“I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”: Narcissism in Academia

FormbyPoor old George Formby. A difficult life, in the end, punctuated with a glimpse of what it might have been to be a National Treasure as the ukulele-stranging buffoon in 1930s and 40s films. His shtick was that he was no leader at all; he was a hapless everyman who accidentally won the girl. The chorus from one of his most famous songs – When I’m Cleaning Windows – caws, “I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”. You didn’t though, George, did you? You fell off it. The song pushed the boundaries of decency too far for the BBC at the time (there were risqué lyrics about ladies’ nighties) and they banned it! Things went downhill after that.

Now, George Formby sang about what he saw when looking through windows, but (metaphorically) in his career he spent too much time focusing on the reflected image, an inflated sense of his own talent. After a series of post war cinematic failures and unrealistic wage demands, he ended up an embittered, end-of-the-pier act in Cleethorpes. I’ve always felt window cleaners are an “at risk group” for narcissism – staring at your face reflected in a flat sheet of glass all day could certainly trigger unhealthy self-obsession. But are there other at-risk professions? Hairdressers? I don’t know, but I reckon we ought to include academics in any list. A long focus on your own ideas, reading and re-reading your own work, lecturing (performing?) to large groups of students writing down everything you say. And many academics have developed an “I am right, the world is wrong” coping mechanism to maintain self-esteem in light of negative reviewer feedback on papers and grant submissions.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we are in the midst of an epidemic of narcissism. Sure, the internet and social media are a potential part of this (more below). And who, honestly, can say there is not at least one borderline narcissist in their department or university?

Narcissists come in two flavours. There are vulnerable narcissists, who seek constant affirmation for themselves, swinging between feelings of inferiority and superiority. They cannot understand, and become emotionally sensitive, when the world does not treat them like royalty. However, there is very definitely no such problem with inferiority for grandiose narcissists. The world is collapsing around them but they don’t know, they don’t care. For the grandiose narcissist, the world will always be just tickety-boo so long as they’re in it (and others, who are to blame for its woes, are out)!Narcissus&Echo

There are a few ways to spot a narcissist: they often need a small clutch of admirers (and they want them physically close by), literally love the sound of their own voice and are preoccupied with power in interaction. Decisions are impulsive and at best inconsistent; dissenters subject to an auto-da-fé. And narcissists really cannot handle rejection or being passed over for a promotion.

One advantage of the rise of social media is that narcissists may be easier to spot. Psychcentral advises how to spot a narcissist on Facebook but the rules probably apply equally well to other social media. Narcissists have a high turnover of friends because anyone critical or failing to support the narcissism is quickly unfriended. Their posts are often grand or even pompous, commenting on some high moral or political matter that is way beyond their sphere of influence, but horribly repetitive and limited to a rather narrow set of issues. These posts are often reactionary and lack detail or a nuanced understanding. And they will twist others’ posts to present them as support for their position.

I have my own theory/approach to diagnosis online, and a little test. Try it yourself. Look at someone’s social media posts on politics, a major national issue or major news story. Do they talk about themselves, how they’re single-handedly leading the charge? Are they doing it a lot? Are they espousing values, ideas or behaviours that seem completely at odds with how they operate on a day-to-day Ievel in the workplace? If so, you’ve got yourself a narcissist!

It’s bad news if a narcissist becomes your boss. Not all are on the Kim Jong Un scale of things, but I’ve heard tales of some who come close in academic life! Whether it’s a PhD supervisor, PI, Head of Department or Dean (I’ve had myself tested, I’m in the clear, by the way) three things will happen. First, everything starts to fall apart – finances go awry and targets are missed, NSS scores down, grant income flat-lining – because narcissists are fixated on themselves, not the job at hand. Then, second, others make their moves: people start to leave, some completely disengage, and others (the toxic ones) will do their best to enable the narcissism… but that can’t last because no one can feed an insatiable beast forever. And third, in the end, the narcissism implodes. This always happens, although the quality of the fireworks show varies. But, by then, the damage has already been done and you find yourself weeping, as the jangled echoes of a ukulele float out to sea from the end of the pier in Cleethorpes.

