Posts Tagged ‘academic culture’

The Lost Art of Asking

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

On October 5-6, 2012, the Department of Medicine will celebrate its centennial with a symposium. In planning the agenda of speakers and sessions, the organizing committee left time for questions from the audience. As important as this interaction is, I am reminded of how rare it is to hear a good question after a presentation.

Commonly, the so-called questions are really comments. If forced to abide by the interrogative form, the questioner will add a perfunctory, “Don’t you agree?” Other times, the questions are rambling and disconnected from the speaker’s main argument. Sometimes I hear very specific methodological questions that interest only specialists.

What all these kinds of questions have in common is that they are more interested in showcasing the asker than eliciting an answer. I was relieved to read that other academics have the same pet peeve. Peter Wood from the National Association of Scholars describes a panel he participated in where none of the questions started with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how.”

In the service of restoring the A and A period to a Q and A, he offers several useful suggestions:

  1. Have a single point.
  2. Don’t ask clarifying factual details.
  3. Avoid talking about the question; just ask it.
  4. If someone else asks your question, put your hand down.
  5. Resist speaking for an entire category of people.
  6. At the same time, resist giving your autobiography.
  7. Add value to the conversation.

The burden to be witty may be too heavy, so just focus on being concise and curious.

Glass Ceiling or Sticky Floor?

Friday, April 8th, 2011

The theory used to go that women occupied fewer of the top ranksĀ  of academic medicine because fewer women possessed the necessary experience. The so-called “pipeline” problem has improved over the past decade as women make up half of all medical students. Yet, the proportion of women at the full professor level has not reached parity.

An NIH-funded study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine will apply the rigorous methods of drug trials to study the advancement of women in academic medicine. The investigators have randomly assigned different departments to an intervention and a control group. Junior women faculty in the intervention group will participate in two professional development programs: a manuscript writing course and a leadership training.

After four years, the investigators will gauge what they call the “Women’s Academic Culture Measure.” For them, the important unit of change is the department or division. They recognize that the obstacles to female faculty’s success are diffuse, what one researcher calls “a thousand pound of feathers.” Creating significant opportunities for all faculty will involve shifting not just individual minds but institutional culture.

Inside Peer Review

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I just read How Professors Think by Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont. In the book, Lamont goes behind the scenes of peer review by observing the deliberations of several nationally competitive grant panels. All universities talk in vague terms about valuing excellence, but in these concentrated deliberations, academics make plain what constitutes excellent work.

In interviews with 71 panel members–all seasoned professors–she asked what clues they look for in a grant proposal to signal excellence. Five qualities came up in over half the interviews:

  1. Significance (mentioned by 92% of respondents)
  2. Originality (89%)
  3. Clarity (61%)
  4. Methods (58%)
  5. Feasibility (51%)

These priorities indicate that the best proposals nail the big questions first. The applicant should start by asking, “Why does the research matter?” and “What is novel about my approach?” If those questions get answered clearly, then the proposal has won over the reviewers’ sympathy.

Lamont’s ethnography took place among panels evaluating humanities and social science awards, but its lessons hold true for the medical sciences as well.