Monday, October 23, 2017

Academic Kindness

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy story about Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who did research on "power poses," where she argued that standing in a particular position made people feel more powerful. She did TED Talks and became well known for it. Then other researchers said they could not replicate her findings and she was attacked for it.

For me, the story was so much about academic kindness, or rather the lack thereof. Academics seem particularly prone to being mean, condescending, and heartless to each other. We judge everyone else constantly while jealously cultivating our own reputations. You don't have to step back very far to realize how stupid and petty it is. We take ourselves too seriously and cloak meanness in the mantle of "integrity." We're not being mean, we're just pointing out errors so that knowledge moves forward properly.

If someone does TED Talks or major media public appearances, then it gets worse. You get phrases like "media whore" (which, fortunately, I hear less and less) and questions about the person's academic prowess. People even often feel obligated to apologize a bit before saying they've been on TV or other media. They do so because there is a culture--now slowly but definitely changing--that it should be the role of think tanks or journalists, not us pure academics, to talk to the public.

The article does not mention sexism but you have to wonder about how bias, conscious or unconscious, also plays a role. In all, you have a situation where a professor becomes famous and gets attacked in large part because of that. This plays out in many, many other, less visible settings in universities everywhere (including Latin American, as I have occasionally learned).

The answer to all this is so simple that people can't seem to follow it. It's this: when you wake up every morning, tell yourself that on this day you won't be an asshole to your colleagues. That's it. If you have Ph.D. students, add that you will model not being an asshole to them as well. Just doing that would change academia quite a bit.


James Hathaway 10:04 AM  

Great commentary on this. As someone who has spent his life in academia working to convince academics to go public (it's a kind of university administrative staff job called the "public information officer"), I can say that there has been at least a half-century long battle to make university research and researchers more accessible and available to the public. Universities have long realized that they are going to have to do this if academic research institutions and the research mission are going to survive, since it really is all tightly tied to public money. Still, after decades of this work, "going public" seems to many academics, including chairs and deans, as an exotic enterprise. Cultures don't turn on a dime, and, in some ways university cultures still retain the bitter castle-keep mentality of the medieval monasteries they evolved from.

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