Freedom to wander and freedom to fail

In recent months, I have been talking about academic freedom a lot with my friends and colleagues, including with dan brown (no, not that Dan Brown), who fits into both categories. While, as a feminist scholar, I have been concerned about my freedom to do controversial scholarship, dan is especially concerned about his freedom to take intellectual chances, to move into new areas, and to fail. I asked him to blog about it. Here is what he had to say.

The constituent academic freedom I value the most is freedom of research. I do value my freedom to teach according to how my expertise directs me, and I value and use my freedom to criticize my employer’s decisions. But freedom of research is the essence of my vocation as a scholar and may be the component of academic freedom that few non-academics have.

For me, freedom of research focuses on freedom to wander and freedom to fail.

First, the wandering. I started my career as a theoretical computer scientist, analyzing genome data, and I was tenured in 2007 based on building algorithms to find important features in genome sequences, and the theorems my colleagues and students and I proved about their performance. Nine years later, I was promoted to Professor on the basis of that work and its follow-ups, but also because I migrated to analyzing patterns in music lyrics and recordings, and because of some work I’m doing with a current student on whether computers can create good poetry, and about the philosophical and methodological foundation of that question in the first place. Along the way, I’ve worked on several other projects, in fields ranging from psychology to musicology to evolutionary biology.

I’m not a flâneur or a dilettante: each of these bits of wandering made sense to me and was grounded in what I learned in the previous steps. But if I didn’t have freedom to lead my own research in the directions I found most appealing, I’d still be only working in one sub-area, and I’d be bored and a weaker scholar.

By freedom to wander, then, what I mean is the freedom to move one’s research in directions grounded by one’s training, the path one has taken, and the directions that fit best with one’s knowledge of the lay of the research land. It doesn’t mean freedom to work (or opine) in totally unrelated areas: that’d be a teleport, not a wander. Sometimes I wander in directions coming from what my students find exciting: I don’t like hip-hop, but when a grad student told me that he wanted to study rap rhymes, I let him convince me, and the resultant project is some of the best work I’ve ever been part of. (The core algorithm for that work is a bioinformatics algorithm I had taught him when he was an undergrad.)

Wandering can also lead down paths that don’t have pots of gold at their end, which is why freedom to fail is central to freedom to research. I don’t know how much this is true in the humanities, but projects fail all the time in my world, and they fail in different ways. A mathematical conjecture turns out to have a counterexample, or we can’t find a proof. A system that we’ve spent years working on turns out to be outmatched by a new system developed at another university. A great idea for helping humans use computers better just confuses them and makes them angry.   A gorgeous proof of a new theorem gets scooped two weeks before we submit the manuscript.

Freedom to fail lets us look back on these projects, dust ourselves off, frown a bit, drink a bit, package up what might be a positive or publishable outcome of the project, and get back on the horse. If I were answerable for success of all of my projects, I’d try easier projects and wander in a much smaller area.

Freedom to fail also entails freedom to do hard work that is successful, but that no one cares about. One of my favourite results is a theorem Ian Harrower and I proved to explain why a 2003 algorithm by Dan Gusfield works much better in practice than it “should” in theory. It got rejected three times before we finally got it accepted in 2006, and then it fell into obscurity, with only five citations. I’m still proud of it.

Freedom to fail is bound up in so many of the other parts of being a professor: tenure protects my job if I have a bad run of failures; being collegially governed means that the people who do evaluate my performance every two years have all themselves had similar failures; and my unit head would never attempt to direct my research priorities, even if I were consistently failing.

Freedom of research involves many other components than wandering and failing: for example, if one wants to wander into an area full of “do not enter” signs, it’s important that researchers with freedom of research can still go there and tell the public what they found. But to me, the freedom to have my wandering research career, with its successes and its failures, is the essence of my academic freedom.

A man with short blond hair and a moustache and goatee, wearing a white button-up shirt with a fuschia and blue pattern leans against a tree and looks directly at the viewer. He looks relaxed and kind. There are other trees and a building in the background.dan brown is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo.