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?

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89 thoughts on “Academic Arrogance

  1. Melanie says:

    I read this post with interest. I have definitely seen examples of this behaviour in academic. However, one of my concerns is why this behaviour is not dealt with at the time in front of all colleagues? Years ago I witnessed an honours student having her presentation ripped to pieces by a more senior academic. It turns out this academic and the student’s supervisor had a long standing feud. Constructive criticism is great, but personal issues do not help to build knowledge. Not really sure what the answer is!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I have noticed that the education field that I now inhabit is much kinder than the architecture culture that I came from. I rarely see outright agression. I think it depends on what is acceptable in that culture. Culture change is surely a collective responsibility. PhD students have the power to change things – eventually. So long as we don’t become poisoned along the way…

    • Jaime says:

      When you have replied after 7 years, how do you expcet the reply immediately.Be Patient. Just wait for 7 more years to receive the reply.I use it every day.

      • JP Dombrovski says:

        Decades ago in my PhD work my advisor and a committee member had developed an animosity at the personal level. Their bickering stalled my progress…I was just about done with the dissertation so it was very frustrating, not to mention scary that I might not finish. I had a good relationship with both and met each individually to note that they did seem to be having a feud, and that I was caught in the middle, fearful all my work would go down the drain. Each recognized what was happening and expressed some embarrassment about what their tiff was doing to me. It was smooth sailing after that. My take away is that most people can be reasoned with if approached maturely…it never hurts to be the adult in the room.

  2. msbetterhomes says:

    The best response to that kind of carry on I have ever seen was a reply to a rant that began “I think Derrida would say…”. Once the ranter had finished, the subject of the rant replied “yes. But Derrida isn’t here.”

  3. Ali Mc says:

    I appreciate this post very much–it takes guts to admit to teaching mistakes, even though we all make them, and hopefully we correct them as well.

    I think teaching frustrations are actually a very different category from the aggressive hecklers at conferences or seminars like Rattled experienced. A well-known scholar once told me some horror stories of public conference humiliation from his grad student days. I asked him what to do if someone reams your paper in public and he said to just look at them, say “thank you for your comment,” and move on to the next question. It’s the academic version of ‘keep calm and carry on,’ I suppose.

    I also appreciate that people came up to Rattled after the fact to comfort her, but it would have been nice if a senior scholar had made some attempt at that during the seminar. The situation she describes is bordering on abuse because the criticism went on for an extended time and was irrelevant to her actual research.

  4. Waiting says:

    Great advice and I agree it is bullying. I find what works for me is to ask the bully for a specific question about my paper (and not let them weasel out of it with the old 10 minute criticism/rant followed by a ‘what are your comments on that?’).

  5. drishism says:

    I assistant taught for a professor who was one year from retirement, and when he taught he was always right, and he enjoyed making students and graduate students look dumb. When students would ask him to explain something, he would say “read the book.” Which, I know many students do not read the book because I have asked them.

    But when students would say to him, or me, that they DID read the book and wanted him to explain… he would say, “It’s in the book! Read it!” And he dismissed their questions that way. Many of these students were afraid of him and came to my office for help. It was very frustrating to be a grad assistant for him. He is very intelligent, but not a great teacher.

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      This is the fellow I feel sorry for. I do NOT see this as arrogance.
      One trouble with Tertiary Education is that the “teachers’ need no ‘teaching qualifications’. All you need is to be good at your subject and have qualification/publications about your subject.
      I do not see this as ideal at all. A good friend who stayed on at Uni to be a ‘teacher/lecturer’ took himself off to college to do a Diploma of Education. I can see a need to provide similar teaching as a requisite for a teaching position at the tertiary level.

  6. PleagleTrainer (@PleagleTrainer) says:

    Thank you for this post, Inger, I think it takes courage to bring these experiences into the open and to discuss them, and I believe it is important to have these discussions. Reflection on these experiences as teacher or student is valuable and can provide an opportunity to revisit ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’, as those words are used in the various senses.

    I have worked as teacher of professional legal skills, and now I am very early in my PhD candidature (just a few months); I have no tickets on myself – I am in awe of the theoretical and practical knowledge I have seen demonstrated by my supervisors and their colleagues at the university. On the other hand, these days I am not overly intimidated or excited when someone confronts me, and I have reflected on this. Partly, I am not a young person, partly I have a legal background which is steeped in a zero-sum adversarial paradigm, and… I have a 3rd dan black belt in karate (I’m now remembering that Bourdieu described sociology as a ‘martial art’).

