My post-tenure plans, and why I’m giving up social media

Within a few days of me getting tenure, Tyler Cowen coincidentally posted this new paper from Brogaard, Engelberg and van Wesep:

Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

I can see how it’s tempting to move from the fast lane to the middle lane. I can also see how at some point you get sick of the ridiculous acrobatics and endless rounds of revisions in the top journals, and realize the opportunity cost of your time is high.

But  I can also see how you diversify your output into other things: editing journals, running departments, mentoring students, policy advice, coordinating large regranting programs or research initiatives, writing more generalist books, and so on. For all these reasons, “home run” publications is not a great metric of risk-taking, let alone productivity.

As it happens, I am still keen to play the journal publications game. I get a perverse pleasure from perfecting an article. And I think home run publications have out-sized impacts. And that’s important. But I can see how that will get old in five or ten more years.

Meanwhile, I’m already making some other bets.

  • I would like to start spending more time in Latin America, finally get fluent in Spanish, and start to do more research there. I’d like to shake up my thinking.
  • Actually if I really wanted to shake up my thinking I’d do more work in East Asia. But it’s so distant from what I know, and so distant geographically, that with two small kids I’m not sure I can study anything well. But we will see.
  • I will continue to just say no. The only reason I still have my sanity and a semblance of a life is because I politely decline most professional invitations that are not academic talks. I see no reason to change that.
  • I am moving to Chicago partly to avoid getting sucked into a Clinton administration. I love the idea of President Hillary, and the quality and quantity of the development and humanitarian people around her are unmatched in the history of the country. Really. But I am not ready to get off the academic train just yet. Perhaps in a second Clinton term, but right now even that seems soon. Maybe when Chelsea beats Jenna Bush.
  • I have about three book outlines on my hard drive. All of them are some variation on “what I wish more people understood about development or violence”. I’m not sure I will write any of these books soon, since I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to academic writing—a trait my regular readers will notice I do not carry over to my blogging.
  • I’d like to write a book of letters. My brother in law, Kent Annan, runs a faith-based NGO in Haiti and writes books on faith and international development. Here is his latest. We have very different reasons for getting into what we do, and we work very differently too. We’ve talked about writing a book about these different philosophies by having a conversation in letters. Maybe we’ll do it online. The problem is I want to teach a class on political philosophy/theory on this first in order to force myself to read all the books about this carefully. See the perfectionist point above.
  • Most of all, I’d like to read more books and write about them. I think this is the best path not just to learning but to writing my own book. Chasing tenure and toddlers has crowded that out lately. But I need a commitment device. I am thinking about starting a reading group in Chicago. And maybe even committing to writing about each of the books read. Again, we will see.

My baby step forward: I am going to give up social media for a month, and possibly for good.

I was inspired by this Ezra Klein interview with Andrew Sullivan, who after endless years of blogging decided to give it all up. Sullivan not only stopped blogging, he turned off the cacophony of tweets and likes.

Sullivan is a man of extremes, and I am not that. I’m not giving up blogging. I will still write. Maybe I will even write more. But I’m going to broadcast only.

This morning I deleted Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit from my phone. My blog posts will still get auto-posted to those feeds, but I’ll never know. I won’t read them or anyone else’s. That also means no retweets or replies or comments will reach me. I plan to keep reading the New York Times and maybe Vox. And I subscribe to a handful of blogs by email. But that will be all. The rest is books and magazines. Most of all, my beloved Kindle is loaded up. Because let’s not talk crazy: I still plan to stare into a glowing screen all the time.

I’ll let you know how it’s going July 10.