We Are All Bunnies

I’m sitting at my desk today watching the reactions and commentary about the situation at Mount St. Mary pour in via Twitter and Facebook.  In case you haven’t read about it yet: here’s the latest.  Those of us who recognize the value of tenure, still believe there is a place for respectful disagreement in higher ed, and want better things for our own students and institutions are a bit speechless (which would be a wise strategy if you were at Mount St. Mary).  Horrified and shocked and saddened seem the most common emotions.

I’m guessing that this drama isn’t over yet.  I expect lawsuits, alumni protest (at least the president can’t fire them), and hopefully, some response from the college’s Board of Trustees.  But in the meantime I think we faculty and administrators at other institutions need to do three things.

The first is to engage in some self-education.  What are the policies and procedures at your institution governing speech?  In one of the first ripples in the drama at Mount St. Mary it became clear that the university had a policy that “all university employees must clear any communications with reporters first with the university spokesman.”  What is YOUR university’s policy in these matters?  Perhaps there isn’t a policy, which is probably a good thing.  But my PSA to you is to find out.

The second two items hinge on the assumption that in the current higher ed climate no one is immune from these kind of actions.  We can shake our heads and wring our hands and say how messed up things are at Mount St. Mary, but I bet our colleagues there didn’t see this coming, either.

So the second item is to become the allies of vulnerable individuals at your institution who might end up in the firing line.  A particularly troubling part of the recent developments is that the untenured facultly advisor to the student newspaper, which leaked the president’s emails, was one of the faculty members fired.  I’m not sure what sort of things might have protected this individual, but having senior, tenured members of the faculty recognize his vulnerability would be a good place to start.

The third item is to write and tweet and post about this as much as possible.  And sign this petition.  We need to recognize not just that this could happen to us wherever we are, but that we need to be in solidarity with our colleagues at other institutions.  It is easier to pick off faculty like this if the perception is that they are isolated.  And I say this to my fellow administrators, too.  We need to say that this kind of management is unacceptable and an insult to the enterprise of higher education.

Charm Schooled

Something about this piece rubbed me the wrong way. While it acknowledged the very gendered perils that women in the academy face when they aren’t nice enough to their colleagues, the rather simplistic advice about a “charm offensive” didn’t sit well with me. The suggestion that the person in question just needs to be more social and charming is offered too blithely and with no attention to the possible consequences and underlying issues. The formerly withdrawn colleague who suddenly becomes outgoing and cordial risks being perceived as insincere or opportunistic. Further, simply instructing a woman to be nicer and more solicitous of her colleagues doesn’t address the deeper dilemma about perceptions of female behavior in the academic workplace. If, as the author argues, what she is proposing is a strategy for the time until “the patriarchy is overthrown,” shouldn’t we be working on overthrowing it while we address the problems of how the sociability of female academics is perceived?

Sadly, I am not going to figure out how to overthrow the patriarchy in this brief blog post. I am, however, going to suggest one strategy for helping this withdrawn colleague whose chances for advancement are being hurt by a perception that she is cold and unlikeable. The strategy is this: the individual posing the question on behalf of the withdrawn colleague needs to become her mentor. I realize that she probably thinks she is by posing the question and thereby implicitly (but unbeknownst to her colleague) helping. But, I would argue, she could accomplish much more by actively mentoring this individual. In the early days of my career, I’m not sure I was attentive to how colleagues perceived my behavior. I was too busy prepping lectures and trying to publish so I could get tenure. In addition, I don’t think I really thought about academe as a workplace in my first months at my university. Part of why we all got into this game is because we didn’t want a regular office job. So I’m not sure that I was attentive to workplace interactions and how my new colleagues might have been reading my actions and interactions with them.