    If I have learned one thing from my own experiences is that learning to respond appropriately to challenging situations and confrontations takes practice. Sometimes lots of practice. In my opinion, many of us are indoctrinated to avoid confrontation or difficulty, but if we know we are likely to encounter those situations we can prepare for them by actually exposing ourselves to debate and interactions and build up self-belief and understanding of our subject matter. We can mentally rehearse by preemptively exploring our teaching or our submissions for roadblocks or objections, and by preparing our responses to those potential situations. The advantage of practicing in this way means that when the “blow” comes, it is not such a shock, and it makes it easier (even more fun) to respond appropriately.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Great advice – Thanks 🙂 I love that quote about marital arts too. You are totally right about practice. If you approach it in that spirit you avoid beating yourself up when you fail.

  7. Natalie says:

    I empathise with “Rattled”, I too was hit hard by a Professor. I had gone out on a limb at a conference to take the nature and role of presentation to a different place. To the Professor’s credit, she didn’t berate me in front of everyone, she had the decorum to wait until I approached her later for feedback. Once she had my obviously student-like attention, (I was approaching her because I wanted to learn from her) she stripped me to the bone. I spent the next few hours in tears. It took months to recover.

    Part of doing a PhD is to enter a long, unrewarding (at least in the short term) journey into the depths of the unknown. It is a journey that requires courage and perseverance.

    However, I wonder how ‘Rattled’ got into this set of circumstances? How did she come to be presenting ‘preliminary’ ideas that were not grounded. Why was her supervisor not guiding her prior to the situation. I would be asking, who are your supervisors… don’t they take some responsibility for not teaching you prior to your speaking publically? I went out on a limb intentionally – and nothing my supervisor said could have changed my mind. But it sounds like ‘rattled’ missed some guidance prior to being hammered.

    There are elements of a doctorate that are essential – and need to be known. A doctorate is not a breeze about on a whim and a fancy… it is hard, so, so hard and if its not hurting you off your own back, then maybe the pain will come publically. That said, I do not, under any circumstances condone the way the senior academic berated ‘Rattled’ – that is absolutely unacceptable – and yes, a form of power and verging on bullying, if not definitely so.

    I wish someone had stepped up on ‘Rattled’s’ behalf and had that conversation – publically! As if he really were a shark, others, if they dont go for the frenzy themselves slink off into the background and try to take on board the message. What I worry about is that they also take on board that this is acceptable behaviour! Because it’s not!

    • Less rattled, more enlightened says:

      Thanks so much for the empathy Natalie. It seems like this is an issue that confronts a lot of students in a range of arenas.

      I would just like to say, though, that this definitely wasn’t a case of lack of good supervision. Indeed, I think this particular event could have been much worse if it wasn’t for my supervisor, who was the person I went to after this incident. With his support, I think I’ve avoided the long term trauma that your and other people have alluded to in their comments.

      Without being too specific (as I think anonymity is important here), let me just say that the presentation was highly theoretical, and in my discipline, we can’t always ‘ground’ ourselves – sometimes it’s better not to for freedom of thought. Also, I made it very clear from the outset that these were ideas that I was “playing with”, and I wasn’t attempting to present any complete body of work, but that I was really interested how these ideas might affect our discipline.

      As for ‘stepping in’ – that’s a tricky one for me, because whilst it’s important for people to step in if they feel things are getting out of hand, I also think there can be a danger of belittling or patronising the presenter. It’s a tough situation to navigate for a lot of people I guess, but judging by Inger’s post and the responses, it’s one that arises all to often and is unpleasant for all.

    • ingermewburn says:

      It would be great if people did step up publicly – but many find that hard. I have occassionally had a quiet word later on with the person involved. This can be effective in those cases where people have forgotten their power and unleashed their frustrations. In the case of purely nasty behaviour I must admit I am at a loss. I think such people need to be taken to task by others, higher up in the pecking order. Leadership is really important if we want to counter unhelpful cultures.

  8. Bex says:

    HI ,.. I have been once in such a situation. A fellow PhD student attacked me after a 5minute presentation about my project. This presentation was suposed to introduce new PG students to other people and projects at our school… so it was supposed to be a friendly enviroment…I gave a rough overview of my project and only scratched my metodology… result was that this fellow student began to ‘kill’ me and my apporach in front of everyone. Normaly i’m good in situations like this by just saying’ Thank you ‘ or something like it. However this came so unexpected that i just went down the other way and began to defend myslef… that was so stupid… i never do that normaly… anywasy… after a while all the staff members in the room and some other PhD students began to come to my aid and made her schut up…. I must say is was such a terrible situation…I ean bag to my office and checked my chapter and all what i had written just to be sure she was not right…. Since then i’m affraid to even say something if this person is in the room. I know it is not good but i also dont want to justify my stuff in front of her. She has no idea what i’m doing and she just hates me being at the school cause i’m an international student. That sucks! She is one the these super good people they score one Scholarship after the next one… and even never done a history degree she names herself Historian/ Linguist… And it is so funny… if you talk to people about her it seems that no one likes her…. but everyone gives her everything and surports her etc….. Now some of you might think i just want to be as good as her… but hey… NO… I think too she is good in what she is doing and even send people to her…. but her attitude just makes me sick! ( sorry for spelling mistakes)

