A Theory of Professorialism

Acknowledgments: The ideas presented here were developed over the course of many years together with my friend and colleague nemesis Johannes Breuer, who also contributed to the writing of this post.

 

Einstein had a deep aversion to socks because his large toe would repeatedly pinch holes in them. Pythagoras, although he was a vegetarian, refused to touch or consume beans because they resemble the gates of Hades. Weather permitting, Benjamin Franklin would spend his mornings sitting in front of an open window, stripped to the buff, taking an air bath.

Hades as imagined by Pythagoras. (Image credit: Tormod Sandtorv)

Everybody knows the stereotype of the eccentric scientist, and history has so many quirky examples that MentalFloss reports a top 15 (!) of mad scientists, there are several “fun” Are You A Mad Scientist? tests online, and, of course, you can test your academic acumen at the Prof or Hobo quiz.[1]Malte: 9/10. Anne: 8/10. Ruben: 6/10. Julia: 6/10. Anecdotes of erratic behaviors by professors are so common that almost anyone has one to tell. They range from pretty harmless stuff (such as blatantly mispronouncing the jargon of your own subdiscipline, exclusively making eye contact with your own shoes, this weird thing that guy’s doing with his nose during Q&As), unpleasant bodily peculiarities (not showering during an entire conference), awkward social mannerisms (calling all male RAs “Dave” and female RAs “Debbie”[2]Except for the one RA whose name is actually Debbie but the professor keeps calling Slagathor.), rude borderline incivility (refusing to speak to anyone without a PhD), to seriously offensive habits (turning poster sessions into a speed dating event), sexism, racism, alcoholism, and practically any other -ism you can think of.[3]Unlike Dog Eat Dog, professors can endorse any kind of ism.

In fact, this amassment of questionable -isms, habits, and attitudes constitutes its own -ism: Professorialism. Professorialism, the accumulation and cultivation of quirky, odd, bizarre, but mostly nasty traits in university professors, is a well documented phenomenon — one might even say it is part of what defines the profession. Despite its wide spread, it is poorly understood. Does academia turn initially good people into dislikable caricatures of themselves, or does it select those already despicably equipped? Does it fundamentally transform personalities of researchers as they climb the academic ladder, or is it a unique environment that allows these flawed predispositions to surface?

Although its relevance to society is obvious, as these individuals not only shape current academic debate culture but the educational standards of subsequent generations, no comprehensive theoretical account of professorialism has yet been put forward. In this post, we propose a theory of professorialism that 1) describes the phenomenon and provides potential routes by which its boundaries might be further extended, 2) offers an explanation of previous and current entities of professorialism, and 3) predicts the etiology and development of forthcoming instances of professorialism.

The primary mechanism that gives rise to professorialism is Search Committees. The arcane logic in the forming and arbitration of these search committees is largely uncharted and beyond the scope of this post, although they themselves appear to be heavily shaped by the laws of professorialism. Once a committee has appointed a promising applicant for a position, an evil spirit is summoned that offers the job to the candidate in exchange for a life in service to Moloch.[4]As an act of pity, Moloch exempts Adjuncts from this procedure. Hang in there! If the candidate accepts, their soul is broken into three fragments. Through the secondary mechanism, Tenure, each soul fragment is consumed by the new master as the servant rises from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor.[5]Germans, being very efficient, instead indicate both the professorial level and the number of acquired professorial traits with a pay grade system (Besoldungsstufen) from W1 to W3 (this became necessary after, in the old system, C4 professors grew so professorial that they challenged Moloch’s status as prime evil). The void left is filled with Professorial Traits at the aspiring professor’s own choice in addition to any of their pre-existing deficiencies.[6]These are not covered by the Academic Corruption Act. Professorialism is a degenerative condition, which means each trait worsens progressively, culminating in the fourth and final level, Emeritus Professor, in which they use their accumulated influence to build a legacy so that others may seek the same path.

Professors may choose from the following list of professorial traits, which is continuously extended through empirical observations (clearly, further research is needed):

-ism: Racism, ageism, sexism, ableism, classism – you severely dislike a particular group of people and you let them know as often as possible.

Hubris: You are extremely proud of your accomplishments. Naturally, any original idea by someone else is one you already had years ago, but didn’t have the time to write down. Actually, you probably told them about it and now they’re ripping you off. You list all your titles, honors, offices, awards, and commendations in your email signature.

Theory Parrot: Interesting paper, but have you considered looking at this through the lens of [esoteric theory from another discipline no one but you has published on in 30 years]? You could use Me (2005abcd, 2006, 2007ab, 2008) as a starting point.

Method Parrot: Interesting data, but the only legit way to analyze them is through the lens of [arcane overly complex model that only runs in proprietary software and requires N > 10000 to converge reliably]!

