The numbers of academia. The intangibles of nature.

My time and my mind have been occupied with many duties and responsibilities lately. It’s the curse of the overextended professor. I have, however, spent the past couple of days driving around the snowdrifted prairies of southern Manitoba thinking mostly about two very different anniversaries.

The first is that it’s time for our annual “merit”exercise – that special time of year when we, as McGill professors, make a list of everything we have done in the past year and reduce ourselves to a single number, so that the administration can decide how much of a raise we deserve. Refereed paper? 1 point. University committee? 0.25 points. Research funding? 1 point per X dollars. Taught a course? 1 point. Inspired a student? there’s no category for that. Kept the office door open so people could stop by to talk science? there’s no category for that either. Wrote eight letters of reference to help great students launch their career? no category for that either. You get the picture. In the somewhat mercenary world of a big (corporate) university, there is precious little credit for intangibles. It is, in short, not the proudest time of the year for those of us who do this job because we love our work.

The other anniversary, fortunately, more than cancels out the first. About a year ago I was on my way to a forest research station outside Seattle to participate in one of a series of workshops that were part of the Natural History Initiative – a movement, a gathering, a coalition, a community of people who are passionate about, and dedicated to, a resurgence of natural history in science and society. Walking the paths, and sitting in the spring sun, and drinking wine late into the evening, and filling flip charts with half-baked ideas, surrounded by like-minded ecologists, conservation biologists, poets, artists, students, teachers and parents (and their kids) was, to use a somewhat hackneyed term, transformational for me. It reminded me why I got into this game in the first place. It reminded me that a taxonomist, a theoretical ecologist, a painter, a conservation biologist and a public educator can sit around in a circle and talk about the architecture of nature and how best to draw it because we all SEE that picture, albeit through different eyes. It reminded me that the intangibles ARE important. And those who ignore that can suck the joy out of a life in nature.

During our week in the forest, two gifted documentary makers, Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele, captured some of our conversations about natural history and what it means to us. Snippets of those conversations make up the Natural Histories Project, and listening to those voices every now and then is great therapy for my naturalist’s soul. My involvement with this movement has continued, especially through my work with the Natural History Network. Will this commitment of time and effort bring me big research grants? Doubtful. Will my work with the Network lead to high impact publications? Not likely. It is probably not the greatest use of my time for the purposes of my annual “merit” exercise, but I would gladly resign every other administrative appointment and committee before I would give up this one. Why? Because being part of a group so passionate about making natural history relevant gives me joy and makes me realize that there are things more important than The Numbers of Academia.

I read a blog post today by The Bug Geek (another McGill entomologist) about how grad students should balance the expectations of academia (journal papers) with the important role of public outreach. It’s a tough juggling act to be sure, but no matter how we eventually allocate our time, we have to do whatever it takes to keep our passion for nature alive and try to instill it in others. Otherwise, why bother doing science at all?

So, back to those windswept prairies off to the west of Winnipeg. I’ve been there many times over the past dozen years or so, usually in the pleasant and inspiring company of my friend Rob Roughley, an entomologist who was passionate about beetles, about prairies, about ponds, and about teaching people to SEE nature. We did some fieldwork together, we had a few cold beers on hot summer nights, and we spent time just sitting out on the prairies talking about nature, about natural history. Rob had little time for the posturing of corporate academia, but he always had time for keen students who wanted to go look for bugs. The last time I got together with Rob was just a few weeks before he passed away in 2009. We had a drink and talked about insects and students and the prairie. How many points does one get from the administration for that? I don’t care.

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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6 Responses to The numbers of academia. The intangibles of nature.

  1. Viktor Nilsson-Örtman says:

    Being both a passionate naturalist and an early career scientist, I can totally relate to this post. Hoping to be able to achieve a career in academia without sacrificing what really means something to me, it was both kind of soothing and very inspiring to read this. Will definately check out the natural histories project. Happy that you shared your thought on this!

  2. Hi Viktor. Success in academia definitely requires sacrifice. But some things are more easily sacrificed than others. The key is to hang on to those things that mean the most to us, while still doing the things that will advance our careers. Sometimes I succeed in this; sometimes I fail. I need to remind myself about that connection to nature, especially when the piles on my desk become terrifying.

  3. Chris Buddle says:

    Good post, Terry. I too have been thinking about these issues a lot recently. It’s all a balancing act, and what can be especially difficult is those times of year when the balance is, well, just not there (i.e., now). solutions? Perhaps a walk around campus every lunch to take a breath of spring air? A “reading week” devoted entirely to the very foundations of why we got into this business (i.e., doing science)? Or just hold on tight during the particularly busy mid-semester with the hope eternal that amazing natural history moments are just on the horizon. I’ll try for the walk, maybe tomorrow. And the field work schedule is shaping up. Some good reasons for optimism despite the “now”.

    • I’m counting the days until summer. And I love the idea of a “reading week” set aside for us to do science. Imagine a week with no classes, no meetings and no administration, a moratorium on emails, and no questions allowed except those directly related to SCIENCE . . .

  4. Dave says:

    Great rant Terry. Academia is really no place for academics. Middle managers, though, should thrive. One can only wonder what the future university will be like when all research is directed to facilitate shallow and mutable political goals and careers are built largely on successful lapping up of funds and demonstration of achieving management goals. Oh wait, we are there already!

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