Thus, a mentor would have been useful at this early stage. Even if I was doing everything “right,” it would have helped to have this landscape explained to me. A mentor is also someone who can help smooth those social waters and interactions. Rather than the entire burden being placed on me to make coffee dates and draw my colleagues out, a mentor could create opportunities to interact with colleagues: “Hey, Liz, I’m having lunch with Senior Colleague X, why don’t you join us?” A mentor could propose work on a particular project that would provide the opportunity for me to showcase my talents and insights. You get the idea. Finally, a mentor is an ally. If you are senior and in critical committee meetings where a junior colleague is being evaluated and confront either implicit or explicit comments that her behavior isn’t nice or sociable enough, you have an obligation to push back against this. You need to do more than shake your head ruefully, and wonder whether you should later counsel her to launch a charm offensive.

Will this take time? Yes. Is this hard work? Possibly. Is it fair that we need to do this? No. But do those of us who are senior—especially women who have risen to senior ranks as faculty and administrators—have a responsibility to do this work? Absolutely.

The Limits of Autonomy

As workers faculty are an odd bunch.  They tend to be largely autonomous as they go about their workday.  They are required to be on campus to meet certain responsibilities: teaching, attending meetings, holding office hours.  But they don’t punch a clock.  You can call their offices at a particular time between 9 and 5 when you know they are not doing one of the above or related activities, but there is no guarantee–or even expectation–that they will be there.  They arrive on and depart from campus largely on their own timetable.  Theirs are tasks–grading, reading, writing lectures–that can be performed offsite.

Particularly in disciplines where the single-authored book or paper is the norm, they carry this autonomy over into their scholarship.  They perform their research and write in relative isolation.

All of this autonomy, in turn, means that their interactions with other colleagues are random, coincidental.  They’re on campus the same days that certain colleagues teach, but may not see the ones who teach on other days.  You bump into someone in the hall, on the elevator, in the parking deck and that’s where conversations take place.  Our substantive contact takes place in that most dreaded of forums: the meeting.

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This autonomy has its benefits and I am not looking to dismantle it.  But I am not sure that this autonomous way of life for faculty is always a good thing.  As I have argued previously it encourages a narrowness of thinking  where faculty talk about “my course” and “my research” and aren’t prodded to think about the larger aims of their department or college.  It elides questions like “where does MY course fit into the larger departmental curricula?”  This autonomous behavior also contributes, in part, to the silo mentality on campus.  Should we be surprised that there isn’t more cross-college collaboration (my university has a generous funding program for this that goes largely untapped) when we simply don’t interact with our colleagues all that much outside of meetings?

(Note: I have painted a deliberately bleak picture of faculty separated from one another [though this *is* mostly what I see on my campus] to make my point and do acknowledge that there are departments/colleges/ universities where this is not the norm.)

Some administrator colleagues at my home institution and elsewhere have taken the stick (as opposed to carrot) approach to this lack of faculty cohesion: insisting that faculty be in their offices a certain number of hours per week, creating course schedules that bring faculty to campus 4 or 5 days a week, etc.  I don’t find much merit in these approaches.  They are interpreted as punitive and if they are intended to promote cohesion and collaboration, I suspect they will fail.  Faculty will simply punch the required clock and then leave campus.  Simply being required to be in your office does not necessarily mean that you will talk to the colleague next door about a new project.

No, instead, as I often am, I am more about the carrot than the stick.  More about quality than quantity.  While the cohesiveness of departments or units will invariably be a function of personalities, other responsibilities outside of work (childcare, for example), and personal preferences, I still maintain that it is important to create spaces and times where departments come together for more than just meetings.  Now, fear not, I’m not proposing (though I used to jokingly threaten my department with this when I was a chair) some scary team building retreat.  I’ve been in academe long enough to know how poorly that would go over.

But I have learned that the common denominator of food and drink can make an enormous difference.  A space to have a cup of coffee and cookie or a space to gather and eat lunch can have small, but remarkable, effects on a work space more generally.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly coffee chat (detailed here).  Senior faculty, adjuncts, and tenure-track colleagues would stop by, chat, and move on as their schedules demanded.  But it broke down barriers and encouraged casual conversations that often naturally, and without a meeting agenda guiding it, became discussions about teaching, curriculum, and research.  The kinds of conversations that you can’t artificially manufacture or script but that lead to collaborations and projects

This semester I will put my money where my mouth is and try a variation on this.  I’ve long wanted to bring together faculty from across my home college (Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) to discuss promoting the humanities.  You know how foreign language departments sponsor language tables where students and faculty gather to practice a certain language?  I want to try something similar for faculty where the “language” we are practicing is the humanities.

Past experience has taught me that two things will be important at the outset.  The first is food.  No, seriously.  We will need to meet over food and coffee.  Doing so relaxes people, creates a different atmosphere, and encourages a kind of sociability that a thing called a meeting doesn’t.  The second is the absence of a rigid agenda.  This goes against everything I’ve said previously about meetings.  But I think in this instance, the conversation should be more free-ranging.  It is okay for the meeting to have a purpose: bringing together like-minded colleagues to discuss promoting the humanities on campus.  But for at least the first few gatherings, I think there needs to be space for lower stakes conversations, getting to know one another, and just chatting.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Three Simple Rules

I’ve been an academic administrator for about six and a half years now.  I’ve been blogging about it for almost two years of that time.  I’ve endeavored to make my shift from faculty to administrator a learning experience and have tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading people, managing time, and introducing necessary change to the workplace.  All of these things can be stressful, and I’ve pondered how to do these things while staying productive and maintaining my sanity.  Over and over again I find myself returning to Three Simple Rules to reduce work stress.

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Rule #1: It’s not personal.  No, it really isn’t.  I know the tone of that email seemed condescending and patronizing.  I know you made special arrangements to be in your office and the student who wanted to meet with you missed the appointment.  I know how angry you are because the dean wants you to teach a different course this semester.  This isn’t to say that people aren’t sometimes jerks or inconsiderate–because they are–but most of the time these infuriating or frustrating behaviors are not meant as a personal affront or attack.  Most of the time, in fact, the bad behavior of others has everything to do with them–their insecurities and anxieties–and nothing to do with you.  And sometimes it’s just business–like the dean asking you to teach that course.  Sometimes people just doing their jobs is going to have unpleasant consequences for you; that doesn’t necessarily make it personal.  So step back and reduce your personal investment in the situation.

Rule #2: Ask yourself: will this (trouble with a colleague, a missed deadline, a disgruntled student) matter in two weeks’ time?  In a month?  In six months?  Most of the time the answer is “no.”  My point is again to step back and assess the situation.  The problem certainly needs to be dealt with and solved; you can’t abdicate responsibility.  But you can lower the stress involved by realizing that the crisis is temporary.

Rule #3: No email after dinner.  This is a tough one for me.  I break this rule often.  But I have also learned the hard way that little good comes from opening your email at 8:30pm and realizing that a crisis has erupted.  Really, what can you do about it from home at 8:30pm?  You can worry a lot.  You can lose a good night’s sleep.  But you probably can’t make significant strides towards fixing the problem until you’re in the office the next day.  So put down the smart phone or the laptop and enjoy your evening.  The difference between finding out about the crisis at 8pm and 8am the next day probably makes little difference in resolving it, but will make a huge difference in your sanity.

These Three Simple Rules have served me well.  What strategies do you have for reducing the stress that comes with being an academic administrator?

Kitchen Tales, part 2

This is the third installment (the first is here and the second is here) about the dilemma of verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  For this post I decided to test a hypothetical case: what if I chose to pursue a case against someone who I believed had verbally abused me?  Would there be colleagues I would be comfortable talking to about this?  Would it be evident from the university website and other resources what my options were?  Because I don’t want to actually alarm anyone here at my institution, this will be mostly a thought and research exercise, but all the same, let’s find out how it might go.

