Monday, September 29, 2008

Professorial Reserve

Barack Obama was a law professor at the University of Chicago, so it makes sense for his professorial past to be part of discussions about his experience(s), but not all Obama/professor references in the media are direct references to his work as a professor. In fact, this post was motivated by hearing Obama's recent debate performance described as "too professorial", an oft-repeated phrase in reference to Obama.

An internet search for "Obama" and "professorial" yields several phrases highly favored by the mainstream media and bloggers. I have color-coded these in the examples below, not because I think my readers are stupid and unable to understand complex concepts without having everything simplified for them, but for ease of viewing and for dramatic and aesthetic effect.

Obama struggles to feel voters' pain because of his ..aloof, professorial side.

But whether out of
professorial reserve or budding political caution..

Democrats Worry That Obama Is
Too Professorial.. In Debate Settings.

professorial style didn't keep him from scoring quick points.

The intellectual Obama
professorial style doesn’t work for most Americans.

professorial approach to Iraq..

..many people - maybe because of Obama's
professorial nature .. seem to think Obama talks down to them.

When he’s not giving Teleprompter speeches he comes across as
quite professorial and far too analytical.

But I think Obama, who has had the problem in the past of being
too professorial..

..ability to channel enough charisma to overcome his
professorial reserve.

That’s him, exhibiting typical Ivory Tower
Professorial reserve.

..those that are anti-Obama will say that the cool, calm and reserved demeanor is Obama just being
aloof or too professorial.

Obama already suffers from coming across as
too professorial ...

Obama is considered by some to be
too professorial, too distant..

Obama is
too professorial in his convoluted explanations.

Question: Is it OK to be professorial, as long as you aren't too professorial?

In the above examples, there are three professor-themed descriptions that appear again and again:(1) Obama is too professorial; (2) he has/shows professorial reserve (a concept clearly associated with being aloof, distant); and (3) he has a professorial nature, style, and/or approach.

What do these descriptions mean? I think they are bizarre. Nonsense. Stupid. That said, I will now elaborate using complete sentences and perhaps also obscure words and multiple relative clauses that few people can understand.

I get the fact that these descriptions are shorthand for someone who gives complex explanations (= convoluted, not simple) and who does not have a warm and fuzzy personality (= distant, aloof, reserved). What I don't get is what this has to do with professors -- as in, real-life professors that one actually encounters at the nation's universities and colleges -- and why professorial is synonymous with condescending.

Has anyone done a study on this?: What % of professors are aloof? In my personal niche in the academic ecosystem, the number is exceedingly small. In fact, to succeed as a professor these days, the ability to communicate in a clear and compelling way (e.g. to a classroom of students, to a proposal review panel) is essential.

The % of professors who are condescending is larger, but still by no means even close to a majority. I have more commonly been condescended to by doctors and home repair people, but for some reason this description is more typically applied to professors.

I don't spend a lot of time hanging out at the law school so I don't know what things are like over there on a day-to-day basis, but I serve on university committees with law school faculty and know law school professors socially. The words "too professorial" or "professorial reserve" or even "condescending" do not come to mind at all as accurate descriptions of the law faculty I know. Perhaps some law professors glide silently through the halls in their personal space bubbles and over time forget how to be anything but aloof.

I do not believe that professors are statistically more reserved than the average American. In fact, speaking as someone from a part of the country where people are rather well known for not being particularly forthcoming in friendly conversation, it seems to me that the personality of a reserved person, professorial or not, might resonate quite well with ordinary Americans in this and many other parts of the country.

To me, professorial describes someone with deep knowledge of a topic or even someone who can explain things. These are not obviously bad things. It is clearly time to eschew uses of the term professorial that imply a cold, condescending person who is unable to think or speak clearly.


Anonymous said...

wow.. I particularly like that he is described as 'too analytical'. Is that really a BAD thing?? Am I alone in actually wanting (no, feeling I deserve) a President who is smarter than me?? More capable of detaching emotions from his decisions?? At the risk of sounding aloof and condescending, how stupid is the American electorate??

I'm packing my bags to Canada..

Cynthia said...

I have been a librarian for 20 years and still can't connect the media's stereotypical librarian (repressed, obsessed with order, virginal, female) with the real-life librarians I know.

And yet, it's a quick and understandable code phrase -- sort of like "orange flavored" on a bottle of kid's cough medicine. You know it won't taste anything like real oranges, but you know exactly what it will taste like, and whether your kid will drink it.

For me, "professorial" as applied to a politician means "someone for whom I might be willing to vote." For other people, it clearly means, "someone who's smart and doesn't try to hide it," which for some reason they find unappealing.

Good luck connecting the adjective with reality.

Short Geologist said...

Ooh! Eschew! Maybe some folks may feel defensive when speaking to academics and that gets watered down into "professors = too smart = condescending"

My vocabulary is also too big for my britches, and I occasionally get in trouble with folks who think I'm acting all superior by flaunting my big words. I'm not. It's just the way I talk.

I think you're underestimating folks' defensiveness/inferiority complexes when it comes to other people who are in jobs perceived as "intellectual".

Global Girl said...

