Who put the cult in faculty?

Academics’ battles with impostor syndrome reflect the difficulty of becoming truly accepted into the cult of academia, says Michael Marinetto 

一月 1, 2020
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One new year’s resolution that most academics would doubtless endorse is to overcome their impostor syndrome.

That this condition was discovered by an academic should not be a surprise: monkey see, monkey do, after all. Academics are famously vulnerable to feeling like they aren't up to the job. So much so that Times Higher Education not so long ago ran a full feature in which academics from varied backgrounds and levels of seniority shared their struggles with the affliction (“It’s hard to believe, but we belong here, 21 June 2018).

Rather than something that can be banished with enough midwinter willpower, it may well be that impostor syndrome is just a condition of academic being. But it is worth asking why. In my view, it is because academics are members of a cult.

This is not an entirely novel claim, but it remains fiercely resisted by most academics. In a 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, Kelly Baker, a former religious studies lecturer at the University of Tennessee, objects that depicting academia as a cult is just a rhetorical provocation, which “understates academe’s allure and mistakenly casts academics as passive victims”.

But aren’t people also drawn to cults by their allure? It is only once inside that they become psychologically dependent, and their lives begin to revolve around pleasing the leader.

Wait a minute, though. While your typical religious cult hinges on the charisma of that leader to draw disciples, academics often don’t think much of their superiors. Scepticism is a professional requirement; we critique for a living and, as a part-time hobby, we direct passive cynicism at the upper echelons of our institutions and disciplines.

However, let’s be honest. The expression of any real intellectual dissent is suspended. There are constant academic gripes about departmental or university strategy, the peer review process or journal publishing, yet belief in the research dogma is unwavering, and the wisdom of superiors is rarely directly questioned. After all, in the absolutist realm that is the university, sycophancy takes you further and higher.

For many people, academia is more of a vocation than a job, but integrating yourself into it has to be skilfully managed and maintained. The American sociologist Robert Merton, who studied professional research cultures, revealed how resources, status and success are unevenly distributed in academia, often because initial success has a cumulative effect over time (the so-called Matthew Principle).

Hence, those who succeed can wield excessive patronage and power, which authorities are unwilling or too nervous to check. Professorial personality cults flourish at all levels of the system, while professional influencers, such as research leaders or panellists in the research excellence framework, are thoroughly indulged. And reports from UK and US campuses reveal just how easily such unaccountable concentrations of academic power can lead to the kinds of negative consequences typical of cults: coercion, bullying, manipulation and sexual exploitation.

I remember well the rejection of my first bid for a promotion, partly on the grounds that one anonymous reviewer of my application found it “suspicious” and “unusual” that my trifling list of publications were all single-authored. I was the academic equivalent of the lonely goth locked in my bedroom listening to The Cure (although goths, it is true, could be said to be the cultish disciples of the singers of such bands). But I listened when the head of the promotions committee, in a debriefing interview, advised me to get out more and develop collaborations.

Would-be academics have to actively demonstrate what 1950s pop sociologist William Foot Whyte called belongingness to the organisation. They must become integrated within the university, the department, the research group and, most crucially, the professional peer group.

The same is true for would-be cult members. It begins with the acquisition of special doctrines unique to the cult. In academia, this occurs during doctoral research training. As the sociologist Michael Billig suggests, to fit into academe, the PhD student will find it necessary to acquire a distinct theoretical approach unique to that discipline. This is not merely necessary to guide their research: it also initiates them into a community of like-minded disciplinary believers. Then they must network like crazy at workshops and conferences, doing their best to mingle with professorial gurus and catch a bit of their golden halo. 

Another crucial level of belongingness is research productivity, especially for the mid-career academic. Andrew Marzoni, a former academic, states that, in all cults, members need to show an “unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause”. For academia, that transcendent cause is the production of knowledge, and belongingness is earned by a loyal commitment and service to it.

In effect, the research culture of today is a form of reverse authoritarianism. Members of academe, especially the newest recruits, want to be told what to publish, where to publish and how to publish, in the hope that it will help them to belong. And it is this compulsion of belongingness, contingent on research performance, that, in my view, explains why academics are so prone to impostor syndrome.

In other words, the real problem is not impostor syndrome as such. The condition is simply a symptom of a deeper spiritual need to thrive in what Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, recently described as a higher education system drowning in bullshit – another condition it has in common with cults.

Impostor syndrome may actually be a useful warning mechanism; if you feel you don’t belong, that’s probably because you really shouldn’t be trying so hard to do so.

In case you need it, the number for the UK’s Cult Information Centre helpline is 07790 753035. All calls are, of course, confidential.

Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in management at Cardiff Business School.

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