A Duck of Minerva Interview

On Academic Grudges: A Quack-and-Forth

18 February 2022, 0729 EST

The academy is traditionally a place students and scholars go to hone their critical faculties. But perhaps, in some cases, we take this critical approach too far. In this Quack-and-Forth, Adam B. Lerner (ABL) and Jarrod Hayes (JH) discuss academic grudges and whether the academy would be a kinder, gentler place if we all acted a bit more like Larry Bird (and a bit less like Larry David).

 ABL   I wanted to start a quack-and-forth with you on academic grudges for a couple reasons—the most important of which is to lower the expectations of my mother, who previously praised the menschiness of my post on academic karma.

The gist of that prior piece is that academia, due to misaligned incentives, oftentimes depends on goodwill—we all do a lot of unpaid, under-appreciated hard work to make sure the system keeps running. However, on the flip side, when academics feel someone has abused this goodwill, they hold truly impressive grudges—grudges that transcend borders, generations, and common sense. I’ve talked to numerous academics that have strong opinions on people whom they might have only met at one or two conferences while hungover.

So, my questions for you: do you agree that academics hold unique grudges? If so, why might this be? Can academic grudges be productive or are we wasting a lot of energy shaking our fists at the heavens and cursing the publications/awards/promotions of people who couldn’t care less about us?  

 JH   A mother’s expectations can be a burden! Happy to help with that.

I think your intuition on grudges is correct. In part I think, it’s because academia preferentially attracts people who are not…well-equipped in the emotional resilience/intelligence department. They just don’t handle interpersonal relations well. Linked to this is the way external validation is baked into academia. Ideas are only good if other people say they are. In this way, academia is a lot like the performing arts.

So, bring the two together, add in a mix of fragile egos, and voila, grudges. And these are not helpful in any way. Per an article you sent my way a week or two ago, grudges can be contrasted against nemeses. In the latter case, there can be something productive in the intellectual competition having a nemesis spark (think Larry Bird and Magic Johnson). It can push people to expand their thinking/limits as they seek to out-perform their rival. Obviously, this can spiral out of control, but there is at least a productive potential there. Grudges, in my estimation and, I should say experience, are rarely reciprocated and thus don’t create a supply of intellectual or emotional energy. Rather, they are black holes that devour intellectual and emotional capacity.

 ABL   I think you’re right to distinguish between productive competition (eg, nemeses) and grudges where we end up wastefully stewing in negativity. When I think about my own personal nemeses from the past, these are often people I like personally, whose work I think is pretty good, who I view myself in friendly competition with because we differ in our approaches and sometimes go for the same opportunities. This is definitely more of a Magic Johnson/Larry Bird (or even Professor X/Magneto) dynamic, rather than Harry Potter and Voldemort. Beyond the productivity, another key difference is that the competition aspect of a nemesis/nemesis relationship is fleeting. In retrospect, Magic is probably happy Larry Bird got three rings, because it would have seemed lame to be winning his own titles without a suitable rival. Sure, Magic was pissed when Bird had a near perfect 1985-6 season, but I doubt he still thinks about it nowadays.

However, I do want to push back on one thing you said. From my reading, the academic incentives you describe have the potential to produce both types of relationships. Sure, poor interpersonal skills mixed with fragile egos and peer-review systems can lead to rivalries devolving into grudges, but I think they can also be harnessed to spark hard work and creativity. If this is the case, this leads me to a few questions: how can we encourage productive competition and prevent it from spiralling into black holes? Is there a way to weed grudge-y people out of hiring pools or can we train against grudges in graduate programs? 

 JH   I think your point about the competition aspect is correct. Maybe because, in the context of a nemesis, the rivalry relationship is clearly defined and limited in scope. On the other hand, grudges are ill-defined and thus come to define every aspect of the ‘Other’.

However, I’m going to stick to my guns so to speak about the constitution of the academic environment. I don’t think it makes productive competition impossible, but I do think it doesn’t channel people in that direction. Insofar as we can mitigate against grudges and such, I think emphasizing intellectual collaboration in graduate school and beyond is likely to be most effective. How to do that? I don’t know.

 ABL   Since we’ve last chatted, I started watching the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm and it’s got me thinking about this conversation through a new lens—the joys of carping. 

On Curb, Larry’s character is an unfriendly jerk, who gets his kicks out of critiquing everything. On the second episode of this latest season, he refuses to call Leon’s girlfriend’s dog its name (Angel Muffin) because he thinks it’s ridiculous. This (spoiler alert) leads to the dog getting hit by a car, since Larry refuses to call out his name to alert him. 