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’m sorry ot hear this Bex – I would like to see that people wont go far with that kind of attitude, but unfortunately I’m not sure that’s true. Agression is often rewarded in organisations, academia is no exception. Personally I think it’s important not to stoop to those tactics and work to create the sort of supportive environment you want to be in. Don’t be silenced – even if you are afraid I think it’s important to keep speaking up, otherwise we let such people dominate our workplace.

    • Chris says:

      This is a timely post Inger and I had an encounter like Bex’s, though not during a presentation. I realise that arrogant academics aren’t necessarily professors – they can be a fellow PhD student.

      I came to this realisation when I was asked for help to find a pack of sugar in our pantry. I tried looking around and couldn’t find it. Now this particular PhD student, who was standing right outside the pantry, was quick to spot that pack of sugar. Fine, he wins, credit to him. What’s a bit disheartening was to hear him say: “You can’t see that pack of sugar? How can you become a good researcher?”

      I simply dismissed that remark but I was left a bit discouraged for a few minutes. The point here is that this kind of people are everywhere and sometimes they don’t realise what they’re doing. This reinforces my belief in the fact that grad schools could be a site of politics – dealing with different personalities.

      The good news is that, like what Inger said, arrogant people won’t go far.

      • Mane says:

        . HOWEVER, Woman B claimed she had never said anihtyng to A about my wife spreading the rumors and that she was simply concerned about her. She was sorry, apologized, but understood if my wife didn’t trust her as a friend. My wife was hurt, but choose to forgive woman B and move on and attempt to repair things with woman A.The next morning, woman B went to A and told her what my wife had done to her. Woman A was concerned about the accuracy of the information she was getting from B. Woman A asked her again if she was sure that what she had said at the party was true, including the party about my wife telling many different people and maliciously attempting to start the rumors. B said this was all true again, and that my wife was really upset with A and wanted to bring her down with what she said.A week later, my wife tried to talk to woman A to apologize for what was said. Woman A would not even look at my wife. She said she was done with her as a friend. She explained that woman B had come back to her to tell her she had been talking about her AGAIN, and she reiterated about the fact she had been spreading the rumors maliciously and my wife wanted to hurt woman A. None of this was true. Woman A called my wife a slew of fowl language in front of me, in front of dozens of her close friends and in front of many of my wife’s friends. She stated that she was lying because woman B had said these things to her twice, and that she wouldn’t lie.My wife is woman A’s boss. Woman A is letting this effect her work. Woman A has cut off all communication with my wife outside of work. Woman B is now completely avoiding my wife entirely as well as woman B’s husband, who is a close friend of mine.My wife forgave them both for what happened. Several weeks has passed. I have a hard time forgiving these people and wanted them to ever be back at our home. They were both very good friends of my wife’s and now she feels alone and isolated because her two best friends destroyed their friendship. I even lost a close friend. The collateral damage goes very deep, since these were mutual friends of almost everyone we know.My wife wants me to move on, but I have such a hard time with that. My wife was trying to do the biblically accurate thing to hold a fellow sister in christ accountable and her other sister in christ; who was not a new christian, but a strong one, threw it in her face. She broke her trust not once, but twice.I just think she doesn’t need to be friends with these people if this is how they treat their relationships. I don’t feel comfortable having them around my home if this is what they choose to do.What do you think?

  9. Less rattled, more enlightened says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my comment, Inger, and to everyone else for sharing their experiences and thoughts.

    To be honest, I’d never even considered the possibility that the offending commenter might have been worn down by years of ‘newbies’, and it almost definitely contributed to the situation. I suppose as much as teachers need to be aware of the newness of some students, students similarly need to be aware of the *ahem* oldness of some teachers. It seems like it’s a common tension that we should continue to reflect upon.

    Your practical advice on how to handle such confronting situations certainly makes a lot of sense, and is very much appreciated. I’ll definitely remember these suggestions for future presentations!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’m glad it was helpful – thanks for handing me such an excellent topic. I throughly enjoyed the hour and a half writing it. Any excuse to work a bit of Foucault 🙂 Let us know how you get on next time.

