Measuring academic activity — and heads up for ESA Portland!

By Joern Fischer

Two things today: random rant on quantity obsession (booooring), and heads up regarding upcoming conference.

Yes, I’m going on about the same stuff yet again, and those of you bored of reading about this — apologies.

I recently read Erich Fromm’s “To have or to be”. He distinguishes between two modes of living — a “having” mode, and a “being” mode. The having mode, in a nutshell, is associated with behaviours of clinging to things, experiences, status, and so on; whereas the “being” mode is one that (through a process of personal growth) is more in the moment and less inclined to satisfy one’s self in the same material manner. (Summarising this argument succinctly appears to be beyond me. Go read the book …)

Some examples: when a child sees a flower, it wants to “have” the flower. Later, one might learn to be able to enjoy the flower for a moment, but leave it there — we learn that we don’t need to “have” it necessarily.

Similarly, one might “have” authority through one’s position. E.g. a professor has a certain authority over her students. Or, one might “be” an authority — this means, regardless of her formal status, people will seek  out such a person because she is knowledgeable.

Among many other things, Fromm also writes about what it means to be “active” and “productive”. He highlights that to ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, activity and productivity were the same. And moreover, the highest form of activity and productivity was … still contemplation! It struck me that this is the very opposite of our modern academic culture; we rush from meeting to meeting, and without our various electronic gadgets to keep us organised we’d be entirely helpless. Our academic culture makes the same mistakes as we make in our economy by worshiping GDP: we mix up quality with throughput.

So, what’s a productive academic? According to Aristotle, one who obtains deep insights via still contemplation. We may need to re-instill a slice of that kind of philosophy back into our modern academic culture.

And a heads up: I’ll be a the Ecological Society of America Meeting in Portland next week! And I intend to blog about it, with a random bias towards whatever I find interesting. This, most likely, will mean I’ll comment on conservation and sustainability issues being discussed; and who knows, perhaps I’ll feel the urge to have random rants about the uselessness of mega-conferences (you never know…); or I might complain about jet fuel being senselessly burned in the name of science.

Myself, I’ll be presenting in a symposium on “Human behavior and sustainability” — details here. I have thought more than once that flying to this thing to talk about how we need behaviour change is a complete load of crap (excuse me) — and I doubt I’ll get over this feeling. So, this time, I will go, for various reasons, but the irony is certainly not lost on me. The symposium is loosely based on a paper I led with Robert Dyball, which you can find here. Rob is coordinating the symposium.

See you at the ESA, perhaps!

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