Hide table of contents

This post was prompted in part by Lizka’s recent post on Distillation and Research Debt, and I appreciate their links to the LW posts on Distillation and Pedagogy and How To Teach Things Well. These are incredibly useful. As someone who has taught in higher education for more than 20 years, I think that distillation and research debt are key in reaching a target demographic for EA, university students. In this post, I also outline an opportunity to recruit existing Ph.D.s.

Tl;dr  I present early-stage thoughts that EA impact in higher education (and society more broadly) can be drastically improved by:

(1) incentivizing tenure-track researchers at universities to do prestige distillation projects, 

(2) leveraging the assumed predilection (and known teaching/distillation skills) of non-tenure-track faculty toward EA work benefiting students, both in terms of subject matter teaching and writing for the public 

(3) improving teaching effectiveness and distillation skills through enhanced pedagogical training and processes like those in Neel Nanda’s How To Teach Things Well, and 

(4) emphasizing the recruitment of higher education individuals immediately, taking advantage of major ongoing trends in this field (such as dealing with decades of over-supply of graduate students, fallout from the pandemic, and slow institutional change) that make it relatively easy to recruit these people today.

Section 1: Incentivizing Prestige Distillation Projects for Professors

  • Lizka’s post asks, “Why do researchers not work on distillation? One possibility is perverse incentives, like wanting your work to look difficult.” In response, I would note that universities currently incentivize research debt at all levels: for graduate students to get into programs, Ph.D.’s to get research-driven jobs, and professors to earn tenure.
  • It is not uncommon for research to take years to reach publication in a prestigious journal. To incentivize distillation, one possibility would be the creation of prestige fellowships in research distillation for the public. In this way research would not take so long to percolate to the public sphere. 

Section 2: Leveraging Non-Tenure-Track Faculty toward EA knowledge dissemination

  • Universities (particularly in the USA) have huge numbers of adjunct laborers whose primary job is effective teaching and who are passionate about pedagogy. They do not normally have the pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals that research faculty do (unless they are trying to switch tracks to a tenure-track job). 
  • Those on the tenure track are virtually forced to go into research debt by trying to publish in prestigious journals whose norms are most definitely not the clear distillation of knowledge, but instead the perpetuation of expert-level discourse. 
  • Awards/fellowships for teaching EA-related concepts and distilling knowledge could be very compelling for non-tenure track academics/scholars. This is partly because they are often excluded from applying for university-level research awards. They also tend to have strong skills in knowledge distillation from teaching large numbers of classes to undergraduates. This would follow along with Lizka’s goal/takeaway of making progress with research distillation by “Value[ing] distillation and the people who distill.” 

Section 3: Improving Teaching and Distillation Skills

  • By spreading awareness of EA to non-tenure track instructors across disciplines, they may be interested in incorporating these concepts into their existing courses or developing EA-centered courses (such as Julia Wise’s list of syllabi/courses post). 
  • My personal experience and observations of those in higher education make me believe (this is just an intuitive observation) that they are often open to any philosophies that will a) help students and b) help the world. Also, they tend to teach a greater number of introductory level courses, thereby reaching university students from across institutions before they have decided on a career path or major. 
  • I am in the early stages of thinking about these ideas, but it seems to me that the value and impact here could be quite large as EA intersects with so many disciplines, and one of the priorities of the CEA is reaching undergraduate students.
  • Unfortunately, teaching effectiveness is not highly prized in higher education except for those off the tenure track. This article by Sara Brownell and Kimberly Tanner notes that barriers to change often include the lack of time, incentives, training, and a problem with professional identity (i.e. the perceived “lower status” of teaching in higher ed compared to the tenure track).[1] 
  • Many institutions do not provide much teaching instruction in graduate school, and those who teach undergraduates are often left to figure it out on their own. As someone who teaches in higher ed, it seems to me that the difficulty is bridging the gap between good research, communicating that research, and then, what the audience actually absorbs at any given time (which can never be fully controlled but might improve through repetition). 
  • Neel Nanda’s piece on How To Teach Things Well (LW) looks at this issue extensively, and I agree that it can be improved over time. My own experiences as a teacher support Neel’s recommendation that students learn best through active rather than passive learning, as well as with connecting material to their real lives. In part this can be achieved through reflective writing and writing/discussion synthesizing concepts.
  • Personal learning through writing has been extensively discussed in the recent post by Holden Karnofsky, and I would expect that students in a class would likely have a simplified and abbreviated process in comparison. Ultimately, there would need to be a large cultural shift in higher education for this problem to be solved, and I have a hard time imagining that happening quickly. 