  10. Lynne Kelly says:

    Thank you for such honesty, Inger. Clearly you’ve struck another really important issue going by the responses. I similarly was attacked at my first seminar which I found out later was due to the fact I am an atheist. He knew that from my published books; it was not part of my presentation. The person involved does not believe that an atheist can understand anything to do with oral tradition. I was part of what he saw as a downward trend due to atheists getting too influential in academia. Even worse, I was from a science background in the humanities, and he really hates science. So it wasn’t me, but what I stood for, that was being attacked. He is always friendly to me, just abhors what I represent. It was a real shock and took me ages to get over, even at my mature age.

    I have a related problem on which I would really appreciate advice from you and your impressive readership, as I expect it to arise constantly as I talk about my research. I get questions which I simply don’t understand. I have no idea if they are attacking or not because I have no idea what they are asking. How should I respond? The format is:

    I assume you have read when he talks about in reference to and . In what way do you see and the impacting on the of your research outcomes?

    I feel like a twit and that there is obviously a huge gap in my research which renders it useless. When I ask others after what the question meant, they invariably have no idea.

    This is not usually senior academics, it is much more likely to be fellow postgrads or young academics or blow-ins to the seminars .


    • Lynne Kelly says:

      Oooops – I had stuff in pointy brackets which WordPress which the blog has deleted. My question format was:

      I assume you have read [person I have never heard of] when he talks about [big word] in reference to [lots of big words] and [a phrase relating to my research]. In what way do you see [enormous word] and the [unintelligible mumble] impacting on the [words which don’t seem to go together in any meaningful way] of your research outcomes?

      • Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

        This is it! The zombification curse!
        I have seen this so many times–my friend and I call this ‘the withered hand’ at conferences. Some old white dude (usually) sticks up his hand and proceeds to suck the life out of your presentation. Everyone else is uncomfortable, but they can’t say anything, because he’s sucked all the life (and maybe the brains) out of them too.
        I always smile and say, ‘That’s an interesting approach.’ I write it down. ‘I’ll have to pursue that,’ I say, lying, and move on.
        (But maybe I should throw cauliflowers, which works in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and would liven up proceedings…).

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks Lynne – it’s important to understand the ‘back story’ to any attack. It’s hard not to take it personally too. I will post on obscure questions. Many are standard ‘testing’ questions which academics learn to do from watching others. I hope others will write in with theirs and I can do a compilation…

  11. Clare Petocz says:

    As a PhD student with a TPR looming and tutoring next semester this post hit the nail on the head for me. It’s something I see within my own department and something I am desperate not to replicate when I tutor. Situations where academics can give one another feedback can be really useful and help develop ideas in new, exciting directions but sometimes comments can be nasty rather than constructive. I know that seeing this happen to a colleague in a seminar makes me feel discouraged and intimidated. This is not a great environment for fostering innovation. This post was great because it showed me how easy it can be, once experienced in a field, to become frustrated but I liked that you didn’t excuse this as ‘the way things are’. This has inspired me to work hard when I tutor to understand what it is like to be starting out and trying to learn. I know I won’t always be able to do this but just keeping it in mind is a good step.

    I certainly agree that academics can also be intimidated by the intelligence of less experienced academics, it certainly sounds like that in the story Rattled retold, and I think that can be seen very clearly when the comments are unhelpful, off topic and unusually hostile. Your tips for how to deal with these “questions” were really helpful and I feel better prepared now for those scary seminars. Thanks for the awesome post!

      • Werner says:

        It’s a very wise answer of Mr/s Snout.The first felitrity test commonly performed in order to diagnose the cause of male infelitrity is the semen analysis test. Any problems affecting sperm shape (morphology), sperm movement (motility), or sperm count will require a semen analysis test. The cost of infelitrity tests can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the sophistication of the required felitrity test.Good luck.

  12. Lynne Kelly says:

    Oooops – I had stuff in pointy brackets which WordPress which the blog has deleted. My question format was:

    I assume you have read [person I have never heard of] when he talks about [big word] in reference to [lots of big words] and [a phrase relating to my research]. In what way do you see [enormous word] and the [unintelligible mumble] impacting on the [words which don’t seem to go together in any meaningful way] of your research outcomes?

  13. Sinner says:

    Wonderful (and timely) post! It’s one thing when we’re at the national conference of our discipline and two hard-hitting academics who are well-established get into a debate with each other (assuming it’s kept civil) but I’m always upset when I see fellow PhD students or junior scholars hammered in a way that is destructive rather than constructive. I think it goes without saying, if we’re completing or have completed a PhD we expect criticism, but as you aptly put it with Foucault, we don’t expect the violence. Thanks again for the reminder as we head into a new academic year.

  14. Simon says:

    I think some experienced academics can suffer from a fear that they’re unable to encapsulate an evolving field, which can lead to being more hostile than helpful in the face of broadening ideas.

