It's Your Fault

Brian Taylor

July 10, 2011

Sometimes you are the problem.

Personal conflicts with students or colleagues have eroded the confidence of many a probationary faculty member and graduate student. In last month's column, I offered a set of "people problems" in which you, the assistant professor or graduate student, were most likely blameless. Knowing that you are not at fault in a particular conflict can be the first step toward a solution, even if it is simply to stop beating yourself up in needless guilt.

Of course it's hard to resist blaming someone else. Admitting that a personal or personnel dispute is your fault is difficult—and near impossible for some people.

We live in a world where it is standard political discourse to lay 100 percent of the blame for any crisis or problem on the opposing party. Or, as a recent popular psychology book put it: "Mistakes were made, but not by me." But there is obvious virtue and not-so-obvious practical value in 'fessing up: It is easier to fix yourself than to motivate other people to change their characters.

I offer myself as a case study. My first semester on the tenure track was an unhappy one. Adjusting to a new culture, misfiring on a research project, developing challenging new courses, and, above all, experiencing a shaky start to my classroom rhythm left me rattled and uncertain. The student evaluations of my teaching, while not horrible, were certainly not positive. The No. 1 complaint: I was "condescending."

My instant reaction was resentment. I complained to my mentors about being "misunderstood." Both of them, senior professors, heard me out and then replied, "Maybe the students are right." I paused to consider the possibility. I learned then that useful mentors are not relentless cheerleaders but rather truth-tellers—even when their candor hurts. Maybe I was being condescending to overcompensate for the insecurity I felt as a new faculty member.

When I next taught, I tried to remember that the classroom is not meant to be a stage for the instructor's showboating. The goal of instruction is not to boast about how much we know but to teach as well as we can. Accepting that I was the one at fault helped me to begin fixing the problem.

Here are some examples of other "people" problems that are actually "person" problems—the culprit being you.

You have not paid your dues but act like you have. An assistant professor railed to his cohort of disgruntled juniors that a power block of senior scholars was thwarting him at every turn when all he wanted to do was to make "necessary" (and sweeping) revisions in the undergraduate curriculum. One of his friends, a particularly insightful tenure tracker, pointed out, "You've only been here two months and you want to change some major stuff; how do you think that comes off to people who've been here 20 years?"

If colleagues in your department are fighting you, it might be because you have not established credibility or shown that you have taken the time to thoroughly investigate a matter before preaching revolution.

The issue is not change itself, in many cases, but rather the manner and the timing of your advocacy. I noticed that factor early in my own career when I served on a committee studying a part of our department's graduate curriculum. I diffidently suggested a major innovation and was pleasantly surprised when the faculty accepted it with little disagreement. The crucial context: I was able to document that the consequences of the change were ones I had thoroughly explored and that, all along the way, I had consulted with and incorporated the advice of key groups that would be affected by the change.

So ask yourself: Am I riling people up before they have any reason to trust my word on a topic?

You are overly suspicious. Even paranoids have enemies, or so the old saying goes. And certainly you may encounter people who actively seek to thwart your tenure-and-promotion bid. But during the doctoral and tenure-track years, most young scholars face few outright enemies who plot their downfall. To the contrary, you may do more damage to yourself by assuming villainy in others, since nothing is as likely to create an enemy as treating someone like one.

One assistant professor was given some bad advice by a full professor about a research project, and it ended in failure. From that moment on, the junior scholar saw the senior professor through a dark-tinted lens. Every comment, change in facial expression, and memo on any topic was interpreted as yet another element of a conspiracy to sink the young scholar's career. Yet from the point of view of his colleagues, the assistant professor was wildly misconstruing innocent events and remarks. The senior scholar was not the most brilliant researcher, but neither was he malevolent, and the conspiracy theorizing just made its spinner look silly.

Don't assume malicious intent behind the unhelpful words and actions of someone when plain old incompetence or indifference are more likely sources.

You are acting selfishly. A department chair described a particularly ruthless approach to time management by one assistant professor who announced that she could not attend faculty meetings because they fell on her self-appointed "research days."

Furthermore, the service work she did agree to was done badly and tardily, seemingly to ward off being bothered by any future service assignments at all. She may have saved herself some time, but the resentment she incurred would definitely come back to haunt her when the people who were taking up her slack and cleaning up her messes would vote on her tenure bid.

Being a good colleague means understanding that we all need to sacrifice a little for each other. Faculty autonomy does not translate as everyone always getting to do what they want when they want. Collegiality is not just about civility but showing that you are interested in being a permanent part of a team. When negotiating service obligations, don't put yourself first in every way. The more you think about being helpful, within reason, and still being able to accomplish your own teaching and research goals and meet your department's expectations, the more people will see you as someone they want to keep around.

You complain too much. Years ago I conducted an ethnographic study of a police department. I found the officers to be brave, conscientious, astute about the absurdities and stresses in the legal system, and often quite witty about their own situation. They also complained—a lot. In every work environment I have encountered or participated in, from video-game store clerk to junior reporter, I found that employee complaints are common. In my book on my police study, I posited a "grand theory of whining": Organizational culture is successful when complaints are allowed adequately to vent steam. In contrast, when nobody is doing anything but complaining, dysfunction rules.

For junior faculty members, complaining to each other is a sine qua non of the tenure track. But there is a big difference between essentially good-natured airing of grievances over the occasional lunch and a nonstop barrage of negativity.

A colleague in the sciences, now tenured, described how he had gotten into a "rut of ranting," so much so that he nearly established a reputation in his department of fundamental dissatisfaction. In the words of a senior faculty member, "You really don't want to be here, do you?"

If you have a legitimate complaint, that's one thing. But the reason people might have a problem with you is that you come off as narcissistic and whiny. In the end, people assume you are the problem, not what you are complaining about. And if you seem to be someone who complains about anything, then increasingly people will ignore your arguments about everything.

You are a jerk. Only once in my academic career have I come across someone who admitted, in so many words, that he was a bad person. A troublemaker and bully, he acknowledged, in a moment of candor after a few drinks, that he enjoyed being mean to junior faculty members. He justified his conduct by citing how badly he had been treated on the tenure track. Such Richard III-like admissions are obviously rare—much more so than the actual number of people who treat others badly but justify their conduct as necessary and motivated by good intentions.

Self-awareness is not just a laudable character trait; it is an invaluable political skill. In the world of tenure and promotion, you are the crucial independent variable. Moreover, as you may have already learned, to your dismay, people who have a problem with something you are doing may never tell you why they are mad at you.

Self-diagnosis may be the only path to a solution. Are you arrogant and brusque with students? Overbearing to your teaching assistants? Conniving and back-stabbing to your colleagues because you enjoy playing the villain? There is no downside to brutal self-assessment, to seeking professional help when needed, or to avenging your own past suffering by helping others.

Admitting to ourselves that we are—at least in part—to blame for a difficulty we face is hard, but it is necessary for getting on with life and careers. It is also a sign that you have developed two key components of the tenure-worthy: maturity and responsibility.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His new book on promotion and tenure is available from Harvard University Press.