I have heard other graduate students lament about how distant professors tend to be, and I often feel that professors are much harder to get to know than, say, sales managers or heads of HR.

I find Obama personable, so I am not quite sure what the bloggers mean, but I certainly know what "professorial reserve" means. I no longer expect to get to know professors I meet, including my own advisor and committee. I do not expect personal questions from them, and I expect them to squirm and look uncomfortable talking about anything but Engineering or Science. They are almost like paper people - the only dimension they show is their professional mask, everything else they hesitate to share.

The reserve is reserve in opening up personally and emotionally, using another way of being, than just the analytical (and often untied to results or execution) one.

Also, the condescending attitude is linked to something you blogged about before - how success is defined. Professors often come off as condescending when they fail to appreciate non-academic skills that are of vital importance outside academia, or when they otherwise indicate that the only road to Success is to become like them - to be a Professor. HR managers don't change their behavior towards me when I say I don't want to be an HR manager. Professors do change their behavior toward me when I say I don't want to be a professor.

Lastly, I have seen many very poor communicators survive and even thrive in academia. You'd think communication skills are needed everywhere, but even lacking the ability to give clear instructions to TAs is apparently not a career obstacle.

Even in less extreme cases, simply explaining a phenomenon or a proposal well is not equivalent to being a good communicator. It is true that it is communication and is important in being a professor - however, there is more to communication than explaining thoughts. Communicating a vision - persuading and leading - requires more than the ability to explain why the sky is blue. Personal communication also requires the humility to really listen to others, which professors often aren't good at.

Anonymous said...

"To me, professorial describes someone with deep knowledge of a topic or even someone who can explain things."

I think there's a strain in the population that does think this is a bad thing, that this means that you're setting yourself up above other people (professors, do, because their job is to be there to teach about their subject, about which they know an awful lot, to people who don't know very much about it). Professorial antagonism is part of the growing antagonism against expertise. That antagonism might stem from a real fear that too much of our world now depends on the actions of those experts (from doctors telling us about vaccines, finance guys telling us about the banking system, biologists telling us about evolution, scientists telling us about global warming). There are many things people need to rely on the experts to understand, and if you don't trust them.

We (academics?) trust experts, perhaps, because we are experts in our own area, and transfer that respect for our own expertise to other experts, if they appear to show the right analytic thinking skills. People who don't spend their lives conveying their expertise to others (even if they have it, like in running a business or a farm or building a house) don't have that gut instinct.

Jeremy D. Young said...

I think it could have something to do with the fact that the Government Education system has allowed/encouraged this idea that everyone should be normal. Being "too smart" is just as bad as being "too dumb" in American society.

If you just sit down and look at the advertisements from either the Republicans or the Democrats, you can clearly see that they are expecting people who will make decisions based upon fears, not rational thought.

Individual rational thought is dangerous...

Jennifer Imazeki said...

Maybe it varies with field and type of institution but I have to agree with global girl. I don't doubt that professors you interact with as colleagues might seem like perfectly normal people but I wouldn't be surprised if how they act with you, someone they see as a peer, is different from how they act with others they deem less worthy, less 'smart'. And while it would be great if professor were synonymous with 'can explain things' (and I assume you meant to add 'clearly' to the end of that), it is very easy to get tenure (particularly at a Research I) without being able to communicate with students at all.

Female Science Professor said...

There are surely exceptions, but it in recent years it has become difficult to get tenure at a Research I "without being able to communicate with students at all".

Tom said...

PhysioProf is a clear indicator that even when things aren't about race, they're about race.

Pagan Topologist said...

FSP, I have had colleagues (in other science departments here at the University of Delaware) tell me that when it comes to tenure decisions in their departments, research counts 97%, teaching counts 2% and service counts 1%. I hope this is changing, but I am not at all sure.

Female Science Professor said...

It is definitely changing. For tenure, one can be a mediocre teacher, but not an abysmal one. A more difficult situation these days re. tenure decisions is when a professor is a great teacher and a mediocre researcher.

Anonymous said...

To me, professorial describes someone with deep knowledge of a topic or even someone who can explain things. These are not obviously bad things.

A professor stands in front of a class out of common agreement to impart knowledge. The quality of his/her knowledge is more or less taken for granted.

A candidate, in contrast, is there to convince the voters of the soundness of his/her ideas. In that he/she is more of a salesperson than a teacher.

That is why is bad for a candidate to be professorial. The message should be "this is why I have to offer to you the voter" (salesperson) and not "let me tell you how, to the best of our knowledge, we think things are" (professor).

Anonymous said...

It is definitely changing. For tenure, one can be a mediocre teacher, but not an abysmal one. A more difficult situation these days re. tenure decisions is when a professor is a great teacher and a mediocre researcher.

This is very context dependent. In basic science departments at medical schools, teaching means zero, zilch, nada to promotion/tenure decision-making.

Female Science Professor said...

The distinction blurs when you teach a large introductory science class. You have to convince your audience (at some universities, students are even referred to as 'clients') that what you are teaching/selling them is interesting and important. You have to be as clear and compelling as possible. At the end of the term, there is an election/evaluation, upon which your career (or at least a possible raise) may depend.