    It reminds me of Clarke’s first law:
    “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

  15. Heddy says:

    As much as would agree that such “constructive criticisms” help to “man up” the PhD student, if taken too far the opposite would be achieved. A friend once said the true meaning of PhD is : Pull Him Down! It is purely ego.

    • kymbt says:

      In my experience, those who use the expressions “toughen up” or “man up” have usually bullies, as was the father of a child who punched my son in the eye in the playground, without provovation, other than being there. It’s a line by cowards.

  16. Stare the monster in the eye says:

    I suggest;
    Refer to your ‘code of conduct’ which usually will have something like ‘respect’ there. Hold a seminar on what behaviours support the code. You could make sure the seminar structure has the codes printed and available.
    Refer to Mary Gentile’s work “Giving Voice to Values” which coaches people on using their preferred learning style to ‘speak truth to power’ Resources available here
    Refer to Stone et al “Difficult Conversations” which teaches how to have the ‘identity conversation’ and is helpful in recognising your part in the issue
    Follow up the person. Have a conversation with them about ‘what happened’

  17. lookingforpemberley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. It seems that all teachers have at least one moment like this, but few would bravely post it publicly. I also appreciated your personal example along with another more junior scholar’s experience. It does seem like these situations are led by bullies to a large extent, although it is obviously a fairly common experience. I have seen it as a power struggle between two professors, and at conferences between more experienced and junior scholars. As my advisor used to say, “don’t worry about their comments. If they feel the need to attack someone like that for no reason, it just makes them look bad.” that comment helped me in both my first conference presentation and thesis defense. During my defense, one of the more senior faculty committee members tried to throw me off by asking if I had read a book about something opposite to a barely referenced turn of phrase in my introduction. I don’t think she had actually read my thesis at all. Luckily, I speedily recalled the term “fetishistic scopaphilia” when she could not. This is a theory term which, by the way, had nothing to do with my paper topic. That moment made me a temporary academic rock star with my peers, and made her jaw drop. I think she was annoyed that she wasn’t able to trip me up, ( something she tried to do in every defense ), but that was her final comment.

  18. Ailicec says:

    I am curious to know how to tackle issues of ‘losing patience when teaching’. I have moved countries to do my PhD, and whilst here I frequently have to supervise final-year undergrad and MSc projects. I find that the students tend to very often be seriously lacking in basic Excel skills which I would have known in secondary school e.g. how to work out the average in Excel rather than by calculator. Or how to draw a graph in Excel. When you have 50 values or so (we are doing science) it does not make sense to use a calculator or draw a graph by hand. I also find it difficult, because I have known these things for years, and don’t know how to explain them without going towards the opposite end of ‘teaching’ every basic (I have asked stupid questions such as…do you know what an x-axis…and they seem to get annoyed).

    I have no problem guiding students who need ‘higher level help’ such as which statistical test to use or so (I am a chemist, but love numbers and statistics, so am quite good at those things). I look forward to your comments on how to tackle such an issue.

    • Susan says:

      Ailiced – my recommendation in that situation is to hold a seminar/workshop at the start of semester that covers those basic skills. Book a room with computers in it or ask the students to bring their laptops, and go through the basics that you have identified are missing. I don’t know what is in the high school curriculum in terms of EXCEL training, but if you’re working in Australia then I suspect many students may miss out on these skills as they go through high school. My son’s high school does not offer computing of any kind as a subject, expecting the students to pick up these skills at home. I’d prefer that this thread doesn’t get into an argument about that philosophy please – I’m just using it as an example of how the high school background of some of your students might result in the lack of skills you’re seeing. And you have the capacity to fix that and make your own job easier by giving up an hour or two of your time to show those students some basic skills. My supervisor is currently running a series of workshops on a particular software package for 3 of the students in our Department – she can see that her job is going to be a lot easier if we all have a base level of knowledge in this particular software.

      • ingermewburn says:

        That’s a great idea – better still, ask your uni’s central student learning assistance unit (most have them now) to run the class for you. This is exactly the sort of thing such units exist for and are good at. They probably also have a lab for this purpose.

  19. berlinickerin says:

    In my experience, the most common reason for such a behavior is ego. So it’s really less about the poor soul that is the object of the tantrum but about taking whatever opportunity there is to put yourself into the spotlight. And no, I still haven’t figured out how to deal with what still very much feels like a verbal slap in the face. Though I really like your advice on that, Inger!

      • berlinickerin says:

        Probably. 😀

        And only losely related but I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you know the novel “Small World” by David Lodge? Because I only just stumbled upon it by chance and really, it’s such a fitting portrait of academia. Would have helped tremendously if I had read it at the beginning of my phd.

