Malvina Nissim looked gorgeous dressed up as Wonder Woman at the party following her inaugural talk on AI, to celebrate her promotion to full professor.
I’m not into comics, especially if they are overpoured with sexist cliches, but I am into the fantasy of academia and the superhuman skills required to overcome the self-worth fears that haunt professors. I also know, firsthand, that to be promoted to full professor requires both a predilection for fantasy and superhuman skills.
Wonder Woman’s story is rooted in Greek mythology: she was moulded from clay into an Amazonian woman with superhuman powers. The Amazons lived in an island paradise protected from Man’s war-hungry world. They evolved into highly-trained warriors, enlightened and technologically advanced, yet remained peace-loving and respectful of differences.
Unlike the Amazons, I do live in Man’s world and this morning finds me at my office, a wondering and not a wonder woman, reflecting upon professors’ journeys in academia. A journey that requires excellence in research, teaching, mentoring, networking, budgeting, leadership, organisation, presenting, writing, learning new languages, operating under pressure, handling conflicts, being a mobile citizen, and also maintaining a work-life balance. I cannot think of many professions that require this complex combination of skills. Did we create career paths for superhumans?
“Tell me what you can do and I will create a career path just for you”, No Wonder would ask on your first day at work.
As I think back to Malvina’s talk about the possibilities of AI in defining the future, I wonder if such technologies could be used to create personalised career paths that don’t require superhuman powers and are tailored to professors’ unique strengths, talents, and weaknesses.
I start fantasising about having an AI humanoid as a manager. What would they be called? No Wonder, what else? No Wonder would be trained on a very large data set with career trajectories of professors from different parts of the world and from all possible disciplines. This data set would be enriched by fictional data on career trajectories that do not exist, for reasons that are unknown, to create an ideal data set of what an academia that is genuinely respectful of differences looks like.
“Tell me what you can do, like to do, and have to do, and I will create a career path just for you”, No Wonder would ask on your first day at work. “You can obtain two million euros for research. But you don’t have to if your discipline does not sell. You can be an inspiring teacher who transforms lives. But you don’t have to teach online if Zoom gives you a headache. You don’t have to learn Dutch if that drains the life from you. You won’t supervise PhD students if you drive them bananas. You can sit in meetings or hide in a laboratory for days. You can dance; to a different beat.”
Now that you’ve read till the end of this story, go back to the beginning and replace “Man” with “academia”. Because this is not a story about gender. Anyway, neither Wonder Woman nor No Wonder fits within useless binaries. Academia is war-hungry, and one-size-fits-all career paths create dark fantasies. AI to the rescue.