Thursday, October 13, 2016


Academic conferences are more than merely for intellectual exchange.  They are also where we network, we connect with people, get energized by younger colleagues doing amazing work, ... and also get to hear horror stories from other campuses.  It is like a big counseling camp ;)

After listening to one of those horror stories, I shared one of my favorite comments about faculty: A significant percentage of them, if they were not in higher education institutions, would be locked up either in mental institutions or in penal institutions.  This is one way that society keeps antisocial assholes locked up.

Most academics do not seem to want to systematically develop within themselves two virtues that mean a lot to me--empathy and kindness.  Bullying, being a jerk, and engaging in immoral and illegal activities perhaps happen more in academia than elsewhere.  If you do not want to believe me, read this essay, where the author notes:
In a popular 2013 post, “Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness,” Inger Mewburn, who blogs as “The Thesis Whisperer,” considered whether jerks really do get ahead in academia. Relying upon Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Mewburn notes the advantages of being an asshole — someone who pursues his or her own career with ruthless dedication while stepping on and over others. More than that, unkindness is viewed as a signifier of intelligence and kindness as a signal of intellectual weakness. Academia rewards those who represent the clever and cruel version of intelligence. So nasty behavior gets reinforced. Jerks admire other jerks, and departments and institutions can become havens for assholes. 
You see how much milder my language is in comparison with the words in that paragraph? ;)

Assholes abound in academia.  Which is why if students find out that I am a good listener, I end up being their counselor.  

Apparently the absence of kindness is a part of the larger culture in which (if you want, channel Trump here) only "losers" show kindness:
According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, kindness “has become a forbidden pleasure.” In their 2009 book, On Kindness, they explore how kindness has emerged as trivial, corny, and/or silly rather than a crucial component in our social interactions. Simply put, kindness has a bad rap. They write: “Most people, as they grow up, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” We think people who act kind are weak or are only acting that way to further their own interests. Kindness actually makes us suspicious of other people’s intentions. 
Could there be a particular reason for empathy and kindness to be looked down upon in academia?
Part of the problem is that kindness gets associated with emotion while ideas and intellect go together. That dualism, they write, is “a philosophically thin account of what it means to be human.”
 Many academic philosophers--who are the ones we think of as contemplating what it means to be human--are also some of the most bitter, sarcastic, condescending assholes that I have met.  Recall this post on assholes in which I cited a book by a philosopher; I bet the author ran into way more unpleasant experiences with assholes than he ever wanted to write about.

We are now so much used to people behaving badly, and we so much expect the other to be nothing but an asshole, that we think that one acting with kindness has some devious agenda.  Hey, this is what progress is!


Ramesh said...

Do you have to follow up such a nice post as the previous one with this one ??

I am not at all sure that your conclusions are valid although I have no evidence to prove it one way or the other other than my own experience. It just "feels" wrong, after the fashion of political discourse in your country :)

Academicians are not another species way different from the rest of humanity, I submit. There is about the same number of kind people and terrible people there as there are in say business. I've known plenty of academics and I can't say there is a significant difference I have noticed in the kindness ratio. Equally in business, where you should expect to see a lot greater percentage of jerks, but actually there are many nice people there too.

Kindness and empathy is a massive virtue. People will learn it as they grow older and especially when life gives them a hard knock or two.

And stop being so hard on all of us. You've used considerably unparliamentary language on us - screwed, shit, assholes, monsters, enemy, ..... Beware my friend, John Bercow has raised his eyebrows and is considering naming you and asking you to withdraw for the day (google to find who John Bercow is !!) :):)

Mike Hoth said...

The STEM fields are the same now, only you're also supposed to suck up to your superiors if you're at the bottom of the food chain too. I was told in engineering school that my first few years would not include any real work; I'd be a coffee and food fetcher, and if I was lucky I'd get to do field work when the weather was too awful for my boss to leave the office. Anything important would be above my pay grade, and eventually I would be allowed to do busy work if my boss liked me.

In such a scenario (or my sister's in genetics, or her boyfriend's in pharma) the only strategy is to make your boss likes you and hates your coworkers. All your successes are due to your hard work and skill, all your failures are your rivals' faults. You are the perfect employee and all your coworkers are trash. Then in 40 years when you're senior engineer you "get to treat rookies like that". That's a reward. Being an asshole is your reward for working hard.

Anne in Salem said...

I'm not sure academia has a monopoly on jerks. I think most people would put attorneys in that category - greedy, cruel, heartless - as well as bankers. I like the empathy/emotion vs ideas/intellect aspect. Makes sense.

Sriram Khé said...

I come down hard on academics because we have deviated so much from the task of truth-seeking and making this world a better place for humans and non-humans alike. The degrees that we get (except in some special fields) is still only the old designation of PhD--Doctor of Philosophy. The old idea that deep down we are philosophers has been killed, covered in concrete, and then dumped in the deepest depths of the seas. In such a setting, there is no more a place for empathy and kindness, and higher education now is a "competitive" profession like the other professions that you folks have listed. And, therefore, assholes abound in academia. Even worse, these are tenured assholes who will be around until they die. A lawyer or a physician can get sued for malpractice. A business manager can get fired. But, ... I am a stage in life where I simply have no patience nor the time for people who have no kindness, no empathy, for the students we serve.

It is really, really, tragic that academia has come to believe in the "empathy/emotion vs ideas/intellect" dualism. As if intellectual pursuits are like military assaults where the warrior needs to put emotions aside. (even there, we then wonder why the warriors come back with PTSD!)

Most read this past month