On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

Author: Kevin Gannon
Original: The Tattooed Professor


A few years ago, trapped in the midst of final exam grading, I started posting some of the real howlers I got as answers on Facebook. I didn’t use students’ names, and I don’t “friend” students on FB, so this sort of venting seemed like an OK way for me to keep my sense of humor during the end-term crush.

I have felt guilty about doing that ever since.

Now, I vent plenty on Facebook and (especially) Twitter. PLENTY. But I deploy my snark laterally, or upwards–not down. Not any more. If I am the advocate for teaching and learning that I say I am, then I need to walk the walk. If I argue that failure is not a defeat, but something on which to build successes, then how can I use others’ failures as fodder for cheap laughs?

When I was doing my Ph.D. work, our department had a graduate lounge for our exclusive use, and I used it plenty. Frequently, a certain one of my fellow Ph.D. students would come into the lounge after leading a discussion section and, without fail, just go full blast on his students. THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING! THEY CAN’T WRITE! THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND HISTORY! And then he’d get personal. “Student X is a slack-jawed yokel,” that type of stuff. And I would think: Dude, if you’re that cynical now (we were both in our mid- to late-twenties), then I want no part of you when you’re forty.

Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then; hell, the internet was still fairly novel. But I imagine that guy, and others like him, probably LOVE the “Dear Student” series done by the Chronicle of Higher Education on its Vitae site (which is geared toward job-seekers and grad-school, early-career academics). And, to be sure, some of the behaviors in these columns’ sights might look like easy targets–just like the laugh lines in those student final exams I decided to publicly make fun of back in the day. However, it’s one thing to vent by trading stories and frustrations among trusted friends and colleagues. It’s another thing altogether to vent to vast swaths of the internet. And when it goes beyond venting, there’s a real problem. The “Dear Student” columns are mean. They punch down. They inflate the pedantic into the problematic, and then humiliate rather than empathize. And I’m certainly not the only one who has this reaction; yesterday, Jesse Stommel wrote a magnificent and eloquent essay on why “Dear Student” is such an awful idea. The entire piece is a must-read, but his point about the climate this type of student-shaming work creates is worth repeating:

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin…Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

He’s absolutely right. As one who has been particularly concerned with the (mis)uses of power in academic settings, Stommel’s admonition hit home for me. He put into words much better than I could have why I still feel guilty about my previous Facebook venting.

Again, this doesn’t mean the end of snark and sarcasm. But punch up, not down. Powerful tenured professor berating students or misusing his power to make life tough for female, LGBT, or African American faculty? There will be richly-deserved snark. Political leader who adapts a belligerently ignorant stance to justify depriving others of basic rights? You will be roasted on Twitter, and I will applaud and retweet. But calling out students–giving examples of their mistakes or missteps? No. As educators, we are the ones with the power. Student foibles are temporary. Our reactions to those foibles can be permanent–for both us and them.

Consider the following Twitter feed:
Twitter12 Twitter5Twitter3Twitter4Twitter9Twitter8Twitter1Twitter11Twitter7

 

All of these, actually, represent some of the “highlights” of my own undergraduate career. If my professors had been on Facebook or Twitter, and thrown these out on the internet (and it’s not like any of this crap I did was in private), what would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”

Would I have gotten it together and kicked ass in my (second) Senior Year?

Would I have believed what some of my professors told me, that I should try for graduate school?

Would I have gotten in to a Master’s program, then completed it, then gotten into a Ph.D. program with a fellowship?

Would I have asked for the help I needed to address my increasingly deteriorating “lifestyle choices?”

Would I have been lucky enough to be in a position like I am now, where I can teach teachers and students? And in doing so, experience daily growth myself?

I doubt it.

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties. But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together. I do know that they helped build academic confidence for a student who may not have always been receptive to that help. I do know that they offered advice, perspective, and support–as well as references, recommendations, and cheerleading–to a student who wanted to pursue their field of study at the graduate level. I do know that they did this even at the times when I didn’t look or act as grateful as I truly was.

The simple truth is that I am where I am today–in all senses of the term–in part because others did not shame me for the things about which I was already ashamed. I was the “Dear Student” who the Vitae series has dead in its sights. What might we lose tomorrow as a result of shaming today? What do we do to ourselves, our colleagues (present and future), and our students if we revel in punching down at folks who may not even know they’re targets? What–WHO–gets damaged?

We all do.

So, I humbly offer a revised column:

Dear Student:

You’ll get better at this. So will we.

Faculty (a.k.a. former students)


 

You do not Need to Work 80 Hours a Week to Succeed in Academia

Author:
Original: Dynamic Ecology


There is a persistent myth (some might even call it a zombie idea) that getting tenure in academia requires working 80 hours a week. There’s even a joke along the lines of “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” The idea that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to publish or get grants or tenure is simply wrong. Moreover, I think it’s damaging: I hear routinely from younger folks (often women) who are seriously considering leaving academia primarily because they think that a tenure track position will require working so much that they wouldn’t be able to have any life outside work (including raising a family)*. So, this is my attempt at slaying the zombie idea that succeeding in academia requires working as much as an investment banker**.

