Are academics ever really sorry?

A recent kerfuffle (a good Chronicle of Higher Ed word) at Johns Hopkins involved an interim dean who apologized for asking a research professor to remove a blog post.

When the dean’s apology came forth, my friend Christopher Newfield at the University of California at Santa Barbara tweeted “an explanation would be better than an apology.” I take his point to be that when somebody does what they say they shouldn’t have it’s not the expression of contrition we’re after, it’s the detailed rationale—the sequence of missteps—that led to the action that finally produced the apology.

I’m not focusing here on the event, which has been well covered, but simply using it as a springboard for some thoughts on what happens when academics try to make linguistic amends.

Why is apologizing so difficult? Is it possible, for example, to explain? Well, yes and no. We may think that having an explanation will prevent further misjudgments, but more likely it will just fuel that special academic fire burning in every department I’ve ever known.

Academics have been getting themselves into hot water at least since 399 BC, when Socrates was condemned for corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato’s Apology, of course, isn’t an extended “I’m sorry” note—it’s what we categorize as an apologia, a defense of one’s ideas or position.

One of the most famous of apologias in English is John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua, a defense of his life and ideas as a Roman Catholic in 19th-century England. Newman wrote it partly in response to attacks by Charles Kingsley, a Victorian writer perhaps best known today for the seriously weird children’s book The Water Babies. Newman’s Apologia became famous, and Benedict XVI beatified him in 2010.  (The views of the pope emeritus on The Water Babies remain unconfirmed.)

We academics are pretty good apologia-ists. But apologias are one thing, and apologies are something else.

Generally speaking, academics are terrible apologizers. We are stand-your-ground types, especially on matters of opinion, idea, and language. The possibility that we have got something wrong—we’re professors or professors-in-training, most of us—is more than an admission of human frailty, it’s a reflection on our rightness for The Profession.

So what do we do when caught out? We tend to the deflective (“I’m sorry, but my hands were tied”), the absorptive (“I’m sorry, but I had to do what I thought was right”), or the obstructive (“I’m sorry you feel that way”).

Of these, the obstructive apology is the worst, intended to declaw the opposition, not submit to it. Blank and forbidding, it’s that iceberg of interpersonal communication, the nonapology. Beneath the surface is the unspoken rest of the thought: Sure, I’m sorry—that you’re an idiot.

Yet sometimes, what one really wants to say is “I’m sorry. I screwed up.” To be fair to the clumsy but earnest apologizers among us, the audience to which we would offer our exculpatory remarks is one tough crowd. That audience is, of course, other people just like us: sophisticated, judgmental, unsentimental, able to thrive in the thin oxygen of the seminar room. Expect no mercy. We academics are the audience we would least want to apologize to.

So an explanation would indeed be better than an apology, but an apology—a real one—would be infinitely better than an explanation.

Now if only we knew how to offer an apology, make it stick, fix things, and get on with it.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano


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