Turning a blind eye to the University of Alaska: Academic entitlement and survivor bias

On my daily 6 AM walks, I have been contemplating why there has been no surge of support for faculty and students in the University of Alaska system. The anger makes for an energetic walk and the walk serves as a cooling mechanism on the anger. The answer I loop back to is elitism.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is mostly liberal and its users tend to have completed or at least had some higher education. I have felt, in the past, that Twitter was a positive professional networking tool and generally supportive of real issues faced by minorities and the growing problems in neoliberal academia. Now, I realize it is not so simple and only selectively supportive.

I think I started to understand how elite the vocal academics on Twitter are when I saw a thread on whether it is OK to ask a graduate student to pay half the open access fee. The replies were visceral and unpleasant, smacking of entitlement in their assumption that anyone publishing with a student has resources the student doesn’t have such as a funded lab, ICR to spend on publications, and/or disposable income to support students out of pocket. Come on, even in the sciences, not everyone has a lab let alone lab funds and some universities do not distribute ICR to PIs (UAF Fisheries only gives $500 flat to PIs). So, check your entitlement and realize that the 99% have different experiences that might justify a PI and a student talking through the costs for open access–high citations but great personal cost. Some profs are just as poor as the students. I have colleagues who are crippled with student loans and personal debt accumulated from career investments in the hopes they would pay off someday. They have old cars running on the hope they will last because taking on a car loan is too much. Many are at universities that have been faced with draconian budget cuts and receive no support for conference travel. In my own experience, six years of teaching intensive positions not only handcuffed my early career research efforts but cost me dearly in terms of personal finances.

To compound the myopic view from the top is their unchecked survivor bias. A moaning tweet from a student who was critiqued in a grant application for productivity was accompanied by a clip of his CV. There are many reasons the critique may have been valid. The first that comes to my mind is that if you are born of a rich lab with massively-authored papers flying out the machine at a rate of 10/year, 9 papers in 5 years is unproductive. Another is that the quality of the papers is low (quality is not assessed by a ‘lab’ name or a specific journal). Another is that the contribution to authorship is not clear–what did the student actually do? A long list of publications doesn’t mean you actually were heavily involved in any of them. One angrily supportive response to this student was that the one Nature-fill-in-the blank was enough to show productivity. Sorry, it’s not. That’s like saying, ‘my daddy drives a Porsche’ so give me a Porsche. I know nothing about this student nor do I care other than to use it as an example of how, to put it bluntly, a student in a well-funded lab is expected to do more because they have more of everything. Sadly, a student struggling in an under-funded program is then compared against this rubric. The context of the work used to matter, not the metrics that surround it. The 1% of academia have internalized the neoliberal message that there are certain hallmarks of success that can be neatly summed in numbers, such as the impact factor of a journal, the number of citations you have, or the amount you earned in funding. Contemplate Gregor Mendel. His work was not cited or appreciated or valued in his time. He was told to give up his science and get back to his ecclesiastical work. Hell, even Darwin didn’t bother to cut open the journal that contained Mendel’s answer to the problem of heredity. By modern academic standards, and certainly according to our 1%, Mendal was an academic failure at a backwater institute who was unproductive with low citations on one article in a low impact and obscure (e.g., not English language) journal–he didn’t even have a grant to do his work! The father of genetics as viewed by the neoliberal academic.

The last example of elitism that has been badgering me for months is how many people are humbled and honored to be starting new jobs, got promoted, got this award, and the list goes on. You are not humbled because you are bragging about it on social media. You are not honored because you secretly feel it is the pay-off for your hard work. What you are is excited and relieved to escape the terror of the alternative pathway in life. Just stop. Announce a new job without the passive-aggressive emotions. Bear in mind that the other half of your Twitter feed are your opposite numbers who can’t get jobs and are leaving academia. You didn’t make it because you earned it or deserved it and you arguing otherwise is saying that those who haven’t made it don’t deserve it–just like you didn’t until you had your break. Luck and possibly knowing the right people (if you are in the UK) are the keys to your success. This is not a meritocracy and no one has a boot-straps story that isn’t simply survivor’s bias. My career trajectory is luck, just as much as anyone at the 1%. We ALL work hard and we all deserve stable and steady employment. We all have our academic strengths but many of us have never been given the opportunity to develop a competitive portfolio and will not likely make it. Hard work doesn’t pay off for everyone and that’s where luck and entitlement come into play.