1280px-Marten_van_Cleve,_attributed_to,_his_studio?_-_Kitchen_interior_-_Google_Art_Project

The harassment scenario (and let me be absolutely clear: this is a FICTIONAL scenario.  This did not happen!): Fellow administrator (let’s assume we’re of roughly equal rank–I’m a Dean, he’s a vice provost) who is male comes to my office  and confronts me about a decision I made that has resulted in a budget cut for his office.  He appears at my office door without an appointment and proceeds to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the injustice of my decision, questioning my authority and my good sense.  I have the presence of mind to tell him that I won’t discuss this with him while he’s so upset, which only angers him more.  He finally storms off, slamming my door loudly behind him.   The next day I’m in a meeting with him and other administrative colleagues.  He makes disparaging remarks about my work and contributions to the group and brings up my decision that affected his budget, indicating his dissatisfaction.

What to do?  I talk to a few colleagues who are also close friends.  They agree that the behavior is unacceptable but, like me, are unsure what my recourse is.  I consider talking to the Provost, to whom both I and the abuser report.  Even though I suspect he would be sympathetic, I’m only in my first few months in this position, and I’m not sure how this would be interpreted, especially since the anger was prompted by a decision that I made.

Perhaps I need a more neutral sounding board or resource.  Does the university have a policy on these things?  After I plug “harassment” into website’s search engine, I get this:

https://www.csuohio.edu/sites/default/files/3344-2-03%20COR.pdf

And yes, I am linking to it here, because it is accessible from the university’s public site.

Okay, good.  There’s a policy.  But as I begin to read the policy, several things become apparent: (1) harassment and discrimination are often conflated in the policy and (2) the policy, as written, highlights sexual and racial harassment and discrimination in such a way to make other more generalized claims of harassment a bit more difficult to parse within the policy.  It is unclear to me, for example, why our Office for Institutional Equity (formerly the Office of Affirmative Action) would serve “as the recipient for any formal complaint or report of discrimination/harassment (344-2-03 D (2))” that was NOT based on “race, sex (including pregnancy), religion, color, age, national origin, veteran and/or military status, genetic information, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital status or parental status (344-2-03 A).”  I applaud the university’s comprehensive definition of categories of harassment and discrimination, but they don’t fit my scenario.  There is a more generalized section on “harassment” (344-2-03 B (4)) and it addresses the creation of a hostile work environment.  I guess that’s my entry point.

In the next installment I’ll continue this thought experiment and consider what the risks and consequences of taking action might be.

But for today these are the takeaways:

The good news?  The university has a policy on harassment.  The bad news?  It’s a bit difficult to work through.  What do things look like at your institution?  Is there a policy?  How clear is it?  Would you be comfortable using it?

 

 

Kitchen Tales, Part I

So…about a week ago I posted a blog entry about verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  I asked friends and colleagues to repost, tweet, and spread it.  The results were–by the usual measures of my small-time blog–rather astounding.  Since first going up the post has received over 1700 views.  My previous record was around 600.  I credit my generous and supportive colleagues with this result.  But the accompanying comments on my Facebook pages, on their Facebook pages, and on the blog itself, and the private messages I received would suggest that I tapped into a broader concern.  People shared stories of being on the receiving end of verbal abuse.  Others talked about trying to change departmental and campus cultures to  limit these behaviors.  Many expressed understandable frustration that more wasn’t being done on their campus and by their colleagues to root out this unacceptable behavior.

All of this seemed to me to warrant some follow-up posts: a series that I will call “Kitchen Tales” (since the original post talked about turning down the heat in the kitchen and as a play on the blog’s name).

Woodcut_kitchen

So, today in Part One I offer some observations.

First observation: words matter.  People who verbally abuse others are not “blunt” or “speaking their mind” or “assertive” or “forthright.”  They are engaging in bad behavior and we need to name it appropriately.  We don’t need to be inflammatory, but we do need to call this behavior inappropriate and unacceptable.  We need to resist those who would dress it up or cover it up with a vocabulary that justifies or downplays it.

