You might be deadwood if...

May 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Terry, over at SmallPondScience, has a post up about the misuse of the term "deadwood" and how many who are labeled as such are still deadicated to their jobs, but have inadvertently drifted away from what we consider productive colleagues. These colleagues have become driftwood.

You might be driftwood if your teaching relies on concepts that date back to your grad school days more than what you’ve learned since then.

You might be driftwood if you have trouble publishing an article because no solid journal thinks that the topic is important.

You might be driftwood if you are uncomfortable telling your students “I don’t know” because you fear that you are supposed to know.

You might be driftwood if you’re avoiding a specific research agenda not because you lack the tools but because you lack the information.

You might be driftwood if you find yourself disagreeing with most of the junior faculty about research standards or contemporary teaching approaches.

You might be driftwood if you rely on skills you learned in grad school that aren’t being taught in grad school anymore.

I am not the type of person who thinks productivity is strictly based on publications and grant money. I think PIs who give up the grant game and take on other departmental responsibilities are critical to a well functioning department that values education. If one of my less research active colleagues steps up to teach a course that a well funded colleague needs to move out of to maintain their research load, I believe that's a good departmental model. But that's not always how it works, is it?

While I think Terry's assessment might be true for his experiences, I don't think it is universal. Nor are mine of course, but across several research-centric institutions I have witnessed some fairly blatant abuse of tenure privileges. I've certainly seen people who could be described as "mailing it in", but I doubted they would take the time to find a stamp*. To me, those deserving of the deadwood label put no effort into any aspect of their job and cause students to file complaints on a regular basis. While I agree with Terry that there are fewer of these people than legend would lead one to believe, they are not "rare".

So allow me to get the ball rolling:

You might be deadwood if you spend more time on your various litigious activities against the university than any scholarly pursuit.

You might be deadwood if your vacation schedule mirrors that of the undergrads.

You might be deadwood if you haven't updated a lecture, submitted a manuscript or proposal since 19somethingorother.

You might be deadwood if people wonder aloud whether your office is still occupied.

You might be deadwood if you fiercely defend your lab space that hasn't been entered in many years.

You might be deadwood if you haven't had money for research since the first Bush administration, but fight to take on graduate students every year.

You might be deadwood if you accept service responsibilities (under pressure from above) and then never perform that function.

I'm sure readers will have some other definitions.

*While "emailing it in" might be more appropriate to the effort level, it's not clear if these folks know how their email works or even check it if they did.

5 responses so far

  • Hahahaaaaa! I am surrounded by so much deadwood I could write a book about them ... post-tenure perhaps. A couple of additions to PLS's list:

    You might be deadwood if you are offered grad students and seed money but reject both citing the burden of your heavy teaching load which is killing your ability to do the groundbreaking research you were born to do ... if only you were given a chance.

    You might be deadwood if you rant about the unfairness of your heavy teaching load relative to your junior colleagues even though you actually teach far less than they do and have no additional service or research responsibilities.

    You might be deadwood if you blame your stalled research productivity on your junior colleagues' success even though you haven't published a paper since your junior colleagues were in elementary school.

    Sigh. And the list goes on.

  • Heavy says:

    Nice to hear from you PiT. You're alive!

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Hmmm ...

    My first thought here is that I should, once again, be appreciative of the luck that landed me in a department with colleagues who are pretty much the exact opposite of deadwood (and thank them for fighting the good fight, day in and day out).

    My second is that someone should probably mount a detailed study of the mechanisms by which faculty are transformed into deadwood in the instances where it happens. I imagine there are some real risk-factors implicit in some of those descriptions. For example, not being able to say no to requests that you serve on a committee could result in one being on so many committees that you end up not being able to make a meaningful contribution to any of them. (Maybe this type of deadwood is best described as "veneer", wood spread in a very thin layer? Surely this is different from "stump in the middle of the path" deadwood, whose primary effect is to obstruct ...)

    But possibly I'm just getting interested in subtypes and causal trajectories to put off grading final exams.

  • Terry says:

    Great list.

    You might be deadwood if you ask the admin person to unclog your dot matrix printer.

    You might be deadwood if you hit on an undergraduate only to discover that she's a junior faculty member of your department.

    You might be deadwood if there's a cardboard box with your name on it next to the mailboxes because your mailbox is chronically overstuffed.

  • Terry says:

    In my experience with a few CSU campuses, including my own, deadwood is very rare. Perhaps because senior faculty who took these jobs decades ago probably didn't have to take this one job and they chose it principally to teach and are committed to the students. Driftwood, on the other hand, is absent in my department as well, but there is plenty of that to go around.

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