Overpraise is everywhere, and universities are not immune


over-praiseThere is now a strange but real acceptance of overpraise and hype as normal features of behaviour. They have become a pervasive constant, and look like they are here to stay.

First encountered and internalised by small children at nursery or infant school – and reinforced at home by misguided parents who think (correctly) that this is the way things are, and who see (incorrectly) nothing wrong with them – they bring about a misplaced sense of amour propre. On it goes through the formative years, often becoming more pronounced and bloated.

The result is a must-do barrage of shows, presentation evenings, exhibitions, prom nights, and such like (each potentially edged with latent competiveness, rather ironically), the sheer scale of events meaning opportunities to acknowledge attainment and mark significant moments become wearingly devalued – dislocated from what they should be and what they purport to represent.

The “let’s celebrate absolutely bloody everything” culture accompanies our children’s existence as a background fanfare to what, from the outside, looks like little more than endorsed self-glorification and licensed bragging. It serves them badly, and overspills into university life and beyond, unquestionably influenced by television programmes and social media platforms that serve up the quasi-achievements of the self-obsessed, to be gobbled up on a daily basis.

The weak, the modest, the disadvantaged and the short of confidence are sidelined in the process, and slowly but surely the public psyche moves towards a new permanently altered state as fledgling adults eventually enter the workplace and fashion their own version of society, to be replaced by the next wave of overexcited identikit versions of themselves – infused with the inexhaustible possibility of hyperbole and, in extreme cases, unable to distinguish between the feasible and the unreachable.

Since every scrap of triumph and excellence – however minor – is extolled and lauded in some way, it generates a false narrative that acts as a convenient emotional emollient to counter some of life’s harsh truths.

All of this raises some fundamental questions, if we are to avoid losing a sense of perspective in the way our place in the world is projected. How can young minds grasp and appreciate that being average at something is actually OK, but certainly nothing to get overly worked up about? Has the point been reached where to some extent we are all touched by, and are victims of, the mirage of overplayed vaunting and acclaim as a substitute for something more meaningful?

And what of academia?

Growing up amid a cacophony of false jamboree and puffery, the default dispositions, temperaments and personalities of those beginning university are already framed in lots of aspects, affecting the weight of anticipation they place both on their own shoulders and ours as academics.

Satisfying the unrealistic needs of students on a number of levels is a necessary and time-consuming part of the day job nowadays, and their mindsets have to be catered for (or else we are deemed to be negligent in our ever-expanding care of duty). We cannot ignore it, or reject it as fundamentally skewed – vandalised by upbringing and modern day life on their journey to us – however much we might rail against the effects we observe on physical and emotional wellbeing.

Too many students ask too much of themselves, and the evidence that something has gone wrong manifests itself regularly. I see cases where individual self-appraisal is hopelessly out of sync with reality, primarily because the need to be seen to “achieve” has been played out endlessly, and is now embedded deep into the subconscious, appealing to elements of our most basic instincts: the desire for recognition and validation.

Make no mistake, the phenomenon of “celebration” – characterised by melodrama and excess – has been seriously absorbed by Generation Z, and its importance underestimated; we, within our own professional environment as educators, are now obliged to accommodate it accordingly, and our role is changing in the process.

Encouragement, balanced with constructive criticism, has long been held as the way to deal with those we instruct. In academia, the way we mark our students’ work and identify instances of distinction is, I feel, still conducted properly by and large, predicated by objectivity, coupled with specialist discipline knowledge and honesty. This, however, is not enough it would appear.

Lower second and third class degrees have (quite wrongly in my opinion) come to be regarded as pretty much worthless, and the metric of “good degrees” awarded – by which we are part-measured and which assumes growing significance – is granted increased currency against a backdrop of sharpened student demands. This creates tensions between what can and should be delivered by universities, and how this is received by students who contextualise and self-evaluate their own wants and performances.

Put simply, staff are being squeezed from two sides. Student preconceptions of “entitlement” fuels discontent, while staff do their best to maintain standards and avoid their prostitution under the control of targets, audits, and such like. Each side is driven by a fundamental misread of the difficulties in teaching and learning with integrity, and the notion of “celebration” has been woven into the fabric of both student and institutional expectation to pile on the pressure.

To make matters worse, we are not helped by our own surroundings within which we too – along with students – are not immune to the disease of regulated ballyhoo and sensationalism that has taken hold.

Now more than ever before, the marketing machinery is never far away, instructed to publicise anything that resembles student success (on which we are constantly tasked to report) and wringing dry every last bit of plaudit-ridden “good news”. The same applies to staff accomplishments, and it’s all rather embarrassing at times – the clamour to shout loudly at every possible opportunity seems to diminish what we do somehow, and some of us engage rather unwillingly on a point of principle.

I’m all for trumpeting the very best of students and staff, but just not on the kind of semi-industrial scale I see around me; “less is more”, surely, in this respect? I guess not.

Self-promotion through such things as student employability statistics, National Student Survey scores, inflated entry tariffs, open days and graduation addresses, league table rankings, alumni stories, research pamphlets, press releases, academic media stars, pre-entry “taster sessions”, outreach activities, and so on – it’s all part of today’s culture, and no university can afford to opt out as every other one is a willing participant. We are the authors of our own future, we are told, and the heat is on week in week out – there is no escape.

The mandatory requirement that staff subscribe to an approved Game of LIE (Legitimised Institutional Embellishment), as I jokingly like to call it, is made clear. To query the whole ethos of unabashed and deliberate grandstanding is merely to put oneself forward to be charged with having a churlish and downbeat “glass-half-empty” attitude.

As for me, I’m happy to wait for those intermittent feelings of quiet satisfaction when I produce anything even half-decent in my technical work, and to keep them to myself lest vanity gets the better of me, and I feed the watchful crowd of hungry publicists that dwell in my own house of learning.

Author Bio: Peter J. Larcombe is professor of discrete and applied mathematics at the University of Derby.