Measuring Success

During the current age of anxiety I have maintained a zen-like disposition. Discussing this with my wife I realized that my lack of anxiety was due, at least in part, to my lack of pride, lack of ambition, and lack of envy. With only a little reflection it can be argued that these characteristics would not lead to success in life.

The details of my professional life are more than any reader should be asked to endure but I will relate one example. I went to graduate school at Duke University in the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department. While there as a student, and later as a postdoc, I noticed a pattern. The teacher of the year award usually went to a junior professor who subsequently didn’t get tenure. At one point the chair of the university’s tenure and promotion committee was a professor in my department. I asked him directly, “How much does teaching affect tenure decisions?” He responded, “It can only hurt.” I commented, “Then bad teaching would hurt one’s chances.” I was astounded by his final explanation of how the world worked. “No, you don’t understand. Only good teaching is a problem if the research is mediocre, indicating the candidate does not have his priorities in order.” Wow! I also became aware of much anecdotal evidence that research funding success was primarily due to bureaucratic and political maneuvering, or perhaps just by dumb luck. The War on Cash: How B... McRee, David Best Price: $15.99 Buy New $14.34 (as of 04:29 UTC - Details)

I did my MS and PhD on highly educational but esoteric and unfundable topics related to fluid mechanics, Digital Temperature Compensation of a Thermistor Flowmeter and The Numerical Simulation of Compressible Flow  in a Lagrangian Particle Description, respectively. During my job search my memory of the typical academic job description read something like this:

The Mechanical Engineering Department of the West Coast of Nowhere State University is searching for a tenure-track position in fluid mechanics. The candidate is expected to develop a world class, externally funded research program.

That is, it was not a tenure track, but a track to nowhere. However, glancing at faculty position ads for the first time in decades, my impression is that the ridiculous research program goals are less prevalent (Recent Jobs – Faculty – ASME Career Center). At the time, my mindset was not only that I believed I was not capable of developing my own research program, but I didn’t even want to do so. During this period, 1991 or 1992,  I wrote a letter to a very minor campus publication, The Faculty Newsletter.

There is a small display of the work of North Carolina writers in the foyer of the East Campus library.  Much of the display is dedicated to the late Professor William Blackburn of the Duke English Department.  What might be considered odd is that no example of his own writing is on display.  Instead he is honored by displaying the work of his students.  It is a very impressive group which includes Reynolds Price, William Styron, Ann Tyler, Doris Betts, James Applewhite, Fred Chapple and Josephine Humphreys.  To a large extent these students, these writers, credit their success to Professor Blackburn’s teaching.  I imagine there are scores of other former students who are not so successful writers who honor Professor Blackburn by their everyday success as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and citizens.

It is instructive to consider how faculty are honored today.  The Board of Trustees, president, provost, deans and department chairman might consider how the mission of the university is affected when over the course of several years every hiring, salary, promotion and tenure decision is made in favor of research performance over teaching performance.  Every faculty member might consider the lasting value of their latest academic paper as compared to the inspiration provided by a teacher such as Professor Blackburn.

Much has been written in recent years about the problems of education in the United States.  I believe many of the problems of higher education in this country are symptomatic of the fact that research is valued at the expense of teaching at virtually all of the top universities.  The faculty cannot serve two masters.  The level of teaching at Duke and other institutions has been slipping.  This is becoming obvious to the students.  In the spirit of Professor Blackburn it is high time that a more balanced view of the teaching and research roles of the faculty be promulgated from the highest levels of the university.  I believe this will be a national trend in the next decade.  It would be welcome if Duke was at the head of that trend.

Ira Katz
Adjunct Professor Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

The Options Wheel Stra... Publications, Freeman Best Price: $11.00 Buy New $15.75 (as of 02:37 UTC - Details) I am sure that it was not at all due to my influence, but in my old department at Duke there are now a handful (6/45) of “Professors of the Practice,” dedicated to teaching.

In any case, I didn’t even apply for faculty positions at major universities, but only at small schools teaching undergraduates. By happenstance, I spent the last years of my working life in corporate R&D where I found that I actually might have succeeded at developing a research program.

Somehow, despite my lack of ambition, I only recognize the enormous blessings I have received, including words of kindness from former students and colleagues who believe I have helped them along their own way, while my rejections and failures are dim memories. I can’t imagine any better measure of success.