Never waste a good crisis

It’s impossible to write about 2020 without resorting to clichés. Yes, it was weird buying the groceries with a facemask on, keeping 1.5 meter distance from other customers. Yes, I missed meeting colleagues and students in person, having trad sessions in the pub, and going to Roadburn with my brother. Yes, I’m also sick and tired of conspiracy theorists undermining science and public health. Yes, I’m also happy to see the back of this shitty year. But for me the best way to characterize this year, or for me personally the last couple of years, is the cliché from just after the Second World War, when the world lay in ruins and Winston Churchill urged world leaders not to miss this opportunity to make sure we do better next time.

Never waste a good crisis

It was March, we were having our third strategy meeting with our new Chair, Francisco Alpízar, and Francisco informed us that from the next day onwards we were strongly urged to work at home. All meetings and all education would have to take place online. We could only briefly enter the office to collect what we needed to do our job.

By that time the Wageningen University education IT system had just migrated from Blackboard to Brightspace, and we were in the middle of setting up our courses in that new system. For many of us Blackboard was no more than a place to make our slides available to the students, but Brightspace offered many more possibilities to enrich our teaching with online quizzes, discussion boards, and online lectures. The university had also been pushing the flipped-classroom model amongst its teaching staff, but so far with mixed success. In an old-fashioned Dutch university course, teachers use lectures to summarize course material that students can principally also find in their book. There are many drawbacks to this model: not least the overlap between lecture and written text, which is why many students either skip the text or the lecture, but also the fact that all students are offered the same material regardless of their prior knowledge. The flipped-classroom approach expects students to study the material in advance because the lecture will build on that material, rather than rehash it. Converting my course on cost-benefit analysis to the flipped-classroom model had been on my to-do list for a long time.

So that’s what I did. I figured that lockdown was the perfect excuse to have students study the reading material and watch a bunch of video clips before discussing the material in an online session. Francisco, who contributed to the course, was stuck in Costa Rica with a poor internet connection and a nine-hour time difference, so online lectures were a no-go for him anyway. It’s been a hell of a job converting my lectures to video clips and making online exercises, but it was worth it. Evaluations were pretty good and I enjoyed the discussions we had despite not meeting in person. I also noticed that online sessions allow for things that are more difficult to do in person, such as interactive polls. Hopefully the new set-up allows us to tailor the material to the diversity of students, which is a perpetual issue in Wageningen, and to make our teaching more engaging. In any case, there is no way I’m going back to the old model for this course – on the contrary, more likely I will also flip the classroom in other courses.

Never waste a good crisis

I left the tenure track near the end of 2019, and 2020 is the year that my position officially changed from that of associate professor to senior lecturer. It feels like being dumped by your partner and realizing that the two of you should have parted ways a long time ago. I had been struggling for some years to find my own research focus and to find enough time to work on my publications besides my teaching obligations, which were admittedly excessive. My next up-or-out moment was coming up, but my chances were slim. I had not realized a single publication in 2019 and I had had limited success in recruiting new PhD candidates. My course evaluations, on the other hand, were very positive. So when Francisco suggested I move out of the tenure track and into a lecturer position I may have had some misgivings to overcome but not many.

Those misgivings had everything to do with the deeply ingrained sense in Academia that the people doing the cutting-edge research are the Real McCoy, and all the others, from teachers to IT folks to secretaries to canteen staff, are a mere derivative of those scientific front soldiers. Nobody wins a Nobel Prize for teaching; the university rankings that students use for their school choice depend disproportionally on research. I felt like Butch in Pulp Fiction, being told by Marcellus to “fuck pride” and betray what he once regarded his calling in life.

