Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Academic Bully: Symptoms and Diagnosis

In academia, we have a variety of adept psychological bullies. In this two-part series, I will focus on the "academic bully". The best way to describe this syndrome is through example, so I am using an interaction described by FSP on her blog:

When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much".

This is what I would call a text-book example of the "insulting academic bully" syndrome. This is not to be confused with aggressive scientific questioning, though there is a variant of the academic bully syndrome that can masquerade as valid scientific questioning: the "scientific academic bully". For a good example of this you should read acmegirl's description of interacting with a scientific academic bully at her poster presentation. It's classic.

Regardless of the variant, the Academic Bully is someone who says aggressive, bullying things that under normal rules of social engagement would not be acceptable to say and then uses those same rules of conduct to hamstring the other person. It's similar to the boyfriend who breaks up with his girlfriend in a restaurant to avoid a "scene" - they manipulate a social interaction so that they can do something unpleasant AND the other person feels they cannot respond because they might look bad. However, unlike the boyfriend who dumps you and is gone, once an academic bully realizes you will play by social norms, they are a bit like the Energizer Bunny - they just keep going.

How do I know? I had a friend who was an Academic Bully and he told me this was the case. I know, it sounds like "friend" and "Academic Bully", seem like they should not be in the same sentence unless there's a "not" in there, but he was an unusual academic bully (I've met lots of them, so I know of what I speak). I think he was conducting a social experiment - how far can you push someone before they finally abandon the constraint of accepted social conduct? If you stood up to him he was your loyal friend for life...if not, well...He once told me that he continued tormenting a person in our lab because he (the victim) would never just tell him (the Academic Bully) off no matter how out of line he (the Academic Bully) was. He told me all this after I just couldn't take him any more and told him he was being a tool and if he didn't shut up I would kill him, discard his corpse in a dumpster and tell his wife he ran off with an undergrad cheerleader....details of my response have been altered to protect my identity, but it shockingly wasn't that far off. We were great friends after that.

My friend was what I would call a "benign" Academic Bully (the word benign is used here not to denote approval, but in the more medical sense, since you often still have benign growths removed). His bullying had nothing to do with gender or ethnicity, was focused on the "older" members of the lab who he thought should be able to defend themselves (ie. other postdocs and senior grad students), and was confined to scientific issues. "Cancerous" Academic Bullies also exist. They only exhibit symptoms towards women and/or minorities and the intent is to undermine the victim's self-esteem and make them doubt their own worthiness, intelligence, and/or accomplishments. I have run into numerous examples of both during my career. For those of you who follow Adventures in Ethics and Science, these syndromes are analogous to the spherical vs asymmetrical bastards concept.

So, having discussed the definition and symptoms of the academic bully, you think you have diagnosed your bully and wish to apply some remedy to their illness. Perhaps you are hoping for some ointment, pill, or even electric shock therapy that will cure them once and for all. Unfortunately, if you are unlucky enough to know an Academic Bully, I am sad to say there is no cure for their condition. However, I have found that there are some treatment options that can help keep this person's symptoms in check. Hang in there, and tomorrow I will discuss treatment options and warnings about unexpected side effects.


PhysioProf said...

As I pointed out in the comments to Acmegirl's post that you linked to, the way to deal with academic bullies is to deflect and return their aggression back onto themselves, jiu jitsu-style.

Instead of answering their questions or criticisms, you reflect them by explicitly questioning the assumptions that underly them, and thereby reveal their absence of good faith.

Incidentally, this is something that Democrats seem to totally suck shit at when it comes to dealing with Republican bullying. Republicans say that Democrats are "unpatriotic traitors who hate America". Democrats fall for this shit every time, and fall all over themselves asserting "we are so patriotic", instead of unveiling the despicable bad-faith lies that underlie the entire line of questioning.

Dealing with rhetorical bullies in any context is the same.

BugDoc said...

I know several Academic Bullies who, like your friend, bully in a non-discriminatory way although this tends to upset the women being bullied more than the men. Like your friend, they are often just looking for someone to stand up to them, and bully for entertainment purposes as far as I can tell. These bullies can be deflected per PP's suggestion, but also just by responding to their question in a straightforward and non-inflammatory way. This usually spoils their fun and sends them off looking for a target that is more likely to get flustered. However, sometimes Physioprof's approach is more fun!

