that only the silent do anything, or that anyone on twitter is all pointless words and no action, or that talking about action nullifies action — one side effect of twitter is learning to figure out the worst misconstruction of anything you say and how it can then be used to clobber you over the head. But if you’re an academic on twitter, I can highly recommend taking a few weeks of silence to dispassionately look at the flowing river of toxic shit spewing forth and what your contribution to it is. How does it make you look? How does it make you feel? How can you do better? And I don’t mean tweet better, I mean DO better, in your actions. We can all do better, myself included.
2. Worry more about your substance than your achievements: One thing that’s always disturbed me about academia is how easy it is to lose the person for the achievements. There’s two sides to this coin. The first is frequently highlighted in a ‘meritocratic’ context. An often used example being someone with questionable behaviour, e.g., wandering hands, being endlessly excused because their achievements are so great that they outweigh (for some) the bad behaviour. I’ve always been amused when you hear all about Scientist X and their amazing achievements from a colleague, and you ask ‘yeah, but are they a good person?’ and get weird looks or blank stares in return. As though that’s a completely stupid/pointless question to ask. Or worse, find out they are human trash somehow excused by academic brilliance.
The second is perhaps less commonly pointed out. It’s easy to become so desperate to survive a system that cares only about maximising a certain set of achievements that you can easily lose yourself as a person, or worse, follow dark paths in trying to satisfy them. The system builds a ‘win at all costs’ approach (the dreaded meritocracy again), that soon sees you, e.g., sandpapering a cricket ball to get the edge that wins the match, or turning a blind eye to such… Humility, generosity, honesty & fair dealings can all fall so easily to the wayside, only to be replaced with sniping, gossip, mafia tactics, backstabbing, dishonest promises, etc. All justified by just being ‘what you had to do to survive’. Is survival really worth it if this is what you have to do?
Tragedy is a good catalyst for escaping the meritocratic mental merry-go-around… Nothing switches your mind away from metrics like being harshly reminded of mortality. What’s the point of having a life if you don’t enjoy it; if you just spend it all chasing achievements to help managers with over-commitment issues achieve overpromised KPIs or to impress merit-obsessed colleagues you don’t even like?
All the little quibbles and pointless tasks and chasings to pad out CVs really pale into insignificance. The stuff that really matters becomes a bit more crystal clear — the good people around you, the people you work to serve, i.e., the students and the general public, your kids or family or friends or hobbies. It all starts to matter more than the utterly pointless and unending quest to just push up university league tables.
Probably the biggest question you dwell on is: If I died tomorrow, what would people say about me? I don’t know about the rest of you, but a eulogy full of academic achievements would, for my eyes, be a damning insult. I wrote 300 papers or gave 27 million plenary talks, who cares. I managed to better understand Phenomena X or won Prize Y, so what. I’d much prefer to think my colleagues thought I was a mostly decent guy (no one ever is perfect) who was sometimes fun to be around, that my undergrads enjoyed my teaching and thought I gave my best to teaching them difficult stuff, that the folks who worked in my research group enjoyed being there and had a good environment to work in that enabled them to achieve their best without destroying themselves. Nothing in the metrics points to this — you can have insanely good metrics and be terrible at all these things, you can have rotten metrics and be thought of highly!
None of us are perfect, I’m a jerk and an arsehole too sometimes, this isn’t a demand for perfection. It’s really just a quest to not forget the value of the things that cannot be easily quantified in workplace environments. A focus on Quality, not in the usual corporate bullshit sense or the word, but rather in the sense talked about by Robert Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Richard Buckland put me onto this book, I highly recommend it as a read for all academics too).
As we head towards the inevitable collapse of the academic system (see below), at the very least we have passed it’s golden days, I think one of my favorite sayings in academia rings more true than ever:
“Everybody in this game is smart, hardworking and good at what they do; distinguish yourself by being kind.”
