Climate changes: How can we make people feel welcome in academia?

Academia is a strange place. There are a lot of implicit norms and unspoken rules which, to make it worse, can vary by field, subfield, across countries, and over time. For example: How do you write an email in an academic setting? Should your mails be polite or is it already impolite to waste the reader’s time with polite fluff? How do you address a professor who you (1) have never met in person, (2) met in person once but they likely don’t remember, (3) had a beer with at a conference but they likely don’t remember? Do you shake hands? How do you start a collaboration and are you sure you want to wear this pair of jeans/cat shirt/three piece suit to the next conference?

It takes time to figure these things out and to finally feel comfortable in academic interactions – even more so for students from working class families who can’t draw on experiences from their parents, or for students from parts of the world with considerably different academic norms.

Academia can be scary for newcomers. (Photo: Timon Studler, unsplash.com)

So how can we help people to feel welcome in our strange insider’s club?

I have three suggestions, and as it happens, none of them is about tone. Actually, I believe that changing the tone is a quite ineffective way to make people feel welcome and valued because it is just cosmetics: Communication can be extremely hostile while maintaining a picture-perfect all friendly nonviolent surface. I suspect that people who champion tone monitoring hope that talking nicely for long enough will transform attitudes. However, I faintly remember learning in the first year of my undergraduate that Sapir-Whorf is not well substantiated.[1]This memory also spoiled Arrival for me. Still a great movie though.[2]After publishing this post, it has been pointed out three times that I shouldn’t bash linguistic relativity. To add more nuance to my argument, let me add that, as far as I know, there is substantial evidence for a weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf account (which also seems to be misnamed), which I consider plausible. Of course, I’m only bashing the form of linguistic relativity displayed in Arrival.[3]After publishing this post, my boyfriend read it and I additionally have to add the disclaimer that yes, Arrival was a great movie and, yes, maybe, assuming that those aliens are so different from humans and way more advanced etc., probably in a parallel universe that does not adhere to our physics, maybe it could work like this.

Furthermore, setting well-intended rules about the tone of interactions might just add another layer of conventions that poses yet another obstacle for outsiders. What I suggest is that we do not tackle tone, but instead try to change the underlying climate.

Start admitting that you are sometimes wrong

Many students start with the assumption that people with the fancy “Dr.” attached to their name or (gasp) professors have privileged access to the secrets of the world and are thus close to infallibility. Anne pointed me towards Perry’s Scheme, a model of how college students come to understand knowledge, that succinctly summarizes this first level of understanding: The authorities know.

However, social interactions get pretty one-sided if one side assumes that the other side is never wrong, and it unnecessarily reinforces power differentials (that exist anyway, and that are probably not always conducive to scientific progress, but we will keep this for another blog post). It also greatly obscures how science – as opposed to esotericism – is supposed to work.
Anecdotal data ahead: I have never felt particularly unwelcome in academia, and I blame this on the fact that both my parents have a PhD. Now before we all get excited about social transmission of educational attainment, I will quickly add that I was not raised by the doctors but by my down-to-earth mother-of-eight catholic grandma. However, I still got the strong impression that academic rank does not predict how often a person is right about things that are outside of their specific narrow subfield. Of course there is a German word for this idea: Fachidiot, a narrowly specialized person who is an idiot when it comes to anything else. In fact, I might have had a phase in which I firmly believed that a PhD indicates that a person is always wrong.[4]I’m sorry, Mum. It wasn’t you, it was puberty.