This post was inspired by this comment from dinoverm on last Friday’s linkfest post, where I linked to the “7 Year Postdoc” article, even though I had already linked to it earlier, because I found that it kept coming up in conversations with grad students, postdocs, and new faculty. In linking to it on Friday, I said, “I really like the idea of deciding what you are okay with doing (maybe you aren’t willing to move anywhere in the country/world, or you really want to do a particular type of research but aren’t sure how “tenurable” that line of work will be), and then using that to set boundaries on what you do as a faculty member. I think this perspective is really valuable for people who are considering stepping off the tenure track primarily because they’re worried about work-life balance or quality of life. Obviously getting tenure will require working hard, but the lore that it requires 80 hour work weeks and ignoring one’s non-work priorities is simply wrong, and I think this perspective is a good one for thinking about how to balance things.” That led to discussion in the comments on how it is rare for someone to “admit” to not working 80 hours a week. This is something that we’ve discussed in the comments before. (Thanks to Jeremy for figuring out where!) You should go read this entire comment from Brian, because it’s great. (The rest of that comment thread is worth reading, too. There are lots of good thoughts there about parenting and academia, in particular.) But, just to quote part of it here:

“I think it is time to start calling BS on such posturing. Nobody works 80 hours a week regularly (as she claimed in one post). It actually is physically impossible* over the long run. I used to be a consultant where you billed every hour. We were a bunch of type As in an environment where we were strongly encouraged to work long hours (indeed it’s how the company made money by paying us a fixed salary and billing hours worked). I think I exceeded 80 hours once in 9 years, and only rarely and only in times of crisis exceeded 60. The official company expectation was 45 (although of course if you wanted a good review you might aim to be a tad above rather than below). We don’t record hours in academia, but I know what 80 looks and I know what 60 and 50 and 40 look like because I measured it so carefully for 450 weeks and I haven’t seen anything truly different here. Most young profs are in the 40-60 hour range is my belief with most in the lower half of that. And yes 50 hours plus rest of life feels crazy and insane. But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up. The game is incented to exaggerate how much you work, so believe those numbers other people throw out at your risk.”

<cutting lots of great thoughts that you really should go read>

“*Do the math on working 80 hours/week -112 waking hours – 14 hours/week eating/grooming/maintaining car house – 5 hours commuting = 83 hours and that is pretty sparse grooming and maintaining – e.g. no exercise – and nobody lives on 3 hours/week leisure time)”

Why does this myth persist? Probably it’s in part because, if you think everyone else is working 80 hours a week, it can seem risky to admit that you aren’t, since that could make you seem like a slacker.

But I think another important reason for the persistence of this myth is that people are bad at recognizing how much they actually work. Unlike Brian, most of us haven’t spent years tracking our exact hours worked, and so don’t have a realistic sense of what an 80 hour work week would really feel like. As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples. But, in reality, I had probably only spent roughly half my day actually counting samples. I found this exercise really valuable and eye-opening. I think it probably did more to make me more efficient in how I work than anything else. And working efficiently frees up lots of time for other things (including spending time with my kids). I’ve recommended this to people who were struggling to keep up with tasks they needed to accomplish, and also have recommended keeping track of basic categories (maybe research, teaching, and service) when doing this accounting to see if the relative time devoted to those tasks seems reasonable.

So how much do I work? That has varied over the years, not surprisingly. When I started my first faculty position, there were times when I felt like I was working as hard as I possibly could, and I started to wonder if I was working 80 hours a week. So, I tallied the hours. It was about 60 hours/week. And that was during a really time-intensive experiment, and was a relatively short-term thing. (I’m not sure, but that might be similar to the amount I worked during the peak parts of field season in grad school.) I could not have maintained that schedule over several months without burning out, regardless of whether or not I had kids. Right now, I’d say I typically work 40-50 hours a week. I am in my office from 9-5, and I work as hard as I can during that time. I usually can get some work done after the kids go to bed, but there’s also prepping bottles to send to daycare the next day, doing dishes, etc., so I definitely have less evening work time than I used to. And I usually get a few hours total on the weekend to work, but that’s variable.

Again, I think the key is being efficient. This article has an interesting summary of history and research behind the 40 hour work week. It argues (with studies to back up the argument) that, after an 8 hour work day, people are pretty ineffective:

“What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.”

That article points out that there is an exception – occasionally, you can increase productivity (though not by 50%) by going up to a 60 hour work week. But, this only works for a short term. This matches what I’ve found in my own work (see previous paragraph) and also seems to match with the quote from Brian above.

So, please, do not think that you need to work 80 hours a week in academia. If you are working that many hours, you are probably not being efficient. (I’m sure there are exceptional individuals who can work that long and still be efficient, but they are surely not the norm.) So, work hard for 40-50 hours a week (maybe 60 during exceptional times), and then use the rest of the time for whatever you like***. And, please, please, please, stop perpetuating the myth that academics need to work 80 hours a week.

* People who are regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-academic careers. I simply want people to make their decisions based on accurate information, and don’t want someone choosing to step off the tenure track primarily because of the myth that it requires 80 hour work weeks.

** As it turns out, investment bankers are being encouraged to work less, though “less” is still a whole lot by most standards. (Here’s another story on the same topic.)

