Monthly Archives: August 2015

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.

A Tale of Two Campuses

The news of and reaction to the budget cuts at the University of Akron fueled and animated my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week.  Faced with a deficit that could reach as much as $60 million in the coming year, the Akron administration has cut approximately 200 positions, including the entire staff of its university press.  The outrage has been clear and vocal.  And those protesting have noted various ironies: the football team loses money but remains, the president is the beneficiary of numerous perks, at least one of their deans makes over $200,000 a year (more than the equivalent of the entire press staff’s salaries).

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Comme_Sisyphe_-_Honoré_Daumier

It is possible that there are valid explanations for why these specific cuts were made and why the seeming ironies do, in fact, make sense.   But herein lies the problem: the Akron administration has been notably un-transparent about its decision-making process and has offered vague and opaque explanations in the press.

Contrast this with the case of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire–profiled in this excellent piece by Inside Higher Ed reporter Kellie Woodhouse.  This campus was faced with a similarly daunting financial situation–a $12.3 million deficit, a consequence of Governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts to higher education.  The Eau Claire administration’s behavior and leadership during this time of crisis and low morale, however, embody many important lessons for the administration of Akron and others.  I’ll highlight a few:

* “The majority of eliminated positions will be administrative” and many of these will be at senior levels.  Nothing angers faculty faster than being asked to bear budget cuts when the administrative ranks continue to grow and garner large salaries.  Administrations need to demonstrate that the cuts will be felt at all levels–even the senior ones.

* “Eau Claire didn’t hire consultants…but instead asked about a dozen alumni with business experience to share their expertise and recommendations.”  Another thing that often angers faculty and other observers is the tendency to pay high-priced consultants to help you manage budget crises.  But the decision to use alumni instead?  What a great way to demonstrate your faith in the degrees you award.  Brilliant!

* “Eau Claire assembled a group to consider how such changes might affect the curriculum.”  Proactively managing change encourages transparency (you can’t manage it, if you don’t say what it’s going to be), involves other participants, and generally helps sow the seeds of good will.

* “Schmidt [the Chancellor] says he’s consulted with faculty through each run of restructuring…Members from the Eau Claire’s University Senate agree that they’ve been part of the process, and that administrators have been transparent and communicative about reductions.”  Many things to love about this: consulting, transparency, and communication top the list.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors that play into things not going well for Akron and things going better at UW-Eau Claire.  But I can’t help but be struck by the Eau Claire administration’s playbook.  It seems to me that they are managing a bad situation by setting an example (cuts at senior levels), demonstrating transparency, and encouraging conversation.  It’s not a mysterious or complicated strategy, but it’s one that other universities would we well-served to embrace.