Friday, 20 July 2012

It's not what you know…

I've long suspected that academic credibility is less about what you know and  more about the discourse you use to express yourself - at conferences, on paper and in lectures. Not everybody, of course, but there's certainly an academic style we have to learn. It's like joining a street gang, only instead of learning terms for crack and guns, we pick up a lingo centred on critical theory, in my field. Can't bandy about 'abjection', 'alterity' and 'Otherness'? You're not in the club then.

Imagine my joy to find that it's a measurable notion known as the plausibility effect:

In 1973 a group of academics noticed that student ratings of teachers often seemed to depend more on personality than educational content. They wanted to find out how far this effect could be stretched: what if you had an impressive, charismatic and witty lecturer, who knew nothing at all about the subject on which they were lecturing? Could plausibility alone make an audience feel satisfied that they had learned something, even if the information delivered was deliberately inconsistent, irrelevant, and even meaningless?
They hired a large, affable gentleman who “looked distinguished and sounded authoritative”. They called him “Dr Myron L Fox” and he was given a long, impressive, and fictitious CV. Dr Fox was an authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour.
They slipped Dr Fox on to the programme at an academic conference on medical education. His audience was made up of doctors, healthcare workers, and academics. The title of his lecture was Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education. Dr Fox filled his lecture and his question and answer session with double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and mutually contradictory statements. This was interspersed with elaborate diversions into parenthetical humour and “meaningless references to unrelated topics”. It’s the kind of education you pay good money for in the UK.
The lecture went down well. At the end, a questionnaire was distributed and every person in the audience gave significantly more favourable than unfavourable feedback. The comments were gushing, and yet thoughtful: “excellent presentation, enjoyed listening”, “good flow, seems enthusiastic”, and “too intellectual a presentation, my orientation is more pragmatic”.
The researchers repeated the performance. Time and again they got the same result: the third group consisted of 33 people on a graduate-level university educational philosophy course. Twenty-one had postgraduate qualifications. They loved it: “extremely articulate”, “good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before”, “articulate”, and “knowledgable”, they said.

It's worse online: we ban Wikipedia for students not because the content is poor (sometimes it's excellent) but because our students don't yet have the critical ability to spot the difference between reliably good content and authoritative-sounding content. Anyone, once they've learned the code, can sound like an expert.

I had a long-running argument with some Turkish creationists and the university about this a couple of years ago. They were medical doctors, and made great play of using their titles to establish scientific credibility. They hired a room at the university - via the Student Islamic Society - and the flyers bore the university logo so that it looked like Drs Babuna and Gundogdu were approved and respected researchers (which they weren't) and used the discourse of science to make fundamentally unscientific claims. In the discussion, the students split between those who believed that these two were proper scientists, and those who believed that the university was a secular plot to discredit these people - for the latter, the whole structure of science and education was a deceitful exercise, despite the fact that they were doing degrees.

At university, being an academic is partly a performance: look too young, too shy or 'not right' and credibility is hard to establish. Unfortunately, these criteria tend to be open to discrimination, based on people's ideas of what an academic looks or sounds like - traditionally white, male and posh - these creationists weren't white but they'd clearly thought carefully about how to seem authoritative. One of my colleagues, someone who is naturally very brilliant indeed, felt that she wasn't convincing her students because she looked so young, was enthusiastic and was an hourly-paid lecturer rather than a full member of staff. 'Aha', thought a kindly colleague. 'I'll demonstrate X's expertise by popping into her class to ask her something about her specialism. Unfortunately, between his accent and her hearing, she misunderstood what he said and the whole exchange convinced the students that the pair of them were mad chancers. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

There's a flip-side to this too: lots of us feel like we're always on the verge of being unmasked as frauds by the people who know better, even though everyone feels the same and sufferers usually are experts. It's called impostor syndrome. I haven't got it - but only because I am actually an impostor. I managed to scrape the PhD and it's worn me out. Nothing more to give. As the Vice-Chancellor reads this, I'll expect the P45 in the post by Monday.

I taught in seven subjects for a while, as an HPL: I never let on that I wasn't an expert or an employee, and usually got away with it. It's a bit depressing that personality is the basis on which we make judgements. Here at the Hegemon we don't do formal titles, gowns and all the other paraphernalia of the linear or hierarchical educational model - we see education as more collaborative than that, and establish our credibility in other ways. Well, I hope we do, I've no idea whether I'm any more credible than the fact that I'm the one standing at the front of the class. One of my other colleagues tells the story of doing a lecture in the early days of his PhD, when he was better known on campus as the SU barman. He wandered in, went to the front, opened his mouth only to be interrupted by a chorus of people whispering 'the barman's doing the lecture!'.

I don't really feel the need for formal credibility, and definitely don't think that academics should get it simply for being the bloke at the front of the class: we should earn it by engaging in debate with students (rather different from high-handedly putting them down, as one or two of my own teachers did). We deserve a degree of respect on the basis that we've had the time and space to think about things they're only just starting out with, but that's as far as it should go.

So students - what's your criteria?

1 comment:

The Red Witch said...

@I've long suspected that academic credibility is less about what you know and more about the discourse you use to express yourself.

I agree. You are definitely discouraged from having an individual style even though speaking with your own voice would give your prof the confidence that you have not plagiarized your essay.