27 June 2013

Hazing in academic careers?

People (including me) sometimes describe academic careers as one long “hazing ritual.” Being on the other side of the process, I think there may be a better description of the discomfort that people sometimes go through early in their academic career.


When I first took this job, I showed up to all the grad student seminars I could. At other universities I had been to, this was just what you do. I asked questions after their seminars. Routinely. I heard later from other faculty members that this was freaking out our master’s students, because they weren’t used to that.

The next year, I was joined by two more new faculty members who had similar mindset and approach to grad seminars as me. The three of us went to a lot of grad student seminars, and we asked questions. They were often critical. I remember pointing out to one student that experiment she wanted to run examining four or five variables simultaneously and in combination with each other would require thousands of plants to get at any meaningful result.

For our interest and asking questions, the grad students dubbed the three of us “the axis of evil.”

I am sure that some students thought I was hazing them. In fact, students later told me that they’d heard I “went after” grad students “really hard, for no reason.” That I made students cry. (For the record, it is possible that students cried after their seminar, but not in front of me.) Put like that, and it sounds like the very definition of hazing.

But it wasn’t the case. I take no delight in making students squirm. Every question we asked, we asked because we were interested, and more importantly, we wanted the science to be good.

What students saw as hazing, I saw as culture shock.

Academic science has a distinct culture. If you were to sum it up in a word, that culture is “critical.” The brownie points get awarded to the people who are best at exposing the flaws in other people’s research. The names on the trophy cases are for the people who anticipate criticisms so adeptly that they design their experiments to answer all possible criticisms before they can be raised.

Students were not used to a culture of continual criticism. Most people outside university settings are not used used to the culture of criticism. It feels destructive and rude to a lot of people.

Immersed yourself in a different culture can be hard and scary, so even though our world is increasingly cosmopolitan, not many people do it. For instance, I live in South Texas, but I am only vaguely aware of the Hispanic or Mexican culture of the region. I don’t watch the television shows or listen to the music of that culture. Knowing that culture would take some concerted effort on my part.

In theory, students should know something about academic culture from their undergraduate degree, but let’s face it, the undergraduate experience is the wading pool in terms of the academic cultural experience. People who enter grad school are often jumping into the deep end for the first time, and, unsurprisingly, struggle to swim.

Just like there are signs marking the depth of the pool, we have to let prospective students know that it is a different and distinct culture in academic research.

Photo by VasenkaPhotography on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license; axis of evil from here.


Joanna Bryson said...

I totally agree that faculty should attend grad student seminars & ask questions. But there are questions and there are questions. At Chicago (in the 80s), the goal was debate, and points were scored on intellect. At MIT (in the 90s) points were scored by shouting loudest and being most famous. This was partly cultural, people have to be *taught* to recognise real debate. Some postdocs also had to make deliberate interventions, tutoring students on "no squashing" rules, were new ideas were not ridiculed but rather debated. More recently I have seen full professors at some institutions who enjoy stringing along a stupid argument wasting the time of a guest speaker and their audience rather than raising an objection, listening to the answer, then allowing the talk to progress to see if it still bore raising again in Q&A.

Steve Will said...

Hmmm. From the outside it sounds like a culture of bullying.

I suppose it could be better than it sounds if:
- the "axis of evil" develops true personal relationships with those under scrutiny ensuring that no one need feel "picked on" because, clearly, the professors do not hate the grad students; after all, the professors are nice to the students outside of the seminars.
- the grad students are told, clearly, ahead of time, that they should expect this sort of treatment, in the name of good science, but it's nothing personal.

As another comment said, there are questions and there are "questions."

I am in a position in my job where the tone of my question is extremely important. If I put someone on the defensive, I will not get the result I need. Yet my position, itself, can be intimidating to many people.

Many times I am asking questions to get to the root of a problem, or to make a decision between apparently equal, but opposing ideas. In that environment, I don't want the person to feel attacked or PERSONALLY criticized, because the person knows the problem situation better than anyone, so I need to access their knowledge. If they feel attacked, they close up. It's human nature. They defend themselves, rather than explore other possibilities.

And, having attained the high position I have, if I wanted to -- or if I thought it was justified -- it would not take much effort to have people perceive me as a bully. In fact, it takes considerable effort on my part to set people at ease so that they do NOT assume my questions are unreasonable personal attacks.

I don't know you, other than from a few of your blog posts. I can't tell if you have a personal approach which is amiable or intimidating.

I'm merely stating that, from the words on the page of this particular post, your justification of a "critical" culture sounds like it could be used to justify what your title classified as "hazing."

It seems to me if you know that the general perception of the process is that grad students are being hazed, it will take overt action to ensure that they see past their expectations -- that they recognize they are not being bullied, but are instead being guided towards better science.

For What It's Worth.