Monday, March 23, 2015

Research, What Research

I just got back from a senate meeting where the new procedure for getting travel expenses reimbursed for conference presentations was given to us as a non-voting information item.  In other words, we were not asked to approve it, just to recognize that it was now the way things were.

We now have to explain to our dean in writing how the research we intend to present will be used in our classrooms.  I teach mostly freshman classes.  I research an obscure corner of my field.   My dean has no background in my field, and to explain to him what I do, I'd have to give him a sixteen week seminar just to bring him up to speed.  Essentially, my travel expenses will never again be funded by the university, even though I'm simultaneously expected to attend conferences.

This amounts to a pay cut for anyone whose research isn't pedagogical.  When asked, in the very brief time carved out for discussion, we were told that "the university just wants to know what it's getting for its money."

Does anyone else have such a stupid, stupid policy in place, or is it just us?  Where the hell do administrators get such idiotic ideas!


  1. Agreed that this is idiotic. But here's perhaps a workaround: all research enhances one's teaching because it requires updating one's knowledge of the current state of the field. Also, presenting at a conference provides an opportunity to get feedback from one's peers about one's presentation techniques, and also to observe the presentation techniques from others in one's session and perhaps pick up tips about what to do or not to do in the classroom.

    Think this will help?

    1. PG, may I plagiarize, er, borrow this? I think it might come in handy.

    2. I say that MY understanding of where the field is going is essential for meeting the students where they are and preparing them for THEIR future study and/or understanding of where the field is going.

  2. Or this: "This research has limited applicability to my three sections of Writing for Kids Who Can't Read Good. However, if I were assigned to teach a senior majors seminar on Austen, I would present this research when the class discussed Austen's references to the international slave trade. I would be enthusiastic about developing such a course." Probably don't try this if you're contractual.

  3. It isn’t just you: we have a similar policy. I tell my admin that I use images from our observatory and from my other research, at other observatories and with Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA spacecraft, in nearly every class. They love it, one reason being that it's true.

    In "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," King Arthur asks the Yankee how he dispatched the enemy knight. The Yankee tells Arthur he used a dynamite stick. Notice the similarity to how I do this: I give them an answer they don't understand, but which is true. The point is that they don't need an answer they understand: they just want an answer, preferably one that sounds snappy, so they can fill out the form.

    I always am careful that any answer I give them is true. I work at a state university, and making false statements in state correspondence is a violation of state law. This really isn’t difficult at all: just keep the language technical. Of course, what the admin really loves is the overhead that comes with my external grants. I never hesitate to remind them that continuing to bring these in will require a high level of internal support, from returned overhead.

  4. Nosy people are getting more and more involved with higher ed. Politicians in particular don't understand why anyone would ever need to research obscure margins of a field.

    I think we all have to do a better job of giving our research widespread appeal. It's a shame, but the coming transformation of higher education is going to put a lot of universities at risk of bankruptcy. More and more, we will be required to justify our existence.

    Tip of the terrible iceberg.

  5. Every policy we have is stupid. They all infantilize instructors. I make up shit all the time on these endless forms that come from various Deans and task forces. Your situation sounds awful, and I can see what a jam you'll be in.

    I don't understand what has happened to the profession at all. My dear, dear flakes are the only thing that keeps me in the business - and you all know how THEY can be somedays!

  6. We get a few hundred dollars for travel... and that might cover conference air fair, if you're lucky. This is whether you're presenting or not. Most of our expenses are covered out of pocket.

    There is value in interfacing with colleagues over various topics, whether or not they apply directly to a class. I study music (and do not teach music), but often use music analogies to make a point. And yes, anything you do that enriches your grasp on things makes you ever more qualified to teach at a university. If everything is paint-by-number, then what's the point?

  7. I've had interviews with junior colleges that took a dim view to any of its teaching staff doing any research whatsoever. To them, every nanosecond of my existence had to be dedicated solely to the "success" of the kiddies.

    I don't think it ever occurred to any of the people who interviewed me that I might do it on my own free time (ooops! I wasn't supposed have any, right?) using my own money (which would have meant that I was overpaid) and that what I investigated might actually benefit the institution in the long run. Then there's the aspect that if anything was ever built as a result of my research, students from that same institution could be involved.

    Fortunately, I was never hired by any of those places.

  8. Oddly, I get funding to go to conferences (this year, one conference), even though I'm in a teaching-only position, and neither presenting at conferences nor publishing nor anything else to do with research (even pedagogical research) can officially count for renewal or promotion. On the one hand, this is fair to colleagues who have no time to do research on top of their 4/4 load and other responsibilities; on the other hand, it's absurd. And I'm grateful for the funding (all the more so when I hear ridiculous stories like this), but I can't help noticing how anything to do with research -- even research by non-research faculty -- is automatically valorized, while teaching is not.

    As far as survival strategies go, I think others above, especially Proffie and Frod, nailed it. You don't have to actually help your Dean understand the connection between your teaching and the conference you wish to attend, you just have to write some plausible/true enough to avoid prosecution (keep in mind the trial currently taking place in Atlanta; you don't want to be accused of racketeering) gobbledygook that the Dean will be afraid to admit he doesn't understand.

    tl;dr: it's a hoop, and probably a low/capacious one. Just jump and keep going (but, as Monkey says, mind the rest of the iceberg).

  9. Yeah, we have a policy like that at my joint. More on that later.

    In addition to all the above excellent advice, which I've employed in some form to good effect, here are some things I've dropped into my conference travel justifications:

    1. Putting it out there. Participating in conferences helps maintain others' esteem for your institution and its brand, and makes it more likely that they will think of you when they're advising potential cust... er, students. Also, exploring/fostering collaborations is more possible when you've met other researchers face-to-face, which might translate to more publications, which are good for the institution.

    2. Bringing it back. You are the institution's scout at this meeting. When you return, you will have enhanced knowledge/skills that you can not only apply to your research and teaching, but also disseminate to your colleagues. Unless you like giving seminars, stop short of offering to give one at a department lunch. But do emphasize that you'll be able to hold forth on the latest trends in the field when it is apropos at committees on curriculum, etc.

    Cassandra's take on the survival strategies and the level of the burden of proof is identical to my own.

    We used to trust our professors, and that they'd make good use of conferences. Getting permission to attend was a simple matter of asking the department chair. However, one of the cool profs decided that a trip to a conference town was not a professional development activity, but a reward for "working hard". Several students and family members were included in the trip. Receipts submitted for reimbursement included SUV rental (they couldn't be expected to just walk their surfboards all the way to those remote beaches with the totally gnarly waves) and hotel rooms with sunken hot tubs. Upon their return, the crew could barely assemble a description of the major theme of any of the sessions. This is why we can't have nice things.


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