Honesty in Academia

I have been working on an idea with Gardner and Jeff regarding the First Year Seminars we will each be teaching next fall. The topics of the seminars range from ‘Banned and Dangerous Art” to “When Americans Came Marching Home: The Veteran in U.S. History.” The premise of the idea is simple: even though we are all teaching seminars on different topics, the overarching goal of the seminars is the same: to introduce students to the life of the mind; as such it’s not unlikely that, at least at the beginning of the term, we will be discussing similar themes. Why not pool our efforts to develop some notes/text resources for those themes in common, especially since not all of us are experts on them? We could then share them with any FSEM faculty who would like to use them.

I’ve started drafts on three of these themes: ”What Do We Know?” on the nature of and advance of knowledge, “What is Scholarly Writing (and how it may differ from what freshman learned in high school)? and “Why Citing Sources is Not Just a Way to Avoid Getting in Trouble for Plagiarism.”

After discussing the project with Gardner and Jeff and obtaining agreement that this was worth trying, I found myself strangely reluctant to share my drafts with them, afraid they’d think the work was lame or reductive or something. Then I realized that if I couldn’t share with my friends, how could I expect other faculty to do the same?

Last Friday, I discussed this reluctance with Martha who helped me see a way through. The discussion went something like this:

Martha: It’s funny how our own anxieties can take hold even in the spaces and activities we seek to promote. There’s a lesson there.

Steve: A big lesson, but how do we teach our broader colleagues. I’d venture to say that virtually every faculty member feels this way about their work, or at least their lecture notes.

Martha: I’m sure you’re right. And yet, we want students to take these risks.

Steve: Yes. Do as I say, not as I do. Not because I can’t do, but because I’m too important to do it, and after all, I’ve done it before, so I don’t need to do it now.

Martha: Ultimately, this seems to me to be about fear and trust.

Steve: Yes. And I took a lot of courses on those in grad school. NOT!

Martha: Trust, risk, fear.

Martha: A required class for all freshmen?

Steve: Or, a required class for all faculty?

Martha: Exactly.

Steve: Yet, I suspect that many faculty would argue that this isn’t part of their job, that their job is to teach (independent) courses and to be left alone to do their research. If they had to take a class (on trust, risk and fear), that would imply or create some intellectual community.

Martha: Funny. I guess research doesn’t need a community?

Steve: Yes, but usually that community is off-campus.

Martha Burtis says: Why?

Steve: Because at least in most schools, departments aren’t big enough to have more than one person in your area of expertise. That’s how I met my friend Steve DeLoach down at Elon with whom I wrote three papers on electronic discussion.

Martha: That presumes that the only colleagues worth collaborating with are in your own area of expertise. How do we promote ideas of interdisciplinarity to students with THAT mentality?

Steve: Well, it’s the reality at least in the social sciences, and I suspect in other disciplines, that we’ve become so specialized that people in other departments either aren’t interested or are perceived as not having the expertise to give intelligent comments.

Martha: Communities need to be able to embrace connections forged through deep specialization as well as diverse expertise.

Steve: Well, yes. But that’s not where most of us are right now.

Martha: How do we get there?

Martha: One answer: Expose the connection-making.

Steve: One colleague at a time… is my answer. Gardner thinks it will take enlightened leadership to make this happen broadly. Probably the answer is all of these things.

Steve: I think it’s regretful that I don’t know what my colleagues in economics are doing in their courses or in their research until we share vitas and faculty activity reports to complete peer reviews at the end of the year. I have more active collaborators outside of my dept than within.

Martha: That’s just crazy. Not surprising, but crazy.

Steve: I also think it’s unproductive for students that I don’t know what my colleagues are doing in their courses. Could we be duplicating effort where it’s not necessary? Shouldn’t my subsequent course build on what was done in the prerequisite? But how can I do that if I don’t know (beyond very broadly) what students do there?

Martha: Exactly! It’s the thing that always strikes me about Faculty Academy — it’s this rare opportunity at UMW to expose the work that faculty are doing across (and within!) departments.

[End of discussion]

I’ve think I’ve found a solution to my reluctance. Since I’m reluctant to share my thinking with my colleagues, instead I’ll share it with the world–or at least the blogosphere. Once I’ve gone public, I’ll also share it more directly with my UMW colleagues. I’ve posted the first document, “How Do We Know?” on a wiki here. If you’d like to revise it or comment on it, let me know and I’ll send you the login information.

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4 Responses to Honesty in Academia

  1. Gardner says:

    Terrific post. Wow.

    Login info, please!

  2. Isaac says:

    I am very intersted in this problem of communication between specialties, the barriers to interdisciplinary work, etc. Economics seems to mesh well with some disciplines, such as computer science or mathematics, but in these instances it seems economics is only interested in using those fields as tools. The kind of cooperation and mutual respect for ideas that would be required for, say, a collaborative effort between cultural anthropology and economics, does not seem to be there right now.

    In any event, I’ll probably be writing about this in my blog as I have time to develop it further. However, I hope you’ll work towards opening lines of communication between econ and computer science and math departments for more cross-disciplinary STUDENT research. It would be immensely rewarding for both sides, I think.

    I’ll be taking a look at your paper, soon.

  3. Debbie Zies says:


    Thanks for visiting my blog. I am curious how you knew so quickly that I had entered this world?! I already feel inadequate because I don’t know how to make “my blog” into a link to my blog!! I see a LOT of questions for Andy (my IT guy) in his future!!

    My freshman seminar is called “Back to the Future: How Scientists of the Past Influence Our Lives Today”. I am teaching it along with Jay McGhee, a visiting professor here in the Biology Department. Interestingly, this comment speaks to your post on Academic Honesty. I suppose one of the few advantages to being a new teacher is that I’m less afraid that my colleagues will think I am lame. It somewhat “OK” to be out the not really sure of what I am doing. Jay is also new, so we spend some time discussing the fact that we have no clue how this FSEM is going to turn out. We are excited, however, about plunging in. I am very interested in your set of common tools for FSEM. I learned a lot from attending the FSEM workshop at the end of last term. I am in favor of some sort of proposal that the FSEM should not fit into the ATC requirements, but instead have its own set of requirements that all FSEM courses would have in common. Your tools fit very well into that idea even if they must be modified to fit a particular discipline. I looked at your wiki and would be happy to add to or comment on material there if you provide the login. Andy also told me that he was working on a meeting for FSEM teachers regarding the use of blogs and other technology for the course. I am planning to participate in that as well.

    “Engaging Ideas” is a book by John Bean. It is a guide to integrating writing, critical thinking and active learnng into your classroom. It has been enlightening for me. This past year it was all that I could do to put together something to say each day for my courses. I am excited about do more that just lecture in the coming year. This book has been both motivating and full of ideas I can use.

    Back to bloggin for a second. The other thing I didn’t know was how to subscribe to your blog. I don’t see where I get your RSS feed to add you to the feeds I receive?

    Thanks again for your comments. The web is a great place to be.

  4. Pingback: Research as a Knowledge Creating activity « Philosonomics

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