Category Archives: academia

mixed grill podcast

One of the great things about having the mixed grill is being able to go to all the lectures, seminars and other public events featuring a really eclectic and impressive lineup of speakers. While I was there I went to talks by people ranging from academics like Paul Krugman and Richard Dawkins to politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to nonclassifiables such as Chris Eubank and  Judge Jules.


I’ve now discovered that a huge number of LSE events are available as podcasts. I just listed to to Danny Quah talking about thinking like a social scientist. You can even hear the famous lecture on “Science and Pseudoscience” by Imre Lakatos.

a free lunch

A friend of mine defended his PhD at the University of Toronto today. As he was sitting outside the examination room while the committee deliberated, he noticed another candidate waiting to start her defense. Her supervisor came out of one of the rooms and told her they would begin shortly. Then he said, “Before we start I need you to get me and the rest of the committee some sandwiches for lunch.” My friend, first thinking this was a joke but quickly realizing it wasn’t, was dumbfounded. The poor woman gathered her notes up, zipped up her backpack and wandered off to find this guy his tunafish on rye. Unbelievable. 

peer review and the publication process

Academic research relies on the system of peer review. But the system is, in the words of R. Preston McAffee, new editor of Economic Inquiry, “broken“. It’s broken in a number of ways. McAffee’s point has to do with the growing tendency of reviewers to act like coauthors.

There’s also the problem of increasing pressure on reviewers themselves. People complain of too many submissions to journals, too many manuscripts to review.

I also think that there is a problem with many editors shifting responsibility onto reviewers. For one thing, editors – or at least some of them – send out every paper they receive to reviewers. In the past month I have reviewed two papers that should never have made it that far. It’s a waste of my time and, not least, a waste of the authors’ time. Instead the editors of these journals should have rejected the papers right away. I realise that editors themselves have limited resources and that it is probably unreasonable to expect them to read every submission. But there ought to be some gate keeping going on.

A few possible solutions:

Charge a fee for submitting papers. Some journals do this. Does it work?

The relatively new Quarterly Journal of Political Science explicitly states that their review process involves an “initial in-house review to filter out manuscripts….” The QJPS also has editors for different subfields. This seems sensible as those editors ought to be better equipped to make decisions about manuscripts and whether to discount reviewers’ comments.

The solution proposed by Economic Inquiry is also interesting. They are experimenting with a “no revisions” policy. You simply submit a paper and then one of the editors makes a decision to either reject of accept. That ought to provide a pretty strong incentive to submit polished work.

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speaking of offices…

What’s the best way of allocating them? It seems that allocation based on seniority is the most common method. But is it the best method? In the particular case of my department, there are a number of people who have been around for a very long time but who do no research. I do not mean that they are lazy, they are in fact fulltime teachers who have no contractual obligation to do research. We also have a scarcity of (good) offices. All of these senior, nonresearch productive colleagues occupy plum offices, essentially because they distributed them amongst themselves when offices where abundant. Of course, there are now a number of new quite productive researchers who have poor offices; some with no windows, some who share offices.

It seems clear to me that this is a silly way of doing things. The primary function of an office in an academic department is to provide space to do research and write. Offices are also necessary for meeting students during office hours. So wouldn’t it be more efficient to put all these senior nonresearchers in one big office like we do with sessional instructors? They would still have a space to meet students and it would free up valuable offices that could be put to better use. Suggesting something like this usually provokes howls of laughter followed by stern words about “seniority” and “fairness”.

Yeah, yeah, it’s obvious where my interests lie, but seriously, is seniority the best way to distribute goods like offices? If not seniority, then what? Any suggestions?

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am i “like one of those zionists”?

The other day I was having a casual conversation with a department colleague when I (not entirely) jokingly suggested I was hoping to get one of the bigger offices in our upcoming move. He became a little serious and said, “You’re just like one of those Zionists, aren’t you? Always wanting more space, more land.” I replied that he should be thankful I am not “like one of those Palestinians” as I would have already blown up the photocopier room. He didn’t find that funny at all.

I am not particularly sensitive to these things. I don’t think all criticism of Israel is equivalent to antisemitism. And I wasn’t overly offended at this person’s comment. But I am aware enough to know what he meant. He didn’t mean that my semijoke about needing more lebensraum made me sound like just any old nationalist expansionist. It made me sound like a Jewish one to him and apparently that’s particularly bad. And of course, he knows that Varnson is of the Hebrew persuasion. So I felt I needed to send a shot across his communist (really) bow.

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go-to guru goes to TO

Richard Florida, “author”, “speaker”, “entrepreneur”, “researcher” and, not least, “go-to guru” as well as inventor of the bohemian gay index (or as Colbert calls it, the San Francisco phone book) has just been hired by the Rotman School of Business at UofT. The Globe and Mail ran not one but two gushing stories on the move.

Via Bergh, I see (here, here and here) that Florida has been receiving much attention of late in Sweden as well. Academic superstars, or rather, so-called public intellectuals who enjoy the media spotlight and catch the eye of policy makers, appear from time to time. Bob Putnam comes to mind. Like Putnam, Florida is a good speaker who writes accessible books with catchy titles that present neatly packaged sexy little findings such as concentrations of creative gay people being correlated with economic growth (cf the decline of bowling leagues being correlated with declines in trust). The problem is just that these findings (like those of Putnam) don’t stand up very well to rigourous scrutiny. Ed Glaeser, for instance, in his criticism points out that much of the bohemian effect touted by Florida is explained simply by education.

Glaeser also makes the point that the source of many academics’ critical reactions to Florida and others like him is that they are jealous. But what is it we are envious of, if we actually are envious? Is it the money? If I am going to be jealous of someone’s money, I would chose someone richer than Florida, despite the fact that he has, I assume, become a millionaire several times over. It’s not the impact of Florida’s research on the academic world since it is not large; nor the prestigious places he has published, since they are not, really. Is it his impact on policy makers? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I don’t think it is envy. I think part of my reaction and others like it has to do with snobbery. But how could one take the academic credentials of someone who on his own splashy website refers to himself as a “go-to guru” seriously?

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