'Talking Out of School'

In Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman (Dalkey Archive Press), Kass Fleisher reviews her education and her career in college teaching -- without holding back criticism of herself or academe. Sexual politics, class politics and academic politics all figure prominently. The following excerpt is from a section in which she recalls her years as an adjunct. Spoiler alert/warning: There is explicit language throughout the book -- including a few choice words in the excerpt that follows.

1998. I’m adjuncting, and have precisely one friend on the faculty, the guy who got me the gig. We have lunch together every week and we’ve had precisely one argument in the entire span of all our lunches, about a relationship he had with a student once. He tells it as a personal horror story. She’d been bright, talented, precocious -- and ultimately unstable. She filed harassment charges against him, he spent good money to hire a lawyer, he was forced to detail to his department chair some embarrassingly intimate details...

... and the chair let it go. When the university affirmative action officer agreed that the relationship had been consensual that the relationship made sense given consent the charges were dropped.

He comes to my office one day, disturbed. One of his older-women graduate students has written an angry letter, distributed to the chair, the vice-president and the president -- by way of demanding her tuition money back -- complaining that he swears too much in class shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits. The chair of the department does not inform him that he and the big boys have received said letter. The chair sits on the letter for a week or two and then, without conferring with the instructor, conducting a hearing, or even remembering (apparently) that grievance procedures have been established and printed in the faculty handbook, he writes my friend a formal letter of reprimand, stating that he’ll be subject to “disciplinary action” if ever another such complaint arises.

“She may, with some justification,” the chair writes, “formally bring a charge of harassment against you.

“Copies of this and the student’s letter will be placed in your personnel file.”

To sabotage your tenure review next year, the letter does not say.

Unlike the chair (apparently), my friend and I consult the faculty handbook and find that this letter indeed violates multiple personnel procedures...

... and further, that the only “disciplinary action” listed is termination.

Fuck, man. You mean you can lose your job for saying “fuck”? You call that fucking “ harassment”?


A month later, when the instructor’s student evaluations come back from the students who remained in the tech writing course after the complaining student left -- 40 percent of whom are women -- he will get a solid 5.0 on a 5-point scale—unanimous enthusiasm.

The chair will never comment on this....

1998. “I will no longer tolerate,” the chair writes in his letter to my friend, “what can only be described as your insensitive, vulgar, and obscene language in the classroom.”

The colleague’s intent in a graduate-level, academic tech writing class (i.e., not a vocational training workshop) is not just to teach students how to type memos, but rather to challenge students to consider how they know what they know as tech writers. This can be achieved while they expand their knowledge of their field, which exists right in the oily hinge, right in the fishy craw of the intersection of higher education and the corporation. Given the mess such a collision must be, he and I agree, some form of institutional critique is vital, and this sort of three-dimensional, reflexive analysis can, over time, only make students better tech writers. To know your context is to know your work.

Like many of his grad students, the complainant is his age, and already works as a tech writer. For much more than his salary.

From the first class meeting, she’s been unwilling to question herself in this manner. She’s uninterested in engaging his “message.” She pronounces the first assignment “a waste of time.” She simply wants to be told what she needs to “know” in order to cough up a master’s degree and presto! get a still higher salary.

“Withdraw me from this class, and do not charge my account.”

My “vulgar, obscene” colleague has been working with a search committee all fall. The chair calls him the week of Thanksgiving break and tells him that he’s being removed from the committee.

When my friend asks why, the chair explains that it’s political. A colleague with opposing pedagogical values has demanded to be included equal time on the committee.

The work’s almost done.

“He’s making this demand three weeks before we interview candidates at the MLA convention?” my friend says.

The chair nods.

“He just up and got pissed off at this late date?”

The chair has no real answer for this.

“At this late date?”

“It’s about fairness,” the chair says. “It’s about making sure both sides are represented.”

