Service of Boring Academicians

January 20th, 2014

Categories: Academics, Communications, Teachers

Professor 2

Wall Street Journal columnist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely answered the query of reader Rachel who among her questions asked: “How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?”

Professor 3Ariely’s reply was a bit longer than this, but the crux: “…..when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called ‘the curse of knowledge.’ We all suffer from this affliction, but it is particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.”

What happened to “know your audience and speak/write accordingly?” Letting academics off the hook like this smacks of condoning laziness with a dash of arrogance and a pinch of smugness. Either that or it translates to “don’t invite academics to speak with anyone outside their specialty,” which would be a shame.

Sometimes it’s the listener’s fault, not the speaker’s. Perhaps they don’t relate. I wasn’t in college long before I discovered what’s obvious: A professor who is dry as burnt toast to some is a fascinating lecturer to others. We all have our Dr. Blackwell. He was a typical absent minded professor who walked into walls, was awkward and long-winded and drove most of my classmates nuts. I found his words riveting and his clumsy ways charming.

Leon Botstein 2You can fill a thimble with what I know about music and yet I understand what the president of Bard College, Dr. Leon Botstein—also a conductor and scholar—says when he lectures an audience at one of his concerts. No doubt he covers different ground in a class of musicians. Botstein, [photo left], an academician if ever there was one, was president of a now-defunct college at 23 and joined Bard in this role before he was 30. He’s now 68.

Do you think that Ariely lets academics off too easily or do you agree with him—that they are what they are, live with it, amen. Do academicians feel pride in not being understood?

Professor 1

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8 Responses to “Service of Boring Academicians”

  1. ASK Said:

    HAH! Don’t get me started….

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    When I did PR for the pharmaceutical industry I found that clinicians and physicians would write up their studies in a convoluted, indecipherable style. I’d call them on the phone to clarify and they’d speak clearly. Hmmmm. Was I supposed to be impressed by their writing?

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Academics are, perhaps more learned, but no different from anyone else. The art of making oneself interesting is not limited to those with advanced degrees. Same goes for the thundering bores among us. All experts are not boring and make themselves perfectly clear. Rachel might do well to improve listening skills, or failing that, not to aggravate herself by listening to those whose words may be far above her educational level.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with you: Communications are communications about which even experts should be mindful. However I also feel that if the speaker was addressing a general audience, he/she owed them an A-1 effort to be clear and interesting.

    We’ve all picked up books that look promising and by the fourth line, our minds have wandered to chores that need doing or phone calls returned. Authors have one advantage: Editors who are gatekeepers to publishing. Academic public speakers most often don’t have anyone to advise them. A student or junior associate of a professor isn’t about to say, “Dr BlahBlah, could you cut out this part and instead share a few examples of thus and such?” and hope to keep their grades or jobs.

  5. Simon Carr Said:

    I’ve also had the privilege of hearing Dr. Leon Botstein lecture on music. I agree with you he is a superb, gripping speaker. On the other hand, while his track record confirms that he has been a great college administrator, people who really know music tell me that he is, at best, a mediocre conductor.

    Speaking of great academic lecturers, they were much in vogue when I was in college. TV was in its infancy, and far greater credit was given to men (there were no women at my college in those days) who could speak well on their feet without notes or prompters of any kind. Their classes attracted audiences then like Downton Abbey does today. I especially remember three of them.

    Roscoe “Rocky” Flint, a geologist, gave a class (ca. 1955) on running out of oil that attracted a standing room only audience to a lecture amphitheatre that sat 500. 250 were his students; the rest were boys like me who went back each year to hear him do it all over again. Each time he got an ovation. In case you are wondering, while the college spent a lot of money making sure we went to class, it never occurred to the powers-that-be that 20 year olds would actually sneak into classes for which they had not signed up. I think Flint enjoyed the adulation.

    Cecil B. Driver, a British political scientist, was a true spellbinder. He taught a class in 20th century European political systems that was always was sold out and drew scores of auditors who stood quietly at the back of the lecture hall for 53 minutes to hear him spout. Again, I do not remember a class that ended without applause and often an ovation.

    The, I believe, then Dean of the Law School taught a memorable (and remember-able) undergraduate course in American constitutional history which sparked in me a life-long interest in the subject. He was like Professor Driver all over again, but perhaps a smidgen below his intensity and polish.
    Not all my teachers at college could teach at this level, but while applause after class was the exception, a lot of them did a darn good job of it. But you are right, it sure helps if an academic can communicate.

    Do I think academicians feel pride in not being understood? To the contrary, the academics I’ve known have all been bursting with excitement to get people to hear and believe in what they discovered. Unfortunately, like Dr. Botstein, it is hard to be good at everything.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What amazing lecturers you had in college and still remember. What a treat. Today these speakers might be the darlings of YouTube and Book TV, their era’s Malcolm Gladwell.

    Dr. Botstein may not be the best conductor around and while conductors must communicate with their orchestra–and I’m certain that he’s clear in his instructions–maybe he doesn’t have the best orchestras to work with. For all we know Rocky Flint was lousy in the lab or in the field but great at capturing and sharing what others did there.

    I wonder what has happened between the period of which you speak and now, where academicians are given a pass for being opaque.

  7. DManzaluni Said:

    Sorry Rachel, your question says more about the person asking it than it’s supposed subject

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Increasingly people are communicating by texting and through social media while not conversing, so my guess is that Rachel isn’t used to listening to more than a few paragraphs at a time. She no doubt considers herself an expert communicator.

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