Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Ethics of Elite Professors

I just read a fascinating study of the way Harvard professor (especially Dershowitz) rely on untrained assistants to do their work for them to allow the elite academics become public intellectuals, while doing shoddy work.

Russell, Jacob Hale. 2007. "A Million Little Writers." 02138 (November/December): p. 78.

http://www.02138mag.com/magazine/article/1763.html

12 comments:

Robert D Feinman said...

Perhaps next you would like to comment on the widespread use of grad students to teach classes.

It seems the fancier the school the higher the probability of this occurring. Do parents who are shelling out $20K+ a year know this? If they do, then it must mean that they are buying credentials for their kids (or more likely the kids are buying credentials for themselves via loans) rather than buying a quality education.

From an economic point of view this may even be rational. Which looks better on a resume: Harvard or "I studied Chaucer with a tenured professor"?

As the number of college and advanced degrees goes up the value and relevance to work goes down. So what is left seems to be the marketability of the credentials.

Have there been any studies on this?

Michael Perelman said...

When I spent a sabbatical at Stanford during the early 1980s, one distinguished professor told me, "we have an implicit contract with our students: we give them good grades and they leave us alone."

Jim said...

Academics are becoming a lot like star athletes who use performance enhancing substances. They want all the fame and attention that being at the top of a "winner take all" structure entails. They argue presumably to themselves and confidants that everyone is doing it, but yet vicious and dissembling when caught.

Also both rely on starstruck "subordinates" who are often rewarded with seemingly meaningless percs to outsiders ("being there").

The most obvious indication of the widespread use of graduate students and staff to do your work for you is the remarkably frank want ads for Harvard Business School profs (other disciplines seem to be much more bashful at admitting who does what). I remember reading several that state up front you will be doing all the basic work for books, grants, articles, etc. and I will get the credit.

egh said...

Haven't read this yet, but it might explain something about the completely shoddy nature of everything I've read by Dershowitz. It would be nice if he could get some good students to do his work for him, though. The stuff I've read is well below what I would hope (not being an instructor) was average undergraduate work.

Michael Perelman said...

Actually, one of his students was in high school. Fascinating article.

Robert D Feinman said...

I'd like to say something more about "credentials". The idea is that someone like Dershowitz is worth listening to because they have the right educational background and this has been validated by having been hired by a prestigious institution.

Citing credentials is one of the key ways that authoritarians use to bolster their claims. In formal religions it is the primary mechanism. In other ideologies the situation isn't much different. One has only to look at those who worship at the temple of Milton Friedman or Hayek or Freud.

Every so often someone reads one of my essays and says "who are you?" In other words they are unwilling to evaluate my opinions without some outside validation. I always reply by citing a few examples of those with no "credentials". I decline to detail my own.

Spinoza was an optician.
Rousseau was a music copyist.

One of the problems these days is that credentials are used as a substitute for evaluation. This has given rise to all sorts of mischief from creationism to trickle-down economics. Things have gotten so bad that the concept of the scientific method itself is under attack.

Perhaps the Age of Enlightenment really is over.

Shane Taylor said...

Robert's experience reminds me of a stray quote I have never been able to attribute: an age is darkened when truth lies not in what is said, but in who speaks.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Regarding teaching by grad students, the way for parents to avoid this problem is to send their kids to colleges without grad schools (or minimal ones) for undergrad school. There are plenty around, many expensive and of high quality.

Something else that has long gone on (was not able to read linked story, so not sure what is in it exactly), is the old practice of professors putting their names on grad students' work. Now, many think this is OK, but it can lead to real injustices.

Thus, I have a friend from grad school who was turned down for tenure at his first academic position (he is doing fine now, thank you). Problem? He had this paper published in the JPE that was in fact very innovative and very widely cited, a real hit. It was out of his dissertation, purely. However, his pretty well known major prof put his name on it as a coauthor, and the assholes in the department said that it was published where it was because of the major prof (possible) and that the ideas were probably all the major prof's, which those of us in the know from grad school knew was a pile of crap. Ugh, and this goes on a lot.

baiano said...

When short on time and considering whether or not to read an article, I look at the credentials of the author as a proxy to his understanding of the subject. This of course can mean nothing, but it usually means that they will produce more signals and less noise in their piece.

So because of the decrease in free time in our society, people are more inclined to look for signals to tell them whether or not to spend their precious free moments reading something, and hence, credentials become more important.

Jack said...

This is off topic, but I just spent the better part of 20 minutes developing a comment only to have it blown off the system. Halo scan worked so much better. Every comment requires at least two efforts at the exasperating word verification process, even though the letters are correctly typed into the box. This is one of several times that this has occurred, and I haven't the patience to write out every comment prior to posting.

egh said...

It's worse than I thought, and I thought it was pretty bad. I'm surprised that nobody has written this article before. It was pretty obvious what was going on with the plagiarism cases that were coming out.

Dershowtitz may actually write what he publishes, but if he researches the 'facts' that he claims in the stuff I have read, he should be ashamed; they collapse like a house of cards upon examination.

Jack said...

First, the second issue that Perelman brings to our attention, that of the gentrification of academia, seems more significant than the first, the uncredited scholarship (if that's what it is) of the assistantship cadres. As with general income, we see further evidence of a disproportionate share of available funds going to those universities that filter out the vast working class through cost, early educational opportunity and membership in the lucky sperm club.
It is likely to harbor ill effects for the public universities that harbor the majority of the population, but may have to do so by offering a second rate scholastic environment. Though if those academic "stars" of university life are little available at those elite Ivies, what value is their presence to the real scholars?

The issue of uncredited participation in any "scholarly" effort is not so significant if it is the piece of work itself that we see as adding to a body of knowledge. Granted that the worker ants may have preferred attribution, possibly the limited qualilty of their work, as cited in the article, may be their means of retribution to the star author.
A body of scholarly work is valued on the basis of its own validity, the cogency of its arguments and the quality and replicability of the data it provides. If the work is valued on the basis of its authorship then the reader is the fool.

Mediocrity comes to light on first reading. Who really takes Dershowitz seriouosly as a legal scholar beyond the popular press? Better for their own reputations that his assistants not have their names added to his commentary. His recent contribution to the theory of legal torture is almost unique for its total disregard of the body of evidence that deals with the lack of efficacy of the use of torture.

That second offense, plagiarism is of a similar nature to mediocraty. The plagiarist has great difficulty hiding his own inadequacy, and no one wants to be cited as the culprit. It is almost amusing to watch as the perpetrators of the deed scramble to cast blame on the trolls who don't get credit for any of the content to begin with.