Civility in Academe, and the lack of it



I want to return to the theme of civility that I addressed in a previous post.

Modern life can sometimes feel like the jungle. On the Internet, the sheer venom of online attacks is extraordinary to behold and also a bit depressing—people really think this way? The world seems a lot less hospitable, a lot bleaker.

Sadly, academe is not immune.

I have been reading John A. Hall’s excellent book The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency. His thesis is that civil behavior that “allows disagreement to take place without violence” is a vital element of societies. That surely must be the case. And in universities most of all.

There is good news. As universities have become more diverse, I think they have become more civil. As a result, a firmer line is being drawn between disagreement and abuse.

In particular, I am struck by how much the conduct at research seminars has changed over the years. When I was starting my academic career, these seminars sometimes seemed to be regarded as blood sport. The idea was to undercut the speakers, not work with them. The atmosphere was driven by a combination of the testosterone-laden antics of young (nearly all male) radicals, the crustiness of some older professors, and a general presupposition that there must be something wrong with whatever work was on show, if only you could find the error. It was not just tiresome but often intimidating as well.

Part of the reason for the improvement is that power structures have flattened in the academic systems of many countries. Although it would certainly be hard to argue that everything is satisfactory, faculty members today usually have less to fear. For example, they are now much more likely to be promoted on merit. It is no longer the case that jobs rely on the whims of a few older professors, who were often disposed to recognize only their favored protégés.

As a result, conduct among academics has become generally more civil. Surveys show, of course, that feuds, harassment, and bullying still exist, often conducted in the high moral tone that is an instant warning sign of personal animus in academe. But it is possible to find academic departments where colleagues work in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Times change, then, and sometimes for the better.

But sometimes for the worse, too. Some academics still treat junior administrators in feudal ways, And, to come back to where I started, the Internet provides an outlet for opinion that can be a bit too opinionated.

In particular, the proliferation of blogs in academe has meant a proliferation of Mister Angry pieces (and it usually is Mister), often fired off without much thought for consequence, with the main goal to reach a verdict and the main template a decree or a grievance. I sometimes yearn for the days when the essay was still regarded as a legitimate form. As Julian Baggini has noted, essays do not claim to provide definitive answers but simply try to think things through, to make things a bit better, to come up with new ideas and suggestions. Essays are provisional. After all, if there is one thing that academics surely learn as they go along in their careers, it is that they don’t know as much as they think they do. The best academics remain students.

My litmus test is straightforward: Would you still write like this if you knew the person you were addressing was suffering from a fatal illness? There are those who believe that being civil is another kind of tyranny—dictatorship for softies, so to speak. I think otherwise. In universities most of all.

Author Bio: Nigel Thrift is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Warwick, in England.