The Parable of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

RuthWakefieldIt’s 1937 (or 1938 according to some sources), and Ruth Graves Wakefield was milling around the kitchen in the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Mrs Wakefield ran a popular restaurant serving home-cooked fare, and was a dietician and a food lecturer, noted for her desserts. It was a blustery autumn evening, and Ruth was distracted and running out of time. We can’t be certain, but maybe she was recovering from a particularly vigourous Charleston the night before, or trying to calm down after a frustrating argument with her husband Kenneth about the shopping, or maybe the rise of Nazism or something like that? That is, after all, how people spent their evenings when they couldn’t just crash out on the sofa with a Charlie Bigham ready meal and a couple of episodes of the Great British Bake Off to catch up on.

In preparation for the next day’s menu, Ruth was whipping up a batch of her “Chocolate Butter Drop Do” (sic) cookies. We do not know what the feckless Kenneth was up to at the time. Perhaps he is for ever destined to be remembered as a misunderstood Renaissance man? Perhaps he was reading Kierkegaard or embroidering a cushion. Perhaps he too was nursing a stiff back as a result of the previous night’s Charleston. Or maybe he was sitting by the fire having a fag with the boys and working his way through a large box of Nestlé chocolate that had appeared on the sideboard, and a bottle of slugger McGee’s homebrew to help ease them through a conversation about the moral decline of society, the younger generation, and his wife’s god-awful Butterdrop cookies. Maybe some of the usual locker room stuff too, you know…

In fact, it may well have been that box of chocolate that triggered the argument. Earlier in the day a dashing young man by the name of Andrew Nestlé had called on the house offering Ruth a free sample of his company’s latest product. Maybe the beguiling Andrew stayed a little longer than was strictly necessary to pass on a box of freebies. Maybe Kenneth’s shackles were raised by the young man’s exotic surname complete with an accent on the final letter. Such pretensions probably didn’t go down too well in 1930s rural Massachusetts and still, today, if Donald Trump gets together a list of people to fling back over the wall, anyone with a surname that deviates from standard Anglo-Saxon scripts is likely to find themself on one list or another.

Ruth was starting to panic. Kenneth had returned from his shopping expedition with little more than the standard dough ingredients and assorted salty snacks for the booze session he had planned that evening. But her customers would be eagerly anticipating the chocolate cookies and she had spent the last two hours searching in vain for cocoa powder. She warily sidled into the living room where slugger appeared no longer to be wearing any pants and Kenneth was doing his hilarious Franklin D Roosevelt impression. She remembered the gift she had received earlier in the day from the delightful Andrew. While the contents of the box were significantly depleted there was still enough chocolate left to give her the chance to pull things back round with the cookies. She took them back to the kitchen, broke them into little pieces, and added them to the dough thinking the chocolate would melt into the mixture.

At this stage Ruth herself was already half a bottle of gin down and, trusting her redoubtable skills as a baker thought, “to heck with this, I’ll just make them anyway”. What emerged from the oven became the world’s first batch of chocolate chip cookies. Today 7 billion chocolate chip cookies are eaten in the US alone every year. These days, and even then if she’d had the nous, this sort of invention would have been patented, branded, and Peter Jones would have made a Dragon’s Den offer while pontificating about his unrivaled access to supermarket buyers across the known universe. However, and I like her for this, Mrs Wakefield decided instead to sell the recipe to the Nestlé family in return for a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. Or maybe Kenneth had input into the terms of the payoff?


The moral of this story? Well, there are several. First, a dysfunctional home life can be a productive environment for business. Second, always open the door to strange French sounding people bringing you chocolate. (No, don’t do this, especially with Halloween coming up… and especially if they’re dressed as a clown… terrifying!) Third, necessity can be the mother of invention and serendipity can sometimes be the child of informed experimentation. And the higher education point in all of this? Well, one of my first blogs was critical of new ideas about introducing registered reports into grant writing and publishing science. Of course good science needs a plan. But good science needs good scientists more than that. If we close our world off to invention, creativity and, yes, serendipity we can impoverish the field. Open science means open minds and opportunity for all.

