19. Know Your Enemy!

Countless books and websites advise on ‘how to advance in academia’. Often their advice is good, necessary, important, and well worth following. On the other side is an enormous written and unwritten body of work on how to perform academic assessment[1], and each institution’s process is elaborated often in excruciating detail. By and large, however, this work ignores a critical factor in academic decision-making:

People assess the academic work and make the decisions, and the assessments and decisions are not private. Not private means that the assessments and decisions can or will be shared with other people.

Ideally the academic work is so good or so poor that the summary judgment is a foregone conclusion and immune to the issues I’ll describe. Sound advice is: strive to be that good if you are a candidate, or assess only cases that good or bad if you are a judge or juror. The vast majority of instances are in between, however. For them, if you are insistent on excellence in academic performance, either as a performer or a judge, sound advice is: Know your enemy![2]

Who’s your enemy? As developed elsewhere, he is us[3]. Academic promotion involves people judging people. While human minds are capable of dispassionate, consistent, and fair assessment and decision-making in academic promotion, they are also irrational – and that irrationality can bedevil academic promotion. Importantly, however, the irrationality is predictable[4]. As such, it can be avoided if need be, or intentionally triggered if need be.   “If you know the enemy…you need not fear the result.”[5]

If you were a wealthy defendant or litigant in a legal proceeding or a legal judge seeking due process, you might well hire consultants to cope with the cognitive psychology of the participants. As an academic assessor or assessee, you are probably on your own. Nonetheless, as Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot by just looking.”[6] The next few posts in this series (see below) will get you started. Legal psychology is an open book online, as is behavioral economics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and cognitive bias. Just look. If you’re smart enough to be an academic, you’re smart enough to understand this.

But will you? Answering this question is itself prone to cognitive bias, so you may not.   But cognitive tendencies can be restrained. It’s up to you.

In this series:

  • No matter how much ‘they’ seem like ‘us’, ‘they’ aren’t; design academic assessment and faculty development programs and communications in anticipation of this reality [The Dancing Fool Meets John Malkovich].
  • An enlightened attitude towards scholarship does no good unless the gatekeepers of publication, funding, and academic appointment and promotion buy in to it [Curve Ball].
  • Our normal behavior can interfere with high-quality peer review. Devise countermeasures. [Fishy behavior]
  • Cognitive biases can influence academic peer review, more so when review is done in groups. Even if this is rare, prudence dictates we anticipate it and combat it. [The Jury Is Still Out]
  • To faculty seeking promotion: Use the power of cognitive bias for good, not for evil [Give ’em the old razzle dazzle]

[1] For example, see http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/Good%20Practice%20in%20Tenure%20Evaluation.pdf

[2] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[3] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

[4] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[6] http://www.quoteworld.org/quotes/12139

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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