Teaching and research

My mind goes back to a debate organised by the Civil Engineering department at IIT Madras back in the early 2000s. A bunch of students argued that IIT Madras was “not a world class institution”. A bunch of professors argued otherwise.

I don’t remember too much of the debate but I remember one line that one of the students said. “How does one become a professor at IIT Madras? By writing a hundred papers. Whether one can teach is immaterial”.

The issue of an academic’s responsibilities has been a long-standing one. One accusation against the IITs (ironical in the context of the bit of debate I’ve quoted above) is that they’re too focussed on undergraduate teaching and not enough on research – despite only hiring PhDs as faculty. From time to time the Indian government issues diktats on minimum hours that a professor must teach, and each time it is met with disapproval from the professors.

The reason this debate on an academic’s ability to teach came to my mind is because I’ve been trying to read some books and papers recently (such as this one), and they’re mostly unreadable.

They start with some basic introductory statements and before you know it you are caught up in a slew of jargon and symbols and greeks. Basically for anyone who’s not an insider in the field, this represents a near-insurmountable barrier to learning.

And this is where undergraduate teaching comes in. By definition, undergrads are non-specialists and not insiders in any particular specialisation. Even if they were to partly specialise (such as in a branch of engineering), the degree of specialisation is far less than that of a professor.

Thus, in order to communicate effectively with the undergrad, the professor needs to change the way he communicates. Get rid of the jargon and the sudden introduction of greeks and introduce subjects in a more gentle manner. Of course plenty of professors simply fail to do that, but if the university has a good feedback mechanism in place this won’t last.

And once the professor is used to communicating to undergrads, communicating with the wider world becomes a breeze, since the same formula works. And that vastly improves the impact of their work, since so many more people can now follow it.

Sergei Bubka and Academia

There is this famous story that says that the Soviet government promised pole vaulter Sergei Bubka some huge sum of money “every time he broke the world record”. Being rather smart, Bubka would break the world record each time by one centimeter (the least count for pole vault measurement), utilizing the fact that the nature of the event (where you set the bar and try to clear it, where success in each attempt is binary) to his advantage.

The thing with academia is that ‘paper count’ matters. And it appears that the quality of papers cannot be objectively measured and so the quality of the journals in which they are published are taken as proxy. And I hear that for decisions like getting a PhD, getting tenure, reputation in the community, etc. there is some sort of informal “paper count” that one needs to clear. You don’t progress until you’ve published a certain “number of papers”.

What this does is to incentivize academics to publish more. The degree of “delta improvement” shown in a particular paper over it’s predecessor (assuming each paper can be seen as an improvement over one particular previously known result) doesn’t matter as much as the number of improvements thus shown. Hence, every time the academic notices a small epsilon improvement, he finds it significant – it gets him a paper! The actual practical utility of this improvement be damned.

This is all fine in academia where one doesn’t need to bother about lowly trivialties such as “practical utility”. But it does start to matter when the academic migrates to industry, and there is no shortage of people doing this movement. Now, suddenly, what he needs to think about it practical utility. But that doesn’t come naturally to him. The academic strives for delta improvements. And each time there is a delta improvement he finds it significant – after all, that is what he has been trained to do during his long stint writing papers.

I must confirm I’m not saying here that ex-academics strive only for delta improvements, but just that they find each delta improvement significant, irrespective of the magnitude of the delta. In that way, they are different from Bubka.

But take that out and there is no difference. Both are incentivized by the number of delta improvements they make, rather than their magnitude. In the first case the Soviet Government ended up transferring more than what was perhaps necessary to Bubka. Similar flawed incentives can lead to corporations losing a lot of money.

PS: I must admit I’m generalizing. Of course there exist studmax creatures like Cat, who refuse to publish unless they have something really significant (he told me of one case where he refused to add his name to a paper since he “didn’t want to be known for that work” or something like that). But the vast majority gets its doctorates and tenures by delta publishing, so I guess I’m allowed to generalize.