The only added perk for taking on all the added work of reading 300 application files is that you get reimbursed for the trip to the hiring conference, the Modern Language Association convention that meets annually between Christmas and New Year’s. So aside from losing all the work he’s put into this search so far no credit = no merit raise, teeny as that would be the instructor will have to pay his own way to MLA, where he has naturally two interviews himself.

“Is this your way of punishing me for the problem with the student who doesn’t like fucking cursewords?” the instructor asks.

“Certainly not,” the chair says.

Students will blame the discomfort of a learning transition on anything they can find. My friend’s experience illustrates clearly that in academe, it’s OK for instructors to fuck students...

... you just can’t say “fuck.”

Kass Fleisher
Author's email:

Kass Fleisher is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Illinois State University.

Adventures With Rush Limbaugh

For 26 years I have been an economist researching the pension system. Along the way I formulated some policy implications from the research -- which is the matter-of-fact job of a career academic in modern departments of economics. I have studied pensions my entire adult life. My 1984 dissertation from University of California at Berkeley was very uncool -- stagflation was the hot area. My work’s subtitle was, “Towards a National Retirement Income Security Policy.“

Fast forward two plus decades and I testify on October 7, 2008 in Congress about what should be done about the nation’s eroding retirement income programs. I was invited after an op-ed of mine on the subject ran in The New York Times on September 27, 2008.

My testimony dealt mostly with 401(k) plans, but also other defined contribution plans like those offered by TIAA-CREF. Some of those plans were declining sharply, some between 20 to 50 percent, because of the market collapse and people’s retirement dreams were evaporating in the worst labor market in 20 years. My book -- When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them (Princeton University Press, 2008) -- had just been published and I was in Congress telling legislators what should be done to bring stability to our nation’s troubled retirement system. A policy economist’s dream. No? Yes -- but only if the academic understands the new forces of gravity caused by the blogosphere, coupled with the power of a fierce presidential election, the anxiety generated by a crashing economy, and the ordinary force of the lobbying efforts of a well-established industry sector -- in this case the 401(k) industry.

I learned something that you don’t learn as a professor. If you are going to question a long-standing profitable tax break for a powerful industry, get an E-bay account and bid on a “thick skin.” In the weeks following my testimony I received more than 20 e-mails a day (most I answered) and about that many Google Alerts. Sen. John McCain alluded to my testimony at campaign rallies in the last days of his failing bid for the White House. I was interviewed by many legitimate reporters. A fraction of the e-mails I received were respectful -- all were filled with fear. The least offensive of the non-respectful e-mails are similar to the one I reprint below, but none were as funny. Most were obscene and threatening.

From: ADAM H---------

To: Teresa Ghilarducci

Sent: Nov 7, 2008 4:47 PM

Subject: 401K policy

Dear Ms. Ghilardt:

I think your Socialist ideas regarding 401K plans are absolute trash.

Get a f****** (asterisks added) new hairstylist.


I wrote back:

Mr. H---------:

Wait. I spend a lot of money on my hair. Maybe too much? What's the matter with my hair? At least my plan is better. I want people to have access to a safe place to save their retirement money. My plan calls for 401(k)s to exist alongside a government program that lets people save in a system similar to what members of Congress and other federal employees' have. You’ll get better and safer returns than most people get with their 401(k)s.

What's wrong with that? The hair is a separate issue.


Professor Ghilarducci

Three weeks after my testimony, and a week before the election, I got my first clue about where the buzz was being created about my plan. I went to a well-organized, exciting conference on Life-Cycle Saving at Boston University. Zvi Bodie, the nation’s leading finance economist, gathered industry leaders and academics to discuss issues in American’s retirement income security system. I sat at the table of gracious, well-dressed, and extremely knowledgeable financial industry executives, people I have grown comfortable with during my stints as a pension trustee. They stunned me by asking if my ears were burning, because I was much discussed at a previous week’s conference on 401(k) plans. What happened was that Rush Limbaugh had given a garbled version of my testimony on his Web site (complete with my photograph). In my book (and in Congress) I proposed the government set up a new plan, which would supplement Social Security, an additional place Americans could save for their retirement.

