Monday, 4 August 2014

The Stakhanovite tendency

When the former Soviet Union was at the height of its productivity war with the West to demonstrate the superiority of Marxist-Leninist forms of production over capitalism, a myth emerged of the worker Stakhanov. Aleksei Stakhanov was a miner who allegedly dug up 102 tons of coal in 6 hours (14 times his quota) (source Wikipedia). Soon, Stakhanov was praised throughout the USSR. His example was one to be emulated, for the greater good of the people, the Soviet Union, and the cause of Marxism-Leninism. Medals were awarded by the Party to workers who lived up to stakhanovite ideals. Men and women worked hard and long in fields and factories to win honour for themselves, their collectives and the nation. The aim was always to do more, do better, to beat the previous record set by the workers in your collective. Like many of the impulses that drove the early Soviet Union, the Stakhanovite movement was both impressive in its achievements and appalling in its costs. Many people lost their health, even their lives in their pursuit of Stakhanovite goals. Many more simply cheated, adding a dark twist to the suffering of those striving to achieve impossible targets.
Especially today, the nature of scientific research means that sometimes we have a huge amount of repetitive work (data processing) to do in a short period of time. This is sometimes unavoidable. The Stakahnovite tendency haunts us at such times. When we brag about how long our experiments are. When we build overly ambitious schedules despite the voice in our head whispering "this is too much". When we power through the night editing data files on coffee and beer, convincing ourselves we have a strict deadline no one is imposing but ourselves. We come to pride ourselves on our ability to do these tasks. "I spent 14 hours yesterday writing my third chapter" (never mind that the last third of what I wrote is almost unintelligible stream on consciousness). "I was up until 3am editing these video data for analysis" (never mind that I have a nagging suspicion the last dozen or so are less than rigorous).
The Stakhanovite tendency is ingrained, and difficult to budge. It is at its most dangerous however, when dealing with members of the research group who have not bought in wholesale to the ideology of sacrifice for science. When we apply it to ourselves, we mostly have ourselves to blame for not checking our own destructive behaviour. When we expect it of others in our lab, especially those whose backgrounds and career directions are different from ours, we are being exploitative, and fostering unnecessary resentments in the group.
Our lab group for the summer has accumulated a significant amount of data throughout a series of exhausting and complicated experiments. Much of the work, in particular the grunt work of feeding animals, cleaning and wrapping tools for surgery, building electrodes and generally keeping track of things has been done by our three amazing summer students and my colleague SuperTech. Our daily experiments require out of hours commitment, long hours and a willingness to go above and beyond. This is understood and accepted by all parties, and all of us, regardless of position in the lab, chip in where we can.
As the experimental run reaches a close, however, we are faced with the need to begin to analyse the data from the summer, in part to answer broad questions from the grant, in part so that the summer students can complete their research projects. In a lab meeting last week to discuss how best to organise the analysis of a summer's worth of data in a few days, I went into full Stakhanov mode. I explained how all the data we needed could be prepared in a weekend, and I suggested task distributions by project, regardless of size discrepancies between projects. One of the summer students (as I mentioned above, these guys have already gone above and beyond), exhausted and anxious, eventually was coaxed by my PI into explaining that he felt the division of labor was unfair, the expectations too high. He was right. There was no need for me to put forward the grueling schedule I'd suggested. A day or two more would not hurt. I was channeling my graduate school experiences of processing all my data in a few days, and it was unnecessary, and insulting to the effort everyone had already put in.
The Stakhanovite tendency is destructive precisely because it undervalues the work already done. It demands endlessly more sacrifice from people, often when they've already given more than was required of them. For our own sanity, we should check it in ourselves. In order to be decent human beings, we must never let it govern our relationships to others.

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