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.
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.
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.