What to reward?

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Leandro Boonzaaier asks us to question what is rewarded within our academic systems and critically reflect on the metrics that we use to evaluate ourselves.

It has been said that people do what they are rewarded for. What is being rewarded in our current academic system? A short, admittedly perhaps not complete answer, would be that for faculty members it is the number of publications in peer reviewed journals, and depending on the discipline, how much money your research brings in. For students, it would be good grades and being top achievers. Now the next question is: “What are the rewards?” For faculty members it is promotion, potentially more funding and prestige. For students, it is passing courses, scholarships, obtaining their degrees and ultimately the prospect of employment.

A question that naturally arises is whether these metrics (that which is being rewarded) are accurate reflections of the state of affairs. For example, do good grades necessarily mean that a student has a thorough understanding of the course material? It certainly can mean that, but it isn’t guaranteed. Good grades could simply mean a student scored well on the tests. Do more published articles mean someone is a good researcher? In short, are our metrics measuring what we want them to measure, or are they simply proxies for far more complex phenomena? I cannot presume to answer these questions here, and it is certainly not my intention to pretend to have answers for them. I merely pose these questions to provoke thought.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

For most of my student and professional life (as a faculty member) I was trying to score the good grades and publish more. In a sense, I was competing against “the system” and also indirectly with my peers. He who publishes more, wins. Unfortunately, stress and ill-health were the only rewards I received from the system. It took me quite some time to realise that the metrics used by the system were not necessarily an accurate reflection of my abilities. For the sake of preserving my health, I eventually exited the formal academic system nearly six years ago.

I am not saying that all forms of competition are bad. Certainly, there are contexts where competition makes sense. I am simply asking whether the metrics we use to measure success in academia are appropriate, and what their ultimate effects are on students and faculty members. To what extent do we allow the results of the competition, in the sense discussed above, to determine our identities and self-worth?

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I still compete, but now with myself. For me it has now become a matter of whether I can understand enough of a topic to be able to do something useful with it. I am no longer driven by an arbitrary, external measure. I am still outside the formal academic system, but I have started collaborating with academics on research projects again. However, without the pressure of my potential promotion being dependent on the number of publications, I find myself enjoying research again. This was the very thing that attracted me to academia in the first place – I could do what I enjoy and get paid for it.

To say what exactly should be rewarded is difficult. No matter what one decides on, it will not be able to capture all the subtleties associated with human beings and their activities. We are simply far too complex. However, I do think we could do with taking a step back and looking at our current reward systems in academia and asking whether they do what we think they do, or what we want them to do.

Leandro Boonzaaier

Independent Consultant

Self-employed and consults on various things, independently.

by Laylaa Motola
Meme by Laylaa Motola

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