AU’s & AUP’s : An Irreverent, Relevant Tangent

Summary: This essay is about people that I irreverently label with the acronyms AU’s & AUP’s about which I’ve learned – often the hard way – during three decades as an educator, why they are disruptive to learning, and why I will not engage them as students or colleagues.


This post may seem like a tangential interruption to my series “Springing Toward Spring” about the company that I am attempting to create, about which I’m more excited than any project I’ve attempted in the last … well, ever.

But I am posting this now to be as clear as possible about the type of people that I do NOT want as students or colleagues in the company or a related organization, and to increase the probability that I will attract the right kinds of people to my program.  This issue has too often been … hmmm, what’s the metaphor?  – an annoyance, a PITA, and a thorn my my side.

Those kinds of people have repeatedly impeded my teaching, and thus, learning by my students.  And last year, several of them helped crash an organization that I had been working to create – as founder – setting my work back by almost a year.  I learned a hard lesson from that experience, and it motivates this post.

So, here goes.  AU is an acronym for ‘arrogant upstart‘, what I now call people – fortunately relatively rare – who after completing at most one or two courses with me, but in some cases after only hearing an introductory overview lecture (!) – proclaim that they understand as much as I do about the topics of said courses even though they have little or no previous training in or knowledge of those topics. In some cases – and this is where things get dicey – they even try to take over a class or a project by intellectual coup d’etat.

I’ve experienced such people for decades as a college-level teacher.  My first experiences were as a teaching assistant (TA) during my graduate programs.  But the first major challenges occurred after completing grad school while I was teaching at a community college in Albuquerque, NM: formerly Technical Vocational Institute (TVI), now Central NM Community College (CNMCC) which more accurately reflects that it is a hybrid of vo-tech training and liberal arts.

I taught intro level courses in biology and mathematics there, and loved it.  For the first time in my life – when I started there, I had only just finished my PhD at 40 – I was able to earn a decent living, complete with perks, by doing what I am most passionate about – teaching about living systems.

In some ways, I was an idiot to quit that job to become an independent educator with no institutional support.  But there were several compelling reasons that motivated my leaving.  And in the bigger sense, I don’t regret my decision.  If I had it to do over, I’d do it again, even if in a different way.   But that’s a different story for another time.

I loved my students at that school, especially eager ones that couldn’t get enough knowledge, that ate my challenging written exams – described in my previous post – like a nourishing meal for their minds.  That’s what teaching and learning is about!

But occasionally, I’d end up with one or two AU’s in a class.  They are usually – but not always – intelligent, sometimes highly so, and may have a science background, but rarely in the specific topics of that class.  At some point, they arrogantly proclaim that they fully understand the principles of the class, allegedly as well as I do, even though I may offer several advanced courses necessary for understanding at a deep and intuitive level.  Then, they begin to challenge either the ideas themselves or my manner of teaching them, but usually both.

Now this next part is important.  I do not object to challenges about an idea or concept or even my teaching methods and strategies. To the contrary, I encourage challenges, as long as they are offered respectfully and constructively, just as I offer challenges to them in a constructive way, often written exams.  Students that don’t challenge ideas – especially when they don’t understand them – are simply sponges that attempt to memorize concepts without truly logically and intuitively understanding, and knowledge cannot evolve among sponges.  Knowledge must be constantly challenged so that we learn anew; that’s the way that science works, constantly challenging established views as we try to get closer to some ‘truth’.

But there’s a difference between valid, respectful challenges by truly knowledgeable students and an arrogant assertion offered in a disrespectful, smug, even spiteful way.  One can sense from speech and body language when a student is trying to ‘put down’ the teacher as a matter of personal pride, yet do not fully, let alone deeply, grasp the concept that they are criticizing.

Thus, such individuals are ‘upstarts‘:  people who behave as if they are more important than they really are and who show a lack of respect towards those who are more experienced.   Their mannerisms are laced with arrogance and self-righteousness, and – in the worst cases – smugness, snideness, spite and irreverence.

I once referred to the most smug and snide AU’s as ‘young guns’, the intellectual equivalents of young gunfighters like Billy the Kid in the 19th-century American west that would challenge experienced guns like Wyatt Earp and Batt Masterson as a matter of pride.  But nowadays, I call them AUP’s – arrogant upstart punks – especially when smugness, smirking or or spite is evident.  Since that acronym – AUP – has a nicer phonetic ring to it, I’m going to use it for the remainder of this essay – and in general – even though not all AU’s are AUP’s.

After some experience, I learned to recognize AUP’s and their modus operandi.  It usually starts like this.  Generally, I’m a fairly cordial, even friendly guy, especially in class.  I think that’s important in education because overly-formal, arrogant, prima dona instructors, bad vibes and intimidation are enemies of learning in my experience.  Even as a mainstream college teacher, I invited my students to use my first name, and promoted a cordial atmosphere while paying attention to intellectual rigor.  I still do.