*** I encourage exercise as one way to use some of that time. (Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that I have a treadmill desk.) In talking with other academics, it seems that exercise is often one of the first things to go when things get busy. I enjoyed this post by Dr. Isis, which explains why she decided to start prioritizing exercise again. (The comments on that post are good, too.) When I made myself mentally switch from saying “I don’t have time to exercise” to “I am choosing not to prioritize exercise”, I suddenly got much better at working exercise into my schedule.

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Me and My Shadow CV

Author:
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education


This fall I’m serving as the designated coach for doctoral students in my department who are on the academic job market. They’re a talented group, with impressive skills, hopes, and dreams. I’m grateful to be guiding them, as they put their best selves before search committees. However, one part of the work is not all that pleasant: I also need to ready them to face mass rejection.

Regardless of any happy outcomes that may await, they’re about to endure what may be their first experience of large-scale professional rebuff. Before, during, and after college, they sought part-time and full-time jobs and applied to graduate schools. They didn’t get hired, or they didn’t get in to some of those schools, naturally. But now they’re putting themselves in line for 40, 50, or more rejections within the space of weeks and months — on the heels of a grueling, humbling few years of dissertation writing.

I feel their pain, to some extent. Those of us on the job market a decade or more ago got our mass rejections in thin envelopes or via email in May or June, after we’d had a few closer looks and maybe even a job offer. Today’s candidates learn they’re out of the running for coveted jobs much sooner, and secondhand, by confronting another candidate’s report of an interview or an offer on the Academic Job Wiki.

That then-and-now difference got me thinking about how we teach graduate students to face academic rejection. Of course, we largely don’t. Rejection is something you’re supposed to learn by experience, and then keep entirely quiet about. Among academics, the scientists seem to handle rejection best: They list on their CVs the grants they applied for but didn’t get — as if to say, “Hey, give me credit for sticking my neck out on this unfunded proposal. You better bet I’ll try again.” Humanists — my people — hide our rejections from our CVs as skillfully as we can. Entirely, if possible.

That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection. The sheer scope of it over the course of a career may be stunning to a newcomer. I began to think of my history of rejection as my shadow CV — the one I’d have if I’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone.

More of us should make public our shadow CVs. In the spirit of sharing, I include mine here in its rough outline, using my best guesses, not mathematical formulas. (I didn’t actually keep a shadow CV, despite predictable jokes I may have made in the past about wallpapering my bathroom with rejection letters.)

  • What my CV says: I have published many articles in refereed journals. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that 3x to get the approximate number of rejections I’ve received. Earlier in my career, it was more like 4x; now it’s closer to 2x. That does not count “revise and resubmit” letters. Fortunately, the rejections do seem to get nicer, as I learn better how to present work for publication and to select journals that are a good fit for my work. I also receive more invitations to contribute, providing better odds for acceptance.
  • What my CV says: I have published books at a great university press. What my shadow CV would say: My first book was rejected six times at the proposal stage before it found a home. One of them was a report so nasty it made me question my will to write another sentence.
  • What my CV says: I’ve edited several collections of essays. What my shadow CV would say: One collection was rejected 12 times at the proposal stage. Another collection almost imploded due to conflict among contributors. A savvy press editor smoothed the ruffled feathers. That’s not all. I co-wrote a book that was under contract but was canceled by the university press’s marketing department. That book never saw the light of day. And another co-edited book, commissioned by a professional organization and some distance along, was canceled by the press and then by the organization.
  • What my CV says: I’ve received some grants and fellowships. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that total 5x to get the number of grant rejections I’ve received — with, again, the most depressing rates of rejection coming earliest in my career. Early on, I would apply for four to eight grants or fellowships, and receive none or one. I applied for one grant eight times before receiving it. I like to think the organization finally awarded it because they were tired of hearing from me, but maybe my application actually improved.
  • What my CV says: I’ve taught at five fabulous institutions. What my shadow CV would say: This one is the worst. In the process of trying to solve a two-body problem, I was on the job market a lot. I think I’ve been rejected for nearly 400 college teaching jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. In other words, I got offered less than 2 percent of the jobs I applied for, and I’m by no means among the hard-luck cases.
  • What my CV says: I have won elections to office in my professional organization. What my shadow CV would say: I have lost about half as many elections as I’ve won. I’ll take those odds!
  • What my CV says: I have some great recommenders. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. I’ve cried in front of a few them. Academic life has been stressful. (Also, thank you for those hundreds of recommendation letters. They made everything possible.)
  • What my CV says: I have had some great students. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. A few have cried in front of me. Academic life is still stressful. (And you’re welcome for those hundreds of recommendation letters. I may still owe more to the universe than I have given.)
  • What my CV says: I have published in and been quoted in popular media. What my shadow CV would say: You can’t really count the number of times that The New York Times didn’t call you for a quote, so no formula there.

I made many failed attempts at getting my work in print, while learning how to write for new audiences and building relationships with editors. Let’s call this rejection factor 4x, on average, although many of those rejections were not of pieces that eventually saw print but those that never did.