Even seniors can’t know everything. (Photo: Miriam Miles, unsplash.com)

 

Coincidentally, this also relates to the one piece of career advice I got from my dad: It’s important to hang out at conferences because there you can actually see with your own eyes that everybody cooks with water, which is the German way to say that everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time.
There is a quick fix to the misconception that academics are always right: Just communicate that you are fallible and be honest about the things that you are uncertain about. If you need a role model for this type of behavior, I recommend Stefan Schmukle, who has been my academic advisor since the second year of my undergraduate and is probably the main reason why I did not leave psychology for a more lucrative and less frustrating career path. Stefan openly admits his knowledge gaps when he teaches and stresses that he keeps learning a lot. Funnily enough, it does not undermine his authority[5]You know what does undermine your authority in front of the students? Pretending to know something that you don’t know while not even being aware that the smarter students can easily tell you are just pretending. There is a German word for the student’s feeling in such a situation, it’s called fremdschämen. in front of his students according to the data available to me, which includes both quantitative (student evaluations and teaching awards) and qualitative (intensive student interviews over a beer or two) evidence. 

Positive side effects of admitting that you are sometimes wrong might include (1) students feeling more respected because of your honesty, (2) students learning that psychology is not an arcane art accessible only to privileged old white men, and (3) sending a strong signal that you are, in fact and despite all your glorious achievements, a human being. Which already leads to my second suggestion.

Show others it’s okay to have a life. Have a life.

This is important not only because you probably enjoy having a life, but it also avoids any sort of the mystification of what it means to be an academic. If we establish the norm that being an academic implies working from early morning until late in the night, seven days a week and especially between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a lot of people might actually decide that they don’t want to feel welcome in academia. If your subfield actually requires this type of commitment, then please be frank about it so that junior researchers can decide early on whether they want to sacrifice literally everything else that makes life fun.
However, if your job does not require to sacrifice your life completely, it’s great to signal to others that you are, in fact, a human being with a family, hobbies, and other stuff that you do in your free time, like binge-watching Gilmore Girls or blindfolded speed runs of your favorite childhood video games.[6]The author of this article only indulges in one of these two activities but knows for a fact that at least one tenured individual in her proximity indulges in the other one. 

I don’t have any data to back up this claim, but I’m pretty sure most humans enjoy the company of other humans above the company of restless and efficient publication machines. Overworking is not a sustainable lifestyle for most people, and it does not create a particularly welcoming climate. It also leads to a race to the bottom which makes life worse for everyone, so maybe work less (and unionize). As a senior scientist, don’t make overworking the norm.

As it happens, this point also maps onto the one piece of solid career-related advice my mother passed on to me. Her professor told her that she was spending too much time in the library instead of getting to know her peers in the evenings. In my personal interpretation, I’m not reading that as advice to go “networking”, but to do things that are actually fun because we know what all work and no play did to Jack.

Don’t act as if willpower/grit/self-control/discipline/ambition/perseverance will lead to success

In the current predominant culture, especially in academia – and a bit more in the US than in my control group, Germany – success is often equated with the result of some sort of internal strength. If only you tried a bit harder, if only you got a bit more organized, if only you started getting up earlier, if only you gave a bit more, if only you networked more efficiently, your efforts would finally pay off. It’s all fine and dandy to try your best and to try to actively regulate your behavior, but I fear we have brought this to a point at which the attitude is getting toxic.
First, it opens the door to self-exploitation. Second, it makes people more willing to comply with exploitative structures, which is great for the maintenance of the status quo, but not so much for early career researchers who end up working endless hours. Third, if internal strength inevitably leads to success, having no success implies that you lack some sort of internal strength, or worse, that you are a failure.

Some things take patience, not willpower. (Photo: Kleber Varejão Filho, unsplash.com)


But, most importantly, it’s just not true that trying as hard as possible will lead to success, and that success will lead to some sort of bliss that compensates for all the hard work.
Success depends on multiple factors, and even if we assume that effort contributes quite a bit, there is still plenty of factors outside of our control: innate abilities, external factors such as being surrounded by people that support you (vs. having an advisor who is still fully absorbed in the rat race and exploits you for their own purposes) and a lot of randomness. Anyone who has ever submitted a paper to a journal will probably agree that there is a lot of randomness in the current academic system in psychology – if you’ve never encountered some level of arbitrary decision making, you’ve been pretty lucky (q.e.d.).
Then, the story goes, you should of course accept the things outside of your control but work hard with those that you can control – such as your ambitions and your perseverance. But can we even control these things? Frankly, I don’t know. But Ruben pointed out that we know few interventions that improve conscientiousness reliably, and that grit (which is basically conscientiousness) is partially heritableBased on my experience, trying hard is much harder for some people than for others. I can indeed be as disciplined as I want, but I cannot will what I want.[7]I’m pretty sure there is a reason why Schopenhauer is not particularly popular with motivational coaches. 