In the midst of all this, there has been no voicing of concern about how to stem neoliberal assaults on higher education or even expressions of sympathy for the white-knuckled months UA faculty must now live through before learning whether they will be retained. Everyone knows about it–ignorance is not the problem. What happened to the solidarity expressed for UK academics who were taking a hit on their pensions? As a point of comparison, we don’t have pensions at UA and our system opted out of social security leaving us with only our savings in retirement. So, it isn’t the scale of the problem–Alaska is bigger than the UK but less populated and our educational system is more vital as it is the only one (in the UK, there are ~130). 2500 people have already been forced to take 10 days of unpaid leave to deal with immediate budget shortfalls. While our scholarship money has been given back and there is a bill to pay us enough to get through the year (assuming no governor veto), that is a short-term measure. The outcome is the same–we will be one UA Fall 2020 and that one UA will see a huge reduction in faculty and therefore student services. The University will shrink by selling assets and buildings and cancelling educational efforts. Enrollments, our only source of revenue, will drop because there is no point investing your education in a dying system. And, to be clear, grants (which we awash in) are not revenue but offsets to research costs. How will we maintain costly research with infrastructure reduction? Not very well and granting agencies may be leery to invest in those who have Alaska-based research needs.

The nuclear winter of neoliberal values projected onto higher education in Alaska is coming. We have been living under severe budget cuts for about five years now and it has changed us. There are emergency counseling sessions across campus with dial-in available. There are emergency financial planning sessions available as well. Many people have fled to other jobs (some lateral moves, some steps down from full to assistant professor, and some out of academia entirely). The escape routes are not well lit and there is no support at the other end. The tone on the ground is like a back-alley black market with secrets and rumors being traded as rapidly as deals are made that provide a false hope X department will be saved or Y faculty will be valued high enough for retention.

Why is this happening? According to the elite of Twitter via their messages of support to other academics , it is because we didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t earn it, we aren’t good enough. One of the few reactions to the crisis in Alaska I received is one that I pass on to you should you ever face anything near to what we are currently facing: good luck with that.

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Filed under Alaska, Career, Conflict, Ethics, Higher education, Hostility, neoliberalism

Market Smells II Participant Results

Thanks to everyone who came out for the Market Smells II study. We had a delay in posting the summary scores because we conducted a second day of testing on 4 August. We are currently analyzing the data and writing the paper. We hope to have a draft available as a preprint by mid- to late September. So, stay tuned!

These data are shared in advance of project analysis and publication for the SOLE purpose of providing participants their olfactory ability scores from the day of testing. These data are copyrighted under the following license: CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) which overrides the CC-BY 4.0 license listed on this page. This license is restrictive and only permits downloading the data and sharing it with others as long the authors are credited. The data cannot be changed in any way or used commercially.

These scores are not diagnostic. If any participant is worried about his/her sense of smell, please follow-up with a medical doctor for further testing. If you have lost your sense of smell or have a reduced capacity for smelling (or are generally worried), there is a UK-based charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders: http://www.fifthsense.org.uk/whoweare/. Fifth Sense is the first charity in the UK supporting smell and taste disorder sufferers, providing a signpost to potential diagnosis and treatment, and playing a leading role in educating society on the huge role that the sense of smell plays in our lives. Fifth Sense is recognised as a charity for tax purposes by HMRC and our HMRC Charities Reference Number is EW14336.

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Market Smells II: Smell and Tell Walks (28 July Southwark London)

Why join us? We are conducting two Smell and Tell walks in Southwark. Come learn about your sense of smell and its evolution via two flash talks and a series of smell tests. The tests are not clinically diagnostic but provide a rough guide on how your sense of smell performs in different settings.

When: Saturday 28 July at 10am and at 2pm (pick the time you prefer—the sessions are identical!)

How Long: We estimate the walk will take 60 minutes, allowing for a slow pace.

Where: Tate Modern Turbine Hall, assemble starting 9:45amor 1:45am.

