Pick Your Battles ... but How?

Brian Taylor

September 19, 2010

The advice that assistant professors receive about promotion and tenure can vary a great deal, depending on whether you teach at a community college or a research university, and on whether you study fruit-fly genetics or constructions of identity in the works of French playwright Jean Racine.

But there are certain consistent counsels that apply to all disciplines, institutions, and situations that probationary faculty members might face. One bit of advice that I have both received and offered seems universal: Pick your battles. There is considerable confusion, however, about how, when, and why to put that principle into practice.

Many battles that confront us are obfuscated by the fog of war, just as for a military general in the field. Without the vantage point of hindsight, we do not necessarily know (a) that a battle is imminent; (b) the short- and long-term costs or benefits of fighting the battle; (c) the likely results; and (d) what alternatives to combat are available.

Making a decision about whether a particular provocation is a battle worth fighting is not something that should be left to instinct alone. Before lowering your lance for a charge, take into account the following.

Who is in the right? It is a natural human tendency to see ourselves in the best possible light and our opponents in the worst. But a heroic self-image can be self-destructive if it leads you to start a melee when the facts are not so clear-cut. Step back and think about the case for the opposition. You may not change your mind, but at least you will have some sense of your antagonist's possible motivations.

What is the timing of your response? Don't take too long as you mull a countermove to some perceived slight or act of aggression. One assistant professor I know was insulted by a comment made by a colleague at a meeting and simmered about it for months. Finally, at another meeting on a wholly different topic, he lashed out at his nemesis. The problem was that everybody else had forgotten the initial provocation, and so the original "victim" came off looking like an aggressor without a cause. Your response must make temporal sense.

Who will be your allies in a battle? Allies, in war and in office politics, can sometimes be a burden, drawing us into other, unwanted battles. Napoleon purportedly once said that he would rather fight allies than be one; of course, he was defeated by a coalition of enemies.

Likewise, useful, powerful allies can help if you choose to fight a battle. But don't be surprised if people are reluctant to leap into what they perceive as a personal fight in which they have no stake.

Are you fully aware of the connections, capabilities, and attitudes of the enemy? In war or in barroom disputes, it is inadvisable to get into a fight unless you know something about your enemy's skills, resources, and degree of implacability. In academe, people have their "byline power"—that is, the power that goes with their job titles. You can expect more of a fight if you challenge a provost than an assistant professor.

But people are interconnected in ways that are not always obvious, especially to a newbie. A secretary may have long-standing friends in administration or among senior professors. A doctoral candidate may be the niece of an influential alumnus. In theory, the power of an enemy should not stop you from standing up for what is just, but it could affect how you do so.

How much time and effort will the battle cost? A risk-reward equation is useful to warlords and assistant professors. In some cases, you will have morality, ethics, the facts, and every other consideration on your side, but you will nonetheless decide that fighting a battle is still unwise because it will use up too great a proportion of your time, attention, social capital, or sanity.

Unfortunately, there are faculty members who, apparently bored by research, teaching, and service, enjoy getting into petty squabbles. You always lose when you engage them.

What are the possible consequences of a fight? Many an army has embarked with high hopes of fighting a quick, decisive battle and getting home for Christmas, but the contingencies set off by war are often opaque at its conception. In academe there are obvious dangers if you fight a battle, but unforeseen ones as well. The most important consequence might be the effect on your image: Faculty members who get into lots of verbal scuffles, even if each one is justifiable, become known for causing "trouble," and nobody wants to hire or tenure a troublemaker.

If you do acquire that reputation, a big red question mark will stick to your CV whenever you try to find another job. So, before you pick a fight, consider whether have you fought your quota for the year—or for your career. Fair or not, some people simply have more at stake than others. The common wisdom is correct: It is very chancy for probationary faculty members to battle with anyone, especially the gray eminences.

Picking a battle to fight is thus not straightforward. The dangers of some situations are self-evident. The real question is whether alternative paths to conflict resolution exist.

Let me offer a case in point to test your conflict-avoidance skills: It involved a doctoral defense that almost went awry for a graduate student in the social sciences. Say you are an assistant professor and the adviser of a doctoral candidate. She is your first advisee now that you are on the tenure track. One of the members of the committee, a senior professor known for his irascibility, has been consistently tardy in reading previous drafts of the student's dissertation and uncommunicative in responding with any usable commentary.

On the morning of the defense, you call him at home; he assures you that he is basically happy with the current draft of the dissertation (which has been on his desk for semesters) and will not make any trouble. A few hours later, though, in the midst of the defense, the professor raises some radically new ideas for further work that, if your candidate incorporated them, would alter the entire project, delaying her graduation by a year or more.

Do you accept the "advice," or do you protest? Do you bring up the professor's earlier assurance of accord? Do you try to quash his interjections in front of the entire committee, including the representative of the graduate school, the witnessing student audience, and your graduate-student advisee?

In the actual episode, the assistant professor who headed the dissertation committee solved the problem without a battle. He let all involved have their say, including the difficult committee member. As the discussion continued, it became clear that the other committee members felt that the dissertation was fine and needed only minor revisions. By the end of the meeting, the snarky professor understood that he was the sole voice of opposition; he, in turn, felt his position was not worth fighting for.

After the candidate left the room, the committee chair went out of his way to be solicitous to the potential troublemaker. The chair also suggested that the outlier's advice could be mentioned in the concluding chapter as a project for future research. Everyone agreed; all went home thinking they had made a contribution. Another Ph.D. was born.

The young probationary faculty chair also, notably, impressed his senior colleagues by his deftness in handling Professor Irascible without hurting the student's career or causing a fuss.

Difficult as it may be, picking your battles means thinking about their meaning within the scheme of your life and your career, not just giving way to the passion of the moment or your feelings of victimization. In academe, as in life, sometimes the best way to win a battle is to avoid fighting it at all.

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 book on promotion and tenure will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.