Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Academics and nuttery.  §

Whatever the particulars of this case, this sort of conflict doesn’t surprise me. In fact, I’m surprised we don’t see an awful, awful lot more of it. See also the recent spate of reports and research similar to this.

The fact is that the current path to tenure is itself highly unbalanced, requiring levels of self-sacrifice and life-course risk-taking that few sane people would be able to justify. In the current structure of the academy at the public four-year level and above, we select precisely for the people that are most likely to do unreasonable things, since pursuit of the path to tenure is itself a highly unreasonable thing to undertake.

We compound this problem by imposing on candidates virtually no requirements for emotional maturity, and in fact often seeing such maturity as a liability and a negative indicator for fitness (since emotional maturity is directly linked to a realization that the path to tenure is an unreasonable thing to undertake).

The people that are selected for are irrationally driven, highly unbalanced in their lifestyles, hugely self-negating, must be completely focused on a single, tiny, and arcane facet of human life (to demonstrate any interest in other areas of human existence at all marks one as “unserious,” as I was once called on my path to the Ph.D., and precisely for that reason), and so on.

In short, the ideal candidate for a tenured professor, particularly beyond the STEM fields, is generally a taught, workaholic loner who overestimates the importance and depth of their work and opinions to a degree that would be (and often is) seen as comical outside the academy, and is so single-mindedly dedicated to their own success (defined as their ability to maintain this overestimation indefinitely and at greater and greater levels) that they are willing to essentially self-destruct entirely on a personal and emotional basis to continue to achieve it.

If you don’t meet these criteria, you aren’t seen as a candidate. And the powers that be are fairly explicit, along the way, about asking you whether or not you think you will be able to adopt this perspective, set of emotional habits, and self-negating lifestyle.

Why, exactly, are we surprised when the professors start to turn out to be a bit unbalanced? Being unbalanced is the first and most basic requirement for the job, in most cases. And why are we surprised when conflicts emerge? We’ve taken all of these unbalanced people and stuck them together in a high-risk, low-reward pressure cooker of diminishing returns, then surrounded them by a limitless number of immature, often drunken kids who catastrophically and often pettily overestimate their own importance and often have yet to learn respect for much of anything.

Frankly, it’s a recipe for rioting, violence, and complete social insanity. I’m shocked that it doesn’t come to the fore all the time.

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