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Cautionary words about academic productivity and the problem of hyperactivity (essay)

When Productivity Becomes Hyperactivity

March 14, 2014

Research is an important part of the academic career, and it naturally begins during graduate school, when students get deeply involved in the process of writing papers and publishing articles, often in collaboration with others. Job applicants with publication experience are more attractive to employers, in demonstrating their scholarly ability with a program of research and trajectory that helps predict future work.

Although many get stalled during this time and have difficulty making progress, there is another side to these research expectations: the problem of academic hyperactivity, along with the increasing anxiety (even beyond the usual level) over whether one is producing enough to be successful.  In my own program, I've known some to write five or six papers for a single conference, and had others wonder whether being a member of only one faculty-led research group is enough. 

I never thought I would be worried about students doing too much research, but perhaps the time has come for some cautionary words. Graduate students are just absorbing the norms in their fields, but as the leading edge and newest members of those fields, they may reflect distortions in those norms that are also affecting upwardly mobile junior faculty — and the administrators who evaluate them.

In part, this is a symptom of the field in general.  Call it the tyranny of the impact factor and the ability to now quantify productivity better than ever before with indicators that have lagged behind deeper quality judgments. The global market place for academic talent now rests on the same readily available and comparable impact measurements. It is no longer possible to just rhetorically argue that one is an important voice in the field (even if well-known and well-liked) without the numbers to back it up. 

Quality judgments long have been outsourced to journal editors, yielding an objective count of articles with the imprimatur of peer review, but because we now have other impact measurements associated with those publications we are tempted to rely on them even more.  Certainly, to have impact there has to be “product,” but beyond a certain point lie diminishing returns, which risk turning the intellectual process into a factory model of production.  Academic hyperactivity cannot substitute for real productivity and often works against it.

Pushing this syndrome into the graduate school years can be particularly counterproductive.  I realize that some programs have the luxury of providing the kind of support that allows more time for reading and preparing for the dissertation magnum opus, and less expectation of publication prior to that. But there's something appealing about that model, since graduate school is the ideal, and perhaps last, opportunity for that kind of sustained reflection, before the competitive pressures build along with demands of family and administrative service.

Conference submissions are a natural part of this drive to publication, and deadlines can be helpful in moving projects along. The drive to submit an ever-increasing number of conference papers, however, can distort this goal and raises questions about gaming the system -- and whether one's best work is being submitted. Again, it seems bizarre to call attention to this as a “problem,” but having too many conference submissions risks giving an impression of superficiality.

The collaboration process can also contribute to hyperactivity, making it possible to have one's name on many more papers than possible alone (something I've certainly participated in), but this can get out of hand. Should one participate in collaboration just to achieve the publication numbers one feels necessary to compete?  Not necessarily. 

Increasingly, I find myself discounting C.V.s from job applicants with lots of co-authored works during graduate school.  Having some shows that they've been involved in research and are capable of working with others, but, beyond a certain number of such articles, being third, fourth or higher author ceases to mean much.

Some international project teams produce papers with 10 or more authors listed, which makes it even more difficult to tell who really contributed what, other than being generally associated with the project. (This has led to asking candidates for promotion to describe their relative contribution to their co-authored work.) 

Of course, there's nothing wrong with collaboration. Working with colleagues and students over the years has pushed me to improve my thinking as much as vice versa. Collaboration has been more typical in the social sciences (and sciences in general) than in the humanities (although with the rise of the digital humanities this is probably changing), and more complex forms of organized empirical research and cross-national projects often make it necessary. 

In faculty-led research groups, students benefit from the opportunity to work more closely with faculty than often possible in the seminar format. Collaboration can make the research process more enjoyable, helps keep projects on track with mutual accountability, and stimulates better research ideas -- as long as it's done for the right reasons and not taken to extremes.  We need to appreciate the virtues of this system while being mindful of the anxieties that it potentially exacerbates.

These pressures toward hyperactivity have long threatened to warp the broader definition of academic productivity, although they have become more acute. The sociologist C. Wright Mills, with his scathing critique of the social sciences in The Sociological Imagination, was concerned that the field was becoming too obsessed with data-gathering and losing the larger picture. The emerging form of bureaucratized research, he feared, was diminishing the role of the autonomous “intellectual craftsman.”  As it became more professionalized the field has continued to struggle with this tension between reflection and action, with the latter easily distracting from the former. 

Action can be a virtue if harnessed appropriately, and I was glad my own graduate school experience helpfully emphasized “doing” research as an active, kinetic process.  Research was an activity, and not just an intellectual exercise that was hidden from view.  That meant that there was a lot of publication taking place, a lot of working together, and we were always expecting to submit a paper (or even two) for the next conference deadline. 

That milieu certainly helped me see research -- yielding tangible results on a regular schedule -- as part of a normal process and not necessarily a source of anxiety.  In Soul of a New Machine, the writer Tracy Kidder described a computer developer at a technology company who had the critically important virtue of being able to get the product “out the door.”  In academia, where the temptation is often to delay writing in favor of reading another book, it doesn't matter how smart one is if work isn't getting “out the door.”

So, a bias toward action is a good thing, but academic achievement ultimately requires a careful coordination of reflection and action -- not stalling out while waiting for the perfect insights and yet not rushing ahead with poorly thought out ideas. I see this phenomenon playing out in what’s been called the “productivity space,” a burgeoning self-improvement area of blogs, podcasts, books, seminars and software.

The productivity guru David Allen’s system of “Getting things done” advocates thinking of projects defined as two or more action items.  In populating projects with action items, he encourages asking what's the next step, no matter how small, one could take to advance a given project. It's easy to get focused on “actions” in GTD, even though review and reflection (the “30,000 feet perspective”) are an integral part of the system.  That's because we tend to privilege the outward appearance of action (even hyperactivity action) and devalue the hidden “doing” of thinking.  It takes discipline to do that kind of less visible work, but making a real intellectual contribution is a product of both careful reflection and action.

All this suggests some practical suggestions for both junior scholars and administrators:

For academic leaders

  • Be careful not to encourage (even unwittingly) an arms race based on sheer quantity of published work. 
  • Avoid the temptation to fall back on counting publications and using impact factors alone in discerning whether a scholar has developed a unique voice and intellectual contribution.
  • In the mentoring process, pay attention to a junior scholar's narrative of the scholarly research mission to see how the pieces fit together. 
  • Encourage graduate students to do the same kind of scholarly introspection and visioning we expect of junior faculty.
  • Support graduate students with sufficient time to do the deep reflection that helps produce quality work.

For junior scholars

  • Don't get too focused on churning out papers and journal submissions if it detracts from quality. Even a high number of refereed articles on your C.V. can be discounted if in minor journals, with diverse collaborators who hide the author's personal contribution, come in unsteady or late surges, and deal with scattered topics that fail to add up to a coherent program of research.
  • Get organized to free up space for creative reflection and planning. In a digital world of information overload, it takes increasing discipline to be intentional about one's work.
  • Find the right balance between action and reflection, and carve out space for reflection and planning space, even though it may feel like unproductive time. 
  • Be aware that like any routines, those of organized empirical research -- including workgroups, conference submissions, and collaboration -- can become dysfunctional if carried to extremes, risking a proliferation of poorly thought-out and hastily produced work.
  • Although peers may outwardly appear more productive, remember that long-term academic success (and the success of our fields) is based on sustained intellectual work of good quality.

Bio

Stephen Reese is Jesse H. Jones Professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

 

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