  20. rising4air says:

    Thanks for posting this topic. Arrogance always feels like it is lurking nearby in my life, and the lives of my peers.

    We had a faculty member exhibit this trait (yikes) without provocation in seminars, and the long-term outcomes resulted in me and my peers increasingly resisting participation in the required seminars with this faculty member. A peer finally confronted this academic in private in a relentless, non-vulgar, and sustained way that to the surprise of my friend silenced the academic. The first words from his mouth: “Please forgive me. I had no idea.” The result was an astonishing reversal of public persona and engagement with students.

    This is hardly a prescription for others- the faculty member was the supervisor of my friend’s research- but, as others have observed, if some change will occur, it is likely to begin with PhD students confronting those faculty members with boorish behavior. Perhaps it will drive away arrogance in our own lives.

  21. Burned says:

    Wow. Supporting the student after the fact is all well and good, but letting this rant continue for 10 minutes! Outrageous. After 2 mins I think Rattled (or supervisor) would have been ok to interject and say something like ‘it sounds like your feedback is very involved, perhaps we could continue this discussion after the seminar so that other people have a chance to comment’? I have also seen people handle similar situations at conferences by saying ‘I’ll take that as a comment; does anyone else have any questions?’.

    Of course there are other explanations for ‘Prof Berater”s behaviour other than bullying – maybe someone had recently taken down Prof Berater so he/she was inappropriately taking out their frustrations on an ‘easy’ target. The fact that no one stepped in really, really bothers me though – in doing so, everyone present basically implicitly supported Prof Berater, no matter what they said after the fact. It is cliched, but bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing. Other PhD students present would have noted the lack of support from the other academics, and indirectly learnt something about the culture of their School and discipline. I will admit, this is a bit of a hot topic for me, since my now ex-PhD supervisor once took down one of her own PhD students in front of a visiting Prof! Bullies are alive and well. They will only think twice if challenged and held to account.

  22. tressiemc22 says:

    Reblogged this on tressiemc and commented:
    I was trained in the Sandy Darity school of academic presentations…and the Vivian school of self-defense. I think a lot of people should take their life classes. Because this kind of bullying is never OK and too few of us in academia train junior scholars on how to deal with it. Even fewer of us stand up for them when it happens. For that we should all be ashamed.

    • Atep says:

      I have been contacted once more by GREENGES 2005 SL, LOPE DE VEGA 60, ARROYO DE LA MIEL, 29631, MALAGA, SPAIN.C.I.F – B92652288They apaper to be genuine but one has to be so careful.They want to join a joint action on ILG Reclaim and state that all correspondance will be in Spanish so all documents need translation at a minimun cost of a3850 payable after exam of docs by Lawyer then 15% of any monies recovered and paid direct to me.Question Has anybody dealt with them , are they above board and genuine Legal Adinistrators and to be trusted.Also i have been contacted by JD Knight assoc of the UK on the same basis of assistance at a fixed fee on Section 75, again Oliver Knight seems above board but they have only been trading for 3 months has anyone heard of them and is their any track record as amatter of interest i asked the Greeges coy if they knew them and they stated that they were a Scam coy???Look forward to your comments on both to assist me make some decisionsThanks

  23. Jeremy says:

    Excellent post – like the way you’ve used Foucault and Bordieu to extend the explanation of power. Agree with your key arguments. In my centre I’m lucky to work with people who are supportive and constructive. I don’t think we would tolerate someone being aggressive and treating someone like this. So culture is important too I think and the kind of expectations and norms we have of each other. Criticism can be hard to take, but you know instinctively when it’s offered for a good reason, or if it’s just someone seeking to make you look small. And a good leader (professor, etc.) has an important role in encouraging others, and to be a good role model.

  24. Jo VanEvery (@JoVanEvery) says:

    Excellent explanation of the phenomenon. And I love the analogy. I had this happen to me at a conference once. It was a women’s studies conference designed mainly for women in the community. I was on a panel and a more senior academic who had a plenary session later that day took up most of the question time to attack my paper. I responded more or less as you suggest under option 2. She came up to me afterwards and asked who my supervisor was which made me really angry because it made it obvious that she thought I was a grad student which I found even more inexcusable.

    I have zero respect for this woman now, as you can imagine. Being a full professor with a whole plenary session for your views and then taking up the only time available to most of the women in the room to actively engage with these ideas in the name of exerting your power over someone you believe is in a very junior position to you? Everything she writes quickly went to the bottom of my priority list.

    The upside is that like Rattled, others came up to me to commisserate. The other women on the panel, who know the arrogant questioner, immediately reassured me that she was out of line. And the other women came up to me in the hallway and at lunch to ask me who she was and why she got so angry, as well as to offer sympathy for having to go through that and reassurance that it was uncalled for.

