Category Archives: critical thinking

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 But, consider this, grants are not peer reviewed by more than a handful of people in the field (who may even have a vested interest in what you propose to do).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

Academic entrepreneurship

I recently read Paul B. Brown’s October 2013 Forbes’ article on the habits of successful entrepreneurs. As with most habits of successful people, the applications extend beyond the specific profession of the group studied. Academics–especially those of us creating new fields of interdisciplinary study or working in new, less traditional, or less well-established areas of inquiry–can benefit from these approaches.

1. Determine your goal, take a small step towards it, assess. Academics are trained to have long vision–we tend to set a goal and then build a master plan to achieve it–especially those with a focus on grants-writing or book proposals. That might not be the best practice: as Brown puts it:

“They [entrepreneurs] deal with uncertainty not by trying to analyse it, or planning for every contingency, or predicting what the outcomes will be. Instead, they act, learn from what they find, and act again.”

At some point, small steps become impossible but they are a way of starting. For instance, an expository blog post may serve to float initial ideas if you have adequate followers or a way to get the post out to fellow researchers.  This can work in the sciences too–piloting new ideas to a full research design can be a costly exercise. But, playing with an idea in writing and how it might be developed and tested is a cost-free approach that might net valuable peer pre-review.

2. Start with a market need. Do we have market needs in academia? In a sense, we do. There are certainly trendy topics that crop up for a time in job ads. The trick that every PhD student attempts to learn is gauging the timing of the trend: jump on it too late and your research is stale before you get a job but jump on it too early and your research is regarded as esoteric or boutique. There are also subtle paradigms in academic disciplines that frame what constitutes significance or value in research. If you can speak that language or win that argument, you are meeting a research community need–explaining the value and significance of your work (and therefore validating the discipline).

3. Don’t set out to be rich. This is easy: don’t set a goal to be a hot shot! Set the goal to engage intellectually with problems and questions that inspire you. Picking something that interests you while also playing to the market are not mutually exclusive events. Reconciling what you want to do with what might have a chance of success is a constant life compromise. Most aspiring hot shots I have seen do exactly what Brown says greedy entrepreneurs do:

“…if your primary objective is to get rich quick, you are bound to cut corners, short-change your customers, and fail to take the time to truly understand what the market needs.”

Cutting corners with research (trendy terms to dress up old ideas, overlooking problematic findings, spamming multiple journals with the same hackneyed piece–in short, spin and spam) short-changes the community by flooding the publishing market with papers that have no citation half-life. So many academics fail to making a meaningful contribution because they fail to understand what research will advance the discipline (rather than their own career). Journals are rife with the publications of ‘young Turks’ who, to an extent, are validated by the publication list on their CVs. But, is there quality? Take Manchester City: when I first started supporting the Citizens, they were a mid-table team in good years. An influx of oil money made them flush with cash and star players. A few high profile wins were the same as a few quick sales. Becoming and remaining champions is another story–that is where City are today after learning a hard lesson. Top researchers who transcend their own disciplines are engaged intellectually with their work and less concerned with a specific career trajectory.

4. Marketing. This is also a dangerous area because marketing is about competition and I dislike the increasingly corporate model of competition that many academics are buying into. Choosing a venue in academia is daunting. A small exploratory paper, pilot/case study, or theory piece could be tested in venue where it might be not be received with open arms (to gain perspective) or in one that will receive it positively. Most academics have received incendiary negative biased feedback from a reviewer that clearly was emotionally invested in some aspect of the work (e.g., a theoretical approach, a controversial hypothesis). That unearned wrath may beuseful. As Brown says:

“Making the world’s best videocassette recorder does you no good, if what people really want are DVRs.”

Some aggressive and competitive academics try to flood the market by exploiting multiple publishing venues with variations on the same paper (a violation of copyright that increasingly go unnoticed due to the dearth of publishing venues). This appears successful in the short-term but isn’t sustainable–especially if you need cash for your work. For example, evaluating grant proposals is a different state of mind than when evaluating a paper because the grant has a price tag.

