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Accounting for Culture

9 September, 2010

Accounting for Culture

My academic year started on an interesting note. At our first faculty meeting, the SLAC president stood up and read some of the responses to the annual, ‘what could we be doing better?’ survey. A couple were pretty harsh. One pretty much said, “There are faculty who repeatedly not only don’t pull their weight, but also who make life more difficult for those who do. Some of them even get ahead because they write while the rest of us do the service. When the hell are you going to address this?” There was a gentle susurration, a flow of murmurs, and then we moved on. Later that day, someone asked if it were my comment. Nope. I knew whose it was, though. Hell, I knew by the tone. Two other people have asked me if I wrote the complaint. They were glad someone had finally talked about the elephant. I’m not sure what it means that they thought it was me, although it probably surprises no one that I am often the person who misses the “don’t talk about the elephant” signals. The thing is, I don’t tend to talk about such things anonymously. That’s a little weird, because — believe it or not — I hate confrontation. I hate being angry. I hate being on the spot. It makes me physically ill. Really. Even asking questions at conferences when I know those questions might be elephant questions makes me a little sweaty and queasy. But I feel this compulsion. If a question begs to be asked, I have to ask it. *

Still, that question of, “what are you going to do?” hangs in the air. What will we do? What can we do? We can, apparently, imitate ostriches or headless chickens pretty well. Pretend it goes away. Run around complaining. Fix things? It’s amazing how powerless a SLAC full of advanced degrees can be when it comes to confrontation and job performance.

Job performance. Being a faculty member is a job. I have one. Lots of people don’t. I’ve got quasi-tenure, and it would take at least a couple of years to get rid of me, unless I did something egregious, but honestly? I have a job, with a boss, and a set of external standards that may be less rigorous than my own, but are standards nonetheless. But so much of my performance as an employee depends on my own set of standards and ideas of professional ethics, and those things are not, apparently, universal. My own standards require that I put students first and actually fulfill my service obligations. Those are, fortunately, the standards espoused by Superdean and the Provost, as well as by many of my colleagues. Not all of them, though. And that seems to be the rub for a lot of the people I know who teach in SLACs. I think that this may be one of the issues more glaringly obvious at SLACs than at other places, if only because SLACs tend to be smaller, and are often private. These two factors, even more than a generational one that I think might also exist, are arguably the most influential in creating the sorts of tensions that the comments at the faculty meeting indicate.

The S in SLAC stands for ‘small’. Small student bodies mean small faculties. Small faculties often mean small departments. In a department of 20, it’s pretty easy for one or two people to fly under the radar when it comes to teaching and service. This is especially true where research is clearly an important, perhaps even the most important, part of the job. That also tends to be true in the larger departments, which are most often found in what used to be called R1s (or, in the UK, Russell Group unis). At research campuses, the greatest rewards tend to go to those who are the most productive. Because they offer postgraduate degrees, faculty often have marking help from TAs, students who don’t necessarily think to go to academic advisors for hand-holding, and large lecture-style classes. Teaching and especially service are often seen as unfortunate responsibilities in such institutions. This isn’t always true: I can think of a dear friend who is at an Ivy and tends to do a lot of service, and LDW is a senior faculty member at a research uni, has always carried a heavy teaching load, a heavy service load, and publishes voluminously in our field and in another — and regularly marks 400-500 exam scripts each term. So I know that even in some Research unis, teaching and service can also be important, or at least take up substantial amounts of time. BUT — there is still that ability for those who are successful scholars to fly under the radar in bigger departments.

At SLACs, that’s less likely to be true. We know who is doing what. In the best situations, we know what our colleagues think about teaching, what they are researching (or would like to be, if they could find the time), what committees they are on, and what’s happening on them… and that’s seldom limited to our departments, because we are so small. People actually read newsletters to see what’s going on with the colleagues they don’t know so well (and, admittedly, to see who got funded for what so they can congratulate them or nurse grudges — this is academia, after all!). In the worst situations, departments or programs can disintegrate under the stress caused by one or two people. Sometimes it’s not all that visible: a new and interesting colleague comes into a department, and leaves in a year or two. And then the next does the same. And then a third. Other times, it might be a matter of someone behaving unprofessionally, but the people who notice have reputations for taking things personally, and their complaints are not clearly rooted in what is really the most important issue: person X is not doing hir job. And sometimes, it seems, everybody knows there’s a problem. And it seems like nothing is being done. Morale suffers. A disgruntled person notices a colleague in another department seemingly getting away with murder, hears gossip, internalizes it, and thinks, “hell — why should I be working this hard when so-and-so doesn’t have to?” And so it goes. There is an impression that we are not really being held accountable.

The thing is, we are. We are accountable to ourselves. We are accountable to our colleagues, we are accountable to our students. But our culture is not one that is transparent about these things. Nor should it be. Job performance details are privileged information. Nowhere else would you have people essentially expecting to know if Henry’s evaluations were ok, or if Sue had been placed on an action plan. But in the business world, Henry and Sue could be terminated quickly, or could be given an action plan that might be as long as 3 months to meet certain metrics. Academia works on another calendar.

