Monday, September 28, 2009

Seven Sins of the Academy [Updated]

The Times Higher Education has a piece on the seven sins of the academy [note the focus here is on the British universites but enough commonalities for me to blog about] and I thought it would be fun to see how I have witnessed or engaged these sins (and others) in my career.

First, I must disagree with the decision to omit sloth from the list. I have seen plenty of laziness amongst academics especially when it comes to service to the department/university/profession/community. While there are procedures and incentives to keep profs working hard (and most do work plenty hard, even/especially during our summers "off"), the system does not always work and the reliable are forced to provide more of the collective goods than the unreliable.

Ok, onto the sins listed by the article:
  • Sartorial Inelegance: This is not nearly has bad as it used to be. Much less polyester at the annual Poli Sci conferences. And it varies by climate--one could expect to see shorts at UCSD--even by the profs. Still, most of us would not be confused with fashionistas. I would not blame income for this as the choice of attire is not so much constrained by the various costs but by the lack of thought involved. It goes with the social skills problem that is not really addressed in the piece (more on that below)
  • Procrastination: I want to say something here, but don't really feel like it. Maybe later.
  • Snobbery: Certainly, there are all kinds of intra-academic clubs where one tries to improve one's self-esteem by putting down the work of those in other groups--research institutions vs. liberal arts colleges; rational choice or not; formal modeling or not; quantitative vs. qualitative; post-modernist or not; one subfield versus another, top ten or not; etc. When I was at Texas Tech, I had the distinct feeling that I was, like Rudolph, left out of the reindeer games. Not so much now that I am at McGill. But that might have been just as much my insecurity as it was the reality that Lubbock was never near any inner or outer circle.
  • Lust: The piece has this line: "why do universities pullulate with transgressive intercourse?" Since that is too confusing, perhaps it can be better illustrated in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the oblivious professor is surprised by a student who has written a message on her eyelashes. The better quote from the article is this: "On an English campus, academics can be heroes." Hmmm. But this contribution to the article (written by Terence Kealey) has made big news around the world by suggesting that the "flaunting of curves" by undergrads towards the male profs is a "perk" of the job. So, let's run far away from this questionable (to say the least) assertion (supposedly comedic) while we can.
  • Arrogance: The article focuses on the excesses of the British Academics in their arrogance, compared to the American ones:
    • "American academics attend conferences in best bib and tucker, they are on time, they ask intelligent questions, they are polite, they have beautiful teeth and they are disappointingly sober. Now, all this could be construed as professionalism - particularly when compared with the drunken, late-night antics of the flip-flop-wearing, unshaven and almost always sunburnt Limeys whose most pressing questions are "where's the bar?" and "does anyone remember my room number?" - but, I assure you, it is arrogance. Make no mistake: their reverence for the subject, thoroughgoing knowledge of its intricacies, prolific capacities to produce research of the highest standard ... what unspeakable arrogance!"
    • This contribution is more amusing than the previous one. To be clear, in my mind, arrogance refers to when one acts as being better than others without necessarily being based in reality. One is not necessarily arrogant if one actually has the merit to back up the perception or claims of superiority--then one is tactless and perhaps obnoxious. I have mentioned institutional arrogance before--the sense that one's institution is special and therefore its strange and deviant ways do not need justification or defense. I do think this form of arrogance is particularly crippling as reform does not occur, bad decisions of the past serve as justifications for bad decisions of the present and future, etc.
  • Complacency: The essay here takes on a distinct angle that might not be widely shared in terms of what complacency means: "I mean the attitude that one's undoubted distinction in one's own subject entitles one to pontificate about any other; and conversely, that their ignorance of one's own subject disqualifies everyone else from having a worthwhile opinion on anything at all." To me, that speaks more of arrogance and perhaps my institutional arrogance is really about complacency. The article goes on to suggest that complacency is the antonym of curiosity, so I guess I would find there to be very little of it in the academy with which I am familiar--most academics are quite curious people.

Still, I have to say I enjoyed the quote from this piece:

"Of course, some would say I have too little experience to hold these opinions".
My own rejoinder of "Oh no, X, you have exactly the right amount of experience
to hold those opinions" was one of my more satisfactory moments on the High
Table, which I fear is why I remember it.
  • Pedantry: "there's the rub of pedantry - it's the scholarly moment when someone else wants to shout: "What's the difference?! - who cares?!"" This essay suggests that we academics are in love with details. Perhaps, but I am not a detail kind of guy, but I have seen pedants at work. Not that much fun to see them at play either.
I alluded to social skills deficit syndrome (we are standing by the phones if you want to donate as we are searching for a cure to this widespread academic disease) earlier but that really should not count as a sin. So, what sins are omitted?

I should not be so arrogant or pedantic to assume that this list covers the major academic sins, nor should I be so complacent as to accept this list without further inquiry, but I have put off writing a few letters of recommendation where I assert that our students are far better than those elsewhere.

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