Academic arrogance



For years and years I taught 3D computer modelling and animation to architects and interior designers. As you probably know, when you have been teaching something difficult for a while you start to see the same mistakes over and over again. It’s easy, dangerously easy, to forget that it’s new people making these same mistakes and get, well – grumpy.

A student taught me this important lesson one day in a computer lab. I don’t even remember what I was trying to teach her, but I do remember she was an infuriatingly slow learner. My impatience grew till eventually (I’m ashamed to admit this) I literally grabbed the keyboard out of her hands and said something like “No no no! You do it THIS way”.

To this student’s credit she didn’t let me get away with this. In front of 20 of her classmates she reminded me that my job was to teach her – and that I was doing a shitty job. Then she left. All the other students just sat there, staring at me. I had an hour of class left and just carried on as best I could, but it was mortifying.

As I was packing up my books at the end of the class, questioning whether I ever wanted to walk into another one in my life, one of the other women approached me. She told me I had a lot of knowledge and she liked me, but that the other student had a point. Sometimes I was arrogant and dismissive; the students were too scared to tell me and instead complained to her.

The philosopher Foucault pointed out that knowledge and power are so intimately related that we cannot really think about them separately. I learned this the hard way on that day. Arrogance is the Dark Side of knowledge and students, no matter how old, can become scared of you because you have power just from being a teacher. I haven’t always suceeded in being tolerant and gracious in the classroom since that day, but I try.

I tell you this story because I received a comment on the Feedback page yesterday which made me think about the dangers of academic arrogance. “A Little Bit Rattled” told me about her recent experience of presenting work in progress at a department seminar. After giving a half hour talk Rattled stopped for questions and was floored by the first comment, which was “very agressive and threatening” in tone and basically suggested that she was wrong.

Rattled then described a scene I have witnessed over and over again as an academic:

    “… this senior academic went on to berrate me (in front of around 20 colleagues) for about 10 minutes on these ideas which I had explicitly stated were preliminary … this was extremely confronting, and, even worse, completely off topic and unconstructive. I wasn’t the only one who felt it was out of hand. Afterwards, a few academics (including my supervisor) and fellow students commented privately that how this person had spoken to me was completely appalling. Some audience members even said that just having witnessed it left them deflated and feeling anxious for the rest of the day.”

Rattled says she understood that part of being an academic is learning to defend your ideas and stand up to vigourous critique. But what is the line, Rattled wondered, between the student / supervisor hierarchy and “plain old bullying”? She asks if I have any advice for PhD students who might encounter similar problems.

First of all Rattled, congratulations on picking yourself up and brushing yourself off. I’m happy to hear you rationalising it and moving on.

Is this bullying? It’s a difficult question answer. It’s probably helpful to think about why this happened in the first place rather than give it a label. What we have here, really, is a story of power.

Foucault, the depressing old bugger that he was, made some useful observations about the nature of power (all those Foucault scholars out there are just going to have to bear with me here ok? I’m keeping this simple). Power is generative: it can make things happen, both good and bad. While it is impossible to escape from power relations (such as student / teacher) there is always the possibility of resistence. Therefore your problem Rattled – and the problem of all new PhD students – is learning how to deal with the effects of power and how, and when, to resist.

Resistence is more effective if you understand exactly the kind of power problem you have on your hands. It’s not always easy to tell in academia, but here are two suggestions.

It’s possible this academic, like me, saw in your presentation some common mistakes and misconceptions. Instead of remembering this is a new person making an old mistake, the academic just let lose with their own pent up frustration. This academic had the power to speak – to hold the floor and drown our your voice and (unfortunately) the voice of your supervisor. There are some, but not many, ways to resist in this situation. Humour can work, as can asking questions. Good questions are: “can you give me an example of that?” or “Can you tell me about a way you have solved this problem before?”. This is a gentle way to remind the speaker that you are a learner and to use their knowledge/power for good instead of evil.

The second possibility is that your ideas or your intelligence were threatening to this academic and he or she was seeking to take you down. In this case the power to speak is the power to do, what the philospher Pierre Bourdieu would call, ‘symbolic violence’ on you. I like to think about this as the academic version of the Māori Haka: a war dance or threatening display that is designed to make you afraid. Rugg and Petre in their excellent book “The Unwritten Rules of PhD study” compare academics to sharks who are attracted to ‘blood in the water’ and will go into a feeding frenzy when they detect it. In doing symbolic violence the academic might have been trying to get you to bleed – to show weakness and uncertainty. This would give others in the audience the permission to start attacking you too.

So don’t give the agressor what they want. If you suspect that someone is trying to get your blood in the water, eye contact is your only weapon. Stay calm, make your face as expressionless as possible; fix your gaze firmly on the speaker. You will probably find, if you manage to catch their eye, the speaker will stop talking eventually. Then respond as calmly and dismissively as possible with something like “Thankyou for your feedback, I’ll think about that. Are there any other questions?”.

Here’s my personal view. Whatever the motivation, the behaviour, although probably quite normalised in many places, is just not good teaching. I don’t care if people defend such behaviour on the basis that it ‘toughens people up’. That’s what they said about the cane in primary schools and we have got along without that for some time now. All of us have seen colleagues make this mistake. I think all of us have the responsibility to quietly take them aside after such an incident and let them know it’s Just Not Cool.

What do you think: is there a fine line between critique and bullying? How do you respond to displays of academic arrogance? Do you have any other advice for Rattled?