A Flurry of InauthenticityPosted: July 27, 2012
I’ve received numerous poorly personalised e-mails recently – today’s was from a company that published some of my work in a book and was addressed as “Dear *TITLE:FNAME*, which made me feel part of the family, I can tell you! Of course this is low hanging fruit because we’re all aware how mail outs actually work. No-one has the mind-numbingly and unnecessarily manual task of sitting down and actually writing these things anymore. They, very sensibly, use a computer to take a repetitive task and automate it. This would be fine, and I have no problem with it, except where we attempt to mimic a genuine concern.
One of the big changes I’ve noticed recently on Qantas, the airline that I do most of my flying with, is that they have noticed that my tickets say “Dr Falkner” and not “Mr Falkner”. For years, they would greet me at the entrance to the plane, look at my ticket and then promptly demonstrate the emptiness of the personal greeting by getting the title wrong. (The title, incidentally, is not a big deal. 99% of my students and colleagues call me ‘Nick’, the remainder resorting to “Dr Nick”. The issue here is that they are attempting to conduct an activity in greeting that is immediately revealed as meaningless.) Over the past two years, however, suddenly everyone is reading the whole ticket and, while it is still an activity akin to saying “Hello, Human”, this is much more reasonable facsimile of a personalised greeting. I note that they did distinguish themselves recently by greeting me as Dr Falkner and my wife, the original Dr Falkner, as (Miss or Mrs, I don’t quite recall) Falkner.
But my mailbox is full of these near misses. Letters from students addressed to Dr Rick Falkner. Many people who write to Professor Falkner, which I get because they’re trying not to offend me but it just goes to show that they haven’t really bothered to look me up. These are all cold calls – surface and shallow, from people who not only don’t know me but, I suspect, they don’t really want to get to know me – they’re just after the “Doctor” part of Nick Falkner. Much as Qantas looked at my Frequent Flyer status and changed their tone based on whether I was Silver or Gold (when you’re Gold, cabin crew come down to have a personal chat with you occasionally, especially if you’re part of a Gold couple flying together. I’m scared to ask what Platinum get), where my name and title were a convenient afterthought, most people who write to Professor Nick Falkner are after that facet of me which is useful to them. This is implicitly manipulative and thoroughly inauthentic.
This is, of course, why I try very hard not to do it with students. I do try to be genuinely concerned with the person, rather than their abilities. There are students I’ve known for years and, were I to walk up to them at a social gathering and be unable to recall anything about them other than their marks, they would have a right to feel exploited and ignored – a small cog in my glorious rise to an average career in Academia. This is, of course, not all that easy, especially when you have my memory but the effort is exceedingly important and a good attempt is often as valuable as a good memory – but a good memory generally comes from caring about something and paying attention. We ask of it our students when we present them with educational experiences. We say “This is important, so please pay attention and you’ll develop useful knowledge” so we’re very open about how we expect people to deal with important things. It is, therefore, much more insulting if we make it obvious that we remember nobody from our classes, or nothing of their lives, or we don’t realise the impact that we have from our privileged position at the centre of the web of knowledge. (Yeah, I think I just called us all spiders. Sorry about that. We’re cool spiders, if that helps.)
There are enough pieces of inauthentic e-mail, flyers, TV ads and day-to-day interactions that already bother us, without adding to the inauthenticity in our relationships with our students and our colleagues. Is it easy? No. Is it worthwhile? Yes. Is it what our students should expect of us to at least attempt? I think, yes, but I’d be interested to know what other people think about this – am I setting the bar too high for us or is this just part of our world?