What makes a good colleague? Academics weigh in (essay)
“A good definition is almost impossible, but you know one when you see one. The connection is almost immediate.You know it's going to be a good day because you will be seeing that colleague.”
Of my few fond memories of junior high is “honors study hall,” which several friends and I enjoyed by virtue of our grades and teachers’ selection. In that free period in a darkened auditorium away from that “other” study hall, we had a haven. Though the school has long since been demolished and the friends have dispersed, that distant memory surfaced as I shaped this article. Why? I think because my friends and I, different in temperament and talents, created mutual support. We studied, talked, and joked to relieve the stress of school. We helped one another with math or French or whatever problem arose. Forty minutes of dim lights and velvet stage drapes were soothing, too.
“A Kinder Campus” is a career column, and I chose the word “collegiality” deliberately in shaping its mission. Whether one is looking to obtain a job, stay productive and/or advance: Academia is a people business as well as a hub of ideas.
So over winter break I sought out definitions of colleague from contacts while contemplating the term myself. Read on -- and consider what the word means to you.
Encouragement helps us do our best work, top-down, grassroots-up, and side to side. Collegiality can flow from cyberspace to ground – and back again. Reflecting by e-mail, Ohio Wesleyan University President Rock Jones wrote: "My colleagues and I currently are learning a powerful lesson in collegiality from our students. In December, students created an ‘OWU Compliments’ Facebook page that enables them to share anonymous compliments about one another, faculty, and staff. It is heartwarming to see so many positive messages and the impact they are having on our campus. It is a wonderful reminder to all of us to take time to recognize and thank our colleagues for their help and support."
From this example, I glean the value of expressing gratitude and the power of appreciation.
One of my first jobs in academia was as secretary to an English department. There were two senior secretaries; I enjoyed both autonomy and support – the ideal situation regardless of job title. An adjunct faculty member today, I enjoy much student contact, but connecting with colleagues regardless of job title is also important to feeling a part of each campus.
David Sierk, assistant professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) Eastern Campus, explained: “If friends are the family you choose, then colleagues are the family that steps forward. Obviously, someone is not a colleague simply because he or she happens to work in the same place as you do, or even the same hallway or department. Rather, a colleague is someone who listens and helps a peer when it would be easier just to focus on his or her own responsibilities.”
The summer “A Kinder Campus” emerged, I brainstormed with writing center colleagues about a column that could help others. I’ve shared the story before; it might bear repeating. A fellow consultant urged: “Oh please. Please. Not another advice column. I don’t need tips on time management.”
“Do you think we are over-advised as a culture?” I asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” she replied. “Too much advice. No more.”
She stopped. She had thought of something.
“What do you think we need?” she said across the room to another consultant. “A sense of community?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But some who might want community may not have the time to build it.”
Cherished librarians I know are valued colleagues. One declared, preferring anonymity: “I think a good colleague is often like being a good friend... [Y]ou might be collaborating on things having to do with your jobs, but there is still a similar sense of understanding and goodwill that you share with a good friend.” Perhaps this is why when I think of collegiality, I remember friends from childhood -- a time of collaboration, growth and play.
Adviser Julie Larsen added that a colleague “will support you and aid in your professional development and training... challenge you when needed, but also be willing to stand by your decisions... [and be] someone who you can laugh with to keep the mood light and you can count on to help you deliver the best services to students.”
V. A Continuum?
Carrie Buchanan, assistant professor at the Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts at John Carroll University, offered a nuanced definition. "A good colleague is someone who has your back, and for whom you try to provide the same kind of support. A bad colleague actively undermines you, so you adopt a defensive posture and try to steer clear of him or her. There's a continuum, with many colleagues partway between these extremes." She added a qualification: "Attitudes of full-timers toward part-timers can depend very much on whether they, and their department, see part-timers as being at approximately the same level."
Time spent talking over the fence was modeled by the chair of an English department who was our neighbor when I was a child. The fence between our houses was easy-to-twist, mid-thigh wire, and I observed that communication flowed through it. Dr. Cherubini – or “Bill,” as he preferred -- conversed with my mom and dad, immigrants struggling with English, always showing respect. When he was near retirement, I joined his department to study and work for a time. That happened serendipitously, and his example stayed with me.
VII. Risk and Opportunity.
Academic counselor and instructor with the Office for Exploring Majors in Undergraduate Studies at the University of North Texas, Laura Pasquini envisions collegiality extending beyond the “walls” of one’s department. “Although my primary role on campus is to develop, support, and challenge our students, what keeps me engaged is the collaborative spirit shared by staff and faculty. Our students don't compartmentalize their learning, so why should we?” she wrote. “Let's have student affairs, faculty, academic affairs, graduate teaching fellows, researchers, and administrators play in the same sandbox.” Venture out to explore common goals and forge new connections across campus.
Joan Steidl, assistant professor and program coordinator in human services at Kent State University (Ashtabula), explained: “A colleague is a person who challenges me to grow as a professional, who helps me find the positive in situations when I have temporarily lost hope or am filled with self-doubt. A colleague may take on different roles: coach, counselor, confidante, model, scholar, friend. For me, the challenge is: Am I wise and humble enough to reach out and ask for a colleague's help?”
John Panza, assistant professor of English and humanities at Cuyahoga Community College, Eastern Campus, wrote: “A colleague is someone who recognizes you as an equal, respects your opinions, and values friendship as much as the work relationship. Academics presents a unique set of issues relating to competition, quality, even trust. A colleague is someone you can rely on to assist you, to be honest with you, to offer opinions that can be used to better your projects and teaching.”
IX. Live Your Definition.
Career satisfaction is integral to well-being. Success is not just the what of a career: It includes who you are and how you relate to others. No matter where you are in the hierarchy of your campus (or the campus of your dreams), ponder your definition of colleague. Then, strive for it.
This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact email@example.com.