Academics, on average, aren’t nearly as biting as Larry David (nor are they as funny). But I think a fair few are just as critical. Reviews of good but not great papers often turn into multi-page screeds and I’ve witnessed conference discussions spark existential crises among ECRs. We’re told that being critical is an important part of the profession and oftentimes the best way to show one’s intellectual bona fides is to launch a devastating critique of something that seems too good to be true. Maybe herein lies one of the roots of our problem? Are academics not trained well enough in the art of constructive criticism? And does all this tearing one another down inspire our unproductive grudges?

 JH   I agree academics are not well trained in constructive criticism. And competition fosters a zero-sum mentality that makes criticism all the more personal.

But something I heard on the radio today gave me a new perspective. The hosts were talking with Arthur Brooks, a columnist at the Atlantic and Professor of the Practice at Harvard Business School. His central focus is happiness, and he noted that judgement by oneself of others and concern over reciprocal judgment are an important source of unhappiness. When individuals judge others, psychologically that opens a two-way door that primes them to be concerned about the judgement of others. The whole package leads to misery.

Brooks’ theory sits right at the heart of academia. Maybe grudges are a symptom of an underlying unhappiness. And all the other hierarchy/prestige aspects—rankings of universities, rankings of journals—both manifest and feed the unhappiness. Grudges are rooted in concern of the opinions of others—some undeserving scholar gets recognition/respect while I do not. If that is correct, I am not sure how that can be fixed. 

 ABL   I think Prof. Brooks is right that comparison is the root of much unhappiness and academia is rife with comparisons of the dumbest variety. I am loath to quote Malcolm Gladwell, but he actually did a nice podcast episode on the absurdity of the US News and World Report university rankings. The process is awful in so many ways, but one particularly awful aspect is the institutional peer review scoring. Essentially, US News relies on admissions professionals’ subjective scoring of colleges and because no admissions professional tracks what different universities are doing year-to-year, they tend to copy the prior year’s US News rankings. The whole process thus turns into a funhouse mirror system where the purpose of the university vanishes. 

Journal rankings are also quite absurd. They tend to be based on number of citations, which is not a great metric. Plus, given publication patterns in different fields and subfields, this ranking system is destined to produce inferiority complexes. Theoretical papers are cited less than empirical ones, qualitative less than quantitative, etc. Even worse—political science papers tend to be cited less than papers in other social sciences, so even those at the top of our disciplinary food chains feel inadequate in the grand scheme of things. It’s a system that seems intent on transforming us all into economists.

In my reading, this sort of competitiveness stems from two primary forces: petty insecurity and precarity. As you said, academics tend to be less-than-emotionally-mature and, I would argue, this feeds petty insecurity which we sate by climbing rankings, thereby reinforcing their power. Luckily, however, such insecurity tends to dissipate with age, as people start tuning out the noise. For better or worse, over time people turn into social solipsists, wearing socks with sandals like no one’s watching.

On the other hand, people are competitive because the job market is insanely competitive, and they think by playing the game slightly better they’ll get an edge. This might be true in a macro sense, but, in addition to being competitive, the job market is arbitrary and nepotistic. Playing to the game (and absorbing its rules unproblematically) oftentimes just leads to failure and shame.

Each of these observations seems to come with a solution of sorts, though not necessarily ones we can enact from our perch as Duck bloggers. For the first, we can play the long game and tune out the chirpings of youth (whether they come from the voices in our heads or the voices of ECRs at conferences). For the second, we return to the age-old solution to so many problems in the academy: create more jobs. Lots of them. Good, tenure-track jobs, at institutions all over the world so scholars can live where they want. Let the hiring begin!

 JH   I think you are right about the impact of age. It allows a bit of context, particularly if one can get out of the job search rat race. I saw a tweet from Seva Gunitsky to the effect that academics get into intellectual fights over journals read by at most a few thousand people. We imagine we are changing the world and feed our egos accordingly. But we really aren’t. I remember walking around Oxford’s Nuffield College library (as you know, Nuffield is the home of IR at Oxford) and marvelling at all the books written by people, some/many of whom were I am sure very important in their time, of which I had never heard. That of course may reflect my own intellectual limitations, but I suspect there is a larger point there about putting academia in its proper context.

Also, finding things outside academia that matter helps. Since my twin girls were born five years ago I just don’t have the bandwidth to pay much attention to who is doing what, where, or whether I got my due credit, etc. And none of it would matter to my kids anyway. I suspect a lot of the interpersonal ridiculousness of academia would resolve if scholars (and I include myself—or at least past versions—here) would grow up a bit and get out more.

As I think about this more though, there may be a gendered element. I suspect (with no proof admittedly) men in the discipline have the problems we have been addressing far more than women. But that perhaps should be better left for a future discussion…