A Tale of Two Physics Faculties

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.

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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7 Responses to A Tale of Two Physics Faculties

  1. E A M Harris says:

    I think you would find this sort of behaviour in any environment where ‘clever points’ are valued. Business and politics spring to my mind, but I’ve no doubt there are others.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Yeah, this rings very true for me, too.

    Whether I find a person intellectually intimidating has at least as much do with how mean I think they are — if a person is nice, they can be a whole lot smarter and better-educated than I am and I still won’t be afraid to speak around them.

    (And, yes, now that I think of it, I do think this feeling influences how smart I think the mean person is. I might think they are smarter than they really are, if they are quick to pull out a cutting remark.)

  3. Anna says:

    Reminds me of the phrase “The failure mode of clever is asshole.” (John Scalzi)

  4. zinemin says:

    True. I have noticed that many people in my field seem to believe that both meanness and wittiness are a direct indicator of intelligence. With time, both of those things annoyed me more and more. By now I find a certain kind of aggressive wittiness even worse than open meanness. People always looking for punchlines or a way to wittily offend each other or insert a gross joke instead of listening to each other. But it seems this is the way to appear intelligent and aggressive. I think that calm and nice people are disappearing from my field for this reason.

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