Female Science Professor said...

I have been on committees that evaluate medical school faculty so I know that teaching is less important in the medical school, but I have increasingly seen evaluations of medical school faculty try to emphasize their teaching. Ten years ago, teaching wouldn't even have been mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I think it could have something to do with the fact that the Government Education system has allowed/encouraged this idea that everyone should be normal.

This seems to be unique to American culture.

Tell someone in the good ol' USofA that they are not normal and they will be offended, yet if you think about it Michael Jordan is not normal (there is nothing normal about being able to fly up in the air as if gravity didn't apply to you), neither was Mozart, Albert Einstein, Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps

Ironically all of these people are widely admired for their outstanding (abnormal) qualities by the very same people who so cherish their personal normalcy.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

The one I find most alarming is that links his alleged professorial demeanor with being "far too analytical."

I mean, this guy is running for president, right? Isn't analytical a good thing?

I just can't watch.

Anonymous said...

Not quite following the race, just to post my impressions: I perceive Obama as warm and emotional in a good way, also as very wise and professional. On the other hand, I find McCain un-necessarily pompous and absolutely not a peoples' person.

It is surprising to read that the US public may perceive Obama as the cold and pompous candidate, and McCain as the warm and emotional one. Maybe diferences in perceiving things are there because I am in science, or maybe because I am European.

Btw, up to reading this post I had no idea Obama is/was a professor.

sandy shoes said...

"Too professorial," "too analytical" -- right. Why mess up a good self-righteous ideology with all that pesky thinking, after all.

I see a lot of smug anti-intellectualism around lately. I wonder when analytical thinking became something to criticize, or even deride?

Maybe Sarah Palin is exactly what they want. I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I think these are just old-fashioned negative stereotypes about professors. They probably have an inkling of truth or basis in historical fact, but are not particularly accurate or relevant today except for the ways they continue to influence public perception of professors (and our language, apparently). Everyone can imagine some kind of stuffy, old, white, male professor prototype, right?

I don't think any of my professors in grad school or in undergrad (at a small liberal art college) have been particularly aloof, but then again it would never have occurred to me to describe them as "professorial" either.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately cutting down tall poppies is not just an American thing. It is also very prevalent in my country on the other side of the world, where people also find being "over-intellectual" rather offputting. I think the problem, as other commentators have pointed out, is that lack of emotion in an argument is perceived to mean that the person arguing has no feelings.

That said, it is true here that there are large numbers of professors (although I think not the majority) who have difficulty communicating well in ways that non-academics can understand. although the emphasis has certainly shifted towards effective communication.

Anonymous said...

I was struck by Global girls comments and those of others, who suggest that professors are aloof in their personal interactions with them. In what context have they interacted with us?

I teach and do research at a research I University. I love teaching and also like interacting with students, and think 80% of my colleagues basically agree. I have frequent scheduled office hours for each of my classes. and like that sort of one-on-one interaction. However, this term is typical of most--thus far 1 student have come once. Who is aloof in this situation?

In dealing with my own graduate students I strive to be professional. That does not mean I do not care about them as people. As FSP knows from her own experience, we invest a LOT in each of our students, and not all of this is apparent on the surface. This is even more apparent when I am on a thesis advisory committee. If I am engaged, following the work, reading paper drafts, writing lots of letters of recommendation, yet have high expectations for the student, I am perceived as a tough guy, while the person who sleeps through their committee meeting is nice. Again, who is being aloof?

Mark P

Global Girl said...

Mark P -

I am not talking about professional, academic interactions at all, nor am I talking about office hour attendance.

What I am trying to say is that I don't know the hobbies of a single professor I've met at my BigU. When I've tried to chat about personal things, (as opposed to being engaged, following the work, reading paper drafts, writing lots of letters of recommendation, yet have high expectations for the student) it has been very clearly indicated to me that nobody on my committee including my advisor is interested in such discussion. I know the ex-director of my consulting firm (whom I met maybe five times) better than my own advisor.

I do not know what they like doing, what about their jobs that gets them out of bed every morning, what really annoys them, nothing except formal communications like the ones you describe. You may not be like this - for all I know, your university IS better. However, my experience has been that despite home visits, chit-chat while waiting for meetings, trying to open up about my own hobbies, my likes, whatever, I have not gotten a response from any professors.

Anonymous said...

Global Girl, I understand what you are saying. To look at it a different way, maybe the profs don't have time for any hobbies? I certainly don't. And as much as I like my students, I can't engage in long conversations with them between classes (outside of office hours) as there is just too much to do all the time. I wish it weren't that way, believe me.

Anonymous said...

"Too professorial" is code-speak. First, it evokes the rampant strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through America. Second, there has been a major effort over the last several years to paint America's professoriate as a bastion of left-wing radical liberal secular humanism that is brainwashing our nation's children with their evil social justice agenda, i.e. everything good God-fearing evangelical Christian rightwingers oppose. So calling Obama "too professorial" is tarring him with that brush.

Anonymous said...

and that is why i love "alternative" news and information sources such as this blog...because nobody is too professorial or too anything, except in lazy, agenda-driven journalism