Getting Along

In an effort to spread collegiality, literature professors identify ways to stop bickering.
December 29, 2005

“I hate my evil colleagues.”

“You talk too much.”

“That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Those are some of the nastier statements (sans expletives) that junior and untenured literature professors attending this year’s Modern Language Association conference session titled “Academic Style: Beyond the College Handbook” reported they’ve heard (and, in some cases, uttered) in academe. Several presented their ideas to help tame the behavior that leads to such conflicts.

“It’s our job to interpret the written and spoken word,” said James Martin Lang, an assistant professor of English at Assumption College, in Massachusetts, after presenting a paper based on his recent book Life on the Tenure Track. “So I think we’re more likely to interpret the words and actions of others [and try] to figure out ways to increase efficacy within departments.”

But, Lang noted, just how to do this is not one of the easiest questions he’s contemplated.

Lang said that when he began his trek on the tenure track in 2000, it was a rough year, filled with difficult students, a lack of writing time, and the family pressures that come with having two young children. At that point, he said he burrowed into his work and, to him, “[faculty members] just seemed likable and seemed to get along with everyone else.”

But in years two and three, after adjusting to his new academic life, Lang quickly ascertained that all was not so rosy. He learned “who argued with whom” within his department, and became intent on figuring out the rationale behind disagreements. A junior faculty member soon became Lang’s “omniscient narrator,” providing his own “clarifying vision of the department.”

Lang lapped it up. He said it didn’t take long for him to feel like he was working in an antagonistic department where griping and plotting was the norm, and his friend seemed to be making strong arguments that only confirmed these beliefs.

Juliette C. Wells, an assistant professor of English at Manhattanville College, in Westchester, N.Y., could identify with Lang’s situation. She compared the lives of “new, idealistic academics” to that of Tertius Lydgate, a character in Middlemarch. She noted that the character had big dreams for himself in the medical field, but ultimately succumbed to mediocrity after marrying a superficial wife.

While not going into specific details, Karen Surman Paley, an assistant professor of English at Rhode Island College, said that she’s witnessed many real-life superficial power struggles and rivalries, although she by no means thinks that such behavior is limited to literature departments.

Many people get into academics to be “left alone,” according to Paley, but she said it’s important to “celebrate each other’s successes and interact with human decency.”  

“We may have to give up gossip and speak directly to our colleagues when something troubles us,” she said.

In Lang’s case, his colleague’s gossip increasingly depressed him. But upon examining his friend’s motivations, Lang noted that he tended to lose his temper frequently. In the spring of Lang’s fourth year at Assumption, he said the colleague “blew up at a faculty member” regarding a committee assignment he was displeased with.

Lang -- along with a few other junior colleagues -- told the disgruntled professor that they couldn’t support such tantrums. Ultimately, the colleague – whom Lang mentions in his book without his name -- quit speaking to him. Lang said he “felt like he had a fresh pair of eyes” once he got out of his “friend’s tunnel vision.”

The professors at the session all prescribe to what Lang calls the “hermeneutics of collegiality.”  The philosophy’s tenets are:

  • To remember that there are multiple sides to every story.
  • To assume that colleagues are acting in good faith, and doing what they think is best for the department and the college.
  • To accept and consider all proposals from colleagues on their merits alone -- not on the person proposing them.
  • To keep one’s mouth shut and ears open.

Lang noted that the philosophy can be hard to live by if “selfish colleagues” treat prescribers as “Pollyannas,” and he said that in his own life it’s not always easy to restrict himself from trying to figure out underlying motives.

Paley also offered advice for bringing one’s “best collegial selves out more often,” saying that she has formed an informal group of junior colleagues at Rhode Island College that meets on a regular basis to provide feedback and affirmations.  Since the group began meeting, Paley said that she’s completed a book, another has published an article, and they’re able to “attend more to colleagues and students as whole people.”

But isn’t this all just a bit touchy feely?

Lang, for one, doesn’t think so.  While his former friend still sits “red-in the-face quietly fuming,” Lang said, “I shrug my shoulders and then head home to play with my kids.”


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