In total, these estimates suggest I’ve received in the ballpark of 1,000 rejections over two decades. That’s 50 a year, or about one a week. People in sales or creative writing may scoff at those numbers, but most of my rejections came in the first 10 years of my academic career, when I was searching intensely for a tenure-track job. Very few came during the summer, when academic-response rates slow to a crawl. I remember months when every envelope and every other email seemed to hold a blow to the ego. My experience was not unusual. Unfortunately, a multiyear job search is, if anything, more common now for would-be academics than when I was on the market.

Most of us get better at handling rejection, although personally, it can still knock the wind out of me. Usually in those moments, I recall something a graduate-school professor once said after I railed at, and — much to my embarrassment — shed a few tears over a difficult rejection: “Go ahead,” he said. “Let it make you angry. Then use your anger to make yourself work harder.”

It sounds so simple. Whether any single rejection is fair or unfair doesn’t ultimately matter. What matters is what you do next. You could let rejection crush you. Or you could let it motivate you to respond in creative, harder-working, smarter-working ways. (I’m convinced, though, that rejection is particularly tough to take in academe because so much of our work is mind work, closely tied to our own identities and sense of self-worth.)

A CV is a life story in which just the good things are recorded, yet sometimes I look at it and see there what others cannot: the places I haven’t been, the journals where my work wasn’t accepted, the times a project wasn’t funded, the ways my ideas were judged inadequate. I’ve started to imagine my CV as a record of both highlight-reel wins and between-the-lines losses. If you’re lucky, you will, like me, also one day come to recognize the places where the losses — as painful as they were at the time — led to unexpectedly positive things. Slammed doors, it turns out, may later become opened ones.

When I was meeting with my department’s academic-job seekers recently, one of them asked me about the last time I was rejected.

“My last rejection was one week ago,” I admitted to them, feeling uncomfortably like someone introducing myself at an AA meeting. “I got two rejections, in fact. One was really, really hard to accept, and, I think, wrong. But I’ll take it for what it’s worth and try again.”

Increasingly, I see rejection as a necessary part of every stage of an academic career. I remind myself that the fact that I’m still facing rejection is evidence that I’m still in the game at a level where I should be playing. I’m continuing to hone my skills and strive for better opportunities — continuing to build both my CV and my shadow CV. Each version is necessary as we seek to advance our research, teaching, and service, the activities to which some of us — and I wish there were many more of us — have the good fortune to devote our professional lives.

Online Collaboration: Scientists and the Social Network

Author: Richard Van Noorden
Original: Excerpts reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126-129, copyright (2014)


twitter_nature

Why scholars use social media (Twitter)
Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

“A few years ago, the idea that millions of scholars would rush to join one giant academic social network seemed dead in the water. The list of failed efforts to launch a ‘Facebook for science’ included Scientist Solutions, SciLinks, Epernicus, 2collab and Nature Network (run by the company that publishes Nature). Some observers speculated that this was because scientists were wary of sharing data, papers and comments online — or if they did want to share, they would prefer do it on their own terms, rather than through a privately owned site.

But it seems that those earlier efforts were ahead of their time —or maybe they were simply doing it wrong. Today, ResearchGate is just one of several academic social networks going viral. San Francisco-based competitor Academia.edu says that it has 11 million users. “The goal of the company is to rebuild science publishing from the ground up,” declares chief executive Richard Price, who studied philosophy at the University of Oxford, UK, before he founded Academia.edu in 2008, and has already raised $17.7 million from venture capitalists. A third site, London-based Mendeley, claims 3.1 million members. It was originally launched as software for managing and storing documents, but it encourages private and public social networking. The firm was snapped up in 2013 by Amsterdam-based publishing giant Elsevier for a reported £45 million (US$76 million).”

“Despite the excitement and investment, it is far from clear how much of the activity on these sites involves productive engagement, and how much is just passing curiosity — or a desire to access papers shared by other users that they might otherwise have to pay for. . . . In an effort to get past the hype and explore what is really happening, Nature e-mailed tens of thousands of researchers in May to ask how they use social networks and other popular profile-hosting or search services, and received more than 3,500 responses from 95 different countries.”

For study infographics, see below. For more on the survey findings and to read the complete Nature article: http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711.


nature-remarkable-reach

Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

nature-idle-browse-or-chat

Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: The Thesis Whisperer


Two of my favourite people in the academic world are my friends Rachael Pitt (aka @thefellowette) and Nigel Palmer. Whenever we have a catch up, which is sadly rare, we have a fine old time talking shop over beer and chips (well lemonade in my case, but you get the picture).

Some time ago ago Rachael started calling us ‘The B Team’ because we were all appointed on a level B in the Australian university pay-scale system (academic Level B is not quite shit kicker entry level academia – that’s level A just in case you were wondering – but it’s pretty close). I always go home feeling a warm glow of collegiality after a B team talk, convinced that being an academic is the best job in the entire world. Rachael reckons that this positive glow is a result of the ‘circle of niceness’ we create just by being together and talking about ideas with honesty and openness.

Anyway, just after I announced my appointment as director of research training at ANU, the B team met to get our nerd on. As we ate chips we talked about my new job, the ageing academic workforce, research student retention rates. Then we got to gossiping — as you do.

All of us had a story or two to tell about academic colleagues who had been rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile to us in the workplace. We had encountered this behaviour from people at level C, D and E, further up in the academic pecking order, but agreed it was most depressing when our fellow level Bs acted like jerks.

