Friday, September 07, 2012

What Academics Do: The Big Five

I remember as a student wondering what exactly it is that university faculty do, besides teaching classes. I figured out some of it by direct observation while I was a graduate student; but it is only after experiencing it for myself and reflecting on it for a decade that I feel I can articulate it satisfactorily.

Everything I do as an academic that is of essence can be categorized into five dimensions:
  • Learning:  Mastering new mathematical techniques, algorithms, software programming tools. Keeping up with new theoretical and experimental results and developments in the field. This happens through reading papers, articles, reports, and books, attending talks by visitors and at conferences and classes, discussing with peers and students at various venues. Practicing. Often learning occurs not when we are actively seeking it, but almost miraculously, such as in the process of trying to explain something to others.
  • Discovering: Coming up with new problem formulations, models, solutions, experiments, results and findings. This comprises not merely the end but also the means of discovery, via the process of thinking, pondering over,  making and proving/disproving conjectures, analyzing, solving, discussing,  algorithm and architecture design, pen-and-paper mathematical derivations, creating tangible new artifacts and proofs of concept, designing/creating software and hardware for and running simulations and test-bed experiments, collecting and analyzing experimental results. We are driven by this quest, hoping by our efforts to win back one more inch from the dark shadows of ignorance.
  • Sharing: Giving talks to diverse audiences at technical and non-technical meetings and conferences, universities, industry venues. Teaching --- all that it typically entails: lecturing, showing, conveying understanding, asking and answering questions, preparing and giving feedback on homework assignments and tests, one-on-one tutoring --- but also beyond: informal direct interactions with students outside the classroom, mentoring, providing opportunities for growth and building self-confidence. Sharing one's life experiences, offering advice, motivating, inspiring, encouraging. Advising and guiding undergraduate and graduate students on projects and thesis dissertations. Writing papers, books, reports, articles, emails. Translating ideas, simplifying their exposition. Creating and making  available to others code, hardware designs, and data. Making and giving demos and presentations. Discussing with students, colleagues, peers in academia and industry, and the press, when they visit, when visiting them, whenever together at meetings/conferences, or by electronic means. Ultimately, our impact on the world is determined by our skill at sharing what we have learned and discovered, enabling others to learn and discover even more.
  • Helping: Playing an active, helpful role in the twin-fold academic community that consists on the one hand of colleagues and students at one's own institution, and, on the other, of one's peers in the field. Helping is closely related to sharing. We help students, for instance, when we share our knowledge and experience with them, but also often by offering a friendly ear or a shoulder to cry on, or by putting them in touch with others who can be of more help. Reviewing papers, serving on proposal review panels, seeking reviews for journals and conferences, organizing meetings and events, being on Ph.D. student exam committees, faculty review committees, writing recommendation and tenure letters. As part of department, university, or other professional committees, or else informally, interacting with peers and administrators, engaging in a community dialogue to formulate strategic visions, develop programs, implement policies, and address various issues of concern as they arise. 
  • Fund-raising: Also referred to as grantsmanship. Seeking collaborators, forming teams. Brainstorming alone or with collaborators and students to identify compelling avenues of research and open research problems. Thinking through methodology and research plans. Writing and submitting competitive proposals to federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, industry, or internal funding sources within the university.  Interacting collaboratively with teams sharing common interest for industry funding. Idealists perceive all this "chasing after money" as a waste of time, at worst, or, at best, a necessary evil. But it is not unreasonable to expect that the request for public and private funds for the pursuit of academic inquiry be justified from the perspectives of intellectual value and practical utility; moreover, the very process of writing a proposal often clarifies one's thinking and can help identify interesting and important new avenues for investigation.
Though the details may vary from field to field, I believe these five categories of activity go to the very heart of what it means to be an academic today.

These dimensions are very closely linked and often seamlessly integrated with each other. We learn so we can discover, and what we discover only has value when we share it. Because all of this happens not in isolation, but in an inter-connected social context, we must also be good citizens and help others in the community. And in order to find the resources to aid the process of learning, discovering, sharing, and helping, we must raise funds.

There is also a process of meta-learning that forms a  natural part of the academic life: namely, the continual learning that results in the improvement of one's ability to learn, discover, share, help, and raise funds.

Why not just "Research, Teaching, and Service"?

Traditionally, the academic enterprise is divided not into five dimensions as I have indicated here, but into three: research, teaching, and service. I believe that standard tripartite definition of academic life is an oversimplification that does real harm in many ways. It creates and propagates a false dichotomy between teaching and research in the minds of many. It contributes to creating a negative impression of service as consisting of miscellaneous chores. And it impedes us from presenting to students an inspiring vision of the academic life.

At the core, what we care about is not the distinction between "doing research" and "doing teaching." What motivates us rather is the passionate desire to learn, to discover, and to share, whether it be in the classroom or the lab. The various ways of helping others (more than just "doing service") and fund-raising also do not abide by this fragmentation, as they sustain our activities in both settings.

Thus, the five-dimensional decomposition advocated here allows for a more holistic view of the academic's life, shedding a useful light on what matters to us and why.


Gabe said...

Might you consider service as perhaps another form of sharing? At a minimum, you are sharing your time. In many cases, you are sharing your expertise, opinions, etc. Perhaps if service were viewed more as "sharing", it might not be perceived as such a chore? (haha, fat chance.)

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Hmm, interesting... I'll have to think about that. I am using sharing here in a more limited sense of "let me tell you something I know", while service includes a range of participatory / community activities that don't explicitly involve communication of ideas or knowledge.

I think it's a question of balance. Too much service could be a chore, but it's sad that many view *any* service as a chore. I also think it's terrible that many research-oriented faculty view *any* teaching as a chore.

Doug Miller said...

Great articlation Bhaskar. I can feel your passion and love of your pursuits in your writing. I can see the similarities in what I am up to in my life which focuses on human development and performance in the corporate setting. And as I was reading I started wondering if your Big 5 could actually be lessons for life itself...

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Thanks, Doug, I absolutely agree! One thesis behind this post, in fact my whole blog, is that we're all academics at heart. There's nothing more fundamental to a fulfilling life than free learning, discovering, sharing, helping, and obtaining the necessary resources for these. Together, I think they capture the essentials of personal growth, inter-personal relationships, and societal obligations. Sadly, rigid conventions and the prevailing discourse of what the education system is about have alienated many from this truth.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...


1. Thinking about Gabe's feedback, I modified the article slightly to use the word "helping" for one of the dimensions and point out that it is indeed closely related to sharing. This is more general than "service" and mitigates the negative connotation that word has sadly acquired in some quarters, to consist of chores that are necessary but to be avoided as much as possible.

2. A friend on Facebook commented "Sounds terribly dreary, the fund-raising part. Yes, of course, grants are important to fund research, but still. Totally nasty." This is the necessary evil perspective I talk about in the post. The bright side to fund-raising I can attest to, however, is that I have come up with some good research ideas when writing proposals to NSF. These proposals to the National Science Foundation at least are also peer-reviewed, so it's not a mere begging around for money, but a meritocratic competition. I have more thoughts on this topic that I will save for a future post...

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Todd Brun said...

I agree that the traditional Teaching/Research/Service does encourage us to think of these things in opposition to each other. I think the five things you listed are one way to divide up an academic's main tasks, though many activities can fall into more than one category. (For instance, is mentoring of students teaching or helping? I think the correct answer is "Yes." :-)

I also think it is not just students who wonder what it is that academics do aside from teach. I think a lot of people thing we don't do much, or not much of importance. It would be nice if we could communicate to the public better both the life and the goals of an academic career.