Thursday, December 13, 2007

What I don't miss

Reading a post on a photography discussion forum, the original post referenced an essay by an art historian on photography (you can read it here), I was reminded why I don't miss both the world of academia and government agencies. While I liked my work with the USGS, I don't miss the same thing acadmia pushes as its forte in the world. And that is?

When I was in graduate school, Geography Department at Western Washington University, the Chairman of the Department at the time had the opportunity to invite some distinguished professors up to Bellingham while they were attending a conference at the University of Washington in Seattle. Two accepted to come and meet the faculty and graduate students, Rhodes Fairbridge and ECF Bird.

Rhodes Fairbridge is Australian and was the editor of the Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences. ECF Bird, also an Australian, is a renown coastal geomorphologist. I have no doubt the importance of both of them to their fields, but the two couldn't have been more different and apart on the issues and views of academia. And it only reminded me why I don't care for academia all that much, and I have a (lowly) MS degree too.

First you have to understand coastal geographers and geomorphologists. While they're a very experienced and intelligent lot, they're not, or at least any I've met over the years, a snobby bunch of academics. After all, to understand coastlines, beaches, and the whole world around them, you have to get out there and get dirty. Coasts and coastlines aren't the stuff of clean office and arm chair professors.

It's about the real world. On the other hand..., and that's my point here.

When they arrived, the Chairman escorted them to the conference room where the faculty and grad. students had assembled to hear a short speech by each and do the normal "meet and greet." Well after each gave their speech, we asked the Chairman if he could get Rhodes to sign a copy of his book for another graduate student who couldn't attend.

You see this other graduate student had a fantastic encyclopedic mind and had memorized Rhodes' Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences. Really, he could cite it almost chapter and verse. We thought it would be cool to have Rhodes sign his book to suprise him later, so we asked, and the Chairman agreed to ask him.

Well, as we were standing around and away from the professors and guests, we overheard the Chairman ask, and Rhodes responded, "I don't sign books and I don't meet graduate students." Hearing that ECF Bird, standing next to Rhodes, said, "Well, I do.", and promptly walked over and introduced himself to each us, and after meeting us asked, "So, I understand there are some beaches around here?"

Several of us had worked with the coastal geography professor, whom I count a friend now, said, "Yeah." And ECF said, "So, why are we standing here? I want to go see some beaches I haven't seen before." We left in a group right then and there, waving goodbye the rest, while ECF told the Chairman, "I'm sorry, no professors allowed." Except the one who understood, the coastal geographer.

We spent the afternoon on the beaches around Bellingham in the company of one of the world's most experienced coastal geomorphologist, and at the end of the day, like the typical Aussies, wanted to take in a pint or two and discuss the nature of the world at a tavern. I left well into the evening leaving them there still talking.

The next day while we talked about the previous day, the faculty didn't look all that happy having spent the afternoon listening to Rhodes. The professor who went with us heard about it too from the Chairman, but he didn't express regret having left with us.

And in the years in the USGS, the "Rhodes" attitude prevades some offices and many scientists. Not all, some are really cool as they know the real world of earth science is in the field, not in the office. The office is nice when you're done and need to analyze and interpret all the data you collected. And the write those reports and articles.

But that's where the differences are. Many think like academia, in their attitude toward other employees and in their attitude about writing. It's why I stayed in basic data, to the chagrin of many other professional hydrologists, who wondered why I didn't want to do "science."

They never understood the value of basic data, and all the science that's in it. I always told them, without the people in basic data like the professional technicians and hydrologists, like me, you wouldn't have the best data to use, analyze, interpret and write about. I said, we make you look good, so understand and appreciate that. But few did, and those were great people. The rest were just [insert your favorite street descriptor].

Yes, sometimes it was that divisive. They were condescending to basic data folks, and I made it one of my goals in meetings to see they understood their place too. It's hard to argue with a basic data hydrologist with 27+ years, who had also had a dozen of years or so assisting researchers, and a MS degree too. And sometimes I wasn't all that diplomatic either.

And it's why I don't miss academia. And yes I had planned to pursue a PhD someday, but not now, life is too much fun to put up with the bs that prevades much of it.

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