3. Death exists for a reason but we now need organizations rather than people to die: Imagine people didn’t die — angry male boomers would be the least of our problems, Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler would be kicking up real storms. Death exists as a necessity to evolution. The way we advance is with the old being replaced by the new. Typewriters and trilobites, both left in the past for newer things.
What’s interesting is how easily and suddenly people die, even when they shouldn’t, but organizations that are obviously stuck in the past and should have died long ago are somehow, not just still with us, but as protected and powerful as ever.
I love Japan, there are lots of positives to that country. But one downside that totally blew my mind was the bureaucracy, which is literally stuck in the 1980s. Outsiders and tourists imagine/see Japan as a very modern country, a producer of much technology. They produce it, sure… but in lots of places, they just don’t use it. At all. So if you live there for a bit, you have to go register your address, join the health system and pension system, open a bank account. I don’t know about everyone else, but this process is eye opening and somewhere between amazing, ridiculous and horrifying (perhaps all three in some acid-fueled kaleidoscopic sequence). Large staffed offices await, with floors full of photocopiers and file shelves. Address details are stored on paper sheets in lever-arch folders, found by consulting maps on paper in lever-arch folders. Forms are filled out on paper, photocopied and filed. Banking is done using bank books (I haven’t had one since I was a ‘dollarmite’ aged 9), which you can put into an ATM to have the transactions printed on it (that lovely sound of line-scanning mechanical printers leaking out of the machine). When you head home, they can see your final health insurance payment in the computer system, it says so right there on the screen but… the stamped paper bill stub isn’t in the file folder because the konbini hasn’t sent it yet, so back home you go to get your stamped paper receipt to prove the payment. Everything is in cash, including when you have to be paid some expenses for giving a talk at a university, whereupon you can have the great (and weird and funny) experience of being quietly handed an ‘envelope stuffed with cash’. I could go on, but that’s enough to get the point… This thing is obviously not sustainable. The question isn’t if it will go, it has to, it’s just how long conservatism can sustain it before it dies, and how spectacular that death is.
It’s staggering, and when you see it, it really makes you think in a different way about how organisations can be completely resistant to change and at the same time, somehow stave off dying.
Which brings me back to academia, which is a close rival to the Japanese bureaucracy for the thing in most dire need of total disruptive revolution. I dealt with scientific societies in my previous post, many of these dinosaur-closets are in dire need of an end.
There’s the journals. In return for insane profit margins, we give them our work, labor and mental anguish (as they endlessly stuff us around in the reject-reformat-resubmit dance) for free. The system needlessly slows down our advances — if I could reclaim the time lost to stuffing around with journals, I’d easily be 50% more productive — to the point where any organization not in the journal space, e.g., start-ups, can easily outpace us on competing work. The only reason we’re wedded to this system is the conservatism of the scientific meritocracy — we don’t need these journals to publish, we could do that with ArXiv. We use the journal system as an initial proxy to arbitrate quality so we can run the meritocracy that underpins the league tables. The league tables protect the publishing companies, the publishing companies protect the league tables. And it’s why we spend forever going around in circles trying to get anything published these days. You have to pitch at the top journals to survive meritocracy, and they have to reject you as part of the meritocracy that enables them to survive. Welcome to the Hotel California — “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”
There’s the conferences, a few are good, most are the same tired old format, with the same old blokes giving the same old plenary talks over and over and a bunch of showcasing. It isn’t long before you’ve heard it all before. Physics Today once famously noted that the obituaries was one of the most popular parts of their magazine, mostly for the young rejoicing in the fact that a slot has opened now that yet another dinosaur is gone — the irony of it being adjacent to the academic position openings section was not to be missed!