Delegatitis: Faculty appointments? Send a grad student. Exams? Your grad student is still grading the ones from last year. Teaching? You probably told one of your grad students to substitute. Dissertation defense? Your grad student will cover for you. Oh, she’s the one defending? She won’t mind a last minute reschedule. Grant submission deadline? Oh yeah, you meant to tell your grad student about this funding scheme. Well they still have 13 hours left! Actually, they should get you some coffee first.

Gluttony: Nicotine, alcohol, sex, pastries, publications – whatever it is, you need, and you need it all. the. time. at the expense of anyone currently in the room. With anticipatory obedience, your subordinates try to maintain a constant supply, or at least get out of your way when you’re looking for another fix.

Hygiene skeptic: You are so busy with your research and teaching (or admin duties and your other unfavorable traits) that you simply do not have time to shower/brush your teeth/cut your hair/buy new clothes. You win most arguments through your prize-winning debate tactic “halitosis.” Plus isn’t skepticism generally appreciated in science?

Nemesis: There’s this other professor at a university with equivalent prestige to yours. Same age. Same field. Rumor has it you were roommates when you went to grad school together. You actually forgot the source of your vendetta, but you need to take this cretin down, no matter the cost. A substantial amount of your working hours is dedicated to sabotaging their career, and a more substantial amount of time is devoted by your employees to not accidentally confirming their work or discovering that your two theories are actually equivalent.

Draft paranoia: Preprints are for people whose ideas aren’t worth stealing. You do share your own drafts of course, but in the proper way. Of course only a printed copy with a “CONFIDENTIAL” watermark and of course only with those who agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement, wear an ankle monitor, and vow to eat the draft after reading.

Selective Amnesia: Appointments, agreements, promises, deadlines, names, faces, numbers, loaned books – people keep complaining about your inability to remember even the simplest facts. This is because you arbitrarily dedicate your entire memory to the least relevant, arcane details of situations or conversations with others, knowledge that you mostly use to exit embarrassing encounters because of more relevant details that completely elude you.

Morbus contradictus: Analyses you suggested last week make no sense to you this week. You add five paragraphs to a paper that jumps right from introduction to results, and it immediately “feels too long.” The methods section needs the details you add, but it’s too boring already. Wow, this prediction is stupid — but you preregistered it before data collection. Works best combined with Selective Amnesia.

Flatulence: The entire department calls you “The Progassor.” You are literally making academia a toxic environment.

Lawyered up: A colleague submitting a critical comment on one of your research papers? Lawsuit. Negative comments on RateMyProfessors.com? Cease and desist letter. Someone addressing you as Dr. and not Prof. Dr.? Compensation for pain and suffering. Every rejection letter is met by a warning letter from your lawyer – you have a reputation for suing anyone for anything they do, all the time.

Wrath: 99% of the time you maintain a calm, relaxed, almost peaceful appearance – which makes the other 1% even scarier. Without any warning sign, even the slightest annoyance (actually, particularly those) can wake the dragon. You start screaming, slamming your fist on your desk, smashing doors, tossing books or papers at the unsuspecting target that don’t know what’s happening to them.

Weepy Willow: 99% of the time you maintain a calm, relaxed, almost peaceful appearance – which makes the other 1% even weirder. Without any warning sign, and when nothing has happened that could have provoked this, you start crying like a baby. Some weird connection makes you realize sometimes baby animals die, that there will never be another Firefly episode, or that one time in your life, your mom picked you up, kissed you on the forehead, and put you down again for the very last time.[7]Welcome aboard the feels train. Of course, this is very embarrassing, and you’ll blame whoever happens to be in the room with you.

Luddite: You don’t really get technology. Twitterface, Instabook, apps, email – it’s all useless bric-a-brac. In fact, you think it’s not only distracting people, it’s actually harming their scientific abilities. Who knows how to do an ANOVA by hand these days? Your advisees do, obviously, because you have banned all technology from your lab (aside from the computer you bought in 1996 to play Minesweeper).

Below is the form mutually agreed upon with Moloch for my new position as assistant professor of “Psychology of Human Technology Interaction” at RUB starting in 2018. Fill in your own with this blank form and share it on Twitter!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Malte: 9/10. Anne: 8/10. Ruben: 6/10. Julia: 6/10.
2. Except for the one RA whose name is actually Debbie but the professor keeps calling Slagathor.
3. Unlike Dog Eat Dog, professors can endorse any kind of ism.
4. As an act of pity, Moloch exempts Adjuncts from this procedure. Hang in there!
5. Germans, being very efficient, instead indicate both the professorial level and the number of acquired professorial traits with a pay grade system (Besoldungsstufen) from W1 to W3 (this became necessary after, in the old system, C4 professors grew so professorial that they challenged Moloch’s status as prime evil).
6. These are not covered by the Academic Corruption Act.
7. Welcome aboard the feels train.

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