Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Being an Academic

What differentiates academics from other professions? In some form or another, academics are associated with knowledge and expertise in a more or less narrow field of research. There exists the popular stereotype of academics being pure theoreticians, not being aware of or connected to people’s everyday life and problems. The metaphor of the ivory tower usually comes up at this point. I won’t make any judgment about this clearly untruthful perception, but will try to give my personal view of how we academics sustain this stereotype.
Starting with the notion that every person (this includes academics!) strives for a positive self-concept, I assume that academics define a good part of their self-concept by drawing on their expertise. To convince others of their knowledgeability, academics tend to give sustained analyses and normative advice when it comes to a discussion related to their field of research. In my case this is stakeholder theory and often leads me to act like a real know-it-all followed by a deadlock in a heated discussion. Let me give you two illustrations:
The first example is an argument I had with a bank manager about value creation of Swiss banks for society at large. Trying to present myself as a knowledgeable person regarding this issue, I was arguing that Swiss banks are destroying societal trust by engaging in ethically questionable business practices. The result of this reasoning was, of course, making my counterpart an advocate of the Swiss banks. My striving to present myself as a competent person ended up by the bank manager explaining me with a wagging finger how the banking business really works and that my perspective is a pure academic one.
The second example is related to a discussion about maximizing profits with a friend of mine who works as an electrician. Although my friend started the conversation with the words “You as a theoretician…”, I had no reason to strengthen my self-concept by taking the role of an academic. The discussion ended with me having learned quite a bit about how business works for electricians, and him becoming acquainted with another perspective on maximizing profits.
Having a lot of experience in the types of interactions given in the first example, I am now trying hard to establish more discourse-oriented discussions when it comes to an issue related to my field of research. This is somewhat threatening my positive self-concept, because I have to drop my own stereotype of academics. Two things are helping me: First, the quote by Socrates “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” and, second, the knowing that in the end, academics are always right.

Tom Schneider

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