Friday, July 21, 2006


The Curmudgeon Factor

IHE has a piece about a spat at MIT that highlights The Curmudgeon Factor.

Long overdue, I say.

Is any other industry as prone to curmudgeons as academia? They’re thick on the ground in higher ed.

I would define a curmudgeon as someone who is consistently negative and always believes he’s right, even though he never actually offers a positive alternative to anything. He just stands back and criticizes, fairly and unfairly, and generally spreads gloom and frustration in his wake. In my observation, they tend to be older and male (Andy Rooney is the mild version), though that’s not universal or necessary.

What motivates curmudgeons?

Admittedly, we all have a little Andy Rooney in us, and the occasional barbed comment can be both clarifying and refreshing. (One of my faves: in grad school, a usually-decorous colleague read aloud an especially florid paragraph from some Authority Figure that included the phrase “my two cents.” She harrumphed, “I’ll give you a quarter if you just stop writing.” I spat my coffee.) A very small amount of that, carefully crafted and selectively used, is a good thing.

Curmudgeons have no sense of the proper dosage.

I remember a professor in grad school who spent two hours of a seminar discussing the right and wrong ways to yell at secretaries. We kept begging him to come back to the official topic; he declined, saying that this was more important. He also wore a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap with his brown corduroy jacket and too-small oxford shirt, straining at each buttonhole. Yes, he had tenure. In many years of observing him, I never, not once, ever noticed him admit a mistake. His students always took forever to finish their dissertations, since nothing gave him greater pleasure than finding fault with the work of other people.

To my mind, curmudgeons are different from garden-variety eccentrics. Eccentricity is colorful but not harmful – a weird fashion sense, say, or a pronounced fixation on some randomly-chosen piece of cultural detritus. I’ve always imagined the British do ‘eccentric’ better than we do, since they have a more finely-tuned sense of class differences, and more defined (or archaic) rules of etiquette. Given Americans’ denial of class differences and relatively watered-down etiquette, ‘eccentric’ just registers as ‘weird,’ which is nowhere near as interesting.

Curmudgeons are nastier than eccentrics. They insist on exporting their own brand of eccentricity to others, and thinking badly of whomever doesn’t share it, which means, pretty much, everybody. They despise change, even though they complain about the status quo. Whether this stems from disappointment with their lives or some sort of chemical imbalance, I don’t know, but I know they’re toxic and they’re rampant in academe.

The incident in the IHE story shows some of the impact of curmudgeonliness. There, a crabby older tenured professor decided to pitch a hissy fit to keep out a promising, younger, female prospective colleague. The bulk of the article addresses whether younger folk should appease curmudgeons or avoid them, neither of which I find terribly appealing, since in both cases the curmudgeon is indulged and the young folk pay the price.

How do you spray for curmudgeons? How do you prevent infestations? Once they’re entrenched (tenured, say), how do you dislodge them? Any practical ideas would be greatly appreciated.

I'm afraid I have no practical ideas for preventing, managing, or excising curmudgeons. But thanks for articulating exactly what it was that I loathed about my least favorite professor.

I remember writing a paper for her (undergraduate) class that I thought -- no, KNEW -- was some pretty good work. She gave it back and told me to re-write it. I later learned from fellow students that the only way to pass her course is to "write stuff that she agrees with."

If taking just one class with her left such an impression, I pity those who have to WORK with her...
I haven't had too much curmudgeonliness to deal with, myself (I've been lucky), though I notice a certain irony in the fact that you found this article on IHE, whose comments sections are invariably populated with the most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons.

For evidence, just look at all the nastiness around Donald E. Hall's series on-- of all things-- collegiality.
Hm. Bloviating follows.

Total and utter directness might be worth a shot. "Mr. X, now that you've given your complaints, do you have anything to add that might actually help? If not, you can go now."

My experience hasn't been with curmudgeons so much as their cousins, the passive-aggressive. The approach I've found works best for me is to attack the situation with infuriating directness, politeness, and firmness. Curmudgeoning and passive-aggression are toddler behaviors, hissy fits adapted to adulthood; treat it as such. Pretend the Mudge is fourteen and act accordingly.

The problem with the approach is that it's tiring. Curmudgeons and their ilk tend to be hard-set in their ways, and smacking them on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper of awareness takes work. Over and over and over, and each time, you think, "Jesus, can I f'ing stop yet?"

I'd guess this approach could only be done with equals or subordinates, though. If your boss or senior on the job is afflicted with this form of dickheadedness, hm. That's a tangle.

I swear by Infuriating Firm Politeness as the weapon of choice in office-place conflict. It's the deadliest tool in the political arsenal and well suited to skewer the Curmudgeon. Keep a placid surface, keep pleasant, never take digs at people, and refuse to let a Mudge get away with potted answers. Keep talking and cut off easy avenues of escape one by one. Corner them like rats until they come up with something useful or shut the hell up.

Keeping one's cool is difficult in such circumstances, but I assure you, the reward of watching your nemesis panic, unable to retaliate without sacrificing his standing in the eyes of his peers and thus forced to stew in a sludge of his own impotent rage as he watches you win, is so very worth it. Moments like that I clutch to my evil, withered little heart. Your inner voice will cackle like a cartoon witch. Mine does. I'm a bad person.

I have no idea how well any of that applies to academia. Hopefully a little.
Last year I worked for a Curmudgeon. The interesting thing is that, in addition to the characteristics you describe above, he also loved to hire young, female undergraduate and graduate students to work for him. I had to wear ugly, baggy clothes to work because otherwise I got the comment, “you look fantastic in that outfit.” He once even asked me to dump my boyfriend so that I could run away with him instead. Of course if you confronted him about this he would act exasperated, asking me why I couldn’t handle a simple compliment. All this, of course, was in addition to the regular Curmudgeon-like berating I received for both my mistakes and HIS.

One the day I quit I had the floor for 5 minutes to give him a piece of my mind. It felt great to tell him everything that was wrong with him without consequence (he was a prof. in a different department than mine). But the sad thing is I know exactly how he justified my quitting to his other young lady employees: “Graduate students these days just don’t have a sense of a strong work ethic anymore….”
I once had a professor who said the only way to deal with curmudgeons was to implement "Surprise Retirement." Once a tenured professor was in "retirement range" someone else would decide when he (it's usually he, but not always) should retire. Then there would be a party. "Surprise! You're retired!" And, wa la, away he goes.
I strongly believe you are describing some other kind of person than a curmudgeon. The prof with the too-small shirt sounds Aspergerian. And I don’t know of other curmudgeons who attempt to export their “negativity” as you suggest.

In point of fact, curmudgeons, while detail-oriented and so committed to doing things properly that “normals” can’t fathom it, are idealistic and romantic and base their criticisms on the high standards they view as attainable. (Not “they,” we.) We may not have the competence to do a better job than you did (a different scenario from the one you mentioned), but we know it’s possible and even may have an idea of how to do it. So we correct you.

We simply are not the embittered, oblivious, borderline hateful cranks you describe.
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