“Tempting as it may be, don’t try to buy your way into markets where you offer the same product at a lower price. That’s where you’ll be vulnerable.”

Marketing is a strategy to get your product into the world but once your product is in the world, it has to stand on its own. If you are researching something with no staying power or substance or haven’t acquired the needed skills or background to do the work, you will only frustrate and annoy readers/reviewers. In the end, your cheap product will look even cheaper next to the ones with quality.

5. Financing. The successful entrepreneur (this includes biotech companies) starts with an average of $110,000–that is chump change in the grand scheme of modern business. Academics know this game better than the would-be entrepreneurs: we call it seed money (internal grants, student research funds, fellowships). The challenge in obtaining seed money is for those without permanent affiliations (adjuncts, term faculty) who may not be eligible for these awards. Having been in that position, I know how it curtails many a brilliant idea and slows the research process! The applied idea here is to focus on the small step from tip 1–maybe some things can be done without money or with crowd-sourced money (there are academic versions of kick-starter!). The hard point for academics is the actual financing of the project (some people can get by with a budget of $5-10K but my current grant is bulging at the seams to fit into a $300,000 price tag–I really need twice that amount to complete one portion of the project). Grant funding is drying up for the sciences (and there never was much for arts and humanities to begin with) so this will be an on-going problem to solve. Brown doesn’t mention it here but backers are how entrepreneurs try to solve this problem: academics will have to spend more time creatively finding non-profit and for-profit sources of funding rather than traditional government funding schemes. Forced into the non-government sector, academics may find fortune–the process of obtaining the money can be very quick–but may also find new challenges (how to find funding sources and pitch research successfully to applied and for-profit agents).

6. Team building or Anti-Micromanagement. Team work is an organic part of the sciences but less so in the social sciences and unnatural in the arts and humanities (I think/hope this is changing). Not having the burden of doing all the work is game-changing but letting go of controlling all aspects of production is difficult for many academics, even those already working in a team setting. The compelling argument to let go of micromanagement is:

“Since everything will have to flow through you, you will create a bottleneck”

Bottlenecks slow traffic and reduce variation (in the genetics world). Having a team means more ideas and (what we all want and need) faster results that also have quality. Managing that team effectively means that you can’t control all aspects of what the teams does.

7. Play to your strengths. I like how this is operationalized:

Wherever there is great innovation, there is a dreamer and an operator; an “idea man” and someone who turns those ideas into reality.

Some of us have great ideas but are not successful with fabricating their reality. Others are great at making an idea work. Some rare few can do both but, for the majority of us, finding others that fill in your weaknesses is key. The temptation is to find others like yourself–shared mindset/shared approach and strengths will enhance the outcome. But, finding someone who is not like you (aggressive where you are conservative, acting where you are thinking) may be the better strategy to getting something published/awarded/conducted/etc.

8. Obstacles to assets or Be Pollyanna. By taking all feedback (no matter how vicious or negative) as steps forward, you are able to recover more quickly and be more successful. You will find the truth eventually (e.g., your idea was bad, your methods were flawed, you need better techniques) so why not find out before the other guy who is thinking about doing the same thing you are doing. The other guy will still be stuck in the past while you move ahead with a fresh idea, new methods, refined techniques. But, if your research is DOA with a ‘do no not revive’ order?

Accept the situation to the point of embracing it. Take as a given that it won’t ever change, and turn it into an asset. What can you do with the fact that it won’t ever change? Maybe it presents a heretofore unseen opportunity. Maybe you build it into your product or service in a way that no competitor (having not acted) could imagine. Could you do it on your own? Could you take the idea to a competitor and use it as your calling card to look for the next job?

