Don't Be a Jerk

February 17, 2010

Spring may seem distant in a year in which 49 states have snow on the ground, but those coming up for their step-one tenure reviews are probably already starting to sweat, and mid-year hires are just now settling into a (semi-) comfortable groove. It’s not too early to start contemplating your campus karma. Here are a few ways to do some impression management.

1. Avoid pomposity. Young faculty often engage in name-dropping in the mistaken impression that it increases their intellectual credibility. Go easy on that stuff as it’s a behavior pattern that’s more associated with the campus egoists than with good colleagues. Avoid pomposity of all sorts. Don't waltz into classes late exuding an air of self-importance. Do not make condescending remarks to others (even if they deserve them), and don't give the impression that you’re too busy to be bothered with anything. You want to…

2. Be a colleague, not a prima donna. One of the types that pushes my buttons — and I’m not alone — is he who pontificates over his own work ad infinitum and never shows the slightest bit of interest in what anyone else in the room is doing. Good colleagues are interested in the entire intellectual life of their institutions, not just their own fiefdom. Look for ways to engage colleagues. For instance, younger folks should know that some older department members are less tech-savvy than they. When you can, walk them through new stuff, but pick their brains when you do; they can enlighten you on institutional history and campus expectations. But if you really want to alienate people, here’s something that happened at a college near me: One faculty member found that his research and assignments were being critiqued and criticized by another professor in class. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to have foretold the review darts that colleague number two found lodged in his back.

3. Collaboration means you contribute. Another real-life example not to emulate: An assistant professor coming up for review wanted to pad her vita, turned on the charm, and convinced senior colleagues to sign aboard several "collaborative" projects. She did very little work on "co-authored" works other than read conference papers that were mostly written by others. She got by the first review, but didn’t survive the long run.

4. Learn the difference between passion and temper tantrums. There’s nothing like a faculty meeting for sturm und drang. I used to be one of the idiots who’d got lathered up at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t effective. I earned a reputation as a malcontent, though I foolishly thought myself a rationalist pointing out what seemed to be obvious flaws. I was even right much of the time, but my style swamped substance. It’s better to be a sly fox than a roaring lion, and by all means save your energy for the good fight, not every fight.

A variant of this is the person who always complains loudly that he or she "must" have something — be it a particular classroom, a separate lab, all afternoon classes, an extra TA, a new laptop, or what have you. Anything that smacks of "special privilege" will be resented and the enemies made seldom outweigh the complain gain. If you really need something — as opposed merely to wanting it — engage your colleagues in the issue and make them into allies instead of critics.

5. Don’t treat the staff as if they are your staff. There's a big group on campus you need to learn about — it's called the "working class." Treat them as your equals and don’t for a moment think they have no power over your future; department chairs often use these folks as a gauge of how a professor is perceived. They are akin to hairdressers and bartenders — they hear it all, including remarks professors make about each other. Use words such as “please” and “thank you” when you deal with staff members. Chat with secretaries, cleaners, and maintenance staff and show interest in their lives. Do what you can to crumple class barriers. Hey, would it kill you to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies from one of their kids?

6. If you promise, deliver! My wife edits an alumnae publication. She also has low blood pressure. If I want to make it rise I ask her for an update on promised faculty submissions for her upcoming issue. In the real world, people have I-really-mean-it deadlines that exist on calendars, not in Plato’s realm of Ideas. As academics we control much of our workflow. This is an enormous privilege that we ought not to abuse. If you tell someone — a reporter, a staff member, a community group — that you’ll do something, do it and do it when you agreed to do so. If you renege because you’re "too busy," expect no sympathy and don’t believe it when those you’ve stiffed feign understanding. Your name is mud, buster! And, yes, it will filter back up the food chain.

7. Did I mention avoiding pomposity? Who’s your audience? You’d ask that of any writing student, so don’t forget it outside of class. You don’t have to wear your metaphorical professor’s tweed jacket 24/7. New faculty are often the subjects for mini-profiles in alum publications, college newsletters, and local papers and Web sites. Likewise, professors often field media requests for public commentary. The media want "hooks" and basics to engage readers, not a dissertation. Let your hair down and don’t worry about whether you’re "dumbing down" your research. Dude! It will be truncated; reporters have x number of words to devote, not x + what you want to add. Use regular language and don’t fight over trivial edits. It just doesn’t matter if you’ve used the word “iterated” and it gets changed to "repeated." Reporters don’t tell you how to do your job, so don’t tell them how to do theirs. You’ll look better if they see you as "approachable" instead of stuffy.

By all means remember your audience when you give a public talk or feedback to a community group. In such cases your number one goal is to be understandable. An amiable town/gown encounter buys you untold amounts of goodwill. Provosts and deans love this kind of stuff.

8. Don’t be a slob! My final advice is more important than you can ever imagine: If you want to finish dead last in the campus Miss Congeniality contest, leave physical messes for others to clean. Are you the sort who leaves coffee cups, crumbs, and food wrappers everywhere? Spills things and leaves them for the cleaning staff? Fouls the staff microwave and doesn’t bother to wipe it clean? Allows food to gather mold in the staff fridge? Doesn’t pay attention to personal hygiene? If you think that this stuff doesn’t matter, you might be in for a nasty surprise. Whiners and slobs generally rank one and two on most people’s avoidance lists, and that includes tenure and promotion committees.

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