Academic Job Adverts, Deconstructed

In celebration of the return of The Apprentice to the BBC last week, I thought I’d give my take on many of the academic job adverts we see. Such adverts give an opportunity for unfettered spin, and sometimes downright misrepresentation. Below, from a recent trawl of psychology job adverts – none from King’s, I hasten to add – I’ve tried my best to translate “what they say” into “what they mean”. Enjoy…


What it says:  “Applications are invited for the post of Lecturer”

And what it means: The Dean made us take an extra 50 students through clearing and we urgently need someone to take the strain while we work out how we are going to fit them all into the slightly soiled portacabins they craned in from a TKMaxx in Peterborough. We’re framing this as an invitation as a courtesy but, to be frank, if you’ve got any nous you’ll realise we’re not asking you to come to a party.

“This is a temporary post for a researcher with a track record of high quality publications and the potential for substantial grant income.” – Listen, Cinderella, even if this was a party, it has a strict ‘carriages at midnight’ clause. It’s not like anyone planned for 50 more students, is it? We don’t actually plan anything any more. Who knows where we’ll be in 2 years? You won’t even be around long enough for probation… get the hint? And if you’re wondering what “track record” means; we’re hoping if you’ve battled through adversity in your post doc and developed sufficient resilience to cope with that, you might just handle the marking and personal tutee load we’ve got lined up for you…

“You will join a department that is a global leader in the field, 7th in the UK Research Excellent Framework (REF2014).” – Ah… statistics…. We’re also the 3rd best in Wessex, and the 2nd best university beginning with the letter ‘T’ in England, but we don’t shout about that so much, do we? If you manage to stay here long enough you’ll realise that these stats work for us like soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while we’re on the topic, of course it’s entirely coincidental that this contract ends just before the expected census date for the next REF. Please don’t ask about that in interview.

“The department has the latest, state of the art equipment” – Well art is a very subjective thing, isn’t it? Some people like Botticelli, some like Pollock. We’re more at the arts and crafts end of things here… more “Kirsty Allsopp’s Handmade Fair” than Turner Prize. No one really wants a pickled shark in formaldehyde or Tracey Emin’s dirty bed in their place of work, do they?

“Shared access to an fMRI scanner” – shared access, like when those neighbour disputes turn nasty because someone can only get to their house by driving through someone else’s front garden and they build a wall across it. Like, that kind of shared.

“A driving simulator” – a 24 inch monitor and the discarded Mariocart steering wheel from a Nintendo Wii… It’s a few years old now but its main claim to fame is that it was used in a study that got them to reduce the speed limit in a housing estate in Portsmouth. Its sentimental value really, and we’ve got nothing else to put in the room, so…

“An observation lab” – a room.

“Our beautiful, rural campus” – you’re going to need to get a car, and did we mention we charge staff for parking? That landfill site next to the Engineering building will be a lovely park, decorated with interesting plastic tubes to release the methane – a bit like Telly Tubby Land – in about 20 years’ time.

“Our exciting, city centre campus” – it’s certainly “exciting” … there’s a security guard on reception for a reason!

“Our award winning new building” – Open plan office…

open plan

“Successful applicants should possess the skills needed to teach across a range of areas. They should be enthusiastic about contributing to teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.” – Here’s the money shot. You are going to walk in to a stack load of teaching, marking, personal tutees, and all the other stuff the rest of us here would rather not do. If you can shoulder that with the veneer of enthusiasm and generally not upset the apple cart too much we’d appreciate it. Of course, we are hoping you do a good job. If you don’t, you can be sure, you’ll be taking the rap for that.

