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Play Nice — or Else!
December 1, 2013 - 9:03pm

As a woman and a sociologist, I often think about the power of labels. For instance, when a student writes in an evaluation that a professor is not “nice”, or a colleague calls another professor “strident”, what do these labels have to do with our notions of “proper behavior”? Further, how are our notions of “proper behavior” connected with gender, race, or class for instance? Lately, I have also been thinking about what our notions of “proper behavior” in academia have to do with the corporatization of the academy.

 

Labels which seek to chastise people for particular kinds of behavior and their impact on academia can no longer be ignored as more and more institutions (or rogue departments, review committees, deans, or provosts) come to embrace the concept of “collegiality” or "civility" in their reviews of faculty.  Take the recent case of Dr. Sarah Mosher, an assistant professor of French at the University of North Dakota. Dr. Mosher was given a terminal contract at the end of her fifth year, not because she was found lacking in the areas of teaching, research, and service (the “three pillars” as outlined by the faculty handbook), but because she was deemed uncollegial by some members of her department. Her crimes included: “rolling her eyes at faculty meetings” and speaking French to another professor in the hallway (oh, the horror).

 

Should collegiality be a measure of whether one deserves tenure or not? Is getting tenure about "playing nice"? And if so, how do we judge it? What may be seen as an unpleasant quality in a woman (being “overbearing”) may be seen as a sign of leadership in a man. Conversely, what looks like a lack of proactive leadership in a man may simply be a desire to deliberate.  And what may be seen as being exclusionary (i.e., speaking French when you are a professor of French) in some cases may be seen as a sign of mastery in others.

 

Collegiality, like other labels, is a social construct, and as such is much more a reflection of our expectations rather than some “true” reality. Not only are our expectations colored by gender, race, and class, for instance, but increasingly they are influenced by corporate demands that have seeped into academia. Being an uncritical “team player” is one such expectation. But this particular expectation is inherently contradictory to the nature of our work as academics. As academics, we are taught to critique, to argue, to disagree, to think for ourselves – qualities that would make us “bad workers” in the corporate world. None of the above necessitates bad behavior of course; one can disagree without behaving badly. But again, because the judgment of bad behavior itself is subjective and dependent upon preconceived ideas of propriety—a culture and location-specific concept—it must not be a “fourth pillar” of the judgment of our academic worth.

 

As the AAUP's statement On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation states: “The very real potential for a distinct criterion of 'collegiality' to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.” People who disregard that, as did the people involved in Dr. Mosher’s evaluation, essentially do not understand that academia is different from the corporate world. The insistence on collegiality, cloaked as it may be in administrative language of “academic citizenship” or “civility,” hides a profound threat to academic freedom. Academics need to be able to disagree with each other without fearing the consequences. Who will be quieted down by the demands of "citizenship"? And if we give in to the idea of citizenship, does it then become possible to be a traitor and be punished accordingly?

 

There is one other element of corporatization that reared its ugly head in Dr. Mosher’s case: the emphasis on efficiency and the resultant disregard for due process. The misguided recommendation of the department was simply passed through different channels like a box on a conveyor belt, and no one bothered to re-think it until it had reached the level of the president and became a national news story[1]. As the file passed along, people put their stamps and signatures on it, without ever taking it off the conveyor belt and actually examining it. If they had done that at any point, they would’ve known that this case would come back to them as an appeal—or worse, a possible lawsuit.

 

Or have we become so corporatized as to forget that unlike assembly-line workers, those of us in academia who are judged to be “bad workers” often have some recourse within our governance structures?

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[1] Fortunately, the President has since reaffirmed the decision of the Standing Committee on Faculty Rights at UND to rescind the notice of termination, allow Dr. Mosher to continue on the tenure-track, and resume the tenure application process.

 
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu.

 

 

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