09 December 2013

Lessons from Bar Rescue for academics

I’ve been watching Bar Rescue. It’s a business makeover show featuring bar expert John Taffer.

There are two things that this show has got me thinking about that are related to science.


It is possible to make something you are not interested in, interesting.

I do not drink. I am not a business owner. Bars are not my habitat. But I like watching Bar Rescue. I thought much the same about Top Gear. I’m not interested in cars, but I keep watching that show. And I keep watching Bar Rescue because there is something compelling about it.

When someone says, “But people aren’t interested in [insert academic discipline here],” they’re giving up too soon.


Can yelling be the right thing to do?

There is the old saying that conflict is the essence of drama. And there is a lot of conflict in Bar Rescue. Taffer routinely tears strips off of staff, managers, and owners alike. In one episode, he almost comes to blows with an owner.

Taffer is often mean. But that doesn’t make him wrong.

While I am always wary of reading too much into “reality shows”, it does seem as though there are times his approach works. Sometimes, Taffer gets through to people, and I wonder how much of that is how forcefully and loudly he expresses himself.

In our department, we sometimes say a student needs the “CTJ” talk. “CTJ” is short for “Come to Jesus.” It’s a talk that is meant to get a student back on track with their project. It’s rarely pleasant. By the time you get to that talk, it’s because things have already deteriorated.

Are there times when you absolutely need this unpleasantness to get through to people? I wonder, though in general, I hope not. In scientific settings, it takes a long time to build up confidence, and this sort of action could destroy someone’s sense of self worth. I know that the power dynamic is much different in an academic setting than in a reality television show. Ultimately, the bar business people work with Taffer for a few days, but in academia, things tend to be much more long term.


Elisabeth said...

I don't think that yelling at students will turn out to be productive. The TV shows get away with more yelling because of the temporary nature of the situation. You can have difficult talks, however, without yelling. The good mentors are ones with strict standards who still have their students leaving meetings feeling energized and ready to take on the world. I still think we can have discipline and standards without making people feel like dirt. The hope really is that the relationship between mentor and student doesn't ever deteriorate so badly that you need Gordon Ramsey to come fix your lab. ;)

Eric Charles said...

I also wonder whether there isn't a normalizing of this behavior occurring. Frankly, I would much rather be yelled at than get passive aggressive messages. I suspect many my age (relatively new academic) and younger, would much rather have short highly aggressive interactions than long drawn out tensions. If I am doing something wrong, tell me. Tell me directly. If I don't get it, yell. I don't care if it involves cursing. In fact, I might even like it more, for the amusement factor ("Wow, it's like I'm working for friggin Gordon Ramesy"). My guess is that newer academics will be increasingly comfortable with this type of interaction.