Thursday, July 17, 2008

Striving for relevance

Here are a few muddled thoughts about striving for relevance, a subject oft discussed at coffee tables, faculty lunches and the like here in scenic IISc and I am sure in other research Institutes in the country, and certainly on blogs. The main issue issue is research institutes vs. teaching institutes / institutions / Universities. The first question that pops to mind is why "vs.". There is a general trend now to believe that these should assist one another. I, on the other hand, want to talk about something completely different: this has to do with a certain implicit assumption that those in reserach institutes have plenty of time on their hands, while those in teaching institutes do not, as they are busy preparing for classes, tutorials, lab sessions, etc.. The latter may very well be true, but my question is whether the former is true. One thing that I can simply say off the bat, is that if one is spending a lot of time teaching, it is going to be very hard to find time for research. In a given subfield, it would be easily demonstrable that if number of publications of a given individual is taken as a yardstick, then those who are very busy teaching will have smaller numbers. Conversely, those who are in research institutes will have rather long list of publications, relatively speaking. Now my contention is that in order to actually accomplish this latter, one really does have to work very hard indeed. In fact, even in many of our research institutes, one has to really slog like crazy to get even a piece of work done, do the reading and research, finish the work, write up the results and publish. If one were to do all this sincerely, it would certainly not leave much time. Atleast that is my experience. In other words, it is clear that if one is teaching (a lot) then there is no question of having to strive for relevance, as the work you do justifies what you are paid for. It is my contention here that if one were to work very hard on research and publications,
which are what we have to show for work (not silly gross numbers --- but publication in the sense of the dictionary meaning: the act of bringing before the public; announcement.) then why this anxiety about relevance? Working in a research institute is just like any profession, terms of which are fairly clear. If one is true to this mandate then is there a real need to strive for relevance?

Caveat: I am not getting into the quagmire of those who are inactive in these research institutes. Such subjects are being discussed elsewhere on the blogosphere.


iisc. said...

I agree to the thought.

On a side note, even if a faculty member wishes to get into a research institute, he may get into a teaching institute for various reasons. In such cases, if they strive for publications, they have some options:
1. Having teaching assistants.
2. Having co-tutors (can be doubly useful if the co-tutor is from industry).
3. Getting students to present a few advanced topics -- either from the class or from the senior class.

Anant said...

Dear iisc.

Thanks for the comments.