Professor Expert Syndrome

I’ve become more involved in the workplace the last two months.  As a professor, I decide my degree of service: which committees I get involved in and what work I do toward administrative work.

I had withdrawn a bit the last two years. Prior to my realization and diagnosis of my AD(H)D, I was very involved in teaching-with-technology work, running training sessions, workshops, and serving on committees that help guide the university’s decisions on software and policies, etc.  I got weary of the work, especially because it seemed ever-more demanding of my time with fewer benefits. On a whim in 2008 I applied for a writing sabbatical and got it.  I took it as a sign to focus on my own writing and let the university take care of itself.

I had also reached my limit of back-biting, grousing, and negativity, so I theorized a condition: Professor Expert syndrome.  I have met Professor Experts on my own campus, but also far and wide at the dozens of conferences I’ve travelled to through the years.

Here’s my theory:

After many years of being in a classroom, on committees, and publishing and presenting research, a professor gets used to being the expert. The entire endeavor of teaching and curriculum is structured to defer to the expertise of the professor. While that is as it should be, there is a certain kind of person who after decades of being the expert most of the time starts to believe that he is the expert all of the time. (Professor Expert syndrome correlates strongly with gender.)  Add to that the fact that people gifted in certain areas (intellect) often have deficits in other areas (understanding social cues) and you have conditions for Professor Expert. Here are the symptoms:

  • Willingness to opine at length untempered by actual working knowledge of the subject at hand
  • Interest in talking, but not conversation
  • A great storehouse of opinions on the administration of everything
  • Little actual interest in helping to improve the administration of anything
  • Stunning lack of audience awareness
  • A tendency to conspiracy theories
  • Low tolerance for frustration

If I had to summarize it in a single phrase it would be recreational bitterness mixed with a strong sense of entitlement. (For a description of recreational bitterness, see http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/rebecca-solnit-liberals-leftists-explaining-things.)

The behavior that astounds me most is the compartmentalized thinking: professors who fight against discrimination, stereotyping, essentializing, and overgeneralization in the classroom and the social sphere but are perfectly willing to rail against coworkers and administrators using the very same logical errors.  In other words, engaging in the sort of behavior they constantly condemn in their students, administrators, and politicians.

This syndrome becomes especially virulent when trying to implement new technology on campus. What Professor Expert especially does not like is being exposed as inexpert.  Since there is a strong correlation between years on campus and syndrome pathology, Professor Experts tend not to be as facile with technology as younger faculty.  Getting Professor Experts to come to training sessions or workshops is like getting Donald Trump to agree to a hair makeover.   In order to walk into a training session, workshop, or help session, one has to admit deficiency.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This kind of behavior is discouraging for other faculty to endure. If you know that for every new project you work on there will be strong voices carping behind your back with little relationship between depth of criticism and possession of the facts, you are understandably hesitant to move forward. So, the irony is that the kind of problems Professor Expert likes to complain about are actually perpetuated by his own behavior.

I used to think if I could fix the problems highlighted by Professor Expert, then I could cure the syndrome. But that does not take into account the deeper workings of the syndrome.  You see, Professor Expert does not actually want most problems to be fixed.  The existence of unsolvable problems, particularly those which highlight the incompetence others, is what gives Professor Expert his entire raison detre.  Just like all serial complainers, the act of complaining gives Professor Expert a sense of control and ownership in an uncertain world.

 *     *     *

Most anyone would be frustrated by the existence of these people.  But I try to be able to work with anyone. I try to go beyond “these people” kind of thinking.  I try to understand the layers of what seems like unreasonable behavior.  I try to be mindful, and understand my own reactions.  Why does this kind of behavior get to me?

This kind of person does two things that push my buttons: unending complaint and unfair criticism. It bugs me when people complain about things when there are simple solutions to the problems or the complaint is made in such a way that it is impossible to resolve. For instance, some technology complainers don’t want technology problems to happen and simultaneously do not want technology to change; the only actual solution to that pair of desires is an alternate timeline in which a technological problem did not happen in the first place.  It also bugs me when people criticize based on wrong information.

These tender spots in my personality belie a deeper desire: to make people happy.  This impulse is not altruism, however.  It’s people pleasing, which results from insecurity.  The people-pleasing inner narrative runs like this: I worry that people will not like me.  I must do everything I can to make them like me. If people don’t like me, that will be terrible.  The corollary here is that if I do everything reasonably possible to make people like me and they don’t, then life is pointless because life will be terrible no matter what.  And that makes me angry.  I’ve had most of my life a nagging feeling that I’m going to fail.  People who are never happy are signs that no amount of work on my part may ever be enough.

