Three Things the Real World Can Learn from the Ivory Tower

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First off, I do not believe in either The Ivory Tower or The Real World. I’ve mentioned before that I remember being threatened with The Real World beginning in about third grade (see #4 in Ice Cream for Dinner: A Graduation Speech). In this first case, The Real World was manifested in the ominous form of fifth grade where we would begin getting letter grades. For most people, this abuse ends with their first job, but if you embark on a life of scholarship, it never ends because you, poor Dorothy, have entered The Ivory Tower, a place where The Real World is held comfortably at bay while you laze around in a semi-unreality free from accountability, results and discipline. Denizens of The Ivory Tower may be able to teach mostly useless and impractical things to America’s youth, but they have little or nothing to teach the hard-nosed business people in The Real World.

And yet, my experiences in The Real World have shown me that there are some things that scholars consistently do better than business and government and that failure to see that can have severe deliterious effects on the bottom line and the lives of their employees and citizens. Three that come to mind (or perhaps two and a corollary).

1. Continuous Evaluation from Varied Perspectives.

In The Real World, I have been evaluated by my boss either annually or on the day I quit in the case of seasonal jobs. I have never once been asked to evaluate my boss and very few people I know have been asked. If companies do “360 Reviews” it’s a rare event and often very poorly conducted. In the unreal world of The Ivory Tower, faculty are evaluated:

  • By students. In the abstract, the professor is of course the employee of the student, but everyone knows that the power relation is the reverse and the professor has a relationship to students more like boss to employee. Full-time faculty are evaluated by those “under” them two or three times per year, and typically those reviews number in the hundreds. Furthermore, some students go the extra step to review professors publicly at various websites. I don’t know any low-level manager who gets that level of feedback from her employees.
  • By fellow faculty members in their department, peers and department heads, from high-stakes tenure review to reviews for promotion and perhaps (or perhaps not) annual reviews. These reviews include teaching performance, but also include all other aspects of the person’s performance.
  • By peers at other institutions who evaluate and review books and articles for publication and reviewers who review books after publication. This is a completely different type of review that, flawed as it may be, holds the scholar’s research to certain standards.

Below the CEO and Board level, how many people in The Real World are reviewed so often and in such varied contexts?

But so what, why bother? A quick personal story. My first ever teaching evaluations came back and out of about 120 students, two mentioned in the comments that they did not like my sarcasm in the classroom. It’s a small number, but it was a shocker to me. I didn’t intend to be sarcastic in any way, but I failed to understand the power relationship at play and the fact that students took things in ways I did not intend or expect. I wanted to create a comfortable environment so I paid close attention to my mouth. Soon the mentions of sarcasm disappeared. And then over time, something else appeared. The last time I taught a course, about one third to one half of the students mentioned in free form comments (thus completely unprompted) that my classroom was one of the most supportive they had known, that though my course material was challenging and difficult, they were not afraid to speak up and be wrong, that because of that comfort, they could push themselves. It is what I had always imagined my classroom would be like, but without the reality check of evaluations at the end of every single course, would I have gotten there? I think the clear answer is no.

Meanwhile, out in The Real World, I see managers who are good at schmoozing up the ladder and get great reviews from above, but fail to motivate those below because they have no feedback on their bad habits and, perhaps even more importantly, they have not been trained to see the value of frequent, anonymous evaluations from those below as well as those above. And if they maintain a good smokescreen, the people above them have no clue that the manager is killing morale. My limited Real World experience has shown me that this one difference is a tremendous drag on productivity in the workplace.

2. Truth versus Proof

Every good scholar understands that there is a difference between what is true and what is proven. If I were going to come up with a single definition of a scholar, I would say that a scholar is someone who spends the first five years finding an answer and the next five years looking for contradictory evidence. It’s not enough to be sure. I need to be able to make others sure. I’m certain that at some point in his long life Socrates uttered the ancient Greek equivalent of “I don’t care.” I have no doubt. But I have no proof.

Scholars spend their lives juggling conflicting evidence and holding opposing viewpoints in their minds. This can be paralyzing. It is the number one thing that makes scholarly writing so bloody boring. It also contributes to the Ivory Tower stereotype. But consider the contrary, which we find behind so many of our scandals and debacles. If more people on Wall Street, in Enron, in Fannie Mae and in Freddie Mac had interrogated the evidence more, had actively sought out contradictory evidence, would we be in the economic mess we’re in? If we had people with the minds of scholars rather than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld looking at the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would we be in the military and fiscal mess we’re in? Decisions in business and government may be made in real time and with incomplete evidence, but just a nod to the scholarly mind could save us tremendous heartache and reap long-term efficiencies.

3. The Power of Evidence

This is a corollary of #2. Scholars are often accused of not having common sense. But let me be the first genius to tell you that common sense is overrated. That post quotes the most intellectually important single thing anyone said to me in grad school. I was telling some story about something I had seen and said “You’ll never believe this.” Andrew Pettegrew responded with “I’m a scholar. I’m trained to believe the unbelievable.” This, I think, shows the true power of scholarly training. If I were to hazard a second definition of a scholar, I would say that a scholar is a person equipped to believe or disbelieve anything given enough evidence. In the previous point, I argued that scholars need sufficient evidence before they will accept something as proven. This is the corollary that follows from that: a scholar is someone who, presented with enough evidence, can discard deeply held opinions and “facts” in the pursuit of that ever-elusive truth.

I’ll be the first to admit that scholars, being human, regularly fail in this. In some cases, they fail spectacularly. However, they at least understand the pitfalls of confirmation bias and in their better moments put it to the test. One place where we see both the need to change one’s thinking in the face of evidence and a demonstration of the inability to live up to that standard is the “crisis” in scholarly publishing. The crisis has been long in coming and is reaching a breaking point, yet hidebound scholars wedded to old models of publishing and old criteria for evaluating faculty performance have been unable to cast it aside.

But the failure of scholars to live up to the standards they set in their research and act on this one particular business problem is more the proof of the value of a scholarly mindset for business, rather than proof to the contrary.

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