    Her status in the eyes of those women went way down, though I suspect she couldn’t care less what ordinary women think anyway.

  25. Eljee Javier says:

    Many thanks Inger for a courageous and fab post. I think what I appreciated most about this blog post was the fact that you shared your own experience of being an arrogant academic before moving on to the main discussion. As a teacher I have immense respect for individuals who can admit, publicly, that they were wrong. There’s this immense pressure to perform to perfection – be an inspiring teacher and publish prolifically while raking in the funding bids without messing up. It seems, at least in my limited observations, there’s an expectation that academics should know ‘everything’ and never ever show any gaps in knowledge. As if finishing a PhD was their contribution to knowledge and the pursuit of it was forgotten once the degree was awarded. I’m fortunate to work with 2 supervisors who readily admit when they don’t know something and, even better, invite me alongside them to find out the answers. Maybe less know-it-all and more curiosity?

    • ingermewburn says:

      That’s a lovely way of putting it, and thanks for the kind word on the post. In fact, that’s what has surprised me most about the reaction to this post is people remarking on the honesty. To be honest with you, it didn’t occur to me to worry about putting failure out there. I’m wondering now why that is, because if I think about it, I didn’t talk about this incident to anyone at the time, because it was so shameful.

  26. Brenda says:

    Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Bad teaching in Australian universities is becoming a cancer and Australian tradition. Australian Teachers/professors/academics/ petrol stations attendees posing as professors, have one job that students pay them for – it’s to teach! If you are incapable of teaching, get the hell out of our universities and let someone capable of doing the job take over!

  27. Chuck says:

    There are two required components to being an effective instructor: knowledge of the subject matter and the ability to communicate that knowledge in such a way that your knowledge is understood and imparted to others.

    I find it ironic that instructors chastise their students for making old mistakes while being completely oblivious to the fact that in doing so they themselves are committing the same sin over and over in their teaching approach. Perhaps more teachers ought to remove the log out of their own eye before they try to remove the sliver out of their student’s eye.

  28. Mme_ says:

    Unfortunately, many individuals in academics lack courage and strength to do good, but also compassion and empathy towards others. They talk too much, and do too little, especially in the Philosophy Departments I have visited. This “moral superiority” over others is very disappointing, especially to scholars and individuals in the academic word: the whole point of education is to teach (but also reach towards) one the value of knowledge, wisdom and humility, not to put oneself on a pedestal. Thus, it makes me wonder, whether some are born with wisdom or not? There are so many aspects to our human nature (our value system, mannerisms, etc). Either way, when we come across genuine, good and humble people in academia, we are truly blessed!

  29. Dorothy Ahlswede says:

    Thanks for this very interesting article. Anyone who has attended school has probably encountered arrogance at some time in an academic setting. I think the problem gets worse in fact the higher up the Ivy Tower one climbs. Your article was both thought provoking and useful. Thanks!

  30. Mori says:

    It’s not just academic arrogance, but the arrogance of expertise. Here’s a common story that’s often repeated: a young painter or illustrator shows their untrained work to a successful commercial artist. The artist says “I’m going to be /kind/ and tell you it will be impossible for you to ever make art. You’re horrible. I can see from these basic mistakes you’re making. Go do something else. Art is too tough.”

    Expert arrogance can even make a person believe they’re doing a learner a favor by insulting them and belittling them. Taking out their distaste at seeing crude work on the student. But here is a true story:

    A friend once showed his very crude attempt at comic art to an artist in college who had some talent. The artist dismissed my friend’s attempts at drawing in a particularly cruel manner, saying he’d never seen anything so unsuitable for illustration and that my friend clearly had absolutely no talent. He should never waste any time trying to learn to draw.

    My friend was insulted and embarrassed but a few months later started drawing again and kept fiddling with it for the next 15 years. Down the road a funny thing happened. My friend ran into that college artist on Facebook. After a few catch-up exchanges the artist found out my friend was still drawing. Now, my friend is not a great illustrator (yet). But he developed a unique style. He has his fans. 15 years on, he’s still getting over a self image and confidence problem. He still remembered exactly what the arrogant artist once said. By contrast the arrogant college student? He gave up art. His ego and desire for recognition of his powerful personality led him to go into law; he shot for starting his own firm. He never made it; he became a paralegal. Not a bad job, no insult to paralegals. But he never made any art again, even as a hobby, and his early talent was allowed to rust away from disuse. The (former) artist looked at my friend’s work and said he wished he’d kept making art. He didn’t like law after all. (And this time he didn’t insult my friend.)

