Archive for July 2, 2009

Looking for Excuses to Do Something Good

David Klappholz sent me a link to an article in Sunday’s New York Times (early enough that I was able to purchase that issue and read it on my Kindle — cool!) on how the grants system in cancer research favors incremental progress over revolutionary process. David suggested that perhaps NSF is a target for similar complaints, like in those I was responding to in a recent blog post.  I think the NYT article is pointing out a different set of problems than those I was responding to earlier, and I do think that the NYT points are well-taken.  The NYT article points to general problems of how research and higher-education work today.

My colleague, Blair MacIntyre, stopped me yesterday to tell me about a cool new class he wants to build.  He wants to create a class that becomes an excuse for students to do something good.  He doesn’t want the class to have explicit learning objectives or a set curriculum.  Rather, it’s a commitment for a student to produce a great game (in this particular case) to add to their portfolio.  It’s too easy to give up a cool idea when things get hard.  Blair’s idea is for students to sign up for this course, and then have to complete the course (i.e., build the game that she committed to building) despite the midterms and pressures from other courses that arise.

Blair’s idea brought to mind a message that I got from Alan Kay (to whom I still owe a complete response — sorry, Alan!) asking (paraphrased), “This new computing education organization — will it actually lead to computing education reform?  Will it lead to something really good?”  And my response was (paraphrased), “Probably not.”  The new computing education organization is important in terms of gathering momentum in a common direction and developing infrastructure, which are good things.  The new organization is not going to lead to transformative new ideas in curriculum, or to new kinds of tools that build on how students understand and need to understand computing.

And that brings me back to David’s article.  Higher education is an ecosystem, if not a business.  Money needs to keep pumping through to keep the system running, and it’s important to keep the system running.  The demands to bring money into this system via grants are increasing.  I’m personally dealing with the expectation from my School that I bring in four months of my own salary from grants each year, and the NSF new rule that they will only pay two months of salary for any faculty member, thus requiring me to find new sources of funding.  There are lots of faculty seeking grant money for similar reasons.  Thus, with more people requesting money, and increasing need for that money, the tendency is to become more and more conservative — greater demands from review panels for proof that the project will be successful, which leads to smaller increments of “success.”  It’s pretty hard to assure a review panel that something transformative or revolutionary will really work.

So, when do university researchers get the chance to do good work, the work that might cure cancer or find new ways to improve student understanding of computing?  There’s more demand to get grants, and the grant process does prefer incremental success rather than transformative.  Faculty are expected to also be involved in the committees and infrastructure work which address issues of students and policy.  How do we create the excuses to do something good?  They’re probably not going to come from the grants process.  The projects in which I’ve been involved that I think are the most successful were pretty much all unfunded at their start.  These were things that were worth doing, and we decided that they were worth getting into trouble by not doing the things that we were expected to be doing.  That’s risky and harder to do as pressures for faculty productivity increase.  We need to find ways of creating excuses for doing good work.

July 2, 2009 at 3:18 pm 2 comments


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