 *     *     *

So the reason I understand Professor Expert syndrome so well is that I was at real risk of becoming one. When I became a teacher at age 25, I had real doubts about my ability.  I responded by demanding respect.  When I became a young professor, I had a strong sense of entitlement. I could carp as loudly as anyone about minor grievances. And when I didn’t have the answer to a question I speculated (read: I bullshat).  When my odd work habits started to overtake me, I shut down.  My AD(H)D meant that I grew steadily worse at meeting deadlines and managing classes.  I grew ever more evasive and withdrawn and defensive. When the stress of life grew to great to manage, I looked around and saw that I was a homeowner and a new parent, a Ph.D. candidate and a professor and a long-distance commuter, and that I had thought that piling all these things on myself was the only way to redeem myself.

My saving grace is that I actually failed.  I did not finish my Ph.D. I found my limit.  It took me a decade to recover, but now I have discovered the right combination of therapies and work habits so that I can feel confident. I don’t entirely blame my disorder.  It certainly made my chances of success lower, but not facing certain problems early enough and not learning from failures were equally to blame.  Having failed and learned and changed makes me confident.

 *     *     *

The one antidote to Professor Expert syndrome is confidence. The syndrome is about arrogance, not confidence. True confidence comes not from avoiding mistakes and worry and criticism, but from managing your responses. Arrogance, in some forms, is a cover for a lack of confidence.

Confidence is the social antidote as well to Professor Experts.  They often turn into bullies. They expect people to placate them, to be sympathetic to their vitriol. But I’ve found directness and honesty penetrates the haze.  If someone writes something unfairly negative online or through other indirect channels, providing evidence and writing in a direct but not mean tone, or even meeting directly with the source has a calming effect.

The greatest gift of Professor Experts is my opportunity to practice mindfulness.  As a point of comparison, I meet with my students all the time individually for conferences. In addition to giving them feedback, I’m able to better understand their points of view, and better able to be honest and direct with them. If a paper turns out badly, we’re able to talk about why and try to figure out what to do to make it better.  It doesn’t always turn out better, but they’re better for the experience. Some of my colleagues said they are too scared to grade student papers in person.  I know that student responses to grades are unrelated to how high they are.  I’ve had students thank me for a D and storm out of my office in disgust with a B+.

With my students, then, I’m not afraid of making mistakes anymore.  It’s a good thing; I make them all the time.  I’m able to own my past, and own my weaknesses.  It’s liberating to say at the beginning of a semester: I have ADHD.  I’m really good at helping you with writing, but I can be forgetful and mix up some details.  If I make a mistake, please tell me because that’s helpful. I’m also able to meet students with complaints on their terms and address complaints easily. My belief is that most professor/student conflicts arise out of misunderstanding.

I’ve begun to apply that to my work outside of the classroom.  I’m working on things now that cause conflict with other professors. When the conflict arises, though, I talk to people directly. It’s simple, really.  One of two things results; the conflict is diffused or the other person withdraws further. I used to be angry about the second response, the person who criticizes me indirectly but is not willing to talk to me directly. I realized that sort of person is not actually interested in conversation anyway, so there is nothing I could do to prevent that behavior, and I don’t need to try.

 *     *     *

I discussed this syndrome at length with a friend at another institution who is experiencing the same sort of behavior and is at a similar stage of his career. He agreed with everything I said and at the end offered this sage question: “We’ve got a good twenty five years left in our careers.  How do we not become them?”

I thought about it, and opined, “Maybe we already have.”

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6 thoughts on “Professor Expert Syndrome

  1. This is a great post! I’ll have to read it again to fully digest it (because, you know, my ADD brain skimmed most of it), but it really hit home both in my experiences as a college student and working with academics and in the broader experience of my own work and life habits. I’m also going to have to pass this along to my mother, a law professor who probably has ADD.

    • I really appreciate what you’ve written. I’m working on figuring out how to deal with individuals in my field (Academic Language Therapist) and find the behaviors are very similar. I spend too much time angry with the behavior of others and equally as angry with myself for “botching” a conversation or asking/talking too much at meetings or presentations. Reading a piece written as articulately as yours has helped me identify what is going on with others (arrogance vs confidence) as well as my own foibles. Trying to have people like me seems to hit the wall because of my bluntness and (sometimes) my lack of keeping my mouth shut when I should. Thanks!

      • Thanks for your comment! For me, understanding that the playing field is not so level makes behaviors easier to understand. I think “blunt” can be either direct or rude depending on the circumstances. There’s never a lack of good material if you’re interested in human behavior and work in higher ed!

  2. Pingback: ADHD: Real or Fake? | Attention Deficit Whatever

  3. Pingback: Professor Expert Award | Attention Deficit Whatever

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