Do some academics look down on other academics as well as non-academics?

A recent post on The Thesis Whisperer, a blog designed to help research students in Australia, has been quite popular this past month. The title? Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

Luckily, I have not personally experienced any aggressive or arrogant behavior at the universities I have attended in the US or Australia. My professors and colleagues have always been supportive and helpful. But I have seen this behavior at conferences, and I felt extremely bad for the students who had to deal with it. How are you supposed to respond when a jerk in the audience says your research is pointless? Belittling students and colleagues in front of others in order to feel better about your own research is just awful. Unfortunately, these assholes tend to be perceived as more intelligent than nice people, though it seems to me that people are deliberately arrogant in order to feel superior to everyone else in more than just intelligence. Insecure much? A lot of it is simply bragging – look at me! look at what I can do! look at what I know! – which is incredibly sad considering that academics are supposed to be mature adults and not five year olds.

The Thesis WhispererVery helpful blog for research students

However, I wanted to write about this post because of one of the earliest comments on it, which brings up the issue of academics seemingly acting like jerks to non-academics. Fiona says “In my experience many if not most academics, seem to look down on the lowly general public… Anyone mentioning personal experience or views is usually shouted down by someone demanding an official study is vital to back up the opinion. It’s not possible or acceptable to have a view on anything, it would appear, unless there’s an official study to ‘prove’ it.”

I can understand why she feels that some academics look down on non-academics. There are definitely some Sheldon Coopers in the real world. Academics can seem arrogant when drawing attention to their intelligence, but here’s the thing: academics are more intelligent than non-academics in their chosen fields. I recently posted about my frustration with people who continue spreading myths about linguistics and language learning. It is quite offensive when people who have no professional training in an area that you have been researching for over a decade act as if they know more than you. It is also frustrating when people believe things that have been proven wrong by research for no reason other than they “just do.” When I ask teachers who use the Direct Method why they choose to do so when data show that banning the first language is not beneficial to learning a second language, many are unaware of the research which proves its inefficacy or choose not to abandon it because using the target language 100% of the time “seems” like a better idea, regardless of what the research says. Maybe it is our fault for not popularizing our research more, but what can we do when people refuse to believe our data or change their behavior to incorporate the facts?

Asking what people’s opinions are based on should not be interpreted as academics asserting their superiority, or just plain being assholes. We hope that your opinions will be informed by empirical data, because if not, what exactly are they based on? You can have personal views and tell anecdotes about your experiences, but when you believe things that are not supported by research, of course we want to know why. One person’s opinion is in a separate domain from scientific research, where the conclusions are peer-reviewed, many experiments have been done, and the results can be replicated. So yes, we get quite upset when someone says “I smoked for 20 years and never got sick so smoking doesn’t cause cancer” because years upon years of research involving thousands of people proves that it does cause cancer for some people. Just because something didn’t happen to you, or something didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can make a broad generalization for all other people.

Fiona continues her comment: “Most of the public are these days cynical of studies proving this or that, given that so many are contradictory. It seems to me that there’s far more we don’t know that what we do; and that sometimes overly dramatic scare-monger type media releases are simply a way of drumming up more research funding (whilst eroding credibility in the eyes of the public).”

It is true that there is far more that we don’t know than what we do, and that is exactly why we need science. Yet the first sentence epitomizes how misunderstood science really is (especially in the US!). People don’t trust scientists because their results and conclusions are constantly changing, and yes, contradictory. But that is science: the facts must change with the evidence. I don’t know why people are so uncomfortable with this. Granted, there are other reasons why people disregard research in addition to its changing nature. In the case of using the Direct Method, it is easier to teach languages and more profitable to write textbooks in this way, so even with all the evidence against it, teachers and publishers are less likely to do anything differently. I hope everyone can see what an enormous insult to researchers this line of thinking is. To me, disregarding research because it is the easy or profitable thing to do is far more arrogant than what researchers have been accused of.

I am often defensive about the importance of research and academia, mostly because of how much higher education is attacked by right-wingers in the US. I am not trying to brag about how smart I am or make others feel like they are inferior because they are not researchers. I’m just trying to share linguistic research since it’s a shame that so much of it can only be found in journals that are ridiculously expensive (embrace open access, academia!), and since some of the research that makes its way into the popular press only tells one side of the story. If I come across as arrogant online, I apologize for that – but I will not apologize for trying to teach people the beauty of science.

Have any students experienced aggressive and arrogant behavior by colleagues (or even other students)? For those not in academia, how do you feel about academics and researchers?

  • You are extremely lucky to never have had any problems with aggressive/arrogant behavior at universities. I have had this unfortunate experience, once with a professor at my undergraduate university who used to tell me that my work had no point. He even said this about a paper I presented at a student conference (when I told the professor for whose class I wrote that paper, he was very surprised, as he said that I would not have received the highest paper grade in the class if I truly did write a paper with no point!). Luckily, though, I only had this arrogant professor for one class, so after one semester, I did not have to deal with him again.

    I must not have been reading your blog yet when you posted about how banning the first language is not effective for learning a second language. Based on personal experience, I completely agree, and I’m glad there’s research to back me up on this! My Russian professor never banned English (until fourth year, when we were quite conversationally fluent anyway) and that definitely helped us learn the language. A certain blogger I occasionally read often says (with obvious pride) that English is banned in the classroom when she teaches all levels of Spanish. I have never agreed with this and have argued with her many times, to no avail. I feel so vindicated now. 🙂

    And as someone who hold right-wing views on certain issues, I feel compelled to say that I have experienced quite a bit of criticism concerning academia and research from left-wingers as well as right-wingers. 🙂

    • That’s so awful! And at a student conference for undergraduates? I probably would have cried. 🙁 Now I would just be blunt and a bit bitchy back to the jerks, but that would have really affected me if I had experienced it in the very beginning of university. I’m sorry you had that happen to you.

