Education, Universities

Is Email Making Professors Stupid? That’s Not The Issue

Tuesday, 12th February 2019

Is Email Making Professors Stupid? is an article in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education. It talks about Donald Knuth, a computer scientist, who doesn’t use email and hasn’t since 1990. Instead, he has a note on a website telling people to send his department regular mail, which his assistant opens and presents to him once every few months. As the article says, he prioritizes “the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility.”

That’s lovely. I’m very happy for this Great Man, who has an assistant to do the work that’s beneath him, so he can think his Great Man thoughts. The article’s author thinks that we should all have this, and that the university has downloaded work onto faculty, thus taking their time from what they’re trained to do and requiring them to do what a support staff person could do. He thinks that it would be fairly easy to just recognize the lost labor in this arrangement, bring back support staff for faculty, and free them to Think Great Thoughts.

This is neither the world we live in nor one we could get to from here. The author here is surely correct that work has been downloaded onto faculty that was never previously their responsibility, and which distracts them from engaging in what they’re trained to do. But getting support staff back is an impossible bandaid to this problem. This writer thinks that “most departments provide some level of administrative support to professors” (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, I mean, LOLwut? I have never, ever, not once even when I was department chair had an assistant who fielded my email and made my personal faculty life easier. There was staff, but they worked on the administrative requirements of the department, as handed down by other offices in the university. They did not help me, they helped make the system work. They provide no reduction of cognitive load, nor of actual work). The writer thinks that the possible objections to having staff for each professor are twofold – first, a fear of missing something important, and second the cost. He thinks that the second problem is more significant than the first, but not insurmountable – not every professor would need a full support person, and so a smaller pool of assistants could help many professors (sorry, I’m still laughing from the earlier claim that there’s any support at all right now for anyone I know, either at my university or any other, even some at Ivy League universities that I know).

This writer is dealing with a significant issue, which is that of workload. It is too high for anyone who takes their job seriously, and it leads to lots of burnout. I’ve felt it myself. But the problem doesn’t come from insufficient support (much as I’d like someone who filled that role). It comes from a ballooning administrative class, which comes up with new procedures, new forms, new policies and requirements on a weekly basis. It comes from the attitudes of many of those administrators, who think that their new streamlined procedure is the greatest thing ever and will only require just a little form or a little input by faculty, or a little something else. It is caused by new committees giving the illusion but not the reality of faculty input into their own governance, and other committees to mentor or help or strategize or support or brainstorm or any number of other things, each of which requires just a little more from the same people. It comes from none of these administrative committees seeing any incentive to combine or rationalize anything, so the same work has to be done over and over. It comes from governments and accrediting bodies and granting agencies and all sorts of other entities making all of their hoops harder to jump through. Heck, it comes from a committee that requires that I read 1300 separate pdfs, some of which are very long, and has no way of batching all those together for a single download, so that I have to download EVERY ONE SEPARATELY. Yes, this happened to me, just last month.

So, it’s lovely the the Great Man can opt out of email. It’s also lovely that this writer can advocate that we all should have support staff. I’d love that. But unless there’s a more serious commitment to thinking about just why the economic model of the university incentivizes labor to look like this, a bandaid like a support person both will never happen, and wouldn’t fix things even if it did.

I suspect that if we did have a more equitable structure, we might see a shift in what Scientific American reported recently, which was that the diffusion of knowledge from larger or more important institutions had more impact than that from smaller ones. In other words, there may well be other Great Men (and Women) around at other institutions, but the investment put into them was not sufficient to make their influence felt. Support staff for everyone would seem to address this issue, but the feasibility of doing this, and the fact that this writer’s solution ignores the cause of the problem, means that we would still be in the same position. The Great Men and Women at important institutions would have influence, which creates its own feedback loop, whereas equally good work elsewhere would continue to be ignored.

Don Knuth is hugely important in computer science and beyond. No one who knows anything about his accomplishments would question that. But was he at Stanford because he is a Great Man, or is he a Great Man because he was at Stanford? Are there other potential Knuths out there who didn’t have his level of support, or his ability to get off of email so long ago and have someone else handle his mail and every other little thing? I think there is far more luck in this system than the merit that we all think is the only value reinforced. And that luck gets reinforced in some cases, and the lack of luck is reinforced in others.

There’s one more thing – the writer’s solution depends on recognizing the lost and misapplied labor within the existing system. That’s a good idea, but it would require something that no university I know has done – have an economic model for itself. I don’t mean a fiscal model – everyone has that. I mean a model which conceives of the university as an economic space, as a market, and thinks about how incentives work (and why they can’t just be reduced to monetary exchange), how exchange itself works, how efficiencies are generated (or are not generated), what demand looks like, what externalities look like, what form competition takes, where risk and uncertainty lie and how they are dealt with, where rent-seeking happens, and all the rest. There are universities that imagine that having units pay for services from other units within the university will generate efficiencies, but then they also have a centralized body controlling that “economy” by setting prices. It’s no wonder that labor ends up looking like it does – there are elements of a market based on competition, but not other elements, and it ends up that labor can be misaligned with its skills and its desired productivity. In other words, most universities take the worst of both the bureaucratized world and the marketplace world, and then wonder why the results are inequitable.

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