Isis the Scientist said...

I think the best way to combat an academic bully is with good, solid science. Not to say that I always take my own advice.

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Drugmonkey said...

I actually tend to think the OP had it best in that these are bullies and just like the best playground advice, standing up to them is the best solution. When someone's being an ass to you, they need to be called.

Of course, if the AB has risen to a position of some significant power over you, it is hard to pull off. But in those cases where the person has only distant influence, call bull. nicely, but firmly.

River Tam said...

I've just posted the second part of the academic bullies, which (I hope) makes clearer my feelings on academic bullies. I feel like the important point is to stand up for yourself and make it clear that you know that they are not behaving in good faith. What I have had to do is figure out a way to do that I can implement in professional settings. I've seen everything from the PhysioProf approach to the verbal punch in nose work. I like the PhysioProf approach, but I'm not always mentally quick enough to implement it.

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Anonymous said...

You can really tell the institutions that set the stage for bullying and those that oppose it. One glaring way to identify those that support and cultivate bullying is to see how administrators respond to the victim and perpetrator. Does the administration generate excuses for actions by colleagues that any reasonable person would view as egregious conduct? I've certainly witnessed that by administrators at Binghamton University. There are all kinds of reasons why the victim of bullying deserved what happened even though what happened violates all their own written material and it violates what most people would consider basic academic principles and rules of conduct. Not only is the atmosphere one that promotes bullying but the administrators join in and withhold grievance processes from victims. Then they claim the victim did not access the appropriate avenues to address the problem-essentially they join right in with the bully. Does that remind you of 3rd grade? Me too.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the 3rd grade problem solving strategy of universities to deal with 'internal problems' places the victim student in a distressing situation. The student is encouraged to solve 'issues' with the bully academic first & foremost. The university supports its own staff FIRST AND FOREMOST! If a victim student is a Phd candidate being supervised by a bullying professor, what support is available? 0. Bullying by professors is rife. Then again, karma's a bitch!!!

Anonymous said...

For any students (especially Phd candidates who have to work one-on-one with professors) in the above situation who are reading, may you find the strength, courage,conviction and peace to stand up for yourself, speak your truth and confront the bully academic about their behaviour. Believe me, karma will take care of the rest!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned bullying by graduate students directed toward older academics. In my experience, it is usually an older academic of dubious status, e.g. adjunct or visiting scholar, who has the honor of being attacked by a graduate student. My take on this is that the student is bullying a soft target as a means of announcing or solidifying their own social status. "See! I can bully someone older. That means I'm an up-and-coming superstar!" On the other hand, it can take many different forms. I've seen bullying from senior people whose status is totally secure.

Unknown said...

Hello! Undergrad here planning for a BS in electrical engineering here...My "intro to sociology" professor is a complete left wing that believes Caucasians aren't subjected to social/racial discrimination and segregation. He also loves to have his class "pets" we'll call them.... help further alienate and shut you down in a debate that he ends up visibly getting upset and raising his voice when you actually challenge his point of views WITH STATISTICS, while on his soapbox preaching to his little choir. Is it just wise to just smile and nod at this point? Because we had argued in class about the child "Ammon" being arrested solely for his name, race, culture and religion. To which I have to ask: aren't teachers trained to look for potential threats like... For instance Ammons clock that looked like an IED, that he brought into school and did not build on site? Tangent... Sorry. I'm honestly worried that I or my property be attacked/damaged by his subordinates and peers. down to a basic level: this guy is just a bully to anyone who challenges his left wing views. Guys, what do?

uberwarlocker said...

Also, a quick fix on the tangent, we had argued that yes I was arrested in high school for wearing armored rings, but I was detained because I was a Caucasian male who dressed in "scary clothing and most likely was a Satanist." But he denies I can be racially segregated just because I'm white. Privileged etc etc... He only reciprocated I was arrested because I refused to give up the rings (which is correct, but the last bell rang ending school.) Did I dig my own hole challenging his views and letting him call me a racist white male for not giving Ammon sympathy?

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