You can’t “stay in your lane”. So you have to know how to drive in your neighbour’s.

I was tidying up old paper files in my office last week (don’t ask) when I came across the records from my tenure review, 20 years ago. You’d think 20 years of perspective would make me less angry – but you’d be wrong. What 20 years of perspective has done, though, is let me diagnose exactly what I was angry about, and convince me that there’s an important lesson there for academia. And life.

First, I guess, a little history. This was my tenure review for my first university appointment, at a major US state university that I won’t name here.* I was in a department that had some culture-of-science problems and that was dominated by a dozen or so molecular and developmental biologists who didn’t know much about fields outside their own. My tenure review was, well, shall we say “hotly contested”?  I actually was awarded tenure, in the end and in a close call, but promptly left for a position at another university, where I’ve been tremendously happy ever since. Two colleagues hired about the same time did exactly the same thing.

Back to my filing-cabinet discovery. The tenure process included a chance for me to read and (fortunately) respond to a summary of the departmental tenure committee’s discussion of my file. Here’s their take on one of my papers:

It was noted that the external reviewers were particularly impressed with the paper about phylogenetic trees (#28). However, several faculty commented that the model presented was interested and nicely explained, but suffered from being difficult to test experimentally. [They went on to describe one opinion that my work was therefore “trivial”.]

If you click on the link, you’ll discover that the paper in question was an exploration of the effects of mass extinctions on the shapes of phylogenies. As I put it in my response: “experimental tests of the model are obvious, but arguably unethical”. But this, and quite a few other comments, made it very clear that committee members knew nothing about scholarship in ecology and evolution, nothing about how theory fits into the broader advance of science, nothing about work away from a lab benchtop. I could (but won’t) go on.

And what of the external reviewers who were “particularly impressed”? Later in the summary, the committee expressed puzzlement that my external evaluation letters were very strong, and that this conflicted with their own assessment of my work. They speculated that the reviewers were from lesser universities (irrelevant, of course, and anyway, they chose them, I didn’t) or that the reviewers may have been biased or poorly informed. What didn’t occur to them is that the reviewers might know something they didn’t – or as I put it in my response, “The committee did not seem to consider the possibility that my work is genuinely respected by scholars in my field”.

I won’t dissect the committee summary any further, as I’m here to make a point, not for a Festivus airing of grievances.** So let’s get to that point. You might be tempted to see this as an illustration of why people ought to stay in their own lanes. Under this framing, the committee shouldn’t have been evaluating work in a field that they manifestly knew nothing about. You hear that advice (command?) a lot – people should talk about what they know, make judgments they’re qualified to make. Stay in your own lane. But that advice is wrong. You can’t stay in your own lane; that tenure committee’s whole job was to get out of its lane. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t stay in their own lane; the problem was that they didn’t know how to drive in anyone else’s.

Here are a few times you might be forced out of your lane.*** You might serve on your department’s tenure (or hiring, or promotion) committee. You might be the external examiner for a graduate defence. You might be an external reviewer for an academic department or program. You might be an associate editor for a broad-subject journal (or the editor-in-chief for a narrower one). You might serve on a society awards committee. You might serve as Chair of your department, or Dean of your faculty. You might teach a 1st-year course, or fill in for a colleague on sabbatical in a more advanced course that’s not quite in your specialty. You might be interviewed on the radio about an issue in your community. You might take up research in a new subdiscipline. You might write a book about something you haven’t been trained in.  You might – OK, you’re getting bored, and soon I will too. But I’ve done every single thing on that list, and there’s nothing terribly unusual about me; and you can surely add some things I didn’t get to. You can’t stay in your lane.

You can’t stay in your lane – and that means that you have to be able to drive in your neighbour’s. That’s really the most important message here. What do you do, when you realize you’re out of your lane? Well, the first thing you do is acknowledge it – both to yourself (a step my tenure committee had clearly not taken) and to those you’re working with. There’s no faster way for someone to gain my respect than for them to admit that there’s something they don’t know.**** Then you become curious. You ask questions. You read. You listen to what other folks say (like, for instance, those external reviewers; gee, I wonder why we have them, exactly? ). When you make a misstep (and you will), you admit it and you work to fix the damage. You do all these things because you understand that you’re in your neighbour’s lane, and that it’s your responsibility not to leave that lane but to drive in it well. That’s how academia works, and how science works, and how life works for that matter (what is sitting on a jury, or parenting, if it isn’t driving way outside your lane?).

So don’t stay in your lane; but don’t drive like my tenure committee. And here endeth the lesson in pressing good wine from admittedly terrible grapes.

© Stephen Heard  July 7, 2021

Image: Graffiti © Samuel Haack via CC BY-SA 4.0

*^Yes, I know that a few moments on Google Scholar or LinkedIn will penetrate this veil of secrecy. Because my goal here is to make a general point, not to shame the institution, I’ll ask you to pretend you didn’t do that research.

**^OK, OK, one more. The external reviewers were selected from a list, half of consisted of names I’d suggested. When I submitted my original list to the Department Head, it included Bob Holt, and the Head told me I couldn’t use Holt, because “he hasn’t published much”.  I was a little bit surprised by this truly idiotic statement, and asked him how he’d come to that assessment.  “Oh,” he said, “I looked him up in PubMed”.  PubMed’s indexing coverage is a bit broader now; but in 2000, it simply didn’t index any journals in ecology and evolution. Sigh.

***^You’ll notice these all refer to the kind of career I’ve had: teaching-and-research professor at a university. There’s nothing about my argument that’s limited to that particular career path; it’s just that that’s what I know best. Wait – am I staying in my lane here? Am I contradicting myself? Oh well.

