Intellectual Arrogance, and How to Avoid it.

There are many occupational hazards in being a university lecturer. Not just the occasional urge to stand up in the cinema and give an impromptu lecture about  water resources while the audience is waiting for the film to begin, or the inability to take holiday snapshots that don’t include something for scale, but more serious hazards. Traps into which the unwary lecturer can fall that are less foibles or traits and more disorders or conditions. For example, many of us become hyper-critical, even judgemental in our day-to-day lives away from the job. We spend our working lives correcting the errors of our students: fixing their apostrophes, correcting their misunderstandings of the jet stream or the postmodern condition, and passing judgement on their efforts and achievements in the form of a summative grade. It is easy to take the job home and treat friends, family, and passers-by in the street in the same way. That does not always end well.

Another occupational hazard, or personality disorder, closely related to this tendency to judgemental criticism but even more serious, is intellectual arrogance. The vast majority of university lecturers suffer from this to some degree. It is an easy trap to fall into. Most of us were at the top of our class at school. We did better than our peers and had any nascent feelings of intellectual superiority reinforced by a constant stream of good marks, prizes, and other rewards. We got the answers right while our friends wallowed in ignorance. We went on to get good degrees and continued as postgraduates to be “the bright ones”, the top students, the ones who got the answers right and were taught that our progress depended on our demonstration of intellectual powers. Eventually we defended our PhD theses against senior academics and battled our peers for academic posts. And we must have won, because here we are. Academics. It is a small step, a small attitude adjustment for even the most well-balanced individual, to begin to think that we are brighter than the rest. And then we launch into a career where we are surrounded by young students who, perhaps we think, are paying for us to know more than they do and to pass our wisdom down to them. It is our duty to be brighter than our students, to know more than them. To be better than them. How, otherwise, can we justify our position? And so the downward spiral begins, and our belief in our own intellectual superiority begins to assert and reinforce itself. We are now professionals paid to be right and to be clever. To be wrong or uncertain would be a sin. It would be unthinkable.

This is one reason that staff meetings can be hell. Thirty people in a room who have all been trained and moulded into professional know-it-alls. Each of us convinced that our view is the right view. It always has been, and we have always been rewarded for arguing our position, so that’s what we do. It is a sad and scary picture of The Academic Gone Wrong.

Of course it shouldn’t be that way, and we have to avoid this trap. If we have already fallen into it we need to recognise it and claw our way back out to sanity. I have a mantra, a touchstone phrase, that I write at the top of the page when I start a staff meeting, that I have on the table in seminars, that I would, if I were that sort of individual, have tattooed about my person. It says, simply: remember, you might be wrong. Whether you are discussing your idea for managing assessments with a colleague who you consider to be an idiot, or discussing the finer points of subglacial hydrology with a 1st-year undergraduate, just remember, you might be wrong and they might, if not actually be right, have a relevant and worthwhile perspective. Your colleague might not be, indeed probably is not, really, an idiot.

IMG_3654Apart from tattooing useful reminders on your body, one of the best ways to learn this lesson is simply to listen carefully to what your students have to say, and to take it seriously. We are very quick to give students “follow-up work” after a tutorial, but how many of us do our own follow-up work and take the trouble to learn more about the ideas and perspectives that our students have just shown us in class? It’s an easy part of the job to neglect, but we do so at our peril. In future posts I will try to share a few examples of ways in which my students have taught me important lessons, reminded me that I am not necessarily the brightest person in the room, and helped me to stave off, I hope, the looming spectre that haunts all of us in my line of work: the occupational hazard that is intellectual arrogance.


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