As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?

Jerks step on, belittle or otherwise sabotage their academic colleagues. The most common method is by criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar and by trash talking them in private. Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity. I’m sure it’s not just academics on the payroll who have to deal with this kind of jerky academic behaviour. On the feedback page to the Whisperer I occasionally get comments from PhD students who have found themselves on the receiving end  — especially during seminar presentations.

I assume people act like jerks because they think they have something to gain, and maybe they are right.

In his best selling book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a lot to say on the topic of, well, assholes in the workplace. The book is erudite and amusing in equal measures and well worth reading especially for the final chapter where Sutton examines the advantages of being an asshole. He cites work by Teresa Amabile, who did a series of controlled experiments using fictitious book reviews. While the reviews themselves essentially made the same observations about the books, the tone in which the reviewers expressed their observations was tweaked to be either nice or nasty. What Amabile found was:

… negative or unkind people were seen as less likeable but more intelligent, competent and expert than those who expressed the the same messages in gentler ways

Huh.

This sentence made me think about the nasty cleverness that some academics display when they comment on student work in front of their peers. Displaying cleverness during PhD seminars and during talks at conferences is a way academics show off their scholarly prowess to each other, sometimes at the expense of the student. Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like. If other academics think you are clever they will listen to you more; you will be invited to speak at other institutions, to sit on panels and join important committees and boards. Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.

Sutton claims only a small percentage of people who act like assholes are actually sociopaths (he amusingly calls them ‘flaming assholes’) and talks about how asshole behaviour is contagious. He argues that it’s easy for asshole behaviour to become normalised in the workplace because, most of the time, the assholes are not called to account. So it’s possible that many academics are acting like assholes without even being aware of it.

How does it happen? The budding asshole has learned, perhaps subconsciously, that other people interrupt them less if they use stronger language. They get attention: more air time in panel discussions and at conferences. Other budding assholes will watch strong language being used and then imitate the behaviour. No one publicly objects to the language being used, even if the student is clearly upset, and nasty behaviour gets reinforced. As time goes on the culture progressively becomes more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students. Students who are upset by the behaviour of academic assholes are often counselled, often by their peers, that “this is how things are done around here” . Those who refuse to accept the culture are made to feel abnormal because, in a literal sense, they are – if being normal is to be an asshole.

Not all academic cultures are badly afflicted by assholery, but many are. I don’t know about you, but seen this way, some of the sicker academic cultures suddenly make much more sense. This theory might explain why senior academics are sometimes nicer and more generous to their colleagues than than those lower in the pecking order. If asshole behaviour is a route to power, those who already have positions of power in the hierarchy and are widely acknowledged to be clever, have less reason to use it.

To be honest with you, seen through this lens, my career trajectory makes more sense too. I am not comfortable being an asshole, although I’m not going to claim I’ve never been one. I have certainly acted like a jerk in public a time or two in the past, especially when I was an architecture academic where a culture of vicious critique is quite normalised. But I’d rather collaborate than compete and I don’t like confrontation.

I have quality research publications and a good public profile for my scholarly work, yet I found it hard to get advancement in my previous institution. I wonder now if this is because I am too nice and, as a consequence, people tended to underestimate my intelligence. I think it’s no coincidence that my career has only taken off with this blog. The blog is a safe space for me to show off display my knowledge and expertise without having to get into a pissing match.

Like Sutton I am deeply uncomfortable with the observation that being an asshole can be advantageous for your career. Sutton takes a whole book to talk through the benefits of not being an asshole and I want to believe him. He clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. I suspect this happens in academia all the time. It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.

Ultimately we are all diminished when clever people walk away from academia. So what can we do? It’s tempting to point the finger at senior academics for creating a poor workplace culture, but I’ve experienced this behaviour from people at all levels of the academic hierarchy. We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness.

It’s up to all of us to be aware that we have a potential bias in the way we judge others; to be aware that being clever comes in nice and nasty packages. I think we would all prefer, for the sake of a better workplace, that people tried to be nice rather than nasty when giving other people, especially students, criticism about their work. Criticism can be gently and firmly applied, it doesn’t have to be laced with vitriol.

It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?

I must admit I am at a bit of a loss for other things we can do to make academia a kinder place. Do you have any ideas?

Interview | The McGill prof behind ‘Shit Academics Say’

Author: Shawna Wagman
Original: University Affairs (10/21/2015)


Since Nathan Hall introduced the world to Shit Academics Say in 2013, his humorous Twitter account has become one of the most popular related to academia, with nearly 140,000 followers. Dr. Hall, an associate professor in the department of education and counselling psychology at McGill, says his once anonymous Twitter persona (he outed himself, so to speak, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in July) has woven itself into his life. His Twitter presence is part pastime, part social media experiment and a catalyst for his investigation into the subject of psychological well-being in academia. He recently spoke to University Affairs about his adventures.

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Nathan Hall opens up about his fabulously popular Twitter persona

University Affairs: How did you first get interested in Twitter?