But I was already getting fed up with the system. The extreme competition in Academia, combined with managers’ obsession with metrics, has created a situation where overwork and conformism have become the norm. It is a habitat where alpha males, or athlete scientists if you will, have become the dominant species at the expense of methodological and theoretical diversity. This applies to Academia in general, but even more so to the economics discipline. Behavioural and experimental economics may be all the rage in the top journals, but economists’ obsession with being the fundamental physics of social science still narrows their perspective. Meanwhile the paper that I’m most proud of so far is on wicked problems, which I like to tell my students are not rocket science – they are a lot more difficult because they cannot be formalized. It is a direction I want to explore further, in collaboration with sociologists and anthropologists, but that would have been nigh impossible to defend to a promotion committee full of economists. Hopefully my lecturer position allows me to venture further out of the box and the mainstream, and do stuff that inspires me.

I am also worried about the values that this hypercompetitive system teaches our students. Just this week I got a thank-you note from one of my thesis students who highly appreciated my urging to find a healthy work-life balance. I believe this is important – too many people get burnouts because they think they should. In a system where scientists tell each other they should have field trips instead of vacations, what do we teach students about maintaining their own mental health? We often make the mistake of assuming that academic education means stuffing textbook theories in youngsters’ minds, but to be a functioning academic also means being able to stand up for yourself, your values, your ideas, and your health in a demanding work environment.

Never waste a good crisis

Perhaps these ruminations are just a symptom of that other cliché, that crisis a guy my age is supposed to go through. I strongly believe there are two varieties of the midlife crisis. The malign variety is what most of us know from jokes and stories. It is the actual cliché of the sports car, the ill-conceived tattoo, and the trading of a stable long-term relationship for a new adventure with a much younger partner. The benign variety involves a shift from ambition and status as prime motivations to value and meaning, and from sleepwalking through the day-to-day distractions to developing a keener awareness of one’s place in the world. Both the malign and the benign variety stem from reaching a dead center in one’s life, either because you have reached all your goals or realize you will never reach them; and realizing that you are closer to the grave than to the cradle. In the malign midlife crisis people try to hide from their mortality in illusions of eternal youth; in the benign midlife crisis they become an adult at last.

Moving from a tenure-track position to a lecturer position fits neatly in that shift. The tenure track system is all about extrinsic motivation: you are only as good as other people think you are. I have never been an athlete academic, and it can be difficult to distinguish the things you want to do from the things you should do and the things you think you should want to do. Being a lecturer allows me to live more keenly by my personal values, i.e. to be creative and to make a difference in people’s lives, rather than the expectations of others.

I guess I have also become more spiritual, but I don’t like the term. “Spirituality” suggests a free-wheeling flirtation with superstition, half-understood religion, and pseudoscience. The disorganized sort of magical thinking that makes people refuse facemasks and vaccines, and waste their money on homeopathy and bioresonance machines. What I mean is a practice that develops a sense of perspective and reflection, as traditionally offered by religion. Two and a half years ago I found myself in a real-life koan: a situation that could not be solved by cognitive reasoning. It inspired me to take up zen meditation again, and ever since I start every day staring at a wall for half an hour. Zen goes straight to the heart of the matter without expecting us to take anything for granted. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but as far as I know zen Buddhism is the only religion that emphasizes great doubt as a virtue.

Never waste a good crisis

Will we come out of this crisis as better people? Will we build a more just and sustainable society on the ruins left by corona? At the beginning of this crisis 170 Dutch social and environmental scientists published an op-ed arguing just that. I find that their manifesto smacks of wishful thinking. Some of us may have rediscovered the importance of friends, family, art, and simplicity, and the futility of material pursuits and distant vacations. But we have also seen the erosion of science, journalism, and other democratic institutions all over the so-called free world, and especially in the United States, its purported leader. The first lockdown was characterized by a burst of solidarity and good will; the current one by anger, paranoia, and egocentrism. The good things may be limited to small practical changes: saving travel time by meeting online, being more flexible to work from a remote location, making education more engaging with online videos and exercises.

Whether those other positive changes come about depends on the choices you and I make. One of my favourite koans puts it succinctly:

A monk said to Chao Chou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.”
Chao Chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”
The monk said, “Yes, I have.”
Chao Chou said, “Wash your bowl.”
The monk understood.

That is all we can do: wash our bowls.

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