Believer micro-interview on the March

10 March 2014 § Leave a Comment

At the end of last summer, Nicholas Hune-Brown interviewed me over the phone. I answered his questions—it was more like a discussion really—about the march of progress, as I paced more and more rapidly from one end of the invertebrate paleontology lab at the AMNH to the other end. Nicholas distilled our conversation to its essence, which has been published in the form of a Believer micro-interview. Like so much that’s worth reading, the full interview is protected by a pay wall. A subscription to The Believer costs about as much as buying a single article from Springer or Elsevier, and this is independent journalism, which is well worth supporting. You can read it online, but you’ll want to have the print edition too.

I’m posting this now because I was so nervous about how it would come out that I put off reading it until now.

If anyone thinks I am making too big a deal over the March of Progress image, well, go ahead, because almost everyone gets to think what he or she wants to, which does not, of course, make it right.

March of progress, reloaded

5 March 2014 § Leave a Comment

To compensate for the um, excitement of that last post about project management, I present my readers with this especially striking depiction of the March of Progress image.


[March of Progress image]

There are two central points about this image, generally speaking. First, it represents evolution incorrectly. The figures become more upright towards the right side of the image, which is intended to represent progress towards modern-day human beings. Evolution does not progress, let alone towards us. Second, it’s racist. Portrayals of dark-skinned people as primitive had been a staple of racists since well before the late 1850′s; evolutionary biology simply provides a new context for this representation. It remains offensive; those who think it isn’t aren’t taking it seriously enough. Recall the 2009 controversy over the representation of Barack Obama as a monkey—being shot by police. The Tightrope web site (“It’s not illegal to be white. . . yet”) has a t-shirt using a monkey to represent Obama, and if you really think this isn’t racist, you can show the world by buying one. I point out the scientific problems first to pre-empt the inevitable knee-jerk criticism that political correctness is the motivation for my complaints about the image. Even Grand Wizards and Neo-Nazis should object to this image on scientific grounds, although I doubt that the ignorance and intolerance framing their world view does not promote serious study of evolutionary biology.

This instance is especially outrageous because the March of Progress is a march towards whiteness. Astonishing. It’s not my area of expertise, but is it correct that the 4th and 5th figures from the left have hairstyles more likely to be worn by people of African descent? The rightmost woman has hair not in general natural for a person with black skin, because it is brown.

Academic departments seen from a project management perspective

2 February 2014 § Leave a Comment

The proliferation of project-oriented work groups in the corporate and non-profit world stands in contrast to the organization of colleges and universities into academic departments. Good project management establishes clear channels for communication and coordination among members of the group. The project management plan takes into account the needs of all stakeholders, including users of any products resulting from the group’s work. Groups are composed of individuals whose skills complement one another’s. They are expected to take initiative and solve problems as they arise. The group uses digital tools to facilitate communication and share resources. The nature of a project is to have a definite endpoint. Along the way, benchmarks, preferably quantitative and open to the view of all stakeholders, measure whether the project is on track. The project plan includes plans for what to do when things get off track. The project manager is accountable for the group’s progress. Others outside the group are accountable for supporting the project. Reality is rarely so neat, but these anyhow are some of the ways project-oriented work is supposed to be carried out.

The academic department is a permanent organizational unit with objectives which remain stable for its lifetime, and recur on a regular basis. As anyone who has had to work out a scheduling conflict with a department chair, an academic department is designed with an indefinite time line in mind: there are no provisions whatever for adapting to the needs of students or faculty.

An academic department can function indefinitely with no leadership whatever. Students enroll in classes each semester. The chair must make sure there are enough sections, but no effort is required to recruit students. Classes are scheduled and apportioned to faculty. The deans require reports of various kinds. Standards, such as learning objectives and the mission statement, are established by the department itself, which collects data used to evaluate its performance. The chair must make sure the department stays under budget, but the budget is an artificial construct used to apportion resources to the department, which cannot run out of money. No collaboration is required. Input from faculty concerning major decisions can be obtained by email. There is no need for faculty to share syllabi or discuss pedagogy. There is no special requirement that faculty in the same department co-author books or papers. The department can function adequately even if faculty see each other only a few times each year. Senior faculty are at liberty to ignore junior faculty. There is an ample supply of new ones, should new hires leave the department for greener pastures or else fail to be granted tenure.

Nothing follows from any of this about whether academic departments should be transformed into project-oriented work groups or made to adopt practices in such work groups. For instance, it is probably nearly impossible to quantify teaching successes or good mentoring. Requirements of intellectual freedom are incompatible with direct oversight by administrators or faculty in other departments.

Academic departments should, nonetheless, be held to high standards of excellence. More in later postings about that.