Dr. Hall: At first I went on [Twitter] admittedly for some self-promotion, to share the research that I had been doing. People didn’t really seem to care for that. Then I saw these accounts – parody accounts, joke accounts and meme accounts – that were taking off fairly quickly and I was curious about how they were doing it. There was the well-known Shit My Dad Says account – that’s actually how I learned about Twitter and why I thought it might be interesting. Also, there had been a lot of anxiety for me getting ready for tenure. At the time I was feeling fairly burnt out and disillusioned and I actually wanted to see if people felt the same way I did. What I realized is that people online, on Twitter and other social media, were engaged in sharing things more widely, talking more candidly about issues. I felt like I was missing out.

UA: What did you think you were missing? 

Dr. Hall: I realized that online, people were talking about the human issues related to the profession. I discovered this whole anonymous professors’ subculture on Twitter where they were connecting with each other over manuscript reviews and students. I started watching the accounts that were popular, like that of Raul Pacheco-Vega, watching what he was doing to connect scholars with each other. I was also watching meme accounts, like Research Ryan that got pretty popular. I had to google what the word “meme” meant to find out what it was. Then I attempted my own – Research Wahlberg (appropriating the image of American actor Mark Wahlberg) – on a dare to share a laugh and connect with people over issues that I thought I struggled with alone. Basically I settled on Wahlberg as an unconventional character trying to pass off statistics and research methods while being flirty or seductive, which to me was just a joke in itself. Eventually it got awkward looking at half-naked pictures of Mark Wahlberg when I was on the train during my commute to work.

UA: And from there you started your Twitter account, Shit Academics Say?

Dr. Hall: It was actually my wife who suggested I needed a new hobby. At that point I had done what I needed to do to get tenure and so I had a bit more time to think. I started the account to try to talk about the kinds of things faculty talk about when they are finished class, when they see other faculty in the hallway, when they go to the mailroom or chat with the staff or admin people. I wanted to tap into that, an after-hours approach to how faculty feel privately, on the weekends when they are on a date and feeling guilty about not writing, or when they are in a meeting with a student. It’s the self-talk that you hear yourself engaging in. I wasn’t that comfortable with that because I’m still relatively new to the profession, I’ve been working for about six years. What I realized about social media is that it’s more fun when more people are playing. I thought I would try to get more people involved and I thought humour might be a good way to do that.

UA: Why did you make the account anonymous?

Dr. Hall: I started off anonymously just to make sure my age, race, gender, discipline, none of that, would get in the way of the content. I think removing myself and my ego allowed the account to travel faster because the focus was on the people reading it and sharing things rather than on the person writing it. Given that I was trying to be funny, I think people gave me the benefit of the doubt. There were a lot of jokes that really weren’t very funny. People replied saying thank you for trying to share some laughs.

UA: What are some of the rules or parameters you set for yourself about how you engage on Twitter with this account?

Dr. Hall: Certain things I did to mimic other accounts, while other things I developed on my own. I learned that the best way to try to grow an account quickly is using implicit cues to convey authority. I don’t have questions, I have statements. There are no question marks, no exclamation points, no all-caps. I hoped that people would recognize that this was a little bit of a persona, a gag, a shtick, much like Kanye West refusing to smile in photos. There are other things I do that are pretty typical on Twitter to command authority: I don’t follow anyone, I don’t reply or retweet. It’s part of a branding strategy to get your account to grow more quickly.

I also engage in timeline grooming, which means I delete tweets that don’t hit very well with people – it makes everything you produce look more authoritative. People don’t realize you can delete tweets and that you can manage an online presence the way you would host a dinner party, in that you clean up ahead of time. People come to the account and they see a low number of tweets with a high number of followers and each tweet has a high number of retweets. All of this combines to make for an authoritative persona which I then counter with clear and honest heartfelt expressions of gratitude for people supporting the account.

UA: Let’s talk about being funny. How do you come up with the funny tweets? Have you discovered an academic sense of humour?

Dr. Hall: I’m not sure if there is an academic sense of humour. My sense of humour tends to be a bit dry, deadpan, a bit of a buzzkill type thing. To me it’s very funny if it makes people laugh at something they shouldn’t be laughing at. It’s more meta-level: I make jokes about making jokes; jokes about metaphors. The sequence of the tweets is sometimes a joke to me too: I post one thing that’s very funny and then one thing that’s hilarious and then one thing about how an academic quit his job, so it’s a rhythm and it actually builds momentum.

I tend to use idioms and proverbs. I like to take quotes that have been done before and just change the ending. For example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it as a question.” Or “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That’s a quote from Albert Einstein but I attribute it to “someone with limited experience trying to explain things to a six-year-old.” Some of these quotes, they sound very profound but when you try and incorporate them as useful life lessons in academia, they aren’t as useful as you might think.

UA: How do you incorporate tweeting into your life? Do you dedicate a certain amount of time each day to working up jokes, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

Dr. Hall: I drop my daughter off at daycare and my son off at school and then I have a 47-minute train ride and an 18-minute walk to get up the hill to my office at McGill so some days I can be commuting for three hours. That’s why I ended up getting on Twitter in the first place. On the train you don’t have room for a laptop but you do have room for a cell phone to scan what people are writing and thinking. Other times throughout the day – waiting at the Starbucks’ drive-thru or waiting at my daughter’s ballet lesson, or while I’m on the treadmill – I use that time to read things on Twitter. I could also dictate text into my phone and release it later. I could actually crowd source in the sense that I could put something online, and people would comment back, which would give me more ideas about the kinds of things people wanted to joke about. It’s a bit of a weird juxtaposition because when I get notifications on my phone, I’m often in weird places. I’m outside Pharmaprix finding out that I’m being discussed on CBC radio, or coming out from watching Captain America to find out that the hashtag I started, #yomanuscript, was trending in Australia for some reason. The online Twitter celebrity juxtaposed with everyday family and academic life I find amusing. You’re changing a diaper and meanwhile on Twitter, people are calling you brilliant.