You knew that, didn’t you? We start our year in the Fall. We think in terms, plus Summer. We submit papers to journals and they might be published 18 months later. And our timeline for dealing with professional issues is necessarily different, too. Say a colleague appears to have disengaged from students, service, even showing up, except for classes (this is not normal at a SLAC, to the best of my knowledge). A few people notice, but someone says they heard the colleague was having personal issues — death in the family, divorce, illness, feeling burnt-out, whatever. It’s one semester, and everybody has a bad semester now and then. Hell, I’ve had semesters where I had a really hard time getting to classes on time. In my case, this was because I was commuting 45 miles each way, going through a divorce, and generally not sleeping. My body and brain were really not operating very well. And that can happen to anybody who is dealing with a lot of stress. Few people noticed, but I knew, and tried very hard to make sure it didn’t happen again. Still, I was surprised my evals were almost as good as usual. Anyway, so one semester goes by. There’s no complaint, no documentation, because the rumor-mill has provided an explanation.

And then it happens again. And mid-semester, someone says something to an administrator. The administrator might document it, but might not. Because we are all professional adults, and a friendly talk might be enough. But it’s not. Meanwhile, the faculty member has received her annual contract (because even tenured people still have to agree to terms of employment in most places), and knows that she is safe for another year. So one year has gone by, and no documentation. The next year, the administrators are more wary, but there are no serious complaints. Grumbling, but the students seem happy enough, and the colleague shows up for the meetings for the single committee she’s on. She’s doing the bare minimum, but that’s not enough to fire a person. It might be enough to deny a merit increase, but if a faculty member isn’t worried, then that’s not really a stick. And so it goes. It can take several years of assiduous documentation to get to a point to show cause for firing a faculty member, because in academia, annual review is often not based on meeting certain metrics or losing one’s job. And there can be a difference between doing a good job in terms of one’s students, colleagues, and institution, and doing a good job in one’s own terms. Academics tend to measure worth in terms of scholarship. If a person wants to move up, it’s not done through great teaching or exemplary service. It’s done through publishing. It’s a weirdly oppositional arrangement. The things that are most portable in terms of our CVs are also the things that are least community minded. They are the things that come out of the most solitary aspect of our jobs, and so we are in some ways rewarded for a sort of independence that really isn’t – it relies on the goodwill of our colleagues and their willingness to pick up the slack. But in terms of how we function and how the research and writing is done, it is independent. And traditionally, we bring a sense of entitlement derived from our independent work into the classroom. And there, we really are becoming more and more accountable. Talk about a clash of cultures!

And I will, next time. In the meantime, I need to get the house ready for a party, mark 50 essays, prep classes, send in paperwork for a conference panel, send in an application for conference funding, set up a schedule for a program I’m running for our Provost, register for Berks (YAY! I am giving a paper there! and I might even be able to travel by train to get there!), and write a bunch of stuff.

Yeah — it’s a big list. I expect I’ll be back well before then, because I need to write regularly and thoughtfully, so here I go.

*There’s a lot more that could be said about my conference questions, but for now, I’m sticking to the others…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 September, 2010 12:13 am

    I feel tired just reading this, for reasons I you are probably aware of.

  2. 17 September, 2010 1:00 am

    I am — and glad it's not because it's tl;dr!

  3. 17 September, 2010 5:52 am

    This is a really interesting set of reflections. I'd add some history here — I think the focus on publication has really increased even during my career. And while some of it may be self-induced, institutions have all tried to "raise the bar". (When I was hired by a SLAC 30 years ago, the institution had started to require publications for promotions, and there were a bunch of folks stalled at associate prof, who 5 years earlier would have been promoted. Not good for morale.)The one thing I'd add is that there are internal rewards that many of us want. I was told today that we got a new line in part because I'm a good citizen. And another program is NOT getting a line because they are not good citizens.

  4. 17 September, 2010 2:15 pm

    Susan, those are both great points. Add into the mix that raising the bar too much can also mean that a person with a heavy teaching load may look to move to another position with similar teaching requirements, but a lighter load. I'm lucky in that the actual requirements for publication at my SLAC are reasonable, but they are nowhere near as high as what I expect of myself. Still, when I get depressed about not being productive enough, I can remind myself that I am m still achieving more than the minimum for my campus, which really does want us to focus on innovative teaching.And yes, good citizenship can count a lot — but again, a double-edged sword, I think. A department with bad citizens can end up losing out, even when it had mostly good citizens. Also, I think it's one of those things that can't be broadcast too widely. You know your citizenship helped you, but does everybody? or is that just one of those institutional cultural things people are supposed to pick up on?

  5. 20 September, 2010 6:01 pm

    Thanks for this. In the UK, at least, the tendency to downplay teaching in favour of research seems to reflect a relatively recent shift in university culture too. My former supervisor told me recently that he'd always considered teaching to be the most important thing, with publication a valuable second. There's still a lot of good citizenship here, but the emphasis has definitely shifted towards research. This is probably down to the assessment model for universities here, which has tended to focus on research, without acknowledging the ways research and teaching can mutually reinforce one another. That's supposed to be changing in the near future, but we'll see.

  6. 21 September, 2010 3:29 am

    I think the RAE has in some ways been a disaster for the UK. I wish there were some way to make sure that the people who ran universities and government oversight of education had actually done — and maybe were even still doing — the job.

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