      Don’t you love when research reaffirms your beliefs? 🙂 I still can’t believe how many people think banning the native language is something to be proud of. I want to say to them: you should be ashamed! You are making learning languages harder for no reason!!

  • Motorshack

    My mother used to say, “don’t get mad, get even”, and my version is “don’t get mad, get paid”.

    When I was an undergraduate I once declared a major in German, and then promptly ran into a pipsqueak associate professor who cut my grade from a 4.0, which I had earned with near-perfect scores on all the exams, to a 2.0 simply because he was personally offended that I never attended class. Mind you, going to class was not required in the handouts at the beginning of the semester. He added that rule to the grading scheme ex post facto, when he got mad at me at the end of the semester.

    My reaction was to leave school, get into the software business, and in a few years get to a point where I was making a good deal more than mediocre, mid-level professors ever do. I still had to deal with a fair number of jerks, but at least I got paid well to do it.

    I agree that being a jerk has short-term tactical advantages in some cases, and some people make a whole career out of it, but my personal experience is that one needs to be careful about pissing people off. I’ve met some people in the Army, for example, who were both cold-blooded killers and extremely sneaky, so you don’t now who and what they are unless they choose to tell you, which, of course, they usually do not. Thus, I decided a long time ago that crapping on other people casually was not only unpleasant on a social level, but it might be very dangerous on a physical level.

    At best you are wrecking potential alliances before they ever have a chance to form, which strikes me as strategically stupid.

    Of course, most academics have no contact with the sort of physical threats that are routine for a soldier, so it is no surprise that they have a grossly exaggerated idea of their own safety and security.

    • Most universities don’t allow professors to deviate from what’s written in the syllabus. If the attendance policy isn’t included on it from the beginning of class, the professor is not allowed to change the grading procedure at the end of the semester. I hope you fought it because you had every right to. Personally I think attendance policies are ridiculous anyway. What a way to treat adults like children…

      I don’t get why some people are automatically jerks to everyone. Why can’t people just be nice to each other?? It’s much better to collaborate than compete and to have friends than enemies. I also think that’s why so many people are turned off of academia. Academics seem like such arrogant snobs, even to other academics. That’s partly why I’m turned off of a career in academia.

      • Motorshack

        No, I did not really spend any time fighting it. I spent a few minutes talking to the department chairman about it, and got shut down in exactly the same high-handed way. However, my original point in commenting was to say that getting paid is better than getting mad, and I mean that quite sincerely.

        Plus, I had recently survived a year in Vietnam, in which I had very few options except to fight on occasion. So, I found it quite refreshing to be able to just turn my back on these two petty tyrants, and go make a bunch of money doing something else. I had already had enough pointless fighting for three lifetimes.

        In any case, fighting with them would have implicitly ratified the idea that their opinions had some importance in the world, whereas ignoring them without comment for the next forty years, proved conclusively that they were completely irrelevant, at least to my success in life. So, why fight?

        As for your question – why can’t people just be nice to one another? – I don’t know, but we killed something like four million Vietnamese, rather indiscriminately, and then our government decided we could be friends after all. The only explanation I can come up with is that some, probably most, politicians are insanely egocentric, and the voters are sometimes dumb enough to go along with their plans.

        Compared to all that a little pillow-fight in the German department was completely inconsequential, and that is how I dealt with it.

  • Kiwi in Jersey

    I have to agree with Natalie, you are very lucky.

    I got out of academia because I really despised the culture. I hated the way that once I got to post-grad level I was never really taught (and I know it’s about research but it’s nice to have an experienced professor to go to to chat about ideas etc.), I felt more and more like a monkey used to write papers to get the university esteem, and importantly money!!

    My PhD supervisor is a horrid man. I went through hell to finish it no thanks to him. I have never in my life felt so much like dirt and I am still dealing with the after effects (mentally) 2.5 years on. Now he is taking my data to publish papers because I haven’t written anything ‘fast enough’.

    Academia wasn’t for me. I’m much happier in Industry working on everyday problems and seeing the results straight away. And I have a boss who values me, makes a huge difference!

    • Your experience was the reason I was a bit hesitant to do a PhD in the first place. I felt so bad about how your supervisor treated you! Was your university not supportive of you changing supervisors?

      Maybe it depends on the main area too. I’ve always been in applied linguistics/language pedagogy, which tends to get lumped into the humanities even though we’re more social science. Do you think the traditional sciences (or math, business, etc.) tend to have academics with bigger egos? Or is it just a university-wide problem?

      I’m still not sure if I want to stay in academia either. I love it right now, but that’s probably because I don’t have to deal with the administration (or people!) very much. I hate university bureaucracy though – it’s definitely run like a corporation with a few rich CEO-like types at the top who spend all the money on themselves and treat the students and casual staff like dirt. That’s actually why I definitely did not want to do my PhD in the US (plus I prefer the classical model which is all research unlike the US model which requires coursework), except I’m finding that Aussie unis have similar problems. So I don’t know what I’ll do when I finish in a few years. Linguistics jobs outside of academia are quite rare!

  • poor soul

    My experience as professional support staff at UK university is that non academics are viewed inferior to academics and bullyish behaviour goes on and goes undetected. Academic arrogance, bullyish behaviour is rife and mostly goes undetected. It will still go on as these arseholes egos have got the better of them