Monday, August 01, 2011

The Professors

By: Gary J. Salton, Ph.D.
Chief: Research & Development
Professional Communications, Inc.

The information processing profiles of 254 professors from 109 different universities showed an unexpected finding. A double peak in the idea-generating Relational Innovator (RI) dimension appears to create two distinct classes of professors. This condition exists across academic disciplines. It applies equally to both the hard and soft science disciplines.

The dual peak appears to be the result of the tenure system that favors two distinct activity patterns that give rise to the dual peak. The result appears ideal for the creation and maintenance of reliable knowledge. A corollary to this finding is that threats to the tenure system may compromise the knowledge generation role of the university.

An unintended consequence of the system is that negative “Rate my Professor” ratings are “built in”. They are likely be the result of the strategic style alignment of the students and one category of professors.

A video that both expands on and abbreviates this research blog can be viewed by clicking the icon on the right.

Professors teach many subjects. Table 1 shows that the sample used here can be considered to reasonably representative of professors in the average university.

Table 1

Professors also are differentiated by rank. Some are tenured (usually Full and Associate), some aspire to tenure (usually Assistant) and some are contracted teachers (usually Adjunct, Lecturers, Readers, etc.). Table 2 shows that the representation of each group within the sample is sufficient to be representative.

Table 2

Universities also differ in size, specialization, endowments, geography and other areas. Table 3 suggests that the range of universities represented in the sample is wide enough to characterize universities as an institutional class.

Table 3

In total, the sample population can reasonably be accepted as a fair representation of university professors in general. Its conclusions are likely to be generally applicable.

Information processing elections affect how professors teach, the nature of their research and the likely character of their interactions. “I Opt” technology measures these strategies in as “strategic styles.” These are specific combinations of input and output elections. “I Opt” is fully validated across all eight dimensions of validity and its reliability has been repeatedly checked under both normal and stressed conditions. Its 20-year use in virtually every segment of society further testifies to its relevance. The “I Opt” tool can be trusted as a tool of research. Its appliction to the various professor ranks is shown in Graphic 1.

Graphic 1

The red quotes on the bottom of the graph characterize the style in colloquial terms to facilitate understanding at the sacrifice of some level of accuracy.

The structural commonality between the ranks is visually apparent. All professors put little emphasis on action (the RS and LP strategies). The idea-oriented RI dominates followed by a strong preference for analysis (HA style).

Table 4
Expressed as a percent for ease of understanding (vs. p< 05, etc.)

Table 4 shows that the differences shown in the line graph are not material. One statistic (Full vs. Associate professor) approaches the 5% academic standard (p < .05) of significance. However, it is isolated and marginal in value. This argues that it can be considered an anomaly. For the purposes of this study all professors can be seen as being cut from the same cloth.

Profile commonality means that professors are looking at the world through the same set of glasses. They will tend to view issues in roughly the same way. They will tend to focus on roughly the same kind of variables, weight the factors in a similar fashion and arrive at a similar character of conclusion.

The above commonality invites stereotyping. People outside the academy live in more mottled environments. They interact with people of a more varied character. To them, the judgements and proclamations of professors are likely to seem strangely coordinated.

To the non-academic this “coordinated” view is likely to be seen as missing obvious factors that are fully visible to those living in more varied non-academic environments. The net result is that professors will tend to be judged as having an oversimplified view of reality. As a group, professors are likely to be viewed as being a bit “out of kilt” with the “real” world.

Unlike non-academic outsiders, insiders are able to contrast professors individually and over time. Graphic 2 plots the strength of the idea-oriented RI style for each academic rank. It suggests that they are likely see two distinct groups of professors based on the volume, scope and quality of idea generation.

Graphic 2

Except for the non-tenure track adjuncts (green line), a distinct dual peak pattern is visible. These peaks are distinct clusters of professors. One group is about average in the idea-generating RI style. The other is highly committed. This unusual gap separates the two groups. It invites examination.

