On “Bad Work” in the Academy: Recognizing It, Thwarting it

by Howard Gardner

For many years, my colleagues and I have sought to identify the factors that increase the likelihood that good work will be carried out. We have considered a variety of factors, including the early formative influences, the contributions of models and mentors, one’s colleagues on the job, the norms and examples celebrated at the workplace, and most recently, the ways in which good workers identify and then deal with dilemmas at work.

Occasionally, we have questioned informants about “compromised work” or “bad work”—but that kind of work has not been an explicit part of our research agenda. While lamenting situations and circumstances that interfere with the achievement and maintenance of good work, we have mostly “accentuated the positive.”           

To be clear, this stance does not reflect any personal aversion to recognizing obstacles. In other strands of research, I have carefully considered factors that impede desirable outcomes. As one example: in studying leadership, I have underscored the point that many leaders focus excessively on convincing others to pursue a certain path, without devoting sufficient time to understanding the resistances to following that path. As another example: in analyzing what it takes to master a scholarly discipline, I have detailed the misconceptions of the “unschooled mind” that impede the understanding of important concepts and procedures.

In conjunction with my memoir that I recently published (asynthesizingmind.com), I’ve been reflecting on situations in my own life where I have become entangled with individuals who were clearly not good workers. And, as a result of these entanglements, I carried out work that, in retrospect, I might have been better off spurning.

It’s important to describe the kind of collaborative research that I undertake when I am not simply proceeding as a solitary scholar. Working at Project Zero, a part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I need to secure funding for research, pay “overhead” to Project Zero and to the University, assemble teams to carry out the research, and upon completing the research, report results to the scholarly community as well as to the funders. Over five decades, I have applied for funds from hundreds of organizations and individuals, received scores of grants, and worked with over one hundred research associates and assistants. I feel positive about the overall accomplishment, but I focus here on things that went wrong.

I will not identify the person or the situation, but I trust that the “lessons” will nonetheless come through.

Here are four warning signs that I wish I had noted and heeded:

  1. Funders who want to “buy” or “use” your name

    When your work has achieved a certain amount of attention, people often come to you for advice. If you are a reasonable citizen, you give your best thoughts and then move on; or if you can’t be helpful, you try to suggest alternative sources.  

    But I regret that I did not routinely also ask myself “Why has this person come to me, for what reasons, and what use will the person make of the aid that I provide?” And on occasion, I wish that I had actually posed those questions deliberately to myself and to the potential funder. Failure to do this can result in use of one’s name and/or one’s affiliation as an endorsement of an activity. This peril has been especially vivid when I have politely answered questions about whether one can diagnose intelligences by looking at fingerprints—so-called dermatoglyphics. Even when my answer is a decisive “No!”, the fact that I have responded has been used as an endorsement. And so, I now routinely say “Please do not state or imply any endorsement on my part”—and if the practice persists, I follow up with a message that the University does not look kindly on such deception.

  2. Dirty money 
    Over the years, I have sought funds for many projects; much of the time these approaches are rejected, sometimes with reason, often with no response at all. Needless to say, I have been gratified when such support has been forthcoming—and even more, on those rare occasions when it has been volunteered. It’s a necessary part of my job but not an uplifting experience to walk around perennially with a teacup in hand and to see your folder of rejections grow ever thicker.

    It’s important to stress that many generous people and philanthropies support research without a hidden agenda—or are at least open to various findings. Hallelujah! But it’s still prudent to step back and interrogate the reasons for offered support. How will the funder react to different outcomes? And—though it may be hard to ferret out—What are the sources of funds? Would we (or the institution where we work) be embarrassed, were the sources to be identified? The novelist Balzac famously quipped “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” Why is it less problematic nowadays to secure funds from the Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Mellon Foundations?  It’s because the original philanthropist has long since passed from the scene and in the meantime the fund-raising process has been professionalized.

  3. Corrupt or immoral funders/colleagues

    I don’t think it’s my job to hire an investigator to scrutinize the daily and nightly activities of individuals with whom I am in contact. (Being famously oblivious, I used to quip “individuals can be making love in my office, and I would not notice it.”) But this “separation of work and play” can go too far. If it’s evident to others that the person-in-question is behaving improperly, immorally, or even illegally, my personal obliviousness or naivete is not a sufficient excuse.

    I wish that I had listened more carefully when family or friends said to me “Re X, have you noticed… What do you think of…?) And, if you cannot come up with satisfactory answers, that is a warning sign.

  4. Liars 

    By nature and rearing, I am a trusting person and I like to give others the benefit of the doubt. And if encounters with strangers occur at a party or around the coffee machine, such trust seems to be the proper stance.

    But if a person regularly makes claims that make you or others lift their eyebrows in disbelief, that’s clearly a warning sign. I’ve hired or collaborated with individuals who are habitual liars and I wish that I had called them on this trait immediately. In more than a few cases, I wish that I had gone back to the recommenders—though, admittedly, in a litigious society, such re-checking can be a risky process. But it makes a lot of sense to speak “off the record” to others who have previously had contact with the person-in-question and to let informants tell you—by what they say, what they don’t say, and how they say it— “what’s the story” with respect to the person-in-question.

    As my wife and I have often said to one another, when we ask a knowledgeable individual about a person’s reliability, we pay scant attention to the substantive answer—we instead pay attention to the “latency”—how long does it take the informant to respond, and is the response marked by hesitations or “hedges”?

Lessons learned

I’ve reached the point in life where I will rarely be called on to practice such scrutinizing behaviors or to make such judgments of character. But I’m also at the point of life where I can and should provide advice to individuals a generation or two younger who may be dealing with comparable situations. I need to bear in mind that such “due diligence” may be even more difficult to do in an era of social media and innumerable digitally available sources—where it is not easy to figure out what or whom to trust. But there is no alternative to trying hard!

It’s been said that “love is blind”—and perhaps, in affairs of the heart, that’s a good thing. But when it comes to work situations, it’s important to keep your eyes wide open and your ears attentive as well.

Concluding Note:

Alas, there are many other kinds of bad work in the academy (plagiarism, authoritarian treatment of doctoral students, fudging of data etc. blatant sexism,) but I have focused here only on the bad work that I have encountered in my own work life.

© Howard Gardner


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