January 11, 2006

Feedback Loops and Incentives

Confessions of a Community College Dean has it absolutely right about things all being set up wrong, in this post about the lack of positive incentives.

I think of it as being a feedback loop that is set up the wrong way, to encourage negative behaviour instead of positive behaviour. The most general example of this in academia is probably that to do things properly, it takes more time (for negligible extra benefit), and that can really encourage lots of academics to cut corners they shouldn't be cutting, when workloads are high.

Some more examples:

  • One week during a lecture course, you think of something fantastic you can provide as extra for your students' benefit. In subsequent weeks, they all want it again...
  • If you are helpful towards students towards whom you have pastoral duties, advising them helpfully over their degree programme, you are rewarded with more students coming to you asking for help, and when you say "But why don't you ask your own adviser?", they say "My adviser isn't very helpful and I heard you were helpful".
  • The more helpful and timely you are at replying to students' emails, the more you end up having to deal with.
  • You have more-than-average numbers of office hours, well-advertised. You then get even more students knocking at your door, turning up at any time they feel like in the hope you'll solve their problems.
  • The lecturers who hide too much doing work at home, or who delete the contents of their stuffed inboxes have their lack of communicativeness rewarded with a lack of communication bombardment, unlike the rest of us, who get simultaneously rewarded with the need for more time spent trying to communicate with uncommunicative colleagues on essential issues.
  • If you turn up to departmental meetings (unlike some of your colleagues), then you get lumbered with more work to do. It's amazing that anyone attends meetings at all.
    (This may vary from dept to dept, it's conceivable that somewhere out there there's a department that specialises in landing work on the non-attenders.)
  • If you go to the trouble to detect plagiarism in assignments, it takes a lot of time to deal with the results of your findings, and not only that, but the overall results for that lecture course are going to be worse than if you did no detection at all, thus making you look bad. Plus if your detection rate is good, then it's going to raise eyebrows as to why all these students are plagiarising in YOUR course. *Sigh*.
  • In mid-winter, if you're working late in the office, there's probably some light seeping underneath your door. Guess who is going to get a knock on the door when someone needs some random assistance? Not the lecturer who went home at 4pm.
  • If you didn't chase up AWOL students supposed to be doing projects, you'd have fewer hours taken up by student supervisions.
  • When all the lecturers are encouraged to suggest proposals for student project work, the lecturers who do what is asked are "rewarded" by having more students to supervise, which is more work to do that is generally not compensated for.

The last of these does have a small amount of positive feedback though, in that if you suggest some interesting proposals in a timely fashion, then you are a) more likely to get good students to supervise, and b) you get to supervise work on topics which are more likely to be interesting to you because you came up with them in the first place.

This isn't to say that there aren't any feedback loops with the incentives set up correctly, it's just that in academia there seem to be an awful lot of situations where poor effort gets rewarded.


At 5:01 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least one of the problems can be solved: At my former department, people absent from the weekly meetings were nominated for the work to do, i.e., you had to come to fend off tasks.

At 7:50 pm, Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

Here via New Kid -- Yep, at my old college, there was a time-honored tradition of committee members assigning the heading of a committee to persons who didn't show up!

At 8:04 pm, Blogger Lossy said...

Presumably in such a culture there is the danger of very long meetings because everyone is there?


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