In the 70s it was still possible for a distinguished head of a science department and Fellow of the Royal Society to say, proudly, that he had never received an outside grant for his research. His research group varied from 2-3; his equipment requirements had changed only gradually and were met by the departmental workshops; his life-long technician was paid by the University Chest…
[Now,] [e]ven where your research entails trivial costs (e.g. in theoretical sciences, or working in the Bodleian to prepare a magnum opus) you are judged by your ability to bring in outside grants, and the more people you can employ on your grant the greater the kudos.
I was interviewing at an “elite” liberal arts school. Kind which boasts, and boasts loudly, how students come first. Teaching means something here, not like at those Big Places. Yes, sir. Students, students, students.
At lunch with the department, one gentleman pounced. “I understand, Matt, that you don’t want to do research.” He had found my website.
“That’s not right. I want to write these books I’m working on. I don’t want to write grants. I want to teach.”
I was told that without grants one could not expect summer salary. To which, I said, I was indifferent. Without grants I could not have a research fund. To which, I said, I did not need. The university (it used to be a college) had a library and inter-library loan, did it not? Beyond those, peace and quiet and time and sharp pencils were all I needed. I would provide my own pencils. Ha ha.
If I wanted to have travel money, I would need the skim from grants. To which I said I had no interest in going to meetings. I don’t like flying and, besides, the books will take me a few years to write. Besides, without having them finished, I would have nothing to report. Anyway, what’s the rush? Don’t students come first?
Grants and research activity count a lot towards promotion, they said. To which, I said, promotions are nice, but how much does teaching count? Teaching counts, they said. But so do grants. And papers. There’s no “set number”, of course. That would be crude. But it had better be at least one a year, if not more. “We want the department to look good.”
To which, I said, there were too many papers for anybody to read. Books, especially on foundational and rare topics like the philosophy of probability and statistics, are superior ways to communicate.
“Biostatistics is a hot field. Lot of money there. Your CV shows you did a lot of work in it.” His eyes told me, “Who does philosophy of probability and statistics? We already know everything we need to know about that.”
To which I said, “Biostats is fine. I just don’t have a primary interest in it. And I’m not that keen about writing grants anyway, like I said. I’d rather teach and work on these books. That’s why I applied here. A place where teaching comes first.”
I didn’t get the job.
What you taught and how you taught it was traditionally a matter for the individual don to decide. Oxford history is rich in tales of inspiring, as well as eccentric, tutors. Particularly in the humanities lecturers could decide on the topic for their next lecture series, on the basis perhaps of the burning intellectual issue of the day or because it might help write their next book. Now syllabuses are laid down by faculty boards and lecturers assigned to cover the ground.
Academic “freedom” now means teach these courses with these pre-defined syllabi with these textbooks and cover these topics in this order.
Eccentricity is not tolerated. Advice to young statisticians: do not let it be known that you do not want to teach frequentist methods. This is considered eccentric.
Thirty years ago secretaries would type your letters, papers,…Now academics…do all the typing themselves and indeed most of the publishing work preparatory to printing of the paper or book. Now hours are taken out of every day in dealing with the e-mails and texts — communication routes that make us so easily accessible to so many demands — a few of which we simply cannot afford to ignore or put on hold.
Academics spend days making documents pretty instead of concentrating on the words. The utter tyranny of MS Word! Academics do all the work for publishers, and except for books, even sign over their copyrights. Slick system.