academics, change and a bad light bulb joke

Before I get rolling on this one, let me say that I love working at a university.  I love the variety of things that I get to do over the course of a day or a week, a month or the whole of an academic year, from teaching and working with students, through spending some time with research projects and questions that I’ve been carrying around for various lengths of time, and on through (gasp, shock, horror) committee work and university administration and the conversations that can shape how the university functions.

However, despite being at the forefront of the discovery and creation of new knowledge and the generation of connections between different areas of human endeavour, universities can be somewhat conservative in their outlook.   I find myself pondering the why of this, sometimes encouraged by the discussions going on around me at the time, and I’ve realized that an oft-times unfair caricature can be found in an old joke.

How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?

My preferred answer, which I like to give as the respondent to whom I’m telling the joke starts running through numbers under their breath (probably more than 1, but as many as 10?), is CHANGE?!?!?! with a mock offended tone to my voice. Though the joke, and the sentiment behind it, is not unique to universities, it does play to the stereotype of the academic sitting in their cluttered office, squinting perhaps at the sheets of pictures of long-graduated students taped to their walls, muttering under their breath that today’s students couldn’t hold a candle to the students back in their day.

In truth, the reasons that universities struggle with change are the same reasons that cause everyone else to struggle with change.   Change is harder than stability.  For instance, physical infrastructure, once put into place, can be difficult and expensive to change, and in a world that is increasingly virtual, we need to spend more of our time and effort being clever about how we use these.  And we’re doing this, in part because we have to, like everyone else, and in part because we want to.

There is one part of dealing with change that I personally find fascinating.  As a mathematician, some of what I teach are things that are not particularly new.  Mathematics is a beautifully hierarchical subject (about which I’m sure I’ll say more in future posts) and we need to have an appreciation for the older stuff so that the newer stuff makes sense.  But we can still and so bring in examples from yesterday and today.  We can also make use of the technology that changes from one instance of a module to the next a year later.  I like using Twitter in large lectures to give the students a different avenue for asking questions and correcting perceived mistakes (always deliberate on my part, don’t you know).  But enough for now and more to come.

~ by Jim Anderson on 3 May 2015.

One Response to “academics, change and a bad light bulb joke”

  1. […] am an academic and I have something in me that reacts to change as any academic reacts to change.  Living in a world of change, particularly uncomfortable change, is tiring, and perhaps this is […]

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