The subject being taught is a probable cause. Grouping the 254 sampled professors tests this hypothesis by discipline. The groups must be large enough to be representative. They must also be small enough to reveal differences. The balance that was used in this research is shown in Table 5.

Table 5

The basis of the groupings is structural rigor. The “constrained” group is governed by relatively well defined, stable theories. These theories are a framework against which new knowledge can be tested.

The “expansive” group has less well-defined theory. The “looser” theory provides fewer comparison points against which to test new knowledge. This difference in structure of the subject matter “should” result in different information processing approaches.

Table 6 tests whether the subjects in each “bundled” group are really using the same basic strategy. It shows that there is no significant difference between the disciplines “bundled” within each of the two groups (i.e., none of the values are less than 5% or p < .05). In other words the bundling appears to be a reasonable approximation of the information processing styles used by the professors sampled.

Table 6
Expressed as a percent for ease of understanding (vs. p< 05, etc.)

The row at the bottom of Table 6 is a between group comparison. It shows that the two professor “bundles” really do use different information processing strategies. The profiles (i.e., the combination of strategic styles) used by the two groups differ in a statistically significant ways. Graphic 3 defines those differences.

Graphic 3

The constrained group (e.g., exact sciences, medicine, etc.) puts more emphasis on analysis (HA) and less on new ideas and options (RI). This makes some sense. Well-defined theory makes new ideas costly. A professor’s time and resources in have to be invested in evaluating, assessing and validating the new knowledge against the existing theory. This is a “cost” of new ideas. More ideas, more cost.

The “looser” theory of the expansive group (e.g., management, learning, etc.) means that there is less to analyze. Assessment and validation is done with experimentation. For the professor this is much less expensive. There are fewer papers to write, fewer equations to run and fewer differences to reconcile. All you need do is to “try it.” Ideas are cheaper so you can afford more of them.

It is clear that the two “bundles” or groups of professors are really different in terms of the way they process information. The hard and soft sciences really do tap different information processing capabilities. But does the difference in subject matter (e.g. constrained vs. adaptive) account for the double RI peak? If it did, we would expect to find one peak in each subject matter group. The peaks would be in different places. The merged result would thus give us the double peak. Graphic 4 shows that the cause is not the result of this merging of two single peaks.

Graphic 4

A double peak appears in both groups. This means the source is not in the field of study. Something common to all areas of study and all academic ranks is causing it. The cause must lie somewhere in the structure of the university itself.

The tenure system is a prime candidate. Tenure can be achieved via two routes. One focuses on the creation of new knowledge. This speaks to the university’s knowledge creation mission. If the quality, quantity and scope of new knowledge is high enough, this is all that is needed. However, this is not the only route to tenure.

After realizing some minimum level of published new knowledge other qualities can weight into the tenure decision. Speaking (i.e., representing the university), teaching skill, graduate studies supervision and administrative contributions can also argue for granting tenure. These activities support the university’s knowledge transfer mission. Both routes are valuable to the university. Both types of professors are needed for the university is to fulfill its mission.

A consequence of the double peak can be seen in Graphic 5. Professors highly committed to the idea-oriented RI tend to have a lower commitment the disciplined LP and analytical HA strategies. Professors with a lower commitment to the idea oriented RI strategy tend to favor the more rigorous analytical HA and LP strategies.

Graphic 5

The net effect of the interplay between the types of professors is that new knowledge is systematically tested. The knowledge created by professors on the upper peak will be tested in detail by the rigorous capacities of professors on the lower peak. The result is the culling substandard work.

All professors have an absolutely high level of RI. Professors on the lower peak will also create new knowledge. However, it is more likely to be of an incremental character. Professors on the higher peak will tend to generate knowledge of a “quantum leap” character. These abrupt transitions will always merit more focused challenge. They do not have the validating history of established knowledge.

The rival information processing postures of the two groups of professors thus create a critically important system. Acting together they insure that the knowledge being created is worth preserving. In other words, they act to create and maintain society’s store of reliable knowledge.

