Tyro Tracts

Tilting at Windmills

New faculty members have to pick their battles with care, writes Nate Kreuter.

March 12, 2012

In graduate school one of my faculty confidants (actually, more than one) regularly warned me to stop "tilting at windmills." The expression, derived from Don Quixote’s delusional and self-righteous attempts to lower his spear and joust against the windmills of the Spanish countryside, of course means not to fight unwinnable fights, but especially it means not to create battles through one’s own delusions. It also might mean not to fight petty, low-stakes battles. Self-righteousness, a grand generator of both delusion and pettiness, is not, it turns out, a winning quality in the academy.

Yet self-righteousness is a regular presence around the academy, more so than in most other communities that I’ve been a part of. But it makes sense that there’s plenty of self-righteousness around. The academy is, as I’ve previously noted, full of intense, passionate, quirky people, who are quick to defend their passions and their quirks, and probably rightly so. Territorialism and a quickness to go on the defensive often froth up self-righteous anger, though. And self-righteous anger — and I speak from experience here — in turn inspires cavalier behavior, behavior that gets one noticed in the wrong sorts of ways. It is — still speaking from experience here — to be avoided.

I’ve found that one of the toughest aspects of transitioning from the graduate ranks to the faculty ranks is knowing when to dig in one’s heels, and when to turn a blind eye. As a junior faculty member it is especially hard to know. No matter what institution a junior faculty member joins, and no matter the nature of the institution, an entire history will precede the new hire. Virtually inevitably, one's new institution will have a new (to you) way of doing business.

The difficulty of learning (or perhaps simply absorbing) the idiosyncratic ways and frequently opaque norms of a new institution is why the first year of one’s appointment (no matter where) is an infamously vexing year, perhaps matched for stress only by the year in which one goes up for tenure. In the first year of a new job the new hire is learning how to navigate the new institution's culture, its personalities, its history, learning how to distinguish fellow knights errant from the windmills. It is a good time, early in one’s career, to stay on the sidelines during battles, especially during the imaginary battles. And when you’re the new kid in the department, so to speak, it is tough to even understand what the battles are, what the stakes of the battles are, or where the battle lines are drawn.

But picking one’s fights — and the metaphor throughout this column is lamentably martial, I realize, but perhaps unavoidably so — does not mean refusing to fight all of the time. Departments generally want faculty members who will contribute to the health and culture of the department, and contributing frequently means taking a stand, committing to a position. You too will have to take a stand, commit to position, perhaps many times, and early in your career, before tenure is achieved. Confrontation is virtually inevitable, because even refusing to take part in deciding a divisive issue is a stand in its own right. Not without reason, Dante relegated those who abstain from important votes to the ninth circle of hell, as I've heard one administrator quip.

Often the sorts of issues that will be divisive within a department are obvious, decisions pertaining to dramatic curricular changes, difficult budget cuts, or longstanding departmental tensions. But disarmingly, it is equally often difficult to predict, especially as a relatively new faculty member, what issues will get your new department riled up. Sometimes departmental controversies might hinge not so much on the issue at hand, but more on the personalities involved. There is, unfortunately, no formula for how to predict or handle the difficult moments. The best one can do is tread lightly and deliberately, and be alert. You may want to take the department’s pulse by running your thoughts about a divisive issue by a departmental mentor. You may want to simply remain quiet, if your position’s side is either unwinnable or already well-represented. The closest thing to a rule of thumb that I have been able to establish for myself is that it is better to listen before speaking, and better to listen more than to speak.

Departments are also a bit like wolf packs — members of the pack may occasionally nip and snarl at one another. But when there is the perception of a threat from the outside — say, a potentially harmful curricular change being imposed from somewhere else in the university — the pack tends to unify against the perceived threat. In such moments, I think that it is especially important not to offend colleagues outside of one’s department. Let your senior colleagues do the "fighting." It is their job, and the obligation of their seniority.  While your departmental peers see all that you do — good and bad — a colleague outside of the department may remember you only for your missteps, because they don’t work in proximity to you and see your good works and deeds within your own department.

But being wary does not also mean living as milquetoast. A healthy department (and university) will not only allow you to voice your opinions, but will indeed ask you, even require you, to voice them.  There is a difference, though, between sharing your perspective, or even taking a principled stand, and commencing open warfare. Two of the three can be done with both humility and diplomacy, and the other, by definition, cannot.

A healthy dose of humility and charity will help us all to avoid unnecessary or counter-productive confrontations. Are you appalled that somebody isn’t doing something the "right" way? Might there be more than one way of doing things? Is your notion of "right" or "best" grounded in anything more than your own perspective? Perhaps more importantly, are there stakes in the battle? Stakes other than simply pride? — which is really no stake at all.

Within healthy departmental and institutional cultures, even junior faculty members are encouraged to weigh in on controversial issues, without having to fear censure or reprisal. Similarly, savvy administrators — department chairs, deans, provosts, and the like — won’t generally put junior faculty in the line of fire by asking them to take leading roles on committees with controversial tasks or by asking them to handle any especially divisive issues. To do so would be to put the junior faculty member into a lose-lose situation.

Assuming that the administrators that you answer to don’t throw you into the middle of pitched battles, the last remaining trick is to avoid throwing oneself in front of the cannons, so to speak. No doubt, easier said than done.

Graduate students are by necessity shielded from many of the realities and details of professorial life. Hard as it may be for new faculty to accept at times, very few decisions within the academy are made on purely pedagogical or scholarly grounds. Instead, exigencies and unseen pressures abound. Budgets, to begin with. Precisely the sorts of pressures that graduate students don’t routinely have to deal with. Universities are complex cultures, and dozens of variables may influence curricular decisions, or any aspect of the university’s operations. I’m not promoting cynicism, but I am suggesting that, as for Mr. Quixote, too much idealism can get one into more than a little trouble within the kingdom of academe.

After my dissertation defense, a milestone that invites much reflection, I mentioned to one of my committee members how surprised I was by some of the battles I had witnessed as a graduate student. "It’s all crabs and scraps," he said.

"What?" I asked, genuinely perplexed.

"Most of the university is just crabs fighting for scraps. Don’t be one of the crabs," he expanded, cynically even if not necessarily helpfully.

His cynicism is a bit over the top even for me, but the sensibility is worth keeping in mind. Not all battles are worth fighting, because not all battles have genuine stakes.


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