How to find us: We will be wearing black aprons with red lettering saying “Test your sense of smell”

What? We are anthropologists interested in understanding variation in olfactory ability in urban industrialized and rural traditional settings (e.g., hunter-gatherers). The Smell and Tell activities are part of this project. We aim to test olfactory ability in the same individuals in three different settings: low odor (Tate), polluted (Southwark Bridge), odor-rich (Borough Market).

Who? Dr. Kara C. Hoover (University of Alaska) is a bioanthropologist focused on human adaptation with particular interests in stress during adaptation to new or changing climates and the evolution of human olfaction. Dr. J. Colette Berbesque (University of Roehampton) is an evolutionary anthropologist focused on hunter-gatherers with particular interests in social status, social stress, egalitarianism.

Your role: You will be asked to complete three separate three-minute odor identification tests. The odors are natural compounds and while some odors may not be pleasant, none are harmful. We will give you an information sheet with your tests scores to take home.

More Info/Expression of interest
Email: kchoover@alaska.edu or Colette.Berbesque@roehampton.ac.uk
Tweet to: @KaraCHoover or @berbesque

10am/2pm: Part 1
Brief introduction to the research project and personnel (~7 min)
Divide into two groups (2 guides per group) for Odor ID Test 1

10:25/2:25: Part 2
Stroll in two groups to second test site at Southwark Bridge (~5-10 minutes)
Flash Talks (Group A Flash Talk: Hunter-gatherer smellscapes; Group B Flash Talk: Modern smellscapes)
5-Odor ID Test 2

10:45/2:45: Part 3
Stroll in two groups to third test site at Borough Market (~5 minutes)
Flash Talks (Group A Flash Talk: Modern smellscapes; Group B Flash Talk: Hunter-gatherer smellscapes)
5-Odor ID Test 3

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Filed under Anthropology and Evolution, Evolutionary ecology, Olfaction, Science, Senses, Sensory ecology, Smelling in the wild, urban-rural

Market Smells I: Results

Last summer-fall, my colleague Colette Berbesque (@berbesque) and student Jessie Roberts, and I conducted a pilot field study aimed at getting some initial data on how the human sense of smell is disrupted in the natural (e.g., built) environment. This is the first step in a larger plan to explore the ecology of human olfaction.

Jessie recruited 39 individuals at two markets in the London area (Borough Market and St. Alban’s Market) to complete the four-odor Sniffin’ Sticks test (lemon, rose, mint, clove). The study produced are two key results. First, strong local signals (e.g,. a frying smell at Borough Market, see left) disrupted what was literally under participant’s noses (in this case, rose).



Second, the ability to detect and identify odors in the wild is drastically reduced compared to detection and identification in pristine settings. To the right is a comparison between a published study on UK odor identification in the lab and our test results. We used a shorter version that included some of the lab odors so this (like the study) is a rough estimate to validate further work. For more info, see the preprint (in review with Chemical Senses) here . But, we can say that most of what we know about human olfaction is from pristine lab environments which are not really telling us how our sense operates in daily life.

This summer, we aim to complete a few more pilot sessions focused on the Southwark area. The general plan will be to recruit 20 subjects on 2-3 occasions for a 2-hour session. We will be using a different set of odors and conducting repeat testing on the same individuals at three locations (the sensory rich Borough Market environment, the polluted street environment, and the clean art museum environment). We also aim to take local air samplings to determine the pollution level at each location as well as the odor compounds in the at the time of testing. We are still firming up details and hoping to get a bit of funding to provide a breakfast for participants. Stay tuned!

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Smelling in the Wild Pilot Study Schedule

The first pilot study for Smelling in the Wild is taking place during the week commencing 28 August. We are going to be at two London markets (Brixton and Borough markets) asking for volunteers to assist us in understanding how the local smellscape impacts one’s sense of smell. Volunteering should only take about 10 minutes to take two smell tests (odor detection threshold and short odor identification) and a stress survey.

If interested, come to the market and look for the black aprons that say “TEST YOUR SENSE OF SMELL”. We will be at the tube stations for a few minutes at the start of the day and then will Tweet our locations regularly if you are having trouble finding us (@KaraCHoover and @Berbesque).