Sexy Learning… and Student Satisfaction

Hands up, I admit it, I was wrong. After I wrote some time ago that a sexy or eye-catching title is often not a good idea I am going to eat those words (or at least some of them). A few days ago I was sent on an analysis of web traffic to my blog and it turns out that the one with the highest number of reads was “Sexy Science and Friends with Benefits“. It’s nice to get concrete proof, of course, that I have readers. But that one? Not the one about the media and psychology, Brexit, or even my stream-of-consciousness rant on leadership? What is lingering in the back of my mind is the possibility that it wasn’t the words or even the title as much as the picture of Ashley and Pudsy that drew people in. Ah well, we are never too old to learn. Time again this week, I feel, to give the public what they want.

Cameron Diaz Bad Teacher 2If you’ve read this far then it is time to refer you again to the take-home message of my previous blog on sexy titles which was that, while such a title might work as a hook to garner interest, if the subsequent text fails to deliver on its promise the reader can end up disappointed. In the interests of consistency and accuracy I’m going upfront with the disclaimer: the sex bit in this title is pretty much (not entirely) a shameless attempt to beat my previous high-score on web hits. The rest of this blog is about students’ learning and its relationship with satisfaction and lecturer likeability.

And if you’ve read this far (and thank you for that) I am going to reward you now with the current take-home message which is that, of course, there is no such relationship. Yet someone saw fit to explore whether students learn more from lecturers they like. And that got Twitter “likes” (what irony!) from a predictable array of swivel-eyed reactionaries who seem to take the view that you define what you are (a scientist) by repeatedly saying what you are not (an educator). That of course is about as rational as believing that you enhance your credentials as an Englishman by banging on about not being Scottish. For more on this see lecture 101 on 5-year-olds’ understanding of intergroup dynamics, or try to imagine a dinner-party conversation between Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

I digress… Of course there is no consistent relationship between learning and how much students like their teachers. As if life was that simple? For a start we all know people are more likely to be fooled by an attractive person than an unattractive one, often against their better instincts. In such cases we must hope the scales drop from our eyes. There is also the “cool teacher” effect which was brilliantly captured in a series of sketches from Lee and Herring on Fist of Fun: last day of term, Richard Herring bores his class of disenchanted adolescents with the prospect of a game of hangman, whereas Stuart Lee locks his classroom door and kicks proceedings off with, “In the filing cabinet there’s a crate of lager for the boys and Babycham for the girls… bottom drawer, Suzanna”


It’s also plainly true that you cannot like someone very much but still benefit from your interaction with them. I’m not expecting to become bosom buddies with the bloke from CarGiant who recently sold me a second-hand Ford Galaxy, but he still gave me a car that works. And I’m satisfied with it.

Students aren’t stupid. They want to learn. Like the rest of us they also want and deserve to be respected. And, like the rest of us, they can pick up when they’re not respected and inevitably don’t find that very satisfying. There are still some in academia who take the view that students should be grateful just to be there and should shut up, get on with it, and not expect to enjoy themselves. But learning has never been and can never be a solipsistic endeavour. Students aren’t rating their learning anyway, they’re rating their teaching!

It’s a fair point to say that TEF metrics based purely on student satisfaction ratings are misguided. But it’s also fair to say that student satisfaction is only one element in the proposals. If you want to assess learning outcomes and compare them objectively across the HE system, you would need to transform the current system of external examiners and head towards some sort of homogenous curriculum. What follows from that is diminished institutional autonomy and I don’t think we want that, do we?

I’m feeling bad now about this blog’s title. Maybe I’m leaving you dissatisfied? In my defence, the initial idea was to talk about how lecturer likeability (which I was going to imply is akin to sexiness) was not linked to student satisfaction. I concede I haven’t yet made the link between sexiness and likeability. And of course there is no consistent link there either. That I was going to suggest there is reflects my own malfunctioning cognition. I’ll work on that, and for next week I’ll work on finding a title that might beat my high-score without exploiting lower common denominators. Please come back!