Only 50 percent of workers have pensions at work. This rate of coverage has been stagnant since the 1970s. Many people don’t know how hard it is to save. In order for an average earner to supplement Social Security benefits at the most basic level, she would have to save 5 percent out of every paycheck for 40 years. Because it is hard, I proposed the government give a tax credit of $600 (indexed for inflation) for everyone towards his or her contribution. 401(k) plans would still exist. But the truth didn’t stand a chance in the hyper-desperate time around the presidential election. The ire of the industry came when I proposed to pay for the tax credits by scaling back dramatically the tax deduction for 401(k) plans, deductions that were expanded greatly under the Bush administration. Without the tax deduction the 401(k) industry knew it would have to lower fees and provide a better, safer, product, and that is when it started a full-court media blitz against me.

I made several mistakes. I had adopted the habit of a teacher who answers any request for knowledge. The University of Notre Dame -- where I taught for 25 years -- encouraged us to respond to all media inquires. Also, over the summer, I eagerly accepted all requests to be interviewed about my new book. In mid-October, I agreed to two live radio interviews (and didn’t check out their Fox affiliations nor the style of the show). In one interview the host thanked me for my time and after I hung up, he told his national audience he hoped I would stop ruining his country. Another host asked me if I wanted to change the tax deduction into a tax credit (a tax deduction means that the higher the tax bracket you are in the larger your tax subsidy is). A person in the 39 percent bracket gets 39 cents from the government for every dollar saved in a 401(k) and a person in the 15 percent tax bracket gets 15 cents). I said, ironically, I wanted to spread the wealth. Radio hosts don’t do well with irony – and so my play on the debate over what Barack Obama had told Joe the Plumber was largely missed by the public. Then I got a moniker from a blogger on “Capital Commerce “ which prompted my worried 71 year-old mother to call from California. Blogger James Pethokoukis identified me as "401(k) Foe Teresa Ghilarducci, the Most Dangerous Woman in America." (Yes, I am having a bit of fun with the "most dangerous" tag.)

But the legitimate press got the story right and called the discussion of what I proposed an “Urban Myth.” Here is reporting from MSNBC Nov. 7, 2008 John W. Schoen:

"Hearing on 401(k) plan grows to urban legend (MSM preparing people for government seizure of 401K!) There is no proposal in Congress to take away your 401(k) savings account. In any case, the stock market has already done a pretty good job of wiping out several trillion dollars worth of 401(k) savings without any help from Congress. At that hearing, one of the witnesses, Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at The New School for Social Research, made an interesting observation…. The government spends as much as $80 billion a year in tax breaks to subsidize 401(k) savings plans. In her opinion, that money could be better spent offering a tax credit for a revised retirement plan that would guarantee a minimum income stream to people who saved for retirement So maybe it's not such a bad idea to start listening to new ideas."

Aren’t new ideas what academics are supposed to come up with?

Even after the election I am still material for radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh, who among many roles often poses as a policy wonk.

On the November 7th show:

RUSH: Do you know what's going to happen to you? We don't know what's going to happen, but do you know what the Democrat plan for your 401(k) is?

CALLER: I believe it has something to do with circling the bowl.

RUSH: (laughing) Circling the bowl. You mean like flush it?

CALLER: Yeeeees.

RUSH: But seriously, how much do you know about it? You've just heard about it, or you want me to repeat what you know to other people?

CALLER: Please repeat, because like I said, since I knew I wasn't going to vote for Obama, I said, "I don't need to worry about it."

RUSH: Let me give it to you very briefly. So far, this is not Obama yet, but this goes straight to my point about all of the idiots on our side |. So one of the big incentives for having a 401(k) came under assault. Then that same committee two weeks later brought in an economist from the New School in New York called Teresa Ghilarducci. I'm having trouble with her name, and not on purpose but her idea is even worse, Darcy. She wants to basically eliminate the 401(k), …. “

But, if the right wing pays enough attention, the mainstream media will begin to correct some of the blogosphere’s exaggerations.