  31. Cat says:

    This is very interesting to me as I just had an odd experience on a Carl Jung Discussion group on Facebook run by someone who seemed very rigid and controlling about his group, not to mention obsessed with Car Jung and posting in multiple places online every day about him. I figure he is some sort of academic though mostly just posts things that others write and quotes regarding Jung. I made a comment and he immediately set out to tell me I was wrong in a rude and gruff way, focusing only on facts and the way I worded something. When I replied with where I read what I read, backing it up with full citation, he deleted all the comments between us. Before he could then delete me, I left his group as I got this overall vibe of arrogant, cat man scholar with a major attitude. Also I gleaned this from some of his other responses and willingness to close threads. I hate that sort of pompous, know-it-all posture of consciousness that these “experts” or “scholars” think they can throw around in a rude way. Because you know, sometimes they are just not entirely right, and it is quite possible they have not even read for many years what others are reading with more detail or fresh insight that should be up for discussion.

  32. Evelyn Haskins says:

    In my experience the ‘adept’ does NOT make a good teacher. If you are brilliant at your subject, it is VERY hard to understand the difficulties that your students might be having. I don’t see it so much as arrogance as lack of understanding.
    I’ve experienced it from both ends of the spectrum. I was “good” at maths so put into the top maths class a school, with a “brilliant teacher”, but I simply could not understand trigonometry (as she taught it). When I asked, I was merely told that I was *rude* 🙁 and when I asked my Mum who was also a maths teacher, she was cross with me and said that she never expected her daughter to be so rude! But having managed to achieve 4% on the Trig Exam paper, I was “put down” a class and got the ‘poor” teacher (aka not University Maths trained). I managed a A pass for matriculation, because she COULD explain to me where and why I was having difficulties.
    Then when I became a Biology Teacher, I had to keep reminding myself when my students were having trouble, that a “What’s not to Understand?” was absolutely no help to them at all.
    I feel for the old Professor who kept telling his students to ‘read the book’ because he no doubt had no idea why they could not understand an explanation that was, to him, so clear and so basic.

  33. Steve says:

    Academia is about power , period. Heirachical bullying is just part of that power. This leads inherently to arrogance ie one knows enough to know one is correct. It is soulless and evil. leave or it will kill your soul. Ever wondered why 99.9% of creativity occurs outside of academia? because it needs soul. LEAVE.

  34. just support staff says:

    I’m glad I found this, I have been recently ripped to sheds by my so called line manager who is an academic/professor which completely threw me off guard. There was no basis for this verbal attack and lecture in my so called 1-2-1, it bottled down to ‘ You can’t know everything’ and all I did was show care and concern for project and like most approach this in my work. Like most here I felt savagely verbally attacked. I’m seen as professional support staff – I too can be ‘academic’ (but did not choose this path) which appears to some to badge and see everyone one else as beneath them. What a load of crap. This is pure bullying, arrogance and sheer abuse of power and it goes undetected. How they get away with it is beyond me. More should be done as bullying behaviour like this will continue. Why do they let such people be managers when they have absolutely no clue.

  35. Patrick Jung says:

    I am really glad I read this. I am an associate professor (up for full professor next year), and I have learned two things about myself since graduate school: 1) I am very thin skinned, and I have always been very sensitive to the kind of “academic bullying” described in this article; and 2) I have been guilty at times of that same academic bullying.

    After 25 years as a professor, it shows I still have much to learn. Thank you, everyone who participated in this discussion, for helping me to become a better academic, and a better human being.

  36. another victim says:

    I can totally relate this to my situation, have been working under the supervision of a woman who boasts with a wicked smile “I make my students cry” , It has been couple of years now and I became a depression patient. she made me cry many times doesn’t matter how hard I work, I started to lose confidence and interest. Initially, I thought I should improve (being new in the field) and the situation will get better but it became worst with the time. she found pleasure in belittling me, finally I approached head of school that I don’t want to have her in my supervisory panel. But he said we have only this woman in your area of study.

  37. Unir says:

    I just received my first PhD review. It was awful. 10 pages of what is wrong with this text and why it shouldn’t exist. It even said that my work only pretends to be a dissertation. I am not spicing it up, it literally discredits everything I have done. And my supervisor made corrections beforehand and chose with some innate ignorance (I suspect) a reviewer with the most arrogant attitude possible for which he is well known. Reviewer left me a window to correct every single thing. He even suspects my other review will be 100% negative without such merciful possibility to correct. Now I make corrections knowing I probably wasted few years of my life.

  38. Dwight says:

    Academic arrogance is also a form of, sometimes willing, ignorance. It is sad and sometimes infuriating to see some people push others down so they can use them to try to raise themselves higher.
    This type of behavior shouts that they still have a lot to learn from their “inferiors*. They are not fit to be a doormat.

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