Cut-rate professors, education done cheap

As is their habit, the Chronicle of Higher Ed has published another cockeyed article, this time arguing that the problem with the budgets of universities are all those expensive faculty, and suggesting that a solution would be outsourcing the instruction and turning the professorate into a collection of market-efficient middle managers. Profgrrrrl takes that whole idea apart, so I don’t have to.

The whole purpose of a university is to provide a space for the play of ideas among those faculty, in an environment where young men and women students can be participants and learn to contribute. The whole point is the people, and that’s why the number one priority of a university is (or ought to be) to fund a community of scholars who are actively involved in sharing their knowledge.

For someone to claim that the money spent on the people needs to be redirected, and that the people should become managers instead of scholars and communicators and teachers…well, they’re missing the whole point. I suppose some beancounter could analyze an automobile plant and declare, “Well, you’re spending an awful lot of money building these…whaddayacallems, car thingies…you could become much more efficient if you built fewer of them. Or at least cut corners and left out that costly ‘engine’ thingumabob.” It sure would. And universities would be much cheaper to run if we decided that all they were for is to house a few attendants to manage the parking lots.

By the way, my university, UMM, gets it. The administration here is working hard to raise faculty salaries and maintain parity with comparable institutions despite the all-too-typical hard financial times we’re all in. I think they know that the way to maintain the viability of the institution is to invest in the critical, irreplaceable resources, the faculty. Our virtue is that we’re supposed to be a place with smart, interesting professors who are directly involved with our student body—why would any student want to go to a place where they phone in assignments to harried, cookie-cutter ‘managers’ in cubicles?

Bad business at the Burke

Chris Clarke sent me some unfortunate news about my alma mater, the University of Washington. There’s a scandal brewing at the Burke Museum, involving a retired curator of vertebrate paleontology, John M. Rensberger. The Seattle Weekly has published a series on the troubles, with a professional evaluation of the collection. Basically, the Burke has a beautiful assemblage of vertebrate fossils, but their collection was very poorly documented (scribbled notes on scraps of brown paper bags?), and there are also allegations that many of the collecting trips were made without permits or permission—so ownership of at least some of the specimens is up in the air. It’s not a pretty story.

I have to hammer on a theme I’ve pounded on here before. Science is not a collection of facts. Science is not a fossil in a display case. Science is a process—it is the meticulous documentation of observation and experiment, with full transparency about how conclusions were derived, so others can evaluate them independently. This is just as true in a largely historical science like paleontology as it is for an experimental science like molecular genetics.

If the allegations against Rensberger are valid, then I do deplore the ethical lapses they represent, and also the administrative incompetence that has allowed the problem to build despite complaints over decades. Even worse to me, though, is the fact that he betrayed fundamental scientific principles, and 30 years worth of work on that collection has been undermined. Without a solid, replicable methodology and documented provenance for each specimen, it wasn’t science.

He’s usually such a pleasant fellow…

…but I guess everyone has their snapping point. Jaquandor doesn’t usually snarl at people, but he’s done a fine takedown of wingnut stupidity.

What tipped him over? Jonah Goldberg. I can’t blame him—I studiously avoid NRO’s corner because it reminds me too painfully of how idiotic some people can be. The NRO gang are just freepers with Buckleyesque pretensions.

Anything but the obscurity!

I’ve already mentioned this interesting set of ideas Cory Doctorow brought up. In particular, this part of the introduction made me think:

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Then read this essay on The life expectancies of books (by TNH, so of course it’s worth reading). It’s about the ephemeral nature of literary popularity and copyright, inevitable obscurity, and the self-defeating nature of legalistic attempts to define ownership of ideas.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

There are also some insights in the addendum to the whole mostly unappreciated machinery of advertising and presentation and availability that are important for bringing books to our attention. Piracy is a real problem, but it seems that it’s being fought with misplaced strategies that promote long-term uniformity and corporate interests and the same ol’ thing over and over again, rather than diversity and imagination.