Thursday, August 13, 2015

Changes for the Next 40 Years: Balanced Academics? Is that even possible?

by Kai Chan
[Part 3 of 2—first encore! At 40, I’m still a prof, and still an idealist. In part 1, I identified four points of contention in my turbulent relationship with academia. In part 2, I pointed to three things that kept me in academia, three unexpected gifts. I was buoyed by the feedback I received from people enjoying my explicit consideration of balance, idealism and metrics of impact in academia. In response to multiple requests for forward-looking thoughts, I’ve added a two-part encore.]
It seems like an oxymoron, academics with work-life balance? If a balanced person becomes an academic,
Oxymoron or moron? Balanced and multi-tasking?
The truth is that this photo was taken for Grist,
after I won a survival kit including some juice.

don’t they inevitably become frantically overworked? And if a prof gets work-life balance, isn’t only because they’re academically ‘dead wood’? If I’m going to stick it out in academia for several more decades, here is one priority I’ll be working towards, actively and by example.
The prototypical professor is badly overworked, with little time for family and friends, perhaps judging his students in part on whether they’re in the lab on weekends. Times are changing, but not fast enough. Whereas my father missed my birth and the first few months of my life on sabbatical (no one faults him; it’s a long story), and many dads in his generation never changed a diaper, virtually every male colleague I know with young children took a parental leave to participate substantially in child rearing. Yet colleagues and I still hear profs demeaning assistant professors and grad students for not wanting it enough if they’re not chained to their desks long into the evening.
But we’ll change this.
First, we’ll challenge them. Whenever we hear someone casting aspersions on a colleague or student for not working extra hours, we’ll ask what really matters. We’ll assert, “Surely what matters is what we achieve with our time, not how long or when we work.” I have heard no rejoinder for such an assertion.
Second, we’ll challenge the system. The current system favours over-working, because of the current obsession with quantity over quality (see Fischer et al.). But there are pushes that would instead reward quality over quantity. For instance, the slow scholarship movement (see, e.g., ), which fosters slow conversations, deep thought, quality products, having fun with ideas, and creative outputs. Ironically, hastiness breeds hastiness: it takes time to distinguish meaningful, substantial contributions from meaning-light, superficial ones. But we can take the time needed to engage deeply with the literature, our own data and analyses, the manuscripts we review, etc. My lab group takes pride in various elements of slow scholarship, e.g., substantial peer reviews taking many hours, featuring high standards but also a truly constructive spirit (to foster this, we write our reviews in second-person, e.g., “Dear authors, … in your manuscript …”).
Playing with my family on the Deep Cove lookout hike.
Third, we’ll model the balance we want to see. I’ve been doing this since my first daughter was born, nearly seven years ago. Even when I wasn’t on parental leave, I had my colicky daughter most of the night, walking her around the neighbourhood for hours every night. The same happened for our second daughter. For the first four years of parenthood, I probably averaged 35 hours of work a week. I have my girls for hours every day, before and after work. Weekends are family time, except in grant season. When my wife (who works two days/week) was in Toronto with her dying father for the month of February, I ran the whole show, with the help of a wonderful group of friends and kind folks.
I mean no boast. Just as no one should be penalized for their commitment to family, I deserve no praise for mine. It’s simply my choice—my own vision for a good life and a sustainable world. Balance is deeply individual.
The Valentine's Day card I got from my daughter when I
was solo-parenting and running ragged.
Also, let’s not pretend that I’m some easy-going even-keel father and scholar. Not a chance. I’m only balanced in the sense that I’m equally (and extremely) intense in work, parenting, and exercise. (I do, however, protect my sleep and firmly believe the loads of research suggesting that it is crucial for long-term health.) In that crazy month of February, yes, we had fun for Family Day, Valentine’s, and Chinese New Year, but I also ran a very tight ship and I can’t pretend that I was ever really a picture of calm. And although I might have lots of time for family when I’m in Vancouver, I’m an intense workaholic when I’m not, e.g., working for fifteen hours straight on trains and planes to make the most of the quiet to ‘get it done’. I used to practice yoga and meditate, then I largely let it slip when I became a father. That slipping was right for the time, but I’ll get back to it before long.
Savouring the flowers with my daughter, after picking her
up from preschool.
Does role-modeling work? Well, my choices were certainly shaped by those around me. My parents and my mentors all displayed an intense commitment to family and fitness. My dad retired early to do 1000-km cycle trips with my mum (they have done at least a dozen), and he recently won bronze at the World Master’s Squash Championships (ages 70-75). And I keenly recall Gretchen Daily’s words of wisdom: “I don’t care when you work or how long. I just want you to be passionate about doing great research. If you draw inspiration from long hikes in the middle of the day, go for it.”
It’s time to spread such attitudes far and wide. There’s nothing more effective than social pressure. If you’ve got a story of someone pushing an unhealthy work-life balance, or a healthy one, or any other thought, please comment below. And if your vision of academia is one that embraces balance, please share this post.
What’s the one thing that you would do, to foster the kind of balance you seek? For me, I will strive to find time every single day for play (not just the childcare routine)—mostly with my daughters, but maybe I’ll even take up fancy dancing when I’m on the road….

