I'm Being Recruited by the Department Grumps

Brian Taylor

September 17, 2012

Question (from "Theodore"): I'm newly hired in a humanities department at OK University, and I feel like I'm still auditioning—but I don't know if it's a comedy or a tragedy.

After the first department meeting, "Professor Grumpy" stopped by my office and invited me to have lunch with "a bunch of guys," which sounded innocent but wasn't. The lunch, with half a dozen senior professors, was what I've always called a "bitch session." They do it a lot.

They complain about their salaries. They say their students are stupid and unmotivated. They despise the administration and the classrooms in which "we are forced to toil." They hate the town, the state, and the governor, and they don't like the food in the cafeteria, either (which I thought was fine, lots of fresh choices). They also get together once a week, and implied they have deep and significant conversations (with poker and beer). I gather they're the university's center of discontent and dissent. Professor Grumpy seems to be their ringleader.

I don't want to start a job by hanging out with the haters. It feels like the high-school cafeteria, with cliques circling each other. I don't want to get stuck with the kids everybody hates, sitting on the sidelines and making routine character assassinations of everyone else, year after year.

How do I avoid the chorus of contempt?

Answer: Ms. Mentor salutes your good instincts. Hanging out with the malcontents can easily make you melancholy and neurotic. You'll hear about what misunderstood geniuses they are, stuck in the cornfields, when they should be lecturing at Oxford or collecting a Nobel in Stockholm. Oh, what an unappreciative world we live in!

Most institutions do have a chorus of carpers. Some heckle and wrangle publicly in meetings; others break out roaring among their fellows on Friday afternoons at the bar. Sometimes they hatch plots ("We'll confront the dean") which everyone will have forgotten by Monday.

The problem for a newbie is that they can drag you down into their sinkholes of despair. "Alvin," a bright young man from the Northeast, was eager to learn about the Midwestern small town where he landed. He enjoyed the opening receptions and orientation sessions—until the second afternoon. That was when "Jeremiah," a permanent associate professor, pulled him aside.

"You might think they're friendly," Jeremiah said. "But they're just waiting to rip your throat out. You'll see." Then Jeremiah waved and trotted genially down the hall.

Later, when Jeremiah and his fellow grumps invited Alvin to their TGIF gripe session at Ye Olde College Pub, Alvin went. He sipped his beer, looked alert, and made mental notes about everything he heard. He also began applying for jobs elsewhere.

"Simon," an artist, was sometimes mentored and sometimes savaged by his new colleagues. His department head took him to lunch, but didn't invite the assistant head, second in command, whose arts career had disintegrated a few years ago. ("I had to spend all my time with mediocre students, and that'll happen to you.") The assistant head hung out with other slumping artists, blocked writers, and nonperforming musicians. They all blamed the university for their stalled careers.

It didn't take long before several of the malcontents, separately, took Simon aside and told him "I voted against hiring you. I thought we could do much better." Simon also started sending out applications.

Who are these grumps? In most departments, Ms. Mentor's spies tell her, they are senior men who got tenure when it was easier to get. They barely needed to publish, and they brought along wives ("captive spouses") who soothed their egos. But their wives grew restless and left; their grant money dried up; their work was no longer "cutting edge." Promotion to full professor wouldn't happen. The bright young man became another middle-aged guy who hadn't achieved great things. He hunkered down with fellow complainers—and it's a rare department head who can dislodge or motivate the chorus of curmudgeons. Now they have group loyalty for their grievances.

What to do? Ms. Mentor urges Theodore to be kind and friendly to all, since first semester is first-impression time. He should greet everyone he sees, smile and learn names, invite people to coffee or lunch, and spread his social net as widely as possible. E-mail alumni from his grad school who live near his new employer; find local friends of Facebook friends.

He shouldn't be seen regularly with the grumps, even if it means hiding out in his office. Find plausible excuses to evade at least some of their gatherings. ("Sorry, fellas, got a dental appointment.")

Theodore must establish himself among the lively—the ones who smile, who move fast, who create new courses, who publish, and go to conferences. They read the local newspaper, go to community events, cherish their students' achievements, and want to learn new things. Find the colleagues whose conversation is about more than academic politics. If you meet a professor who chortles at celebrity gossip, cultivate him or her for entertainment, especially on gray winter days.

It is easy to take a dreary view of academe lately. You don't even need to go out of the house to have your spirits crushed. You can get online and sample any number of books on the "crisis" in higher education, or the "decline," or the "failure" of everything. You can even go back and reread The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—now, that was a serious problem—though it may have too much gossip and hilarity for really dedicated gloom-mongers. (Chapter VII is especially droll.)

The grumpy group can be toxic to your mind, if not your career. They're apt to find the black cloud around everything—call it confirmation bias, or Weltschmerz. They waste their genuine intellectual powers in onedownsmanship ("You think your freshmen are bad?? Let me tell you. ..."). They've deadened the possibilities for pleasure in the one of the few professions that requires its members to think and imagine.

Mind power is a terrible thing to waste. Ms. Mentor urges you not to let it waste you.

Question: As part of being an assistant professor, should I immerse myself in the recent morbid tomes about loss, crisis, decline, and failure in universities—or just read reviews and pretend to be knowledgeable and then change the subject to sports or food?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: As autumn arrives, Ms. Mentor advises her flock, especially the newly hired, to guard against feeling overwhelmed. Most newbies do get sick in their first semester, and so Ms. Mentor urges them to eat, rest, keep in touch with old friends, and strive to be adequate and not perfect.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always smudged. Your dyspeptic colleagues may not be the ones discussed here.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor's "New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is