Section 4: Take advantage of the current state of higher education institutions

Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that the great resignation happening in global society is also happening in higher education, and I have a fair bit of confidence that there is a huge untapped labor market for recruiting Ph.D.s from across the disciplines to work in EA-aligned non-profits or adjacent fields.[2] The reasons I have for thinking this are:

  • Right now more than 50% of undergraduate courses (and close to 75% at public universities) are taught by non-tenure-track Ph.D.s hired as adjunct/lecturer/part-time faculty. Their work conditions are often horrible, with no job security, often no health benefits, and many work across multiple campuses to make ends meet. As some news stories have indicated, many work at or below poverty levels, which is not widely known. This is caused in part by a continuing over-supply of Ph.D.s, without enough academic positions to support them or incentives to change the system.
  • The Facebook group The Professor is Out (started by Dr. Karen Kelsky in 2020) has grown exponentially during the pandemic, and is a mutual support group for those seeking to leave academia or those who have already left. It is now nearing 20,000 members, including graduate students, lecturers, adjuncts, and tenure-track professors. Many of these people are looking for jobs with more steady pay and benefits, and ways to make use of their Ph.D. and teaching skills. 
  • Burnout is becoming rampant among even tenure-track faculty, as shown here, and higher education staff are leaving at record rates as well. Even if these articles are over-estimating the numbers in terms of national trends in the USA, which seems possible (I have not had the time to investigate sample sizes or methods of research, and am not claiming these as authoritative sources), the prevalence of such stories suggests there is an opportunity here to reach highly qualified people and help them see the value of careers in EA or related fields/companies. 
  • I know that targeting youth in post-secondary institutions has been a higher priority than reaching adults more broadly, at least in some non-profits, but this would be a high impact moment of opportunity that could be leveraged to bring more talent and awareness to the movement.

Altogether, these initial thoughts reflect my belief, which I hold with fair confidence, that EA has a unique opportunity to leverage this particular historical moment and gain traction with reaching both students and faculty in higher education, and helping them to (1) distill and disseminate knowledge aligned with EA values and research areas more broadly and (2) choose career paths that could have a high impact in such areas.[3] By doing so, it seems likely that there could be a far-reaching impact on public knowledge of EA and its causes at a relatively low cost.


[1] This article is focused on trends within the sciences and teaching science, but it is likely that these ideas apply across many disciplines. The authors state: “We describe here three tension points that individual faculty may commonly encounter when deciding whether or not to participate in biology education change efforts: 1) training cultivates a primarily research identity and not a teaching identity, 2) scientists are afraid to “come out” as teachers, and 3) the professional culture of science considers teaching to be lower status than research and positions scientists to have to choose between research and teaching. Each of these tension points, along with research literature that explores its origins, is presented below” (Brownell and Tanner, 2017).


[2]I am aware of Sarah H’s post “More EA’s should consider ‘non-EA’ jobs” and I can see the benefits of encouraging not just EA jobs in the top non-profits but also the types of non-EA job mentioned here. By “recruiting” people to EA employment I do not mean to suggest a narrow definition, but simply that many people in higher education are unaware of this movement, and could do good work in associated fields, if not directly within it.


[3] This could put into practice what W. MacAskill states in Doing Good Better regarding career choices, and help non-tenure-track faculty transition from thinking of their work as a “calling,” at which they have supposedly failed, to people who have unique skill sets that provide additional value, particularly in relation to EA movements and knowledge bases.





More posts like this

No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities