08 July 2011

What is an academic poseur?

The question, from a backbencher: You've laid out the case for bringing back the insult poseur. Are there poseurs in academia?

The answer: Are there poseurs in academia? Are there animals in the zoo?

A poseur wants you to think that he's genuine when he's a fake, and knows it. Consequently, an academic poseur wants you to think he's a genuine scholar when he's just faking it.

Paul Ryan is a policy wonk poseur.

I think that it should be self-evident that this is a common type, not only among graduate students but faculty -- even quite senior faculty.

The distinction between knowingly faking something and just not being good at something is critical. It's the personality version of plagiarism: wanting the benefits of expertise without the hard work of developing it. Empirically, however, the poseur is even worse at his job than the plagiarist is at his. The plagiarist copies expertise, but the poseur may not quite know whose expertise to copy.

How can you tell the difference? The biggest difference is that the poseur wants you to think he understands, say, deconstructionism or maximum likelihood estimation. And he'll even know many of the keywords, and he'll do a lot of the low-cost things that you'd do if you were a serious student of the subject. (In the quant methods version, this would be signing up for the Gary King twitter feed; I don't know what it would be for the po-mo stuff, but let's say that it's wearing only black.) And he may even ask questions--"How are you handling endogeneity?", "Did you try robust standard errors?"--that are very similar to the ones that someone who really knows his stuff would ask.

But on close interrogation, you'll note that the questions are always the same, and that his discussions of the subject always hinge on lore, not logic. (All academic fields have rich traditions of lore, which is the oral culture of the discipline. Lore reflects the actual practice of the bulk of researchers working in a field. Typically, lore is to the discipline's formal methodology as the religion of the faithful is to the theology of the clergy.) And that lore itself may be outdated: anyone who claims to like methods but has a preoccupation with R-squared, for instance, probably doesn't understand what R-squared actually means, and certainly hasn't done the very basic reading on the subject of interpreting linear regression.

There will be other signs: interpreting logit regression results without understanding that MLE coefficients don't represent a constant marginal result is a trivial matter, but a common one. Another will be recommending the newest gee-whiz method in a case where it's not really appropriate--but it will impress the senior faculty around the table, who themselves have never heard of the new method and are sure to think that anyone who has is a frood who really knows where his towel is.

By now, you may be wondering if you are a poseur. It's possible. I have been a poseur; I have denied my poseurness; I have overcome it. And the secret to overcoming it is the essence of Socratic wisdom--admitting that you know nothing--leavened with a bit of Buddhist humility (that is, letting go of your attachments to impressing others). But if you believe that there is a royal road to understanding, then you should know that you are a poseur.

1 comment:

  1. hahaha! word...im not a poseur because ive never claimed to be anything other than who i am or knwo what i know. but i did enter into academia out of a (misguided) well intentioned belief that i ought to. my heart, mind, soul and being are art/poetry/creative imagination and i learned the hard way indeed, that ought to and need to are different realms altogether and can be the difference between life and death.