Last but not least, I don’t think that bliss necessarily awaits those who work hard and end up being successful. We have yet to hear of the lucky person who got tenured and immediately reached a state of inner peace as a result. In fact, when I look into the office next door, I get the impression that the daily grind is not that different with a nice title in front of your name. (It certainly is more comfortable with respects to financial security, but not everybody can end up being a professor, so maybe we need structural change instead of individual struggle to tackle the precarious employment situation in academia.) However, this outlook does not seem too dull to me: In our lab, we are being nice to each other and we agree that our job is (to some extent) about doing science – not that much about gaming the system to get somewhere where you can finally, if you are lucky, do science.

TL;DR: It’s fine if you are sometimes wrong, don’t sweat it. Don’t make overworking the norm. Don’t give students the impression they just have to try hard enough to make it because deep down, we all know that this is not how it works.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This memory also spoiled Arrival for me. Still a great movie though.
2. After publishing this post, it has been pointed out three times that I shouldn’t bash linguistic relativity. To add more nuance to my argument, let me add that, as far as I know, there is substantial evidence for a weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf account (which also seems to be misnamed), which I consider plausible. Of course, I’m only bashing the form of linguistic relativity displayed in Arrival.
3. After publishing this post, my boyfriend read it and I additionally have to add the disclaimer that yes, Arrival was a great movie and, yes, maybe, assuming that those aliens are so different from humans and way more advanced etc., probably in a parallel universe that does not adhere to our physics, maybe it could work like this.
4. I’m sorry, Mum. It wasn’t you, it was puberty.
5. You know what does undermine your authority in front of the students? Pretending to know something that you don’t know while not even being aware that the smarter students can easily tell you are just pretending. There is a German word for the student’s feeling in such a situation, it’s called fremdschämen.
6. The author of this article only indulges in one of these two activities but knows for a fact that at least one tenured individual in her proximity indulges in the other one.
7. I’m pretty sure there is a reason why Schopenhauer is not particularly popular with motivational coaches.

9 thoughts on “Climate changes: How can we make people feel welcome in academia?”

  1. Thank you for this great post. I am very excited to see more posts from this blog!

    I would love it if work in academia would developt in the direction you suggest but I fear that those that read this are the ones that already agree to your points… However, I still found these principles confirming and inspiring, as much for my current situation as well as the unlikely case that I will one day be the one setting an atmosphere and exemplifying a manner of working together in a group.

    However, there were two points with which I couldn’t agree and that I find important to point out here:

    First, I disagree about the relevance of tone. The argument that how you say something not only influences how people see you but also how your argument is received and evaluated has too much evidence behind it that it cannot be discounted that easily (especially not by invoking Sapir-Whorf…). Persuasion research suggests that, especially when you’re not motivated to evaluate an argument by really thinking it through (i.e. especially arguments by people with whom you don’t agree a priori), source and message factors (like tone) are all the more important. Then there’s the line of research that I currently engage in, that has begun to produce evidence that whether a message is phrased in a respectful, non-threatening, appreciative manner not only influences social perceptions (the source is a nice person) but also evaluations of the content (the source is competent and their argument may be right). What do we mean by tone anyway? Politeness theory (e.g., Brown & Levinson, 1987) would say that we are being polite by granting our interaction partner the same wants and needs that we have ourselves, especially autonomy/competence and social belonging. And isn’t that one thing that the post was about more or less?