UA: What has Twitter celebrity done for you?

Dr. Hall: It really hasn’t done much. It’s just an opportunity to promote my work and give back. I’m very fortunate; a lot of people don’t have this. To receive tenure actually comes with a bit of privilege guilt. I have more time and I feel obligated to give back.

UA: Would you still stand behind your very first tweet: “Don’t become an academic”?

Dr. Hall: I am not sure. I was being sarcastic. I had become disillusioned from being on the tenure track and being burnt out after applying for grants that I didn’t need to try and demonstrate fundability, teaching classes that I didn’t have expertise in, and nominating myself for teaching awards in order to make sure I could keep my job. Everything on the Twitter account has a touch of sarcasm and often it has more than one meaning behind it.

UA: Tell me about the research that has come out of this social media experiment.

Dr. Hall: Since January of this year I’ve run three studies and recruited up to 9,000 people across almost 80 countries for research examining well-being and self-regulation in grad students and faculty. I’m looking at issues ranging from motivation and values, to procrastination, depression, work/life balance and coping strategies. I also look at hidden failure experiences that people don’t talk about. For example, I ask: How often do you have manuscripts rejected? Do you obtain sub-par teaching evaluations? Do you have grants rejected, or students leaving you as an advisor? It’s that hidden failure where you can walk around all day and not be able to talk about some of these things. I wanted to assess that.

I felt part of the reason faculty go online is because of the isolation. You encounter a lot of things you can’t explain to other people, the feelings of failure where you work for months and write tens of thousands of words to win a grant and then you get absolutely nothing – it’s all or nothing. It’s a different feeling of failure than a student getting below a cut-off on a test. It’s an outright absolute abject failure that you often don’t talk about. That’s where social media comes in and connects people to each other to share experiences, to talk candidly about these issues. I can explore these issues empirically now – I can look at self-regulation and what strategies are more effective for dealing with stress among different types of faculty in different countries. There aren’t really very many others who have used social media to this extent to allow this kind of research to be done. It is fun, it is engaging, and it’s a personal challenge to see how far I can go.

@AcademicsSay: The Story Behind a Social Media Experiment

Author: Nathan Hall
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education


I am not an intellectual, leading expert, or public scholar. I am a rank-and-file academic with the job of balancing respectable research with acceptable teaching evaluations and sitting on enough committees to not be asked to sit on more committees. And in my spare time, I run what is arguably one of the most influential academic accounts on social media: Shit Academics Say.

Since starting the account in September of 2013, it has grown to over 122,000 followers, gaining 250 to 300 new followers daily and ranking in the top 0.1 percent across social media influence metrics such as Klout, Kred, and Followerwonk. To unpack this a bit, tweets sent from my phone while recalibrating dopamine levels on the treadmill, or waiting outside my 3-year-old’s ballet class, are showing up in about 10 million Twitter streams and generating 200,000 to 300,000 profile visits a month, effectively making @AcademicsSay a bigger “social authority” on Twitter than nearly all colleges and academic publications. Not weird at all.

Although this might sound impressive, the popularity of the account is perhaps not surprising. First, academics use Twitter mainly for distraction, with tweets providing humorous details of academic content typically gaining the most exposure. Second, it is immediately apparent to new Twitter users that parody accounts like @kimkierkegaardashian, @NoToFeminism, or @SwiftOnSecurity tend to be more popular than traditional outlets — an observation that sparked an idea for how to personally connect with other academics in a not-boring way and on a scale large enough to have my procrastination count as research.

Like many academics, I have never been completely comfortable with the peculiarities, predilections, or pretentions of our profession, and have over time found myself both ashamed and amused while telling students to “please have a seat while I sit three feet away and finish this non-urgent email for the next five minutes”, or telling myself “I should be writing” when doing anything remotely enjoyable. And since starting this profession six years ago, I have also been regularly confused and frustrated by the cognitive dissonance I regularly encountered as part of trying to stay productive, employable, and, most important, fundable.

As a grad student, I had often heard that a retirement boom was coming, that course evaluations should not be believed until the third time around, and that all resubmitted manuscripts and grant applications are eventually accepted. However, I personally found these sentiments to be less than comforting after my own failed job applications (90-plus over two years), unsuccessful grant applications (15 since 2000), soul-crushing course evaluations (“He should have applied some of the motivational principles he teaches about to his own teaching.” — Winter 2015, paraphrased), and unjustified manuscript rejections (“I am a jealous and generally unhappy person.” — Reviewer 2, paraphrased).