There’s the funding agencies, with their ever growing form requirements and ever growing justifications of this and that just to compete for a diminishing pool that’s salami sliced ever thinner, unable to keep up with a growing hoard of applicants. And then you look at the awardees — so many instances of the same CIs with the same essential title and the same essential project description that got funded 3 years ago and 6 years ago and 9 years ago and 12 years ago… I’d love to join a project to mine the ARC database for some choice examples of the same essential project being funded again and again for well over a decade, as I know quite a few examples where the outcome promised a decade ago still hasn’t been achieved, and likely won’t be come 2030 either, yet still be sold as a fundable proposal! The instance where CI X has new co-CIs and is doing something very different to 5 or 10 years ago is comparably rare — probably a sign that there’s success to be had in simply not evolving in academia. The sort of topic and field jumps that you see people make in private sector research are basically impossible in the academic system, you’d be instablocked on track-record grounds.
There’s the universities. Now just slaves to gaming the international league tables as their sole reason to exist. The league tables trump everything, it’s all just a game to wring more out of the same old machine, even at the expense of the tangible core outcomes, just to be able to wave about a jump of a few places in Ranking Table X in your PR. Everything becomes about the numbers, the substance be damned. It’s like taking Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, calculating the fractal dimension, burning the canvas to ash, putting the number up on the wall of the National Gallery in neon lights, and expecting the public to still come and be engaged with the art. Does anyone really think that SpaceX, or Cochlear, or Vestas care as much about where they are on similar league tables, e.g., who’s the biggest company, to the point where it drives the entire executive strategy? Does anyone really think Ibanez would alienate all their customers by focusing solely on 7 string basses, just so they can be the company producing the basses with the highest number of strings? But, recklessly compressing your teaching program, all the while putting your students under greater stress than ever, driving them off your campus and out of your enrollments, just to jump a few spots higher on some pointless table? Totally cool and normal. Top academic leadership. Education be damned, right, the money still comes in as they can’t get a job without a degree… as long as we’re the number one choice in ponzidemia. How long before businesses see university degrees as disruptable because students can’t learn what they need due to how university programs are structured, and just hire kids without degrees and train them in house. If universities just stay focused on this pointless pissing contest, that disruption may not be so far away.
The whole business of academia seems endlessly stuck in the past. Managed by folks who’ve never done anything but be in academia. Chosen to be managers by managers stuck in the same rigid thinking simply because they’re correctly stuck in the same rigid thinking (the ‘safe pair of hands’ problem). After all, once you’re in, there’s no incentive to leave academia, simply because you know 100% there’s absolutely no way you would ever be allowed back in the door. Welcome to the Hotel California — “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”
One thing’s for sure, something’s got to give… eventually. We have a system that’s stuck in the past, with leadership that cannot see past a) doing what we always do, and b) tightening any screw they can to milk more out for league table supremacy without violating a). All with severe constraints coming at decadal scale. There is no creative leadership on the sustainability of the business — it’s simply keep the accelerator to the floor and hope the car doesn’t run out of fuel or crash. Government funding is declining, yet every DVC-R at every campus claims they are going to grow their share of government research income. They can’t all be right. We do a terrible job of convincing the public we are important, meaning that funding pool will keep declining for the foreseeable future. We’re generating oversupplies of graduates, who then can’t get jobs but are stuck with massive debt; there’s an adverse feedback loop coming on this I’m sure. Even postdocs are almost unaffordable now. International markets are shifting quite strongly, such that traditional supply streams may soon run dry. Yet, every DVC-A at every campus claims they are going to grow their share of enrollments, both local and international. They can’t all be right either. Ponzidemia has to collapse at some point, I just can’t work out where it fails first. One of the many fantasies propping this system up is gonna be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. But which one is it? When it all lets go, which is the campus that dies first? Because companies collapse, and now that universities are essentially companies (future post), the time has to be coming that universities collapse too. I’m still waiting to hear of a single person in the academic leadership system that doesn’t have their head buried in the sand on this.
And if you think I’m looking too hard for a problem here, take a look at modern politics. Similar issues. The organisations have forgotten their core business for different masters, they’re run by people who’ve never done other things, many have been ‘political class’ since they joined undergrad student politics, the bases are angry and unsatisfied and feeling ignored and demanding change. The right change agent just needs to come along… maybe it’s the same for academia.