    TL;DR: Making your point and, especially, getting into a worthwhile discussion even with people that don’t agree with you will be much easier when you’re being respectful with what you say. As much as I think that Fiske’s point about the media we’re using to discuss the merits of research being detrimental is ridiculous, her other argument was self-evident: I think that everyone vehemently dismisses her point about tone exactly BECAUSE she was being so abrasive herself.

    The second point isn’t so much disagreement as a comment: As I see it, because most of your points are about hierarchies and expectancies, I think that they really aren’t specific to academia. Every work place would be better when people can freely admit the limits of their knowledge, have good work-life balance and have fun and find motivation doing the work they do without pushing themselves with the false idol of willpower. Maybe academia is just a context where these norms have been entrenched more strongly than in others, but I think you will find very similar conditions and conversations in the different levels of most business hierarchies.

    Now, I’ve used a lot more text to enumerate my grievances than for expressing my agreement. Please know that this does not represent how I feel about the post. Thank you again for writing it, I will pass it on!

    Grüße aus Münster,

    Benjamin

    1. Hi Benjamin,
      glad that you liked the post! And thank you for your detailed comment, I certainly didn’t think that this would provoke replies long enough to require a TL;DR 😉
      Yeah I very much agree with the point that this blog will mostly be read by people who already agree with most points (damn you, echo chamber).
      And actually, I also agree with your points about tone. I do think that tone is important – for the instrumental reasons that you have described, but also because I prefer harmonious coexistence with fellow humans (is harmonious coexistence even valid English? Harmonisches Miteinander, du weißt schon).
      “What do we mean by tone anyway?” – guess that’s the great question! If you define tone as politeness and politeness as granting our interaction partners the same wants and needs that we have ourselves, I’m actually all for tone monitoring. If tone is about being friendly to each other, I’m still all for tone (but probably wouldn’t make it a precondition for a dialogue because one can still have great and respectful conversations without being all nice and friendly).
      However, the way tone was invoked into the whole discussion gives me the impression that it was more about adherence to communication norms – don’t openly criticize others research, don’t criticize outside of designated scientific channels, follow (somewhat arbitrary, time variant) behavioral norms that define who is allowed to say what – and with this definition of tone, I’m all against tone monitoring, and I don’t think that type of tone helps early career researchers.
      I also think that you are right that people were upset about the tone commentary because of its tone. However, I feel like the author of the tone comment might disagree because the commentary did not name any specific person and was published in a respected outlet.
      I fully agree with your second point. I don’t think these norms are specific to academia at all. I just can’t say much about the other workplaces 😉 I’d even say the points are so freaking generic that they probably apply to most human interactions. Actually, I’m having a hard time writing anything that is specific to academia. When I think about what I want science and academia to look like, I have to think about what I consider important, which leads to all sorts of philosophical questions what life is all about etc. (well at least I deleted the part of the draft in which I pointed out that we are all going to die eventually BUT I DIGRESS).

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, appreciated!

      Grüße aus Leipzig,
      Julia

        1. Okay, and now I actually agree with all of yours. Maybe with the qualification that I find it really important to make the distinction you have made in your reply: We should of course not confuse caring about tone with censoring and let that mistake lead us to ignoring this matter completely. But reading Fiske’s column again, at least the one that was eventually posted, not the one leaked beforehand, she doesn’t really condone censorship, she expresses that she really doesn’t like blogs and comments sections. But because I don’t agree with that argument and because she used a whole load of hyperbole to make it, I didn’t even want to see what exactly she was on about and whether we share a definition of bullying or not. I think that because of her accusatory tone, the one good point that she had, namely that you can’t have a productive discussion with someone when you’re shouting at them, got lost completely.

          Look at me ranting. Anyway, thanks for the clarification and good luck with the blog!

  2. Love this post! I agree with all of your points (given the clarification in the comments…I do think tone is important but by no means the only thing)!

    1. Hey, thanks for the positive feedback! The “tone” subject would definitely require a more sophisticated elaboration but I got already scolded by my co-bloggers for the excessive length of the post 😉

Comments are closed.