THE Scholarly Web - 21 February 2013

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

February 21, 2013

“Do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?” asks Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University, on her Thesis Whisperer blog.

After meeting friends and basking in the “circle of niceness” they provide, Dr Mewburn realised something. “All of us had a story or two to tell about academic colleagues who had been rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile…in the workplace.”

There could be a reason. Dr Mewburn points to research suggesting that negative or unkind people can be perceived as less likeable but more intelligent than those who express themselves in “gentler” ways.

“Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like,” she says. “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.”

Dr Mewburn considers some of the arguments proposed by Stanford University professor Robert Sutton in his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2010).

“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.”

Although she would “rather collaborate than compete” and doesn’t like confrontation, Dr Mewburn admits she has “acted like a jerk in public…in the past, especially when I was an architecture academic where a culture of vicious critique [is the norm]”.

But, she says, she is uncomfortable with “being an asshole” herself - and “deeply uncomfortable” with the idea that acting that way can boost your career.

However, although Professor Sutton concludes that there are “real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour”, Dr Mewburn says this does not mean that “asshole” academics are not driving capable scholars away from the sector.

“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,” Dr Mewburn warns.

“We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness,” she concludes. “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.”

The blog post provoked a huge response on social networking site Twitter. Jonathan Jones (@nmrqip), lecturer in atomic and laser physics at the University of Oxford, said: “Absolutely academia rewards assholes, I worked that out a long time ago. But so does business and ‘life’.”

Cait MacPhee (@sciorama), professor of biological physics at the University of Edinburgh, added: “My experience is based almost entirely on academe, but assholarity does seem to be encouraged there.”

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