Deadwood or Driftwood?


I’ve always disliked the phrase “deadwood” when referring to a certain class of senior faculty. It’s disrespectful. The term exists to identify a set of negative characteristics, after all.

I used it in an earlier post, addressing how I’ve gotten a bit stale. Nobody seemed bothered by it, at least not that I heard. I’m not personally opposed to the term, though I’d be very cautious in using it. I used it describing my potential fate, and a former professor of mine who fit the bill.

I wrote that I was trying to avoid “Drifting towards deadwood.”

In a comment, Jeremy Fox (of Dynamic Ecology) had some questions and insights into how we may not be able to diagnose the process.

On reflection, I realize that very few faculty are genuine deadwood. You’re deadwood if you do nothing but the minimum, you don’t care, don’t even try, and just show up for the paycheck. You don’t prepare for class, you don’t even attempt to do research, you barely show up at meetings and you duck all service, unless it gives you a chance to be overbearing. That’s deadwood.

Genuine deadwood is uncommon to rare. There are some faculty that might get the label unfairly, which I wouldn’t call “deadwood.”

How about the term “driftwood?”

These are faculty who have let their careers drift without conscious planning. They want to do a good job, but they haven’t kept up the skills to keep relevant. The research world has moved past them, and they aren’t familiar with the current literature. They think that their teaching is innovative and effective, but they haven’t changed their practices that much at all.

Driftwood professors are dedicated to their jobs and their students. It’s just that their professional training is out of date. They’ve drifted away, inadvertently, from the best that they can do.

I’m not worried about becoming deadwood, but I do have to be viligant about becoming driftwood.

What are some indicators?

You might be driftwood if your teaching relies on concepts that date back to your grad school days more than what you’ve learned since then.

You might be driftwood if you have trouble publishing an article because no solid journal thinks that the topic is important.

You might be driftwood if you are uncomfortable telling your students “I don’t know” because you fear that you are supposed to know.

You might be driftwood if you’re avoiding a specific research agenda not because you lack the tools but because you lack the information.

You might be driftwood if you find yourself disagreeing with most of the junior faculty about research standards or contemporary teaching approaches.

You might be driftwood if you rely on skills you learned in grad school that aren’t being taught in grad school anymore.

You get the idea.

So, when people are coming up the pike with skills and ideas in which I’m not proficient, I’ve got to get on it. Thus my interest in inquiry based learning, and my need to learn R, and getting to know grad students in general.

This much is sure: you’ve got to self-diagnose your own driftwood status, but it’s unlikely that anybody else is going to do you the favor. This doesn’t have anything to do with salary, promotion, reputation or recognition. It’s just about doing the best that you can.

5 thoughts on “Deadwood or Driftwood?

  1. Genuine deadwood is uncommon to rare. There are some faculty that might get the label unfairly, which I wouldn’t call “deadwood.”

    I think this is a case where you need to recognize that you are speaking from personal experience, alone. Individual results may vary.

    • Agreed. I do work in a very species rich community, with a very long-tailed species abundance distribution. So, I’m used to sampling uncommon things. Uncommon doesn’t mean that you just don’t see it, it just doesn’t comprise the bulk of the population. A department that has common deadwood, well, that would be hideous and fall apart. (Which happens.)

      • I agree with you Terry that true “deadwood” as you define (i.e., someone with all of the traits you listed) is uncommon to rare in a university department. Based on my own experience at 6 universities as a student, postdoc and now TT faculty member, true deadwood faculty were very rare. The number of faculty with a partial set of the traits you listed was a bit higher, and they likely were perceived as deadwood. It is my belief that people who struggle through grad school, post-docs and the tenure-track don’t just stop all of their ambition and hard work once they get tenured. It goes against their nature and what drove them to pursue science in the first place. That being said, there are a host of reasons why some people become driftwood, which may be perceived as deadwood, and you have articulated those reasons very well.

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