I am grateful that veteran reporter, Robert Powell, for MarketWatch, wrote that Barack Obama must fix the nation's retirement system.

Powell wrote

“It's starting to look like a train wreck of immense proportions. The government will be spending billions of dollars in the decades to come bailing out average Americans who don't have enough set aside to pay for basic living expenses if something isn't done now. What is that something? Ghilarducci suggests combining the best features of a 401(k) plan with the best features of traditional pension plans to create what she calls a guaranteed retirement account (GRA), a type of cash-balance pension plan (that many employers now offer) or sovereign wealth fund.”

Fortunately for me, the president of my university, Bob Kerrey, is a public figure and a former policy maker himself, so he is well used to this sort of treatment and is more than supportive. So what will I do the next time I am called to testify? My footnotes of supporting studies will move to the text -- otherwise my views look isolated and can be picked off like a young zebra separated from the pack. I will talk to Fox only on my terms and I will be fully prepared for an attack when I venture into the blazing sun of the blogsphere and CSPAN. I will continue to publish peer-reviewed research, to be sure; but,next time, before I head out for a wild ride from refereed journals to Rush Limbaugh I’ll have an arsenal of spurs and switches.

Teresa Ghilarducci
Author's email:

Teresa Ghilarducci holds the Bernard L. and Irene Schwartz Chair of Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research.

The Committee Is Now in Session

Ah, the end of the semester -- the students are wending their way home; the papers are finished; it’s time to tuck in the final grades and turn my thoughts to some serious writing of my own and to Christmas shopping. But wait -- first I have to attend the seven meetings scheduled for the coming week.

The purpose of a committee is to accomplish a task in a reasonable amount of time; the purpose of a faculty committee is to ensure the faculty’s participation in the governance of the college in meaningful ways. Why then, does the announcement of yet another meeting always make me think of Yeats’s “Second Coming” -- “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / . . . / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”?

It is no secret that faculty committee sessions involve a tremendous expense of spirit in a waste of shame (see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129; the subject is purportedly lust, but it’s clear from the ending phrase -- “this hell” -- that Shakespeare was actually writing about a committee meeting). More prosaically, meetings eat up (precious) time and, most insidiously, they inspire only the Hydra-like creation of yet more meetings. Any one of dozens, no, hundreds, of books and blogs on time management will tell you that no meeting should last more than an hour and that the possibility of actual accomplishment is inversely proportionate to the number of people on the committee. Nevertheless, on (and on) we go, lumbering with our piles of “documents” from meeting room to meeting room.

Now perhaps you are thinking that, in fact, the end of the semester is the best time for meetings -- that way, they don’t interfere with our true work of teaching. The reality, however, is that a good week during the academic semester is one in which I have no more than three meetings. The reality is that afternoon classroom time feels like a reward for getting through the morning’s meetings, even if I did have to shortchange my prep time for the course. Faculty meetings, like the Broadway musical Cats, are indeed now and forever.

And so it is with some trepidation that I am considering the agendas for the coming week, for a proposal is coming, a proposal so momentous that it requires two preliminary meetings, one for the general faculty and the other for the members of my major committee with the members of one of the other three major committees -- and these, of course, are just for starters.

The subject of these meta-meetings is faculty governance. There is a concern that faculty governance needs to be strengthened, as indeed it does. There are concerns about faculty members fulfilling the criteria regarding service for tenure and promotion. And there is overwhelming agreement that the faculty workload at the college is onerous and overwhelming (two major causes seem to be the 4/4 day/evening/weekend teaching schedule and the time devoted to ... meetings).

Thus the goal is to make the system more efficient and effective and to ensure that all faculty members not only have a voice in the academy but a line for their résumés as well (take my slot, please). Some of us at my college have long argued for a restructuring of the governance system, along with the creation of a faculty senate. And there are all sorts of opportunities for actually meaningful service -- to God, country, family, department, campus community, and surrounding towns -- outside of faculty committees. But the proposal up for debate is as follows: the creation of 3 “subcommittees” for each of the 4 major committees, bringing the total number of new committees to 12.

