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Opinion: Cynicism in academia

This post on cynicism in academia is off-topic compared to what I usually write about on taxonbytes. And I wish to declare that it is not intended to project a high degree of scholarship on the subject because I lack such scholarship. An internet search of “cynicism academia” (or similar) produces abundant links to both casual and formal treatments. I will not deal with these, but only relate my own current thoughts.

My corner of academia (omitting gender and race identifiers, I suppose) is that of someone with tenured employment at a large public research university, and my field is that of biological taxonomy. That at least should be kept in mind. Again, I am not claiming that my views do or should have much generality (beyond being my views).

Although I have been associated with universities for some 20 years now, I must say as a student or postdoc I either was not sufficiently exposed, or did not pay sufficient attention, to this issue. Perhaps I was shielded, intentionally or not, by my faculty advisors. In either case, I was less “intuitively” prone to cynicism than I am now.

Fast forward to today. Using a very broad brush, I think the following is acceptable enough to say. The combination of having acquired expertise on a particular academic subject, and having received essentially public acknowledgment of that expertise (academic degrees, publications, positions, funded projects), can contribute variously to one’s formation of (at least) professional identity, sense of purpose and validation, not to mention personal pride. Certain aspects that are routine in many academic lives, such as interactions with students, tend to reaffirm that sense of value. Mix that with the complexities of expectations and realities of academic career trajectories, which can be rife with ambitions (research/teaching/service), successes, and disappointments; and it is not rare that some degree of cynicism takes form along the path.

I need to keep it that general, I think. In particular, I am not sure I can productively go into an analysis of “degrees of justification”. I believe they exist. But, somewhere in this world of academia there must be highly cynical university presidents or AAAS members, and highly cheerful persons with less visibility, as conventionally perceived. I cannot go case by case. All I need to say is that for some people working in academia, an evolved understanding of self-worth mixed with varying self-perception of “impact” can be conducive to cynicism. If that claim is unreasonable, what follows below might be irrelevant too.

Being cynical is a social activity. It can occur in a lab setting. Among close colleagues at a meeting. Via e-mail (a lot!, and beware the unintentional cc..), or social media (maybe Twitter in particular). In systematic journals such as Systematic Zoology (see Hull 1988). Hopefully not so much in a larger (classroom) setting.

Being cynical is, I think, frequently considered a means of professional bonding. Being on the inside, with regards to a certain perspective.

Being cynical is often a form of being humorous, witty (~ intelligent), rebellious, and as such it can be considered “cool”. And having that air of attractiveness, it can be something to consider impressive when observed in another person, something one may aspire to learn to be “as good as” somebody else.

Being cynical is somehow and sometimes also a means to close apparent gaps in age or “standing”.

Being cynical can be a passive-aggressive means of “getting back at” something, or someone. Or almost everybody. Sometimes it is associated with a sense of insufficient power.

And I may be leaving out many other hard-to-deny functions that an attitude and communicative habit of cynicism can assume. The simpler point is – cynicism is functional. My question is: is it also and typically helpful?

My thinking is this (with no claim to originality whatsoever): Cynicism does not have a particularly good track record of actually improving things “at the root”. Cynicism is not needed to properly diagnose that there appears to be no solution to some problem issue. It is not a necessary precondition for constructive (or just plain sincere) criticism. Sometimes it might even preclude finding a better way.

Is that so? Then maybe cynicism is less of a friend than it would initially seem (see above). Can I be socially engaged, humorous, gap-crossing, and express my perceived needs for improving things – without the added (?) cynicism?

I think my current answer is: I can at least try. Henceforth, my academic role models will include a greater proportion of people who are both fully engaged in their professional lives and somehow manage to abstain from excessive cynicism. I will try to mostly “celebrate” my attraction to cynicism internally. Subject to further testing and revision, presumably.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. liz #

    It takes effort and most do not even realize how cynical they are, but it is a noble goal. I admire you for that.

    April 23, 2015

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