I have been intimately connected with two physics faculties during the course of my academic life: the one where I did my Honours degree (which we shall call “Faculty A), and the one where I did my Master’s degree (which we shall call “Faculty B”). These two faculties–or at least the sections of these faculties devoted to theoretical physics–were as different as night and day.
Faculty A was, on the whole, a lot more likable than Faculty B. Members of Faculty A would attend one another’s seminars and ask intelligent, piercing questions, but do so in a polite, genuinely curious fashion. More importantly, they always treated students with respect and never, ever tried to deliberately set them ill at ease. In Faculty B, on the other hand, every thing was a competition; seemingly every question was asked exclusively in order to show off the asker’s intellect*; students were treated in a way that seemed designed to reinforce their own feelings of deference to their academic betters, and trash-talking behind each other’s backs was not unknown. I was left wondering: how could these two faculties, both alike in dignity, be so very different from one another? Moreover, how could this jerkishness be so widespread throughout Faculty B? Hiring one asshole, maybe, but how did so damn many end up there?
This blog post by The Thesis Whisperer may hold the answer:
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
… 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.
(Emphasis in the original).
I found myself subconsciously nodding my head as I was reading this, because it was exactly what I had noticed. People are mistaking confidence for competence, and more to the point, people are mistaking bullying bravado for confidence. And so professors are trying to win undeserved “clever points” by being assholes. Notably, my grad school was a “higher status” university than my undergraduate school, but I never thought that the professors were actually any better** or had superior research output; might they have been trading on undeserved “clever points?” And if I looked at higher and higher status institutions, would I find ever-increasing levels of dickishness?
I can’t say whether this is actually what’s going on, but it’s certainly a theory which matches the observations so far.
*This was an impression I’d had for a while, but it was eventually confirmed to me first hand by my original supervisor. “Asking questions is a good way to get noticed at conferences.”
**Quite the contrary, actually, the members of Faculty A were vastly better instructors.