Twelve new committees. One of the arguments for this plan is that it will lessen the workload of those already serving on committees. And yet, I cannot help but anticipate the following scenario involving a faculty member whom I will call Kay:

On Monday, Kay attends the first meeting of subcommittee 1 of Committee A.

On Tuesday, Kay, along with all the other members of subcommittees 1, 2 and 3 of Committee A, attends the regular weekly two-hour meeting of Committee A. It is agreed that subcommittees 1 and 2 will need to have a meeting and that Kay should also bring the topic to her department.

On Wednesday, after the meeting of subcommittees 1 and 2 of Committee A, Kay reports at her department meeting on an issue that the subcommittees and core committee of Committee A believe merits further discussion. Kay’s department chair, who is a member of the core committee of Committee B, informs the chair of Committee B that they need to have a meeting with Committee A.

On Thursday, Committee A, along with subcommittees 1 and 2 of Committee A, meets with the core committee of Committee B. The only things that they can agree on are that they need another meeting and that it is time to bring in at least one subcommittee of Committee C. In the meantime, the chair of A will prepare a statement for presentation at the next general faculty meeting. Kay promises to send out minutes of the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday meetings and to arrange a time for the extra meeting for the following week.

On Friday morning, Kay is still attempting to synchronize schedules. It is apparent that simply canceling all classes taught by full-time faculty members on Tuesday and Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is not sufficient. She sends an e-mail on this subject to the chair of subcommittee 2 of Committee C; she copies this e-mail to the chairs of Committees A and B, all the members of her subcommittee, and the Registrar.

On Friday afternoon, Committee B holds a meeting of core committee and subcommittees B 1, 2, and 3, to discuss Thursday’s meeting. Kay and her fellow A subcommittee 1 members have been invited as special guests. The B subcommittees argue that they should have been included on Thursday and are reassured that they certainly will be from now on. The chair announces that both the provost and the registrar have requested emergency meetings for the following week and reminds Kay to take this information back to the chair of committee A.

By this time, as Kay notes, night has fallen. She is gathering up her papers when a member of subcommittee 2 of Committee B clears her throat and hesitantly says that she has one last small item of business: it seems that two members of a subcommittee of committee D told her that they’re working on an issue that belongs to A and B or possibly A and C ... The chair of committee B promises to take this up with the chairs of Committees A, C, and D, urges all members to check their e-mail on Saturday for times and locations of upcoming meetings, and asks who’s available for just a brief pre-planning meeting on Sunday.

Carolyn Foster Segal
Author's email:

Carolyn Foster Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College. Her previous column was about colleges that adopt the teaching of leadership as their mission.


On the first page just after the required novels
And before the list of learning outcomes
I'd paste a photo of me from '73
Scraggly hair and wire-rimmed glasses
And then torn from my long gone journal
Some half poem or worry on the day
So they might see me and not me
Who could be their dad or worse
With these handouts and so much to read
How jealous I am I am almost crying
How much I love them.

Laurence Musgrove
Author's email:

Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.

The Flaws of Facebook

An acquisitions editor of a major university press was nice enough to buy me a cup of coffee and a brioche and listen patiently as I pitched him my book manuscript during a recent meeting of my professional association. Things went well enough until, at the end of our meeting, he surprised me. On our way out of the café, he turned to me and asked "are you on Facebook?" "I am," I replied, nonplussed, "but I, uh, don't really check it very often." "Well I do," he said, tone heavy in significance, "so friend me."

My dislike of Facebook is not based on ignorance or a knee-jerk academic ludism. I understand exactly what Facebook is – it's an Internet replacement service that combines e-mail, instant messaging, photo sharing, social networking, mailing lists, asynchronous gaming, and personal Web hosting all in one. Crucially, it allows differing degrees of privacy, so you can blog safely about the antics of your adorable cat or the incredible evil of your department chair without either of them finding out unless you add them to your friends list. What bothers me about Facebook -- the dilemma highlighted by my encounter with the editor -- is the particular problem it presents for academics, whose professional career and personal goings-on are all rolled up together into one big life of the mind.