Pilot Study Schedule
30-Aug/Wednesday: Borough Market (10:30am-5pm)
31-Aug/Thursday: Brixton Market (noon-5pm)
1-Sept/Friday: Brixton Market (noon-5pm)
2-Sept/Saturday: Borough Market (10am-4pm)

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Filed under Evolutionary ecology, Olfaction, Sensory ecology, sensory inequities, Smelling in the wild, stress, Uncategorized, urban-rural, Well-being

Smelling in the Wild

With colleague Dr. Colette Berbesque (University of Roehampton), I am about to start two exciting new projects that focus on the human sense of smell in natural environments.

One project will focus on how our sense of smell may be influenced by subsistence. Our project is a corollary study to work by the Sorokowskas and co-workers (here and here) that argue for a relationship between odor acuity and discrimination relative to diet. We are interested in testing the hypothesis controlling for ecology (the other studies used disparate populations which introduced other explanatory variables) and genetics.

The other project will focus on how our sense of smell is influenced by modern living. My work on sensory inequities and our sense of smell in jeopardy were featured in the news media this past year (see here and here and here) and on radio (BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio Ulster, Dermot and Dave on Today FM Ireland, and Talk Radio Ireland) and form a platform for this project that generates supportive empirical data. We are interested in understanding how the human sense of smell is affected by modern living and how well-being is impacted by environmental effects.

Stay tuned at Smelling in the Wild for details of our upcoming pop-up pilot studies and how to get involved!!

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Filed under Anthropology and Evolution, Evolutionary ecology, Olfaction, primate social life, Senses, Sensory ecology, sensory inequities, Smelling in the wild, stress, Uncategorized, urban-rural, Well-being

Higher Education in crisis

I am currently doing a certificate in academic practice at Durham University. My two projects for the certificate have focused on the intrusion of neoliberal values into higher education in the US and the UK. Put as succinctly as possible, one project focused on the challenges I face (as a result of these values) as a researcher-educator and the other on finding out if students have internalized these values (they have).

The crisis in the US has been emerging for quite some time. Having served on several hiring/tenure review/grant committees and gaining insights into what colleagues find of value in a CV (b/c that is what you are at application), I have become increasingly nonplussed at what counts as value: money first and pubs second but with enough money, pubs are assumed to come after (often doesn’t happen because they are busy writing next grant). What about teaching? The same is true now in the UK despite the upcoming TEF. Unis are firing staff/faculty (or inviting them to apply for voluntary redundancy–Durham, Manchester, anyone else?). Decisions are made on the REF-line and accountability is taking over the real job of the uni–education first, research second.

Since when do scholars have to fund the university? Is this a new vanity biz?  Oli Mould tweeted about a gig economy for HE recently and Lorna Richardson suggested Lecturoo. While it sounds funny to think about academics biking about with big packs of books and teaching supplies on their backs for a quick lecture, maybe it isn’t too far from the truth given the value of teaching in HE right now.

If you have a stack of grants, your output and teaching record are secondary, if at all, considerations. But, consider this, grants are not peer reviewed by more than a handful of people in the field (who may even have a vested interest in what you propose to do). Publications are not only peer-reviewed but then open to the public (see scihub for almost anything behind a firewall)–a lasting record. With grants, there is no endorsement of quality by the community writ broad. At the end of your career, will you be remembered as that scholar who pulled in 2 million, 5 million, 10 million a year but are you someone who changed things, advanced knowledge, broke a mold, caused a paradigm shift, shook the world (or at least those into your area of research)? History has proven the latter are remembered regardless of where they are and what they have had funded. Will the future leaving parties of retiring profs be a read-out of the numbers they have brought in? And, we say goodbye to Prof X who raised 80 million in her career. Doing what? No one cares anymore.

The words you write and those they reach are at the heart of the enterprise. Basic research has its place but without a voice–a person–to communicate it, it loses value. The future of our universities in the US and the UK are terrifying. IN the UK, the REF has inculcated a terror in my colleagues worse than the terror some US scholars feel with tenure–keep your head down and get your REF-able work out and your REF-grants in and focus on the bottom line…of the budget.

What happened to supporting and celebrating the best minds? Actually, I think there is more celebration and support for creative thinkers and scholars in various industry outlets–at least there the neoliberal values are apparent and expected.

The Titanic is sinking.

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Filed under Career, critical thinking, Ignorance, Normalcy, Science