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.