Teaching is an intensely public activity in a very simple way: You spend hours and hours having people stare at you. Over time this simple three-shows-a-week schedule blossoms into something infinitely weirder. It does not take long for professors to find themselves walking around a campus filled with half-remembered faces from previous classes -- faces worn by people who remember you perfectly well. If you teach at a large state university, like I do, it does not take long before random waiters and pharmacists start mentioning how much they did (or didn't) enjoy that survey class you taught. There are even apocryphal stories in Papua New Guinea -- the country that I study -- about a man who more or less taught every social science class at the country's university during the late 70s. He spent the rest of his life never having to stand in line or fill out a form because he had trained the vast majority of the nation's civil servants, who all remembered him fondly.

The public created by your teaching is much larger than just the students in your class. Whether we lament or rejoice in the purportedly poor state of teacher evaluation, it does happen. Those forms our students fill out have strange afterlives and become the source of evaluation by deans and whispering among the senior faculty. The Internet unleashes these evaluations as well, allowing our classroom antics to be shared on

So is Facebook a dream come true for academics -- a private social networking site where professors can finally let down there hair because you control your audience, in the way that the average "I hate the world" anonymous adjunct blog cannot? I would say No. In the physical world professors uneasily navigate the uneasy blurring of their public and private lives, but Facebook doesn't allow for blurring -- you are either friends or not. This extremely "ungranular" system forces you to choose between two roles, private and public, that the actual, uncoded world allows us to leave ambiguous.

Which of the following people would you friend on Facebook? A friend from graduate school? Probably -- Facebook is, for better or worse, a great way to take the Old Boys Club online. A fellow faculty member? If you get along with them, why not? Your graduate students? Hmmm... well I suppose some people have that sort of relationship with their graduate students. Your undergraduates? I've drawn a line in the sand and said no to that one.

I think these cases are actually pretty easy -- categories like colleague and student are well-defined, as is the distinction between a "purely" formal relationship and the intimate friendships that grow up around it. I'm sure that many of the people reading this got to be where they were today because a professor in our lives went beyond the call of duty to become a friend and mentor. Facebook makes handling the formal and the informal tricky, but in all of these examples a lot of work has already been done for it because the relationships in question can all be neatly divided into "formal" and "informal" registers.

What Facebook makes particularly uncomfortable are relationships in which friendship and professionalism are not clear and brightly bounded, but are tied to real political economic stakes. As a young professor on the path to tenure, for instance, acquisitions editors have a certain ominous power over me that compels me to friend them on Facebook (and I did friend him, by the way) and might even include small favors up to and including shining their shoes if the end of the deal includes an advance contract. On the other hand, as someone with a tenure track job, I am also in a position of diffuse power over people like adjuncts and lecturers, who I get along well with in my department, but who do not come to faculty meetings in which we discuss the budget (read: their pay).

The more widely you friend people on Facebook -- and it is a slippery slope -- the more and more your Facebook page becomes a professional Web replacement on Friendster's slick Internet replacement Web site. It becomes less and less a "private" space and more and more a place to show a public face to a very wide audience. In forcing you to craft a public persona, it raises uncomfortable issues of power and inequality and lurk under the surface of our actual world interactions -- which is probably a good thing.

I don't dislike Facebook because it forces me to reflect on uncomfortable truths. I dislike it because it aspires to a world in which these truths are washed away in a swirling sea of Friends. It claims to offer privacy but only magnifies dilemmas of publicity. It offers us a world in which we do not have to stand up and be counted. Living public life is not easy, but learning to do so gracefully is a better solution than a retreat to the supposedly cloistered halls of Facebook.

Alex Golub
Author's email:

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.

