Moshe Vardi is a Professor of Computer Science at Rice University in the US and holds numerous honours and awards. This is the second part of our conversation where we focus more on the changes and challenges in academic life. Moshe reflects on: the increasing pressures to publish, the seduction of big data on how we evaluate research, and the increasing pressure and stress on students for these and other reasons; how we need academics to get more involved in social issues but that we are instead training people to be self-centred focusing on their own careers just at a time when we need then to get more involved in social issues; whether we should be focusing mentoring more on post-tenure people because of how hard it is to sustain an innovative research agenda over time; and why we need to have more conversations about our obligations as academics to take more social responsibility.
The first part of the conversation (separate podcast) discusses the social implications of technology & our responsibility not just computer scientists but all academics.
“Now people feel that if they don’t graduate with 10 papers they are not competitive in the job market.”
“Assessing research is like assessing art. History will decide what is important, what is not important. We have to make some judgement now but we have to be incredibly modest about the quality of our judgement. … data gives the illusion it is measurable.”
“We are basically telling people, just be self-centred, then we’re discovering very often after they have received tenure of full professor, oh my goodness they are really self-centred! … We’ve selected them for being self-centred. This is the paradox of academia.”
“We expect people to be innovative now for 45 years. That’s incredibly difficult.”
He talks about (times approximate) …
01:35 Reflecting on changes in academia over time – an inflationary process going on, publication expectations. And the expectation of having many papers now is corrupting the system. There is increasing pressure on PhD students now.
06:35 Technology making it easier now for more transparency re number of publications, citations. Not convinced it is helpful. Talks about being asked to talk at an EU conference about how to use big data to help in evaluation of research and innovation and he gave a cautionary account – can we be sure we know what to measure. How do you assess research? Data giving the illusion it is measurable. But significance doesn’t always translate into h-Indexes.
11:07 He has been told that 40% of students at his university are going to counselling services to ask for help. Discusses reasons why this might be the case. Economic anxiety. Crisis in the humanities because of rising cost of tuition and wanting to get a well-paying job. So increasing engineering students. Needing humanities to be involved in the discussions about technology and human life and dignity, answering questions about what is the good life, understanding lessons from history. Learnt a new phrase recently, lawnmower parenting – holding and pushing. So partly how we raise our children. Talks about ‘snowflakes’ and this generation of students being much more fragile. Needs to be more sensitive to this, teaching his students where they are. Tries to be more gentle and encouraging.
17:40 How he wasn’t always like this. Growing up in Israel in a very direct culture.
19:30 My question about late career stage and more freedom to become involved in social issues and ethics? Discusses how he was never on a tenure track. But wouldn’t advise someone on a tenure track to do what he is doing now. First have to show you can do research and scholarship, telling people they have to be self-centred but then finding we have self-selected for self-centredness – the paradox of academia. Discuss
22:06 Discusses that we are mentoring the wrong people, shouldn’t be focused on assistant professors (though of course should be mentoring young people). The biggest risk to the institution is that people will get tenure and have another 30-35 years to go … and not stay productive. People don’t realise how hard it is to keep coming up with new ideas. Most people want to feel they are useful, to contribute. But the challenges of trying to mentor senior people and so it doesn’t happen much. And personally feeling awkward having this sort of conversation with a fellow full professor.
28:30 Shifting the language from mentoring to coaching? Talks about a surgeon in New York who wrote an article about having coaching. We don’t have coaches but maybe we should. The culture of success makes this a bit more difficult to have such conversations though. Discusses his experiences as a chair doing evaluations of full professors in his department. Could only do them easily for the people who don’t need them. Going away from annual evaluations in the business world, instead feedback on a continual basis. Needing training. More about asking questions than giving answers. The difficulty when people don’t want to recognize what’s not going well, and even not admit it to themselves.
35:50 Needing more of a conversation about our social responsibility as academics. But focus instead is on career, show us you are smarter than the other one. We need to talk more about privileges and obligations. Do faculty have an obligation for public service? We usually stop the thinking about service at faculty, school, university, profession. But need to have a conversation about what are our societal obligations. Gives as an issue, how technology is impacting society. We are public servants, what does it mean. We need to open this conversation.
41:00 Practical measures? Launching an initiative at Rice to discuss exactly this. Rice found itself on front page news with CRISPR. The students are now saying we need more ethics training. Maybe the biggest impact on the future is education. Discusses how he talked about this topic recently with first year students. Thinks we have a chance with the next generation. And being careful about not leaving people behind (mentions Dream Hoarders book).
48:25 Goes back to his religious background. Lots of ‘do this, don’t do that’. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary’. Beyond getting on with people as social skill, it is social justice as part of the value system. Somehow it’s not part of the conversation.
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