Maybe you were struggling in the wrong venue. Maybe you were trying to force a new idea into the canon rather than introducing it in small pieces that are more palatable to the old guard. Maybe you didn’t notice that your interests have taken you into a new field but you were still peddling your ideas to the old one. Maybe you hit on something great but need more training or different/new collaborators to make it better or legitimize it. Maybe your ideas have a market value–here, I mean, maybe you can apply your research to a non-academic job.

My final two cents is that the scholars I admire (and this includes some junior academics, some of whom do not yet have a permanent position) share the above perspective: they have intellectually greedy minds that engage fully and quickly with their work within their current capacity. As a consequence, their capacity expands with opportunities, jobs, grants, publications, collaborations, etc. This won’t be everyone–it won’t be me–but I think it is a good way to think about research because it is proactive. Brown sums his ideas better than I can:

Successful people work with what they have at hand – whatever comes along – and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.


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The Use and Misuse of Allostatic Load in Bioanthropology

I have noticed a recent trend in bioarchaelogy referring to odontoskeletal stress markers as measures of allostatic load. Allostatic load was first described by McEwan and Stellar in 1993. They argue (quite well and rightly) that the concept of homeostasis (or internal maintenance of system functioning) fails to consider the complex biological negotiations over time within a body between internal systems (e.g., cardiovascular, immune, etc) and external forces (e.g., disease, socio-economic disparity)–a point Selye also raised in his work on stress. They specifically point to the well-established relationship between chronic stress (and stressors) and disease. They further point out that homeostasis fails to incorporate an understanding of allostatic load

“fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response resulting from repeated or chronic environmental challenge that an individual reacts to as being particularly stressful”

and the environmental factors and genetic predispositions that contribute to/shape allostatic load–these things combined form individual susceptibility to disease (in bioarch, part of assessment of ‘frailty’ or elevated risk of death). The neural/neuroendocrine response which defines allostatic load is prolonged systemic exposure to endogenous cortisol (a hormone produced in response to stress). Cortisol levels (and our ability to recover from episodes of stress) vary significantly with age in humans. For a popular science review of cortisol levels and stress over the human lifespan, see this as a starting point then explore the rich body of lit on human cortisol.

Human biologists evaluate allostatic load relative to disease susceptibility in studies of living human populations for which they have data on cortisol levels alongside  biological, cultural, and psychosocial stresses contemporaneous to actual disease incidence. Bioarchaeologists certainly benefit from their work on the theoretical level because it elucidates an area of human biology that cannot be captured in the archaeological record but may inform our interpretation of stress markers in similar contexts. The use of the term in bioarchaeology to describe stress markers, however, is highly problematic. Certain techniques and methods sometimes allow estimation of duration and timing of disease and/or nutritional episodes that contribute to generalized stress but we cannot measure allostatic load (cortisol levels). The implication of calling traditional odontoskeletal markers (for which we have limited information on causation and other factors that are undetectable in the archaeological record) a measure of allostatic load (as described by McEwan and Stellar) is that these markers are direct proxies for elevated cortisol (allostatic load)–we have no evidence of this nor an idea of the scale of the relationship. The term is clearly interpreted broadly rather than as originally described (and currently used in human biology). Rather, allostatic load, for now, appears to be a synonym for stress markers.

A key point McEwan and Stellar make is that allostatic load is very precisely determined on an individual level–this then can be taken to the level of the population with a robust dataset in living humans. We simply do not have experimental data that allow us to extrapolate allostatic load from a few odontoskeletal makers. And, the final piece of the disease process system discussed by McEwan and Stellar, genetic predispositions, is barely given consideration in interpreting stress markers in the archaeological record. In the past, one could mention there is a genetic component to a process but then move past it by by arguing that it is immeasurable in the record. The mushrooming of new genetics technology and DNA recovery and repair techniques now allow us to examine these contributions (look at Saqqaq and Denisova) but few are doing so yet (hopefully that will increase as the analysis cost decreases more and more). Bone chemistry is a possible avenue of examining cortisol levels but the caveats that apply to stable isotope studies (a general search in google scholar for stable isotope anthropology will turn up papers that raise the issues) would come into play if it were even possible.

