Irina Dumitrescu, a professor of English and medieval studies at the University of Bonn, offers some thoughts about the incentives for academics not to rock the boat in “The Frenzied Folly of Professorial Groupthink” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 16, 2022).
North American academic culture (especially in the humanities) thrives on revolutionary rhetoric: Its stars are those who can think in new ways, intellectual radicals ready to overthrow past orthodoxies. It would seem to follow that the more successful a scholar becomes, the more capable they are of breaking away from the herd. The opposite is true. Years of apprenticeship and evaluation on the way to a tenured position, along with the extended emotional adolescence this experience fosters, render academics docile. We learn to anticipate the reactions our superiors will have to our work, our teaching, even to the way we spend our free time. We learn to ward off potential criticism, especially from those whose scholarly work intersects with our own, since it is their opinions that will count the most for continued employment. We rebel only in ways we know will be palatable to a substantial cohort of our peers. True iconoclasts have a tendency of finding their way to the door.
It would be hard to prove it, but I suspect that academe’s inclination toward groupthink has been made worse by a series of developments in the past decades. The collapse of the academic-job market means scholars spend a lengthy amount of time on the defensive. The growth of the grant system in the humanities extends this survival mode beyond tenure, since peers review grant applications and can use that influence to pursue their political ends and settle personal scores.
The most powerful factor, however, is social media. Scholars who might have presented themselves to their field only a few times a year at conferences now spend enormous amounts of energy crafting and maintaining public profiles, some of which are visible to the entire world. The marriage of social media and university life is not always a happy one. Academe used to have spaces that were primarily devoted to experimentation: The classroom and the conference allowed people to try out new ideas, face opposition (friendly or not), and sharpen arguments accordingly. Now, both classroom instruction and conference presentations can be made available to the general public in real time. Even when well-intended, this immediate translation to the public sphere means that scholars are justifiably anxious about presenting work that is vulnerable to attack. …
Social media can be used to spread news about a new article or book, but also invites immediate commentary. I have seen scholars tearing apart a colleague’s book online right after publication, before they could have had time even to read the entire work — thus shaping the field’s perception of it long before anyone else had a chance to make up their own mind. Even the harshest reviews used to take a year or two to go to press. The awareness that any intellectual position can be, within minutes, reduced to a flat caricature and widely denounced leads to a reasonable unwillingness to express independent thought.