****^A lesson lost on teenage me, who was, frankly, insufferable. And we’re going to pretend, you and me, that it was only teenage me, not twenties-me and thirties-me and….



13 thoughts on “You can’t “stay in your lane”. So you have to know how to drive in your neighbour’s.

  1. Ken Hughes

    You might enjoy the article “Epistemic Trespassers” by Nathan Ballantyne. The abstract is “Epistemic trespassers judge matters outside their field of expertise. Trespassing is
    ubiquitous in this age of interdisciplinary research and recognizing this will require
    us to be more intellectually modest.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Philip Moriarty

    What a dispiriting story. Thanks for sharing this, Stephen — I fully understand your pissed-off-edness decades after the event.

    You do all these things because you understand that you’re in your neighbour’s lane…

    This holds true — or should hold true — equally well for the UK’s Research Excellence Framework* national assessment exercise. I found it exceptionally difficult to drive in my neighbour’s lane, for the reasons outlined in this:

    *Is there any more nebulous and irritating a term than “excellence”?

    Liked by 2 people


    Thanks for this Steve! It goes wayyyy beyond science and academia; leadership involves having to make decisions about things in which one has no particular expertise. Decisions that affect lots of other people. The good leaders are the ones who consult people with the expertise and listen to them. The others, well, should read this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Philip Moriarty

      “…leadership involves having to make decisions about things in which one has no particular expertise.”

      And that’s exactly why the fixation on corporate “leadership” in academia (and elsewhere) is so very damaging.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Gonna disagree hard here, Philip (for once). Emma is right. Corporate-STYLE leadership may be bad for academia; I wouldn’t argue that one. But you can’t provide leadership while staying in your lane. Not in academia; not at all.


        1. Philip Moriarty

          First, my apologies to you and Emma for the very terse comment — it had been a(nother) long day. I’ll expand a little….

          I have no time at all for the model of “leadership” that infests universities. I had a long, and very cathartic, rant about this quite a few years back: (Let’s just say that things have not improved in the intervening years.)

          On the subject of staying in one’s lane, or otherwise, my key problem is the following. Here in Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham, we fight an ongoing battle against the mindless fixation of our university leaders on centralisation (and mindless metrics, but that’s a whole other series of comments/posts…) They assume that a “one size fits all” model can work and that there are economies of scale by centralising as much of the business of schools/departments/institutes as possible.

          A very good example is undergraduate admissions. (I was undergraduate admissions tutor for a number of years and, in an echo of your original post, am still angry about certain aspects of the process years later.) University “leaders” (and I use those quote marks entirely advisedly) assume that the marketing and administration for UG courses can be managed from the centre by those with little experience of what it is to teach, or learn, physics. They assume that they can barge into our lane and push us out of the way. This centralisation approach has demonstrably been shown — for reasons I can go into in tedious detail — to be entirely flawed and once we pushed back and drove our “leaders” out of our lane, our UG admissions improved dramatically.

          More broadly, we, as a School, do a great deal better if we are left alone instead of being led from above by those who are not only far out of their lane but cause pile-up after pile-up as they cluelessly assume they know best. (Yes, I know I’m straining the metaphor to breaking point!) We are not alone in this.

          The argument will no doubt be made that I am describing the behaviour of poor leaders and that good leaders don’t do this. (Similar comments were made in the responses to the post I linked above.) But good leadership in this case involves our “leaders” staying the heck out of our lane.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Well, you nailed my reaction – I would indeed say this is poor leadership and good leaders don’t do this. This sounds like people who didn’t even know they weren’t in their lane, and I totally agree with you that the phenomenon is rampant in universities. We too have suffered from the endless search for “savings” in centralization. Except of course, sometimes that’s exactly what we should have. We don’t own a departmental snowplow, and we shouldn’t. Whether undergrad admissions (for example) is a snowplow or not is something a good leader can identify…


    1. Philip Moriarty

      I’d go further, Stephen. It’s not a question of good vs bad leaders. I would say that we don’t need central university leaders at all — the entire “leadership” concept (as it exists in the 21st century university) is fundamentally flawed. The more decentralisation, the better. It humanises us. It improves connection. It helps establish collegiality to know that you’re working with colleagues who have a good knowledge of the difficulties you face, because they’ve faced those difficulties themselves.

      For example, I lost count of the number of pointless central teaching & learning seminars that I was obliged to attend as a new lecturer. These impeded rather than helped my teaching. I learnt orders of magnitude more by attending the lectures given by my experienced colleagues in physics (and chemistry, and other disciplines) than any number of vacuous “How to be a reflective practitioner”-type courses that were foisted on us from above, by leaders who knew they knew best.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Philip Moriarty

        Sorry, forgot to keep the metaphor going… 🙂

        When it comes to admissions, every department should be behind the wheel of a snowplow/snowplough, making sure that, at the very least, they sweep aside the bland, corporate, unimaginative, and generally cringeworthy corporate campaigns that underpin so much of central university marketing and branding.


          1. EMMA DESPLAND

            Wow, this has blossomed into a whole other conversation on top-heavy universities that I wasn’t expecting. I was reflecting more on my own experience of being in charge of anything: someone will invariably come with a ‘what should I do with x?’ question. And I have no idea, but realize that this has happened on my watch and so I need to figure it out. Figuring it out involves asking people who do know and listening, really listening, to several different perspectives (and working out who is in conflict of interest and what their agenda is). The one I’m struggling with now is what to do with a 2009 departmental vehicle with transmission problems, fix or junk? totally out of my lane but still part of my job.

            Liked by 1 person


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