Sunday, September 06, 2009

Greed and Confidence: "Bill Smith, who is at Harvard, . . . "

If there is an actual Bill Smith at Harvard, my apologies because this is not about you. In fact, even if there is a Bill Smith at Harvard, it is not about you. What it is about is the person who says to someone "I was talking to Bill Smith, who is at Harvard, and he says . . . ." Fill in your favorite elitist institution for Harvard. (The extreme version involves using Bill's nickname -- I was talking to Billy at Harvard.") I'm willing to bet that the same person rarely says, "I was talking to Jane Smith, who is at Joe's Law School, and she said . . . ."

I used to ask the speaker, "Why are you telling me Bill Smith is at Harvard?" Typically it was met with the deer in the headlights look. I was way out of bounds. And the question was really not fair. We all know why institutional affiliation is mentioned. It lets you know that the speaker knows someone at Harvard on an informal level. And it is supposed to mean that whatever follows is more likely to be true. What it elicits from me is nausea. And the same goes for name droppers especially those who, within the first 15 minutes, must let you know where he or she went to school. Yes, I am talking about the elite school name dropper. What is actually suggests is a lack of confidence or greediness. The reason why it suggests a lack of confidence is obvious. Why not let your words and thoughts speak for themselves? As for greediness, it means you want more credit than your words and thoughts deserve.

One of my best colleagues has a five star pedigree the existence of which is never revealed. And some of the biggest underachievers have the same pedigree and are quick to mention it. And they are also most likely to mention talking to the aforementioned "Bill Smith." It is amazing how much of their self-esteem turns on something so thin.

Of course it is just good business to promotes oneself by promoting those who have the same brand name pedigree. The place this plays out most is in recruitment. Law School hiring committees are dominated by elite school grads and they hire their clones. Here again we have greed and a lack of self confidence. Greed because it helps those in the club to hire others in the club. Self-confidence issues arise because implicit in hiring decisions is that the decision makers will not hire anyone they had a hand in educating.


Anonymous said...

From a student's perspective, it definitely can be demoralizing when your own Professors obviously don't value the education they are giving you.

Although, there is another possible explanation for this behavior. Elites may assume that students attending non-elite schools simply enter the school with less intellectual capacity than those attending elite schools. Because non-elite students are inherently intellectually less capable than elite students, non-elites can never compete with elites no matter how outstanding of an education non-elites receive from their elite professors.

I think this may be the correct explanation. In my experience, elites rarely lack self-confidence. What many of them lack is empathy and common sense.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

That may be right but how do you explain the fact that they hold that position even after teaching the students for several months or longer? It seems that at some point their assumptions would be sufficiently challenged.

Anonymous said...

Having that assumption challenged would require engagement with students, an open mind, and the ability to self-reflect.

Anonymous said...

So how does one go about effectively promoting oneself to these "elite name dropper" without dropping names?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Don't worry elites seek out their own so they will find you. And if you say something intelligent, not conservative, and not over their heads so much the better.

Still I have seen highly ranked non elites say wonderful things and they are overlooked. And I have heard elite grads say really dumb things that are classified as brilliant and they are pushed by their elite professors who have no problem stretching the truth.

The question is why you would want to promote yourself to people whose though processes are about a quarter of an inch deep. It's a bit like cheating on a test and then feeling good about the grade you get. Or, an attractive woman flirting. Either way you know what you get is not because you deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Don't sell elites short. They have developed a system in which they can continually attract new people who share the same values as them; money and power over honesty and morality. They've also made it extremely difficult for people like us to change it. How would you pull their system down?

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Actually, at many law schools students are on hiring committees. It is important for the students to be vocal. Too many are "impressed" by credentials. In addition, law school administrators are essentially politicians and students are an important interest group. If a teacher does not "relate" or seems elitist, complain loudly and often. Unsolicited letters to deans and university officials do not go unheeded. Deans to do not want to tangle with students. It is not a matter of bringing a system down but incrementally raising the cost of of the existence of the system. Each professor goes through a tenure process in his or her 5th or 6th year. That is a critical time because there will be faculty visitors in the class. A very quiet class or relentless questions about poorly explained concepts can shape the report the observed turns in.