Why I Teach Intro

You probably recall that in George Orwell’s 1984 the authorities bring Winston Smith to a torture chamber to break his loyalty to his beloved Julia. Perhaps you do not remember the room number. It is 101.

The modern university institutionalizes Orwell’s association of the number 101 with torture. Faculty and students often consider introductory courses an affliction.

I suspect that colleagues award teaching prizes to 101 instructors partly as compensation for relieving themselves of the agony of teaching introductory courses -- a suspicion that first occurred to me last year, when I shared an award with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Pain, much praised for its relief of suffering.

Why, then, do I teach introductory sociology? My colleagues have been too polite to remind me of the alleged downsides, but they are well known. First, teaching an introductory course is often said to be a time-consuming activity that interferes with research and writing -- the royal road to prestige, promotion, and merit pay. Second, it is reputedly boring and frustrating to recite the elementary principles of the discipline to young students, many of whom could not care less. Third, the 101 instructor performs supposedly menial work widely seen as suited only to non-tenured faculty members, advanced graduate students, and other personnel at the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Although I understand these arguments, I do not find them compelling. For me, other considerations have always far outweighed them.

In particular, teaching intro solves, for me, the much-discussed problem of public sociology. Some sociologists believe that working to improve human welfare is somehow unprofessional or unscientific. They hold that professional sociologists have no business drawing blueprints for a better future and should restrict themselves to analyzing the present dispassionately and objectively. However, to maintain that belief they must ignore what scientists actually do and why they do it. Sir Isaac Newton studied astronomy partly because the explorers and mariners of his day needed better navigational cues. Michael Faraday was motivated to discover the relationship between electricity and magnetism partly by his society’s search for new forms of power.

Today, many scientists routinely and proudly acknowledge that their job is not just to interpret the world but also to improve it, for the welfare of humanity; much of the prestige of science derives precisely from scientists’ ability to deliver the goods. Some sociologists know they have a responsibility beyond publishing articles in refereed journals for the benefit of their colleagues. One example is Michael Burawoy’s 2004 presidential address to the American Sociological Association, a gloss on Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which Burawoy criticized professional sociologists for defining their job too narrowly and called for more public sociology. Still, many sociologists hold steadfastly to the belief that scientific research and public responsibility are at odds -- largely I suspect, because they are insecure about whether their research is really scientific at all, so feel they must be more papist than the pope.

Setting such anxieties aside, one is left with the question of how to combine professional pursuits with public responsibility. One option is conducting research that stimulates broad discussion of public policy. Some of my colleagues study how immigration policy limits the labour market integration and upward mobility of immigrants; others how family policy impairs child welfare; and still others how tax and redistribution policies affect inequality. To the degree they engage educated citizens in discussion and debate on such important issues, they achieve balance between their professional and public roles.

I have chosen a different route to public responsibility. I have conducted research and published for a professional audience, but I have also enjoyed the privilege of addressing hundreds of thousands of members of the public over the years by teaching Sociology 101 in large lecture halls and by writing textbooks for intro students in several countries. As Orwell wrote, communicating effectively to a large audience may be motivated by aesthetic pleasure and egoistic impulses. Who among us does not want to write clear and compelling prose and to be thought clever for doing so? But in addition, one may want to address a large audience for what can only be deemed political reasons.

In 1844, Charles Dickens read his recent Christmas composition, The Chimes, to his friend William Charles Macready, the most famous Shakespearean actor of the day. Dickens later reported the reading to another friend as follows: “If you had seen Macready last night -- undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read -- you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.” I understand Dickens. I, too, relish the capacity to move and to sway a large audience to a desired end because it signifies that my influence will not be restricted to a few like-minded academics and that I may have at least some modest and positive impact on the broader society. I find most students burn with curiosity about the world and their place in it, and I am delighted when they tell me that a lecture helped them see how patterned social relations shape what they can become in this particular historical context. On such occasions I know that I have taught them something about limits and potential—their own and that of their society. Teaching intro thus allows me to discharge the public responsibility that, according to Burawoy and others, should be part of