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Knowledge, Power, Trust , Collegiality, Communication, Ownership, Empowerment

23 August, 2013

It’s embarrassing to see how long it’s been since I last posted. Part of me says I shouldn’t be posting now, because I am very behind on syllabuses, proofing a chapter, a translation, and a bunch of other things. However, on the theory (and experience) that I am more productive when I take the time to blog and read blogs, and feel much more engaged when I do so, I am starting my academic year and blogging year anew. I have conference posts, and pre-sabbatical posts, and all sorts in the back of my head, but the title of today’s post refers to a series of interconnected topics that have been on my mind for a while, and have come glaringly to the forefront since my arrival back on campus. Rather than post one excessively long post, I am going to be breaking things up over the next few days, or as long as it takes, starting … now:

Much of these essays are predicated on the idea that people in general like to what things going on in their world are likely to affect them, and how. It’s often said that people don’t like change. I think that that can be true, but for me and, from what I can tell, in any institutional situation, it’s not necessarily the change that people object to — it’s change when it’s presented as fait accompli. Academics are used to being thought of as experts. They work with a lot more autonomy than people in most occupations. Most universities have some sort of inclusion of faculty in the governance structure, so there is an expectation of consultation on some level. In those places where a hierarchical organization is firmly in place and recognized by all participants, then the nature of the hierarchy and the role of faculty governance play a big part in setting expectations on how decisions are made, implemented, and received. Whether or not people like the decisions, there is at least the comfort in knowing that the system is working; even if it’s a completely objectionable top-down, rule by fiat structure, there’s the comfort of knowing bastards will behave like bastards. In places like SLAC, where the structure and relationships are less clearly defined, and/or ignored by at significant portion of the faculty and overlooked by administrators, it can be more difficult. 

The difficulties are varied: because the structure and relationships are unclear, they are understood and defined differently by different people. So, for example, there are those who really aren’t bothered by changes in duties or expectations, because they are happy to show up, teach classes, keep their heads down, and get paid. They’ll do what they need to in order to stay under the radar, but as far as they are concerned, they don’t really report to anyone. I know at this point some of you might be laughing, but really, it’s true. SLAC sent me to a really good workshop for department and division chairs, run by and for places like SLAC. At one point, we were asked, “who’s your boss?” Maybe a third of the people there had an answer: generally, it was, “the dean, then the provost.” Most people looked puzzled. According to the people running the workshop, when they polled all the faculty at places similar to SLAC, the percentage of people who could identify a “boss” or who saw themselves as employees was even smaller. (I should point out here that none of the places in question were unionized — the language of labor and management makes it pretty damned hard not to see oneself as an employee). That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does beg the question of how a person sees herself in relationship to other parts of the university and its structure.

On the other end, there are those faculty who volunteer for every committee, and show up to every function, and even when they aren’t, they want to know details of what every committee is doing. They deal with change by trying to make sure they are part of the process. Part of the impetus is that being in on things, and having advanced knowledge makes them more comfortable. For many, though, I think it also indicates reacting to a lack of trust. How it plays out depends on whether that lack of trust is well-founded or not. If someone grudgingly volunteers because the administration is lousy at soliciting or listening to faculty input, it indicates to me that they take on the service because they see themselves as a member of a larger university community, with an obligation to the institution and (sometimes even more) to their colleagues and students. Knowledge is a means to power, and something that should be shared in order to diminish chances of its abuse. On the other hand, there are those faculty whose understanding of their positions in the university, and more importantly, in relation to their colleagues, is framed by their service. For them, knowledge is power, and holding on to that knowledge gives them a higher position in an unstatable hierarchy — but unlike other unstatable hierarchies, this one is rooted in their own insecurities. Those same insecurities and understanding of the knowledge/power relationship seem to me to explain their unwillingness to sit back and let their colleagues do their share: they do not trust them with “power”, not because the colleagues are untrustworthy, but because it places the colleagues above them in the knowledge/power hierarchy.

Obviously there are lots of other ways that faculty see themselves in relation to the university, their students, and their colleagues, but they all impinge on how faculty see their autonomy and its limits. Or rather, perhaps, how a person understands autonomy frames their interactions and relationships with the university, colleagues, and students. So what happens when faculty at the same institution have vastly different ideas of what autonomy means?


That’s for tomorrow.

UPDATE: Yeah, so my resolution to not be so much of an anti-social hermit this year got off to an ill-timed, but excellent start. Don’t even ask how much isn’t done for Monday. So today’s post will come tomorrow.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 August, 2013 4:19 pm

    Welome back! We’ve missed you. And this is a great post for me at this particular time. Thanks for pulling me out of my own head.

  2. 25 August, 2013 1:34 am

    Heh — trying to stay out of mine, so yay for both of us!

  3. professorsusan permalink
    27 August, 2013 6:15 am

    Thanks for this. I am struggling with a colleague who doesn’t really think he’s accountable to anyone other than himself and his students. And yes, the idea of autonomy is really key (and the big challenge when it comes to assessment.)

    • 30 August, 2013 3:03 pm

      Me too. If you are teaching a class that is supposed to develop a particular skill and you teach it in such a way as to develop only half of the skill, I think you’re committing pedagogical malpractice. However, academic freedom on our campus is interpreted to mean that you can teach your class with the methodology you prefer. Since the course objectives include “student will be able to do skill” but doesn’t define the parts of the skill, I don’t see how I can say that the course objectives can’t be met. The colleague can just argue that his definition of the skill is more than adequate.

      I just became aware of this and I’m probably not being coherent since I don’t want to identify the discipline. God this makes me nuts.

      • 3 September, 2013 11:10 pm

        I sympathise. I think this is why skills need to be defined clearly. An unwillingness to cooperate on a general set of definitions can undermine the best of a program’s intentions, and seems to happen all too often. Connecting it to academic freedom offends me in more ways than I can list. Equally disastrous, though, is when faculty flat out don’t teach what’s in the course description when the course is a gateway pre-req. That really is malpractice, as far as I am concerned. I expect a lot of leeway on how things are taught, and even on what content is taught in a field like history or lit (even when there is a set of department requirements, or some sort of agreement with accreditation agencies that sets some sort of core). After all, if I teach the Early Middle Ages, I am likely to spend more time on the European continent than on insular stuff, and possibly more time on Islam than Byzantium (or vice versa). I can think of colleagues who would emphasize other parts more. As long as the subject areas are covered, I’m fine with it. But when course objectives aren’t even addressed? Pisses me off.

  4. 29 September, 2013 7:02 pm

    Hey there! Just another shout-out from an old-school blogger trying to crawl out of semi-hermitude…

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