Posted: 19 Sep 2018
Date Written: September 1, 2018
I start from the apparent observation that academics have inherently multifaceted jobs requiring their attention across a range of (typically three) activities (research, teaching, service) — that is, professors multitask. What seems less apparent, I then argue, is that effective organizational designs where multitasking is prevalent require weak incentives. To elaborate, my first point is that if department chairs/deans want their professors to undertake all three activities, and the three activities compete for their professors' attention, then multitasking theory posits, perhaps counter-intuitively, that department chairs/deans should resist providing strong incentives to any one of the three activities. My own experiences and observations as a faculty member spanning 20 years, however, suggest that this theory is not always heeded, if not explicitly then certainly implicitly, causing distortions in faculty's allocation of effort and attention to all three activities. However, this point overlooks that synergies can exist across the three activities that make an earnest engagement with all three rather naturally attractive and mutually beneficial. I provide examples of such synergies as I see or have experienced them. Hence, my second point is that, subject to spillover effects across research, teaching, and service, focusing sensibly on one's portfolio of activities, and thoughtfully navigating their alleged tensions, one may well do better on all three as compared to when one uncritically accepts that these activities are in conflict or work against each other. Overall, then, the takeaway is that weak but balanced incentives may be especially conducive for engaged professors to have their greatest potential impact as a teacher, a researcher, and a citizen of academe. So, I was pleased when the guest editor asked me to write this article, hoping to make a compelling case for this because multitasking, when handled judiciously, makes for a richer, not poorer, profession and a richer experience for those who profess it — the professors.
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