Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I just realized that I myself am a Special Programs guy

Somebody recently pissed me off by talking about some Special Program that they read about in an article on This One Professor at This One School who's doing great work.  And I got so very, very pissed.  When pressed by my colleagues, I realized why I hate Special Programs:

Because I run a Special Program.  I just don't call it that.

Let me explain.

I invest a massive amount of time in a local professional society, one that brings together a lot of scientists and engineers working in the private sector, in a field that is relevant to my scientific research interests.  I volunteer to help with their events, I've been an officer on the Board, and I take students to events every month.  I help students network, I make contact with hiring managers who want resumes from good students, I pass along resumes, and I even redesign some of my classes in responses to things I've learned from my private sector colleagues.  It's a lot of work, but it's paid off mightily:  I have tons of stories of physics students who got their first jobs via networking in this organization, and I bring them back to give presentations to my students.

I don't have a name for this Special Program, I don't have an office or staff or letterhead, and I don't get grants, but I do spend a lot of time working with students in pursuit of some theme or goal bigger than teaching my latest assigned class.  It's way above and beyond my assigned work, it doesn't fit neatly into any part of the university flow chart, but it is most definitely relevant to my work and the success of my students.

In many ways, it's not so different from some formally-named Special Program that take in students, give them lots of individual attention, and produce well-photographed anecdotes. What I do is less formal and smaller in scale, but it's the same idea.

And these things don't come free:  Either somebody gives money so that faculty can buy out their time and/or hire staff, or they volunteer their time.  I volunteer my time for this, and rationalize it as being in the spirit of the service components of my job.  Other people get grants and formally document their time as being part of the job.  Either way, that time comes at a cost that must be borne by somebody.

Anyway, a while back, somebody in my professional organization (somebody who is NOT in academia) said that more colleges need professors who get involved in this organization, so we can have more students involved.  It's a great idea, but he offered with a side helping of "So why doesn't somebody just..."  And the answer is simple:  It's a lot of work and time is scarce.  And, even worse, getting students to network with the private sector rarely lines up directly with the agendas of people who fund Special Programs at universities.  Research funding agencies want to see people go to graduate school and publish research, organizations oriented toward social agendas usually want to hear about graduation and retention rates more than post-college employment, and companies are happy to network with students but uninterested in helping students network with their competitors.  So this is very much a volunteer thing, and volunteer work has a personal cost.

So there's nothing worse than "Hey, I heard about this Amazing Special Program; why doesn't somebody just...."

I actually gained a bit of respect for Special Programs people when I came to this realization.  I might radically dissent from their agenda of churning more kids through PhD programs, but the basic point that students only succeed at something if people invest massive amounts of time working with them is true of any endeavor.  And there's nothing worse than "Why don't we just...."  Hence I hate articles on Special Programs, because they always act like there's this silver bullet.  There isn't.  It's a shitload of time, whether that time was volunteered or paid for.  There's no magic, no silver bullet.  It's just work.  But the arbiters of respectable opinion always dress up this work as some sort of magical Best Practice that can be replicated If Everyone Would Just [fill in the blank].