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The 3 things I didn’t know I’d love about being a prof

by Kai Chan
[This is part 2 of 2. Read part 1 here. A part 3 was added here.]

After tossing sleeplessly on the night of my 40th birthday in my existential crisis, I discovered that the answer to “Why am I still a prof?” is that there are three things that I didn’t know that I’d cherish about being a professor. I knew that I loved the thrill of teaching, mentoring, and the pursuit of knowledge, and that I would love and respect my students and colleagues, but I didn’t appreciate the extent to which I would benefit from these three things.

1.     The freedom to fail. I’ve had many zany ideas over the years. A bunch of them haven’t panned out. They were struck down by reviewers, editors, and grant selection committees, or they simply died as I realized they just weren't resonating with others. While rejection often seems to be about not properly understanding the nature of the venue/opportunity (the journal, the grant program), it’s also true that I have learned tons from my failures, and academia is amazingly forgiving of such failures. Tenure is a particular blessing here. I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity to continue to experiment, to fail, and to learn from that failure.
Me at 40, sporting my birthday shirt
from Hadi Dowlatabadi: monetary
symbols and "Ecosystem Services",
"the bees' buzz" and "It's only money".

2.     The opportunity to contribute, sometimes importantly, to brilliant young leaders’ lives and thinking, when key elements of their personal and professional identities are most being shaped. I knew that I’d love mentoring students, but I hadn’t appreciated how foundational a role my own mentors had had on me, or how much I would cherish the privilege to serve in that role for young superstars, full of passion and integrity. Like many others, I find nothing more satisfying than helping others reach or elevate their potential (see this and this great post from my students on their struggles).

3.     The freedom to meander towards deeply synthetic insights about the world around us. Ten years ago, I thought I knew how we could protect biodiversity and the conditions for sustained human thriving. Now, after my intentional meanderings with students and colleagues through the science of human cognition, behavior, and the study of values, I know I was wrong. Now I have a suite of new ideas (re: social movements and offsetting, informed deeply by my journey, and this time I’m sure I’m right. ;)
I still don't know if I was right in 2005 in thinking that a tenure-track position was my best route to making the world a better place, but it has revealed some absolutely critical benefits that I didn’t anticipate, and insights toward potentially transformative real-world impacts that are still in the making.

P.S. Sarah Klain rightly pointed to my over-use of 'best'. I may not agree entirely with the metrics of academia, but clearly I have largely absorbed the obsession with optimization! I am content in knowing that the last ten years have been joyful, enriching, and productive, and I have contributed directly to real-world issues (see here, here, Vancouver Sun, Georgia Straight, and WWF blog), and to various organizations (e.g., IPBES, see here and here) and every level of government. This effort to optimize is (1) a rhetorical device, and (2) an exercise to evaluate choices for the future towards fulfilling my own potential. Although I have unparalleled job security--a tremendous privilege--I won't let myself rest on my laurels.

An idealist at 40, still a prof after 10 years. Why?

by Kai Chan

Is academia the best way to make the world a better place? Ten years ago, I thought it was best for me, and that’s why I chose my current job as a professor at UBC.
Ljuba and I en route to Vancouver, and my job at UBC, in 2005
After ten years, I’m 40 (today), and preparing my file to go up for promotion to full professor. A big step, and a good time to reflect on the big question, given what I know now. Although several senior colleagues have encouraged me, as I viewed CVs of potential reviewers (leaders in my field), my mind is a-flutter with noise. Tossing in bed last night, I pinned this ‘noise’ down to four points:
1.     I did things starkly differently over the past ten years than most of my senior colleagues (I meandered more, intentionally learning broadly across disciplines);
2.     The metrics by which I will be evaluated (e.g., h-index for publications) are not those that guided my choices, nor do they coincide very well with my objectives;
3.     Despite my own commitments to a different idea of success, I feel a constant unwelcome and often subconscious pull towards established metrics and my colleagues’ notions of success;
4.     I could have enjoyed much higher success by established metrics if I’d made different choices (e.g., invested less in teaching and supervision).
So why am I still at UBC, still contributing my best years to an institution that, at every turn, seems to be rewarding a somewhat different career trajectory? I look around at the leaders in conservation and sustainability science, and I see many leaders operating in research positions with limited or no teaching, and even outside of universities (e.g., in NGOs, so with minimal graduate supervision).
Students don't think we have balance. Hmph.
It’s fair to wonder these days whether the best route to achieve even academic stardom is to eschew a regular tenure-track position, with its exacting combination of research, teaching, and service. And since academic stardom isn’t even my primary objective in life (it might coincide with my objectives, but I’m more concerned with real-world impact), it’s worth deeply pondering why I’m here.
It’s clear that many of my students wonder the same, as they look at the intensity of a faculty job and declare that they don’t want to follow our footsteps.
So, why am I still here? Why are you, or would you be, in a university setting?

P.S. A theme I didn't explore explicitly here is the appropriateness of established metrics as measures of excellence and/or impact. They measure some things well but other things poorly. I promise to return to this issue soon, but in the meantime let it be known that I and a small but vocal set of other profs are certainly looking well beyond these metrics in various evaluation processes.

[This is part 1 of 2. Read part 2 for my answer. A part 3 was added later, re: balance.