This Academic Life
  Dysfunctional Families
There are times when academia reminds me of nothing as much as a dysfunctional family. Elephants in the middle of the room are ignored in a determined fashion; people lash out at unusual provocations, then apologize afterwards as though that somehow justified their earlier aggression; and pettiness reigns in interpersonal griping and struggles, although never acknowledged as such and more often masked (badly) by appeals to more respectable standards. Add in the enmeshed character characteristic of any situation in which your standing and in many cases your continued employment is contingent on the opinions of your peers, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Two brief illustrations, shorn of names and other identifying markers.

1) I have a colleague at another institution -- a female colleague, which is important -- who was hired two years ago; her university has a reappointment process every two years of pre-tenure service, so she was up for her 3rd and 4th year reappointment. This colleague of mine is, frankly, not the best classroom teacher; her student evaluations generally reflect this. But she's taking steps to improve. Anyway, she has had run-ins with her department chair -- also female -- over the past two years; such run-ins generally take the form of snide comments about how my colleague dresses, passive-aggressively phrased as offers to take my colleague clothes shopping. No shit. Pressing a little further, we might note that the department chair is only an Associate Professor after almost a full university career, and seems to feel that my colleague threatens her somehow, since she's still young and about to publish a number of very interesting articles -- which are consistently belittled by the department chair in subtle ways (since a frontal assault won't work; my colleague's work is very very good within her subfield, as vouched for by senior people in the field).

The upshot? The department chair recommended against reappointment, spinning the bad teaching evaluations in the worst possible light and downplaying my colleague's efforts to make improvements in her classroom technique. Ridiculous, right? No, wait, it gets better: the college committee to which the files are submitted next disagreed with the department chair and recommended reappointment. So now it goes to the dean of the college, who has two opposite recommendations and no clear guidelines for choosing between them. And I suspect that my colleague's fate at that university will depend on a whole series of personal ties between administrators and professors -- processes that play out without anything resembling oversight, and processes in which petty personal griping seems to play an inordinate role.

2) Speaking of petty personal griping: I am evil, at least according to one of my colleagues here, and my evilness manifests itself in my corruption of the youth (the PhD students) away from the One True Path Of Social Science, which involves an emphasis on "empirical" (read: statistical) work with "policy relevance" (read: problem-solving dissertations that seek to tell policy-makers precisely what to do about North Korean nukes or sub-Saharan African poverty or whatever) as opposed to my colleague's ultimate term of derision, "political theory." [Parenthetically, my work is not "political theory" in the sense of consisting largely of discussions of classical texts and the subtleties of their arguments; half of the book I'm finishing is archive-based historical reconstruction, which looks like "empirical work" to me. but I already ranted about this here.] I know that I am evil and reprehensible because said colleague called me on the phone yesterday to bitch at me for fifteen minutes about how I was using the "wrong" standards to evaluate PhD students for admission to our program -- and then apologized today in a backhanded sort of way, saying something to the effect of "yeah, I was angry, but I'm over it now." And this makes it okay to call me up and yell at me how??

Backstory: said person a) blames me for corrupting two of her PhD students; b) thinks I'm a bad influence because more of the PhD students are attracted to the kind of work that I do than they are to the kind of work that my colleague does; and c) disagrees with my vision for what our PhD program is supposed to be about. But do we actually have the argument about that issue? No. [Although we might finally be having that argument at the next committee meeting. After I've been pressing to have that discussion for five years.] Instead, there's petty personal shit, passive-aggressive tactics, an allergy to conflict that involves substantive disagreements, and veiled -- sometimes not so veiled -- reminders that I don't have tenure yet.

See? Dysfunctional.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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