Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Evaluating Professors

It's been more than a week since the shootings at University of Alabama -- Huntsville in which one biology professor killed three others and wounded more. In the interim I've been trying to wade through the mountain of comments to glean some truth from among the mean-spiritedness, militant nihilism, and snark. It takes me a while because after reading just a few blog posts or articles it's advisable to take a break for your own sanity.

A few points need constant re-emphasis and are often lost in the pile:
-- When evaluating Amy Bishop's work, effectiveness, genius, etc., you have to keep in mind her context. At least half of what's out there doesn't even try to add context. A lot of people assume that because she was a professor she was a near-genius, a lot of comments talk about the line between genius and insanity. You know, that's not really it. She was a rather ordinary professor, who knew a lot about biology and came up with a rather pedestrian invention that, who knows, could have sold some but was basically a robotic cell culture machine. There are some signs recently that she was pushing the envelope when it comes to publication: especially the "vanity press" article that appears to list her children as co-authors. But I have yet to see an actual evaluation of the content of that article, and she has about a dozen other papers that at the very least made it through peer review. It's weird that she's not last author, but it's funny how many people stop there and evaluate her as a simple crank. I just can't evaluate her yet, whether she deserved tenure at her institution or not, because her case looks borderline. I find it surprising how many people want to jump one way or the other because of preconceived notions of academia or the nature of the UAH campus.

-- The one reporter who tried to give context is the New York Times' Gina Kolata, but she seems to have called up a professor at Columbia, who flat-out remarked that Bishop would not be qualified for tenure there. Well, of course, I could see that by counting papers, but Columbia is a top research school and UAH is a different kind of school -- UAH is probably closer to the normal liberal-arts college than it is to Columbia. It's not an open-and-shut case either way. From the evidence I would say she probably doesn't deserve tenure, but you know, that's why there's a process with lots of people and lots of time. There's no evidence of politics or injustice on the surface at least. Again: borderline.

-- Bishop got an NIH AREA grant from 2008-2011. I know that mechanism well! They don't give those grants to big research institutions. They give them to primarily undergraduate institutions and similar schools. That right there shows you she could compete for some money, but also that she was out of the loop for big money. Not a genius: just a professor like the rest of us.

-- I read that the department chair (the first one shot...) was supporting Bishop's tenure bid. This can't be just about "I didn't get tenure so I'm going to shoot people." It was a contributing factor, perhaps the most significant one, but there must be other factors as well.

-- And of course the most depressing part is how everyone mines Bishop's past to come up with stereotypes whether positive or negative, to ride their favorite political hobbyhorse: Obama, gun control (pro and con!), the political nature of the tenure process, and even an Intelligent Design blog that points out (rather crudely) how she was listed as a resource for "Evolution Weekend" in which churches were encouraged to talk about Darwin from the pulpit. (And I probably have a whole post in me about that one, but not now!) Stop using her. Just stop. Look, I'm not going to stop going to pancake houses because Bishop had an altercation there, and I'm not going to stop teaching the citric acid cycle because Bishop taught it in class (presumably). The fact that she couldn't control her rage has nothing to do with "Evolution Weekend." Let's talk about pressure in academia instead, that's the big factor here.

It comes down to this: how does one fairly evaluate a professor? When someone doesn't get tenure, how can we make it so they're still useful and not at a dead end in life? If it's such a selective process, let's make sure we take care of those selected out rather than just the winners. And I'm hoping someday the Internet will grow up but I'm not counting on it happening any time soon.


http://www.ehow.com/members/stevemar2-articles.html said...

Amy Bishop is a monster! Keep her locked up!

BenMc said...

Yes, triple murderers should be locked up, not excused because of work stress. I can't change the past or recommend sentencing: this post isn't about what to do about Amy Bishop. It's about what she represents, what kind of professor she was, and what to do to try and stop these things before murders happen.

Juliet said...

Thanks for your post, Ben. This story kind of drifted off my radar when it first broke, but you've treated it thoughtfully and raised some interesting questions. It's probably every young academic's worst nightmare to be denied tenure (I think that anxiety is one thing that's prompted me and Justin to get professional degrees also), and what are you supposed to do if you've been denied tenure? especially scholars in the humanities, who don't have a lot of other career options.

Deanna said...

Well, I've never seen you fly off the handle at Red Robin when they were out of booster seats...

All joking aside, I think the problem that so many are pointing out is that there were SO MANY red flags in her behavior - especially in her personal life - that could have potentially stopped this carnage before it was even a possibility (especially the shooting of her brother back in 1986 that all authorities now seem to agree was definitely mishandled). She might have been a good teacher, a decent professor (though some former students definitely have issues with her and took them to the department head to be addressed), and bright enough in her field, but there is a deeply troubled personality at work that I think finally caused her to snap professionally.

And do you remember when we went to go see Gina Kolata at Elliot Bay Bookstore? She had just published her book on the flu epidemic of 1918. That was over ten years ago... yikes. We're getting old.

BenMc said...

Yes, there's definitely a miscarraige of justice, and the more details come out about the shooting of her brother the more it looks really bad for her and the police department. Now, since that was swept under the rug I don't think it's a problem to be laid at the feet of UAH at all -- I wouldn't be able to find that when hiring a colleague and I don't think they would either.

I think the basic problem of trying to keep this from happening again is the isolated nature of the classroom. All we have to evaluate her on is interviews with scattered students, the RateMyProfessor site (which she may have "gamed"!), and the published scholarly work. When she was evaluated, she was rejected, probably fairly, but she was able to convince herself it was unfair and injust.

Decidedly a mixed bag. How is a department supposed to find these "warning signs" especially in a culture that tolerates eccentric professors because they're supposedly geniuses? We aren't geniuses, we're teachers who also do experiments. (Even her research plan: trying to overturn an entire theory of disease: is hubristic, reaching too high.) The thing I'd like the national media to acknowledge is that all professors aren't geniuses (and stop pressuring people like Bishop to feel like they have to BE geniuses to be a prof!). Her research wasn't that great but it had something to it, and the police really messed up by calling her brother's death an accident. The isolated nature of academic work let her hide out till she snapped. Of all these factors, that isolated nature (and the problem of true and early evaluation!) is what I think I can work to change personally.