And very much unlike a detached analysis of affect in which I was well-trained, I increasingly found myself dealing with unexpected combinations of emotion such as boredom/anger while grading, guilt/envy while reviewing a manuscript I should have written, or relief/shame after an internal grant deadline was extended. As an experienced overthinker, I was also able to convince myself that these wonderfully nuanced internal experiences were somehow unique to my beautiful mind. Whether it was self-disappointment over writing guilt on date night, resentment while teaching night classes instead of reading bedtime stories to my kids, or using humor to avoid feeling like a fraud while teaching content learned the day before or writing papers few would ever read, well-worn constructs like work-life balance and impostor syndrome didn’t seem to fit.

But I shouldn’t complain. I get paid to think about thinking about thinking, and start my first sabbatical this summer to ostensibly gain a “fresh perspective on an old problem” (aka: binge-watching Entourage). However, after a difficult year prepping my seventh new course in four years, accepting my sixth concurrent graduate student, and writing over 50,000 words to win at least one of three federal grants, I was burned out. I struggled to enjoy teaching, had little interest in writing, and, most heart-breaking of all, was no longer impressed by that special brand of meta-angst that can only come from grappling with motivational issues as a motivation researcher.

So why a Twitter account.

By the fall of 2013, I had done everything needed for tenure and was unusually motivated to do something that did not need a good reason. Something just for me, and not my CV. Although I had long disliked Twitter for its propensity for oversharing and groupthink, growing an anonymous parody account seemed like a not-boring way to poke fun at the profession that made my head hurt, maybe take myself a bit less seriously, and test an alternative hypothesis that I was not alone in being confounded by the curiosities and psychological challenges of an academic career.

What I quickly learned from Twitter was that my personal academic experiences were not at all unique, and more importantly, that it could be worse. Much worse. I was not a minimum-wage adjunct struggling to manage 12 courses a year and being fired at the end of each term. Nor was I a female, LGBTQ, or racial-minority scholar facing pretenure demands compounded by institutionalized roadblocks, or at risk of having my tenure revoked or position terminated by politicians or university donors. I was (and still am) a middle-to-upper-class white male who, although had trained for years for a job that perhaps wasn’t as intrinsically rewarding as expected, had job security, grant funding, and enough free time to Google “privilege guilt.”

So I soon started to take Twitter more seriously, and in addition to attempts at humor during my commute or while debating between an evening shift and Netflix, took a page from academic Twitter pioneers like Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) and began to experiment with academic community building. To my surprise, followers whom I had assumed were there just for the jokes seemed to very much appreciate referrals to informative hashtags, resource accounts, or professional-development blogs (e.g., #ScholarSunday, #GetYourManuscriptOut, @SUWTues, @AcademicKindes), with single tweets crashing websites and prompting unsolicited social network analyses or blog analytics.

More unexpectedly, this account also provided me an enviable VIP pass to connect with academics over some of the most fun, irreverent, and NSFW academic hashtags in recent years. Ranging from cathartic tweets about manuscript rejections (#SixWordPeerReview) and awkward attempts at romance (#AcademicValentines) to a torrent of sarcastic humor in response to gender bias (#DistractinglySexy), it’s hard to describe the giddy grade-school excitement of jumping into a rapid-fire fray of remarkably creative, clever, and brutally honest tweets from academics around the world ­— a uniquely engaging and not-often-enough experience unlike anything else in academia. And although I did occasionally attempt my own super-creative hashtags (e.g., #SixWordPaperTitle, #YoManuscript), I eventually settled on a better use for the account.

Over the past six months, @AcademicsSay has allowed me to recruit over 6,800 faculty and graduate students from over 60 countries to participate in three online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout, resulting in one of the most comprehensive and international investigations of psychological well-being in academia to date. So beyond the account making my academic life maybe a bit less boring, perhaps the most important part of this experience for me has been the sobering realization of how deeply and widely these psychological challenges resonate with other academics and that I am in a unique position do something about it.

By January of 2014, I had reached 10,000 followers simply by joking about these issues, and was curious about how effective @AcademicsSay could be for conducting actual research. So I dusted off a failed grant proposal from 2011, submitted an ethics application, and started to apply “growth hacking” strategies to maximize account reach (e.g., adding images, pre-scheduling tweets, using Twitter lists). I began to pay attention to follower and tweet analytics, curate content for international exposure and cross-disciplinary appeal, and even created a graduate course on the topic as well as a parallel Facebook page that now reaches up to 1.5 million followers a week.

Basically, I have over the past 18 months been telling jokes on the internet and teaching myself about social media to give myself a meaningful shot at turning my anonymous online procrastination into an actual research program. Again, not weird at all.

So there you go. What was started as a private social experiment borne out of confusion and frustration quickly turned into something more: a one-of-a-kind experience of connecting with a previously unknown academic community through humor, an unexpected education in social media and higher-education issues, and an obligation to expand my research to address a very real need for longitudinal, large-scale studies on self-regulation and well-being in academia.

If you are a professor or graduate student and wish to participate in our study, please visit www.ame1.net/sas. If you follow at @AcademicsSay on Twitter or Facebook, thank you once again for your support.

And if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to convince yourself that pursuing an academic career was a not a terrible mistake, that your work impacts anything other than your CV, or that “data” is plural yet “agenda” is somehow not, you are not alone. I’m not sure if it gets better, but I’ll certainly look into it and get back to you 😉