Those Thin-Skinned Professors

Observing the sparring that has taken place between professors and conservative/libertarian critics outside the academy, many laypersons must wonder why professors grow so indignant over the criticism. They understand why professors disagree and want to defend themselves, but why so defensive? Why get mad? Other professions get chided – lawyers, doctors, politicians – and they respond, sometimes at least, with concessions and reforms, not “How dare you say that to us?” All-too-often, though, academics have acted with thin skins and prickly sensitivities, rarely to their advantage.
Several causes are at work here, but one of them is hard to discern if you haven’t pursued an academic career, and it’s insufficiently appreciated by outsiders.

It stems from a relentless truth of professional life for professors in the humanities and “softer” social sciences. The truth is this: when it comes to your status, you aren’t judged by how much money you bring the university or how much your students learn. Instead, you are what others say you are. At each stage in a career, advancement depends on the words and opinions of teachers and colleagues. Entry into graduate school rested on the admissions committee, and every semester afterwards each seminar paper grade indicated whether you had a future or not. Three professors approved your dissertation and granted you a PhD. You went on the job market and a hiring committee liked your dossier, three professors in a hotel room at the annual convention smiled at your interview, and you won a tenure-track job offer. A couple of years later, two expert readers of manuscripts for scholarly presses liked your work and you got a book into print. When the department met to review your record, some senior colleagues in related fields approved of your research, teaching, service, and tenure finally arrived.

Each threshold seemed like life or death, the professors in charge rendering Olympian judgment. Their opinion meant everything, and it happened over and over for 12-15 years from the time you entered graduate school to the golden day of tenure. The scrutiny has a deep and long-term effect. No wonder professors come to think that opinions in public life carry the same weight. They rarely do, but academics have spent so many years in a gauntlet of appraisals that they’ve become touchy and wary. If a letter from an authority in the field carries so much weight in the cloistered spaces of an academic department, just think what a column on liberal bias by George Will in the Washington Post can do.

This is a mis-estimation of off-campus debate, of course, for public life allows for lots more criticism and raillery than scholarly exchange does. Furthermore, the recourse to “You don’t understand what we do” doesn’t work. The more academics slide into pique when ACTA issues another report on academic freedom, the more they yield the terrain to the critics. Too much time living in the shadow of judgment freezes them up or ticks them off when outsiders challenge their practice. Years of building a reputation renders them inept in ideological battles outside of professional zones. This is one cause of indignation, and until they overcome it, academics will remain in a rearguard posture in public life. And, in a regrettable corollary, within professional zones they will remain intractable and insular. Peer review was never supposed to work this way.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

2 thoughts on “Those Thin-Skinned Professors

  1. Perhaps Professor Bauerlein has been spending too much time looking into a mirror. I’ve been in academia for a long time, and I’ve met a number of thin-skinned academic prima donnas. But, I’ve also met many more who can take criticism with as much equanimity as anyone outside of academia.

    1. I can’t believe this has been here seven years and nobody has replied to your deliciously, ironically “thin-skinned” reply to this article. Ha ha, academics.

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