Slow Science

I’ve heard a number of calls for faculty to slow down, think, and write. This is the latest, by Allison Adams from Emory University. I’m trying, but it’s hard.

Why slow down? Essentially, thinking is hard work. In the rat-race for funding and bums on seats it is easy to forget that the essential fuel of it all is new ideas. New ideas are my rate limiting step1.

The notion of slowing down is powerfully attractive when my schedule fills up with classes, administrative meetings, and deadlines of all sorts. The pace of my days accelerates dramatically during the semester. Every week comes with multiple deadlines. Get the minutes out for the last Undergraduate Committee meeting. Prepare the handouts for tomorrow’s class. Grade the homeworks from last week. Finish that review. I didn’t become an academic because of my good time management skills. But I sure need them now.

Slowing down is the wrong metaphor. What’s needed, at least for me, is a narrower scope. Rather than chase every shiny thing I come across I need to be laser focused on a few things. As my colleague Larkin Powell keeps saying, increased focus means saying no. Alot.

Take blogging as an example. Looking at my posts, and especially the unpublished ones, I’ve got posts on philosophy, statistics, coding, climate, theoretical ecology, teaching, and management of higher education. That’s not focus. No wonder I’m not having original thoughts.

My ecological statistics course is another source of scatterbrainedness. So often I’m talking with a student about their project and I say “you know, your data really needs METHODX”. Almost immediately

I don’t know how to do METHODX, but now I feel like I need to figure it out, because it is in fact, the best approach for that student’s data. I learn alot every time I teach that course. Often students include me on papers. But … no original ideas.

The solution, according to Adams, is to create spaces and times where faculty can get together to write and think. A shared spacetime holds faculty accountable to the group and possibly creates new interdisciplinary connections. I like this idea alot. At UNL the Peer Review of Teaching project creates this shared spacetime for faculty to think about pedagogy and document the scholarship of learning. It was a fantastic experience. Doing it with a research focus would be a great idea.

I am also a skeptic. The absolute easiest way to learn about other disciplines is to attend our weekly department seminar. In our unit faculty can’t find even one hour a week to attend unless the seminar topic is directly related to their work. We constantly try new ways to incentivize attendance. Bring in big name speakers less often is the latest effort. A previous director tried that too, and it didn’t work then either.

For me, writing isn’t really the problem. I can write. But if I don’t have an original idea I don’t have much to write about. I need to take time to read. To write computer code. To do math. And, I need to narrow the focus of those activities so that actual results follow.

Hm. Might be a good spot to stop blogging and get ready for class.


  1. All the code for this post, including that not shown, can be found here. ^
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