Bioarchaeology is a rich field and informs us about past population health and disease process relative to the archaeological record (among many other things) but it has its limitations, ones that are discussed in the literature and at conferences regularly. The dialogue about problems in bioarchaeology and improving and new technologies have allowed us to resolve or fine tune some old problems (e.g., aDNA to find instances of plague or TB) even as new ones crop up. That said, every field has its limits; most life scientists lack contextual approaches and many have limited understanding of cultural and evolutionary context. The movement in the field of bioarchaeology toward taking terms from other biological disciplines is sometimes a move in the right direction because it makes our work more accessible outside our specialization. Sometimes, however, it appears to be an attempt to legitimize our work to another community rather than celebrating the difference, recognizing the limits, and highlighting the legitimate contribution we make. I’ll end with by referring to anyone whose read this far to a great abstract from Rachel Leahy and Doug Crews from the 2013 AAPAs that critically considers the issue and draws a bridge a between skeletal frailty and living human frailty and allostatic load: In sickness and in death: What do age, stress, and illness in life tell us about skeletal remains?

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Filed under anthropology, Bioarchaeology, critical thinking

Data, Central Tendency, and Normalcy

In exploring some old data recently to see if it was publishable, I began to contemplate the things we take for granted in scientific studies. Statistics are so commonly used today that any paper is expected to have a smattering of tests and the all important p-values. (The incorrect use of alpha as inter-changeable with p-value is an irksome issue but one that has been explored by others as is the issue of the value of the p-value!) Canned programs like Systat, SPSS, and even SAS or Minitab enable quick data analysis, which has revolutionized many fields of study. As the scientific community continues to grow and the pressure to get grants and publish increases, we should be more concerned the level of statistical knowledge our peers and students have. Knowledge of the software is not knowledge of statistical theory. I would hazard an argument that the latter is more important than the former.

Take for instance, the issue of sample size. In some fields, small sample sizes are all that is available–paleontologists for example–what you find is what you have. Yet, sample size directly impacts the power of the statistical test at hand. So, given a small sample size, a post hoc power analysis is a valuable self-assessment as to whether your conclusions are warranted.

Data distribution is another issue. Without a normal distribution (or a tendency toward it, at the very least), one cannot accurately estimate population parameters. While non-parametric statistical analysis has developed tremendously throughout the years, it is often viewed as a weak version of the more powerful multi-variate analysis. How many people take the time to test whether their data are normally distributed before they run their factor analysis, discriminant function, time regression, and so on?

Every single statistical test has a tremendous number of assumptions and rules. Those who consume studies that have statistical analyses assume (perhaps incorrectly) that each study is properly vetted by reviewers and editors to ensure the study has met these assumptions that the test is the most appropriate? But, we don’t know. Quite simply, we rely on three things. We trust that our colleagues adhere to professional ethical standards. In cases of honest error, we trust that the peer review process flags them for correction before publication. If the other two fail, we trust that studies seeking to replicate the original will be a final failsafe. Unless the topic is a hot one though that ultimate failsafe may never happen or take so long the original unwarranted conclusion takes root and becomes entrenched.

What do we do before results are replicated? Think critically. Treat everything that is published as if one is the peer reviewer. Any gaps in reporting or unanswered questions should raise flags that perhaps the study at hand may not be the best one to cite in one’s own paper without some discussion of the problems.

Thinking critically requires extra time, precious extra time. But, I think it produces a better, stronger community that fosters greater attention to detail and better results overall. I would like to see more of it, as opposed to the sloppy lit reviews, hurried and often trite uncritical discussion of methods, discriminating presentation of results that disguise true problems with the study, and overblown conclusions.

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Filed under Analysis, critical thinking, Research, Science, Statistics