After meeting with all of my faculty, and hanging out with faculty and academic administrators for the last 15 years (or 25, if we count the time I was in grad school), I find myself reflecting on how embattled the academic denizens seem to be. There are a lot of victims running around the hallowed halls of academe.
What is interesting, though, is that we don’t root our problems in some of the real culprits: legislators who don’t believe in higher education and want to consistently cut funding to state institutions; anti-higher ed folks in the larger community who mock academics and suggest that degrees are a waste of time; a culture that focuses more on testing than on knowledge and critical thinking... No, we tend to feel embattled by one another.
And while there are situations that rise to the level of something serious--assault, threat, harassment, etc., most people’s complaints don’t involve that kind of issue. Faculty complain of being victimized by one another... “He disrespected me.” “I helped mentor her through tenure, and now she won’t include me on her projects.” “She made fun of my research.” Faculty speak of being victimized by nefarious administrators trying to run everything, and administrators dismiss attacking faculty while comparing them to children and cats. And everyone complains about student attacks, students who are also disrespectful, ill-prepared, frustrating, disengaged, too focused on partying, and so on.
While I get complaining--how could we get through the day if we didn’t bitch about something that is annoying us--I really don’t get the resulting feeling of being embattled that has been adopted by so many. Those of us with full-time academic positions are living a pretty fantastic life, for the most part. Is it what it used to be? No. Nothing is. But few of us actually have people determined to make our lives miserable. And those of us who do may find that we are engaged in mutual attacks or we may be bringing it on ourselves.
I thought about this when I read two recent entries in Inside Higher Ed today: the “back-and-forth” on Dean Dad’s blog between a faculty member
complaining about a heavy-handed dean, and the dean in question; and a story about University of Oklahoma President David Boren (left), accused of trying to control the future of the university. The faculty member writing into Matt Reed’s blog provided a vision of a careerist Dean with a grandiose sense of self who wanted to establish a new major based on his own desire to secure a legacy. (Not too different from the read of the university president who is accused of doing the same in making senior administrative appointments.) Both the faculty member in the blog and the UO faculty made the actions of administrators sound nefarious. It got even more complicated in the first story when the Dean in question responded in the comments, telling the tale of junior faculty who secretly supported the new major, but...wait for it...they were too afraid of the senior faculty to speak up. So many people being done wrong, just in one day on the internet!
I had a faculty member in one of my grad school programs who routinely received poor student evaluations. Year after year, he received the same kinds
of comments about his teaching style and the limitations of the course. He dismissed the evaluations every year, blaming the students for not understanding the purpose of the course and not appreciating his teaching methods. As he explained this to me during a conversation about teaching, I was dumbfounded. I naively thought, “If everyone dislikes what you do, perhaps you should reconsider it?” But I soon realized that he saw any negative feedback as an unwarranted critique that somehow called his legitimacy into question.
Another faculty member I knew had a personal style that one could politely call abrasive. She tended to harass people if they would not succumb to her perspective, and often, people did succumb (or they pretended to), just to get her to back off. She won her way a lot using this technique. And, if a group of faculty tried to organize to block her bullying, why, they were soon accused of “mobbing” and put in their place! (This isn’t to say that workplace mobbing doesn’t exist, but it is a slippery concept that occasionally gets used when faculty organize to block a bully.)
Can everyone in academe be a victim? What happens with all of the faculty and the administrators see themselves as martyrs, victims under constant attack from others? How can we ever work through differences?
I turn to a quote from one of my favorite musicians/actors, Ms. Dolly Parton,"Get down off that cross, honey. Somebody needs the wood.” And I say this as a formerly embattled academic myself.
Really, I was an out lesbian feminist in graduate school, someone who didn’t fit in and faced my fair share of detractors, sexual harassers, and lack of support from superiors. I went to national conferences and saw the topic of my research and even my research methods belittled by those in power. But you know what? That stuff is in the past. I have a tenured job, my own office, and some great colleagues and friends in my university and across the country. I run a department with a 7-figure budget, and I can see progress happening all the time. I run into our graduates in the community, and I am proud of their accomplishments. I have publications in journals--big ones, not just ones in my small area of interest--and even my own entry labeled with the dewey decimal system.
In short, I am not that embattled graduate student or junior professor anymore. And I need to leave that feeling of victimization behind, recognize my strengths and my weaknesses, and accept that my growth and learning are ongoing. And when people give me negative feedback, challenge my assertions or my understanding, or even call me out more vehemently, I need to take a minute, calm my reactionary “they are attacking me!” impulse, and give their perspective a fair hearing.
I learned as a teenager that if you hear the same issue from more than three people, or you have the same complaint about more than three people, the problem may be legitimate and it may be you!
So, to those of you who are having to cope with end-of-year evaluations from students or supervisors, try to come to it with a good sense of self and perhaps some humility. Think about the department’s needs, your colleague’s needs, your students’ needs, and hell, perhaps even the chair or dean’s needs. Maybe this one time, it IS you that needs to change. The grievance process--and the opportunity to gripe--will always be there.