Now that I’ve started my new tech gig, I’ve been reflecting on the issue of remote work. (The company I work for is fully remote.) Here are some thoughts about remote work, academia, and the latter’s attitude towards the former.
In March 2020, I was still living in the Washington DC area, working at the University of Maryland. When the first COVID lockdowns happened, I decamped to Rochester, where my then-girlfriend (now wife) lived & worked. After a few weeks, UMD announced that it was switching to remote instruction for the time being. (If I remember correctly, they announced it piecemeal: initially declaring that remote-work would last for a couple of weeks; then extending it a little longer; and eventually biting the bullet and declaring that the rest of the school-year would be remote.)
I know for a fact that several of my colleagues disliked working from home. And I know that work from home is not right for everyone, nor is it even possible for everyone, at least not on a permanent basis. But I soon learned that it was definitely right for me. Over the next two years and change, I worked, taught, and advised remotely.
I did come to campus on several occasions during this period, and when I was there, I taught and conducted meetings in person, just like in the Before Times. Except unlike before, the urge to contrast & compare this with the remote experience was now especially salient to me. My own personal verdict was this: meetings with graduate advisees were nicer to have in person, whereas classes were nicer to teach remotely. But really, each had their pros and cons. For example: during my remote-work “era”, I offered each of my grad advisees the possibility of recording our meetings (the recordings, if they opted in, would of course be stored in an authentication-protected location). Several of them made use of this possibility to rewatch portions of our meeting, or to just generally lessen the use-it-or-lose-it nature of live notetaking during meetings. Something similar was true for recordings I made of (some of) the classes that I taught, too.
But my goal here isn’t to litigate whether academics working remotely is flat-out “better” or “worse”, because it is beyond obvious that it is not either of those things without reservation. Like most everything else in life, it’s better for some people, and worse for others.
The real question I want to address here is why academia is so goddamned terrified of it.
Just to get this out of the way: it’s obvious that if remote work were to be offered to the general faculty, and a significant portion of them chose this option, then universities would have to rethink a significant portion of their value proposition. Oh noes! The humanity. And if you’re one of the apparatchiks who oversees line-items on the university budget like “revenue from campus-residence rent”, I’m sure you shudder at the thought. But that doesn’t explain why so many people closer to the bottom of the org chart than the top still had such a visceral, rejectionist reaction to the idea of a permanent remote-work option for university faculty.
This, too, probably does not have one single answer of course. It’s probable that different remote-work obstructionists took up this position for different reasons. That said, I think one major motivating factor underlying this rejectionist stance is that remote work has a way of exposing institutional dead-weight. To illustrate this, let me tell you a little story.
The time is early fall 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has been raging for about 18 months at this point, but university administrators are plowing ahead with a “return-to-campus” mandate. The first generation of COVID vaccines has already been made available, but a variety of populations are not yet approved to receive these vaccines. Of these, the group most relevant to our story is young children.
A friend & colleague of mine, who is faculty at another university, has a very young child. Their university is mandating a no-exceptions return to campus, and my friend has posted about this on their personal facebook feed. They’re scared that they’ll catch COVID on campus and give it to their unvaccinated (and, at the time, unvaccinatable) child. I proceed to leave a comment on their post, saying that they should just tell their university that they have COVID symptoms, since the university will then be forced – by overriding health regulations – to let them teach remotely.
One of my colleagues at the University of Maryland at this point is Colin Phillips. He sees my comment on my friend’s facebook post, and proceeds to take a screenshot and run to our department chair with it, without so much as trying to talk to me about it first. (Presumably, he thought this would get me in some sort of trouble…? Who really knows.)
Okay, so, that was certainly petty and small of him. But it raises the question: why was he lashing out like this? What did he think he stood to gain by acting this way? I think the answer is that he felt threatened.
Phillips was, at this point, running the university’s “Language Science Center” (LSC). It’s not an exaggeration to say that Phillips had put all of his professional eggs in the LSC basket, and it’s also not an exaggeration to say that the LSC had mostly been a flop.1 In response, Phillips had effectively pivoted the mission of the LSC, away from the advancement of language science per se, and towards the goal of making the various practitioners of language science “feel good.” Specifically, its main role now seemed to be as a physical gathering place for different people doing different kinds of research on language, where they could attempt to communicate their scientific research to one another (an endeavor which would inescapably result in the depth of scientific discourse plummeting, given that it had to be held at a level where literally anyone from any field could follow along), and where the various participants could develop certain quasi-professional skills – many of which had little to do with language science or even science more generally. (I am reminded of an LSC event where participants were instructed on how to make decorative jars of colored sand.)
You can see how the advent of the “Zoom revolution” would expose just how very unnecessary this whole thing was: if people wanted to gather & exchange ideas, there was now a highly available, low-stakes, flexible way to do that. To say this was bad news for the LSC would be an understatement. Somewhat predictably, Phillips responded to all this with what can only be described as a DeSantisian attitude towards COVID safety. He began parroting every single pro-“return-to-campus” position that university administrators were so much as considering. He even pressured individual graduate students to return to campus when official university policy did not yet require them to do so. (I have receipts.)
Full disclosure: 35% of my appointment at UMD was, at the time of this story, under the auspices of the LSC; you might therefore be tempted to think that Phillips was acting in his capacity as my supervisor when he engaged in the aforementioned bit of cop-brained behavior. Even if this were true, a supervisor worth their salt would try talking to their subordinate as the first course of action, before pursuing other options. But what really gives the lie to this interpretation of events is that he went to our department chair, who was not himself part of the org chart connecting me to Phillips at the LSC. Having involved our department chair, then, Phillips was acting in his capacity as a member of the department. In that context, he was a peer of mine, no more and no less.
So, as a peer of mine, Phillips had screenshotted a bit of personal social-media activity & gone running to the boss with it, without even trying to talk to me first. That’s the behavior of a panicked individual. And I think it’s fairly clear what he was panicked about.
This is just one story, of course. (That doesn’t mean it’s not representative, and there are additional stories I could, and someday might, relay. And some of my former colleagues have similar stories of their own. Nevertheless, all of that put together might still not count as “authoritative evidence”, depending on who you ask.) But let me put my cards on the table: I think the incentive structure of the modern university is oriented away from actual science and towards a kind of “science-adjacent” politicking. This is mostly due to the accelerating shift to a grants-based funding structure. I think the kind of people whose main focus is this kind of politicking are those most threatened by remote work, for the same reasons that their counterparts in industry are: on Zoom, it’s much harder to maintain the facade that they’re doing anything worthwhile.
And in their scramble to defend that facade, these people are doing a huge disservice to academia. Universities are already having a tough time competing for talent in some sectors. Do you really think people in Computer Science – who are already giving up large amounts of salary if they choose academia – aren’t going to be even less inclined to choose university life now that it means giving up the kind of work-life flexibility many in the tech world enjoy?
The thing is, flexibility has always been a major selling point for the academic career path. Competing with the “real world” for salary has long been an impossibility for most positions at most universities; but the party line has always been that the life of a professor offers unparalleled flexibility. Now that some portions of the “real world” have embraced remote work, academia can no longer even lay claim to that.
That’s not gonna go well.
The LSC’s one shining success had been the Guatemala Field Station, created and maintained – first and foremost – by Dr. Pedro Mateo Pedro (now at the University of Toronto). Among the list of the top contributors to the field station’s success, Dr. Phillips’ name probably belongs somewhere in the teens, well below Dr. Maria Polinsky (director of the field station) and several administrative directors & assistants working in the Department of Linguistics, at the LSC, and on location in Guatemala. ↩