Second observation: Combating and resisting these behaviors will not be easy work and there will be risks.  Colleagues behave like this, in part, because they can get away with it and have been getting away with it.  Even if you are completely and totally in the right in calling this person out, be prepared for potential negative fallout.  Some will applaud you, but some may ask why you’re making such a fuss or picking on this person or suggest that you are the problem, not the person doling out the abuse.  I don’t say this to be discouraging.  I say it because–as with all whistle-blowing–it’s not guaranteed to go smoothly and you need to be prepared.

Third observation: Know your institution.  What kind of institutional support is there if you or someone else decides to stand up to verbal abuse or bullying?  Do you know what your institution’s anti-harassment policy is?  Or if there is one?  If there is, what does it look like?  The one at my university, for example, groups harassment with discrimination more broadly and sexual harassment more specifically.  While I am grateful that we have a policy that covers many possible unacceptable behaviors, the grouping of all of these categories makes the policy a bit opaque and the path for pursuing a complaint involving verbal abuse is muddled as a consequence.  Perhaps, then, this is an area that needs attention.

Which brings me to my fourth observation: Each campus culture and structure is distinctive and solutions will need to be local.  In a future post I will talk about some general precepts and principles, but implementing these will depend greatly on conditions and circumstances that are specific to your campus.

So your homework is this: start learning about your institution’s policies and procedures. Hypothetically, what would it look like–e.g.what office would you go through, who would you talk to, etc–if you wanted to file a complaint against someone?

 

Turning Down the Heat in the Kitchen

So I wrote this post a month or so ago, tried to find a venue for it, but nobody bit.  The issues it examines have continued to weigh on me, however, and I wanted to get it “out there.”  So I give it to you here instead.

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I recently attended a conference where a plenary discussion wound up focusing on the challenges faced by junior faculty who had to contend with difficult and even abusive colleagues. Not surprisingly, these individuals had struggled, due to the precariousness of their status, to find satisfactory solutions. What was especially troubling, however, were tales of senior colleagues who essentially told them to suck it up and move on. Then a few weeks later a piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted the dilemma of verbal abuse in the academic workplace.  I dove in with heightened interest since the conference’s discussions still weighed heavily on me.  Sadly, I was disappointed.  The article was problematic in a host of ways, but two in particular stood out to me: the author’s assumption that verbal abuse was a normal part of life in the academy, and the complete absence of any engagement with issues of power relations in the workplace and how these inevitably constrain individuals coping with combative behavior. And although a month or more has passed that since that article first appeared, it has stuck with me, because I think it expresses all-too-common-within-the-academy sentiments.

Medieval_kitchen

The author contends that we should view “occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.”  He seems content to live in a rough and tumble world where academics rant at one another, hurl acerbic critiques, yell, and even throw things.  Apparently, when these things happen it’s an opportunity to teach the abuser how to behave better—a bizarre twist on teachable moments if there ever was one. The author even proposes that one strategy is to critically examine ourselves to make sure we were not provoking the abuse with our own attitudes and actions—an academic workplace variation on “she was asking for it because she dressed a certain way.” Failing success with any of these strategies we can turn the other cheek or ignore them.  Overall his approach suggests yet another variation on the theme of “being an academic is tough and full of hard knocks and harsh words; get used to it, or get out.”  But be careful, because if you do leave you are the one who has failed for not being able to take it.  This has got to stop.  I do not want to work in this world and we all have a responsibility to make sure that no one has to.

Which brings me to my second critique.  The author completely ignores the power dynamics that adhere to all workplace relationships; and academe, of course, is no exception.  All of his proposed strategies are compromised, if not completely ineffectual, if the person doling out abuse is your senior faculty colleague, or the provost you report to as dean, or the person who supervises adjuncts, or any number of variations on this scenario.  Add in other factors such as race or gender and you have the making of a particularly fraught situation.  Ironically, the stock photo illustration for this piece makes this point all-too-vividly, even when the author’s words don’t. A woman is being verbally attacked by not just one, but two, male colleagues. And yet her calm, neutral expression suggests, erroneously, that she can, through sheer force of will, transcend the situation.