The existence of the double peaked idea oriented RI is a fact. The difference in the disciplined postures of HA and more spontaneous RI is a fact. Assigning its cause to the tenure system is a testable hypothesis. However, regardless of its cause the existence of the double peak has university level implications for its students.

An unintended consequence of the double peak effect is its effect on the student’s “Rate my Professor” judgment. The ability of a processor to transfer knowledge is governed by the match of the professor and student’s information processing profiles.

Graphic 6
(Professor n=254, Student n = 1800)

The student’s profile in Graphic 6 (blue line) is based on a sample of 1,800 graduate and undergraduate students from 31 different colleges and universities. The coefficient of determination (R2 or R squared) is cited on the graph. R2 puts a number on the visual differences. R2 is the proportion of fluctuation (i.e., variance) of one variable that is predictable from the other. Roughly put, R2 is a measure of how well one distribution matches another.

Graphic 5 locates the disjoint between students and professors. The high R2 in the Reactive Stimulator and Hypothetical Analyzers dimensions confirm these will not be a problem. On these dimensions the professor and student are “talking the same language.”

The Logical Processor dimension will create a bit of an annoyance. Students have a stronger desire for a disciplined, step-by-step procedure than does the professor. However, the R2 of 52.3% suggests that negative “Rate my Professor” comments based on this factor will be restrained—more like “grousing” than true complaints.

The RI graphic in the lower right box of Graphic 5 is the major disjoint. The R2 of 33.7% is concentrated on professors holding a position on the second high RI peak. Negative “Rate my Professor” complaints are likely to center on this specific group of professors.

The nature of the “disjoint” is likely to focus on professor’s ability to offer the student an uninterrupted stream of “what causes what and why” logic. The RI style uses fragmented knowledge in its processing. The style is also susceptible to diversion by an interesting comment or speculation. The net result is that the student must try to piece together a consistent “chunk” of knowledge that is understandable in terms of their way of viewing the world—i.e., their strategic profile.

A means of at least partially remedying this condition is readily available. Professors holding a position on the second peak can be taught to align their instruction with the student needs. The professors do not have to change their own strategies. They just have to adopt in their student’s perspective for the period in which they interact.

This is an economical and “doable” option. There is no need to involve all professors. Just those on the second peak. The only intervention needed is some relatively simple instruction. The affected professors only need to know how to suppress a “natural” approach for the duration of a class or meeting. They then need only to know what to substitute for their “natural” approach. This process can realign the strategic style profiles on a temporary basis. That is all that is needed for learning.

The result will not be perfect. But it will be a step forward. The transfer of knowledge will be better served without sacrificing knowledge creation. The only difficulty will be convincing the professors that their way is not the only “right way.” That could be the real challenge.

This study finds that all professors share a basic, overall strategic profile that favors new ideas and careful analysis. This commonality lends some justification to the popular characterizations of professors as a bit “out of kilt” with general society.

A double peak was found on the idea generating RI dimension among tenure track professors. Two distinct groups of professors appear to populate the academy. One is well suited to the creation of “paradigm shifting” knowledge. The other is ideal for testing new knowledge. The result of their interaction is reliable knowledge. .

The university’s knowledge creation mission appears to hinge on the tenure system. Recognizing excellence in both knowledge transfer (the lower RI peak) and knowledge creation (the upper RI peak) creates the dual peak. This suggests that tenure is not just useful in motivating individual professors. It is a system selection mechanism. It creates a system of two complementary, contesting components that act together to insure the consistent creation of reliable knowledge.

A corollary of the twin peak tenure hypothesis is that were the tenure system to be replaced, there is a strong probability that the replacement system would not create the twin peak profile. The result could be the compromise of a critical component of the university’s knowledge creation mechanism. Caution is in order.

Finally, nothing comes without a price. The price here is that the upper peak professors will tend to accumulate more negative “Rate My Professor” comments. This testifies to a structurally based compromise of the university’s inter generational knowledge transfer function. However, this can be ameliorated if not resolved through a simple focused educational process.