Oh, and I blog too !

It’s that time of the year, again. Fiscal year is ending, or about to end at most institutions of higher education in North America. If your institution is anything like mine (I know, I know, there is simply no other place as crazy as mine… or, yours), it’s time for the dreaded annual activity report.

Ex-cuse me ? You want an annual report from Me ? Me, The celebrated, very accomplished, highly distinguished, internationally known, most frequently cited, widely respected, unquestionably handsome… ? I am a walking annual report, Mister !

So, anyway, they make it pretty easy nowadays to fill out an annual report. One need not even bother with inserting data about classes taught — they have all of that already. For most of us, inserting publications, talks and other accomplishments is a matter of half an hour at the most. Until, that is, one arrives at the infamous “Other contributions” section. I have never really been clear on what that is supposed to include.

In general, I understand the notion that, as a college professor, one could conceivably be expected to engage into activities that might have a positive impact on the broader community, in the process enhancing the standing and image of the institution among taxpayers.
I suppose that pro bono consulting, public lectures , outreach efforts [0] could be examples of such activities — who knows, maybe even blogging could fall in that category. I still think, however, that this kind of stuff should be left out of an annual report.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the least suggesting that one should not be commended for doing any of the above, much less discouraged. My problem, however, is that I do not see a way of evaluating such things in fair and objective way [1].
The benefit that an institution derives from one’s scholarly activity can be reasonably, fairly accurately quantified. Publications, invited presentations, patents, awards, citations, as well as teaching — all of that correlates quite well with grants, increased enrolment and even prestige for the university.
And there are reasonably accepted ways of assessing the importance of a publication, of an invited talk, of a prize, of giving recognition to accomplished teachers. Most of us who work in academia have no trouble admitting that not every paper that we publish is equally good, and that we have taught some courses better than others.

But, how does one establish what constitutes “good” or “bad” outreach, for example ? Or, even what constitutes outreach, period ? Just calling it that does not make it that, it seems to me. Take blogging, for example. I do it for fun only, and have never had any outreach ambition — but, hey, maybe I should call it “outreach” and list it on my annual report under “Other contributions”.
Problem is, I have no way of knowing whether my blog reaches out to anyone, nor whether it does more harm than good to me professionally, or to the university. I honestly do not see what kind of weight, if any, anyone evaluating my scholarly output should ascribe to my blogging, which is why I am not listing it on any annual report of mine. And I think that this problem affects all such “synergistic” activities.
How does one go about assessing the impact on the bottom line of the educational institution, of, say, an interview with the local paper, for example, or of an article written for a non-scholarly publication, or of one’s political activism ?

Call me naive but I think that all of these undertakings, pastimes, recognitions, are their own rewards. I say, when it comes to annual reports, how about we stick to that for which we are expected to show up at work every day ?

Notes

[0] We all think we understand what “outreach activities” are, but heaven forbid one should ever sit at a table with two other people and try to classify what constitutes outreach.

[1] It should be noted that reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions, as well as merit-based salary increments are decided based on annual reports.

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12 Responses to “Oh, and I blog too !”

  1. Calvin Says:

    “…merit-based salary increments are decided based on annual reports.”

    Wow. You get merit-based salary increments?

    You get salary increments?

    I admit, I’m envious.

    • Massimo Says:

      Sure, we get handsome salary increments — followed by a mandatory 5-day furlough… 🙂

    • Massimo Says:

      Hey, whatever happened to FARs ? There were merit-based increments at State in my days…

      • Calvin Says:

        We just get the mandatory furloughs. It simplifies things.

        I’ve never even heard of FARs. Our beloved union is dead set against merit raises, thank you very much. (On the other hand, I’m sure that without said union, the university would have gleefully instituted permanent and severe pay cuts last year, so it’s a toss-up.)

      • Massimo Says:

        Our beloved union is dead set against merit raises, thank you very much.

        And they are absolutely right. It’s another one of those lets-run-this-as-a-corporation pieces of nonsense that were introduced in the nefarious 90s. Each year we go through a massive exercise in bureaucracy, burn tons of trees printing out stuff that no one will read anyway, keep a bunch of faculty tied up for a month going through the files of each and everyone, and obviously at the end of the day 99% of us get 1/N, i.e., the same that we would have gotten if there had been an automatic across-the-board raise for everyone.

  2. Ian Says:

    I read your blog!

  3. transientreporter Says:

    We call it “service” as opposed to “outreach.” So this would include serving on hiring committees, recruitment, student activities etc… I think it should be called “shit we do that isn’t strictly teaching or research.”

    I once wrote a big institutional/infrastructural grant to build a campus core facility. That’s neither teaching or research – but it took a ton of effort, and I would’ve been pissed as hell if I couldn’t include it somewhere in my tenure file.

    As for blogging, why not include it? It certainly constitutes outreach. I suspect, however, that the moment you start blogging as a means to pad your annual report, rather than doing it for fun, your blog posts will rather quickly stop being interesting.

    • Massimo Says:

      We call it “service” as opposed to “outreach.”

      No, no, wait, we have boxes for the activities that you mention (the “shit we do that isn’t strictly teaching or research.”) Service is very well understood and documented, as there are usually committees associated to that. Once you write a large proposal, your effort is clearly documentable.
      I am talking about stuff that you do almost for fun only, that you try and sell to the university as “activity that can/does benefit it”.

      It certainly constitutes outreach. I suspect

      I “suspect” it too, but… how do we evaluate it ? I mean, to some extent you may argue that this is a problem with any outreach activity — how do you even gauge if one is doing it well or not ? Should the mere effort be rewarded, regardless of actual results ? I would much rather have people spend extra time to do research than ineffective outreach.

      the moment you start blogging as a means to pad your annual report, […] posts will rather quickly stop being interesting.

      And it does not apply just to blogging, I think. I used to have a colleague at SDSU who liked going to high schools (in difficult neighbourhoods) to perform simple experiments just to entertain the kids. He had fun doing that.
      As soon as someone decided that that constituted outreach, the university made a big deal of it, he ended up on TV, NSF gave money and so on and so forth … in my opinion he stopped having fun — but I may be wrong.

      • transientreporter Says:

        Oh, I understand now. It’s not “shit we do that’s not teaching or research.” It’s “complete bullshit we do that’s not teaching or research, but what the hell, might as well put it in anyway…”

        In the history of Academialand, has “outreach” helped anyone in terms of tenure/promotion? Other than Carl Sagan and David Suzuki, of course…

      • Massimo Says:

        has “outreach” helped anyone ?

        Answer is not bloggable, sorry 🙂

  4. Calvin Says:

    I think on last year’s activity report, after a while I got tired and wrote (this is almost verbatim), “And I submitted several other grants and published other papers, but the above should be sufficient.”

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