But because power is a factor in these interactions those of us who are senior, who are department chairs, who are deans, have a responsibility to make things better.  To change a culture that suggests a certain level of abuse is normative.  To be the visible and accessible advocates and mentors for those who are being abused and may not be able to employ strategies like ignoring the abuser or using the interaction as a teachable moment.

Overall, the advice in this article puts the burden on the abused to remedy the situation, suggesting that if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen–and that clearly, you weren’t meant to be a chef in the first place.  This is irresponsible and potentially harmful advice.  As suggested above it may be difficult, if not impossible, to push back against this kind of behavior if this person is in a position of authority over you.  But for those of us who can do something, we need to act. The first something we need to do is hold the abuser accountable and indicate that such bullying behavior will not be tolerated.  These bullies probably don’t limit their unacceptable behavior to certain individuals, so when they treat us this way we need to call them on it. Or perhaps they are a classic bully and they only pick on the weak. There, too, we need to hold them accountable when we see them behaving this way. We also need to make ourselves available as allies. Junior faculty or adjuncts or others in compromised positions don’t always know where they can turn. And if the experiences I heard about at the conference are any indication, it’s not always clear that you can trust or rely on senior colleagues. Rather than wait for these individuals to seek us out, we need to make clear our receptivity and accessibility.

For too long we have accepted certain verbally abusive behaviors as the cost of doing business in the academy. Overall, it’s time to turn the temperature down in the kitchen and make it a place where everyone can work peaceably and productively.

 

New Terms, Old Blues

Oh, August, you’re such a difficult month for academics.  My Facebook and Twitter feeds are already filling with the posts and tweets of dread.  The new semester/quarter/term looms large.  None of us accomplished nearly as much as we’d hoped in the last eight weeks or so.  And, of course, those syllabi aren’t going to write themselves.

Not to go all Pollyanna-ish on you, but I think a good antidote to these Impending Semester Blues, is a dose of What Inspires You.  Reconnect with the things that got you into this game in the first place.  Reflect on your favorite moments in teaching–that time you could practically see the light bulb above the student’s head and you knew he/she “got it.”  That amazing research paper a student wrote two years ago.  The former student who contacted you to tell you about the great job he/she got.  Reflect on what excites you about your research.  Getting that article accepted for publication.  The opportunity to collaborate with a great colleague.  Traveling to a cool city to present a paper.  Remind yourself of the intellectual puzzles that animate your brain.  And just for fun think about the relationship between the cool teaching moments and the exciting parts of research.  Might there be a way in the coming year to get those two things in dialogue with one another?  If they already are, how could you take things to the next level–involving students in your research, for example.

After you’ve reclaimed some of the excitement about being an academic, reinvent yourself, your course, your research.  One of the upsides of academe is that we are given yearly opportunities to press the “reset” button.  Each new terms hands us a new schedule, new students, and new chances to make changes.  Didn’t like that book you assigned last year?  You can choose a new one!  Translate some previous good intentions into action.  Wish you’d gotten more exercise during the spring term?  Look at your fall schedule now and map out some times for regular workouts.  Always falling behind on your email inbox?  Develop a strategy (try this or this, for example) to make it more manageable before the term starts.

Finally, buy yourself something to celebrate the start of the new term.  It doesn’t have to be something big.  A new coffee mug that makes you smile.  A new pen that you’ll enjoy using during those upcoming department meetings.  A great looking accessory (a tie, a scarf) that will put some pizzazz in those days when you’re staring down a long teaching schedule.

At some point, of course, the excitement will wane, there won’t be the time or the energy to reinvent or change things very much, and the new coffee mug will be a bit stained.  But why not ready yourself for those times now?  Set up a regular coffee date with a friend.  Schedule a half-day sometime later in the semester when you’ll put everything aside and go to a movie, read a book, spend time at the art museum, or go kayaking (you get the idea).

In short, make preparations that will shift your perspective.  No use fighting the onset of a new term, but there certainly are some cures for the end of summer blues.