As a result, AUP’s often see me as easy prey, a pushover, a ‘nice guy’ who will roll over when attacked.  But they don’t know that I grew up street-smart in the small-town south.  I was forced to because I was a brainy red-headed geek, slightly pigeon-toed, and skinny with a weird given name  – Ollar, which is old English for Alder – when other boys had more common names like Bob, David, Mike and Peter.  That all set me up for ridicule, and I suffered a lot of abuse starting in first grade.

By high school, I had become a kindly punk, usually cordial, but could switch on the punk when necessary to defend myself, reflecting back what I was getting from an attacker in spades.  I once backed down a trained boxer with words and aggressive physical postures.  (For self-defense study, one of my main mentors is trainer Kelly McCann, who advises that if you are attacked, you no longer practice ‘self-defense’, but go on the offense, aggressively turning your attacker – the predator who began the fight – into the prey, ending the attack as quickly and decisively as possible.  I was doing that even in high school.)

For better or worse, I’ve always carried that attitude into my classroom … in an intellectual way, of course; I’ve fortunately never had occasion in class to physically defend myself, and hopefully never will.  So when an AUP got out of line, I’d pull out a can of anti-AUP faster than you can say ‘punk’ and – POW! – decisively end the confrontation with as much irreverence and disrespect as he (yes, usually he) was throwing at me, or at least transform it from arrogant and disrespectful to a discussion back to a more appropriate for a classroom with an appropriate level of respect.  That is, I try to be fair and democratic in my classroom to a point, but I’m still the teacher when in the classroom (outside is a different matter), and teachers deserve respect.  (We deserve at least that since we’re not getting rich doing this.)

Being a closet punk with street-smarts, I can out-punk the punks.  Yet even though my sharpest, non-AUP students appreciate that about me, and enjoy the spectacle of AUP’s learning a lesson in respect at some cost to their inflated egos, such events have an overall negative impact on the ambience of the class, the spirit of learning: they smell of competition, gamesmanship, or oneupmanship that can retard learning.  So it’s something I will do when necessary, but prefer not to.  (Hence, again, this post that I can share with prospective students to dissuade potential AUP’s from engaging my courses.)

Furthermore, I’ve learned that age doesn’t matter with regard to AUP’s.  At CNMCC my students were mostly young – 20 somethings, often fresh out of high school.   But as an independent educator, many of my students are older adults, sometimes older than me, in their 60’s and 70’s.  They can be AU’s and even AUP’s, too; ‘punk’ is ageless.  And the older ones are more challenging to identify early on; they are cagey and experienced, sometimes even deceptively so.

Thus, unfortunately, last year, a few AU’s – about 7, to be exact – found their way via my Climate 1 course into the now-defunct organization that I was trying to start.  Most were just AU’s, but at least two were AUP’s.  They were older and clever, and slipped past my AUP radar – I was working hard to create that organization during a difficult and challenging time for me (read immense, crushing financial stress) – and so I was overly trusting of their assurances that they ‘got it’ about things like abrupt climate change, non-linearity, self-organization, fractal geometry, autopoiesis and Gaia theory, and the importance of all those things for the future of our species.  Despite evidence to the contrary – the writing was on the wall, but hind sight is (often) 20/20 – I naively trusted them.

But eventually, their AUP-ness manifest, especially during their interaction, which lead to a kind of AUP positive feedback.  They may be kind, well-meaning people in other regards, but when it came to the project that I had invited them to participate in, they were AUP’s.  They thought – and claimed – that they understood that project and the scientific principles at its foundation – better than I did, and pretended to understand their importance based on their limited exposure via one or two courses.  And in the end, they were arrogant about it, at time just straight-up punks.  Some of the things they said about me and the organization were simply astonishing, and deeply offensive.

So, there’s no way around it.  A spade is a spade, and an AUP is an AUP.  C’est la vie.

I’m moving on – but not sweeping things under the carpet – and so have they.  I wish them a good life.

So, why am I telling this story here now? Because as I move forward, my AUP detection meter is dialed up to ‘high’.  I will be screening for AUP’s in applications for my program, for positions in the company, and for colleagues in a new organization that will be linked to the company.  People with whom I associate – students and colleagues – will be repeatedly … um, ‘evaluated’ to see where they fall on the AUP scale, and if at any point they score too high, they will either be told to check their AUP-ness at the door, or take a hike.

Bottom line: AU’s and AUP’s need not apply to work with me.

All others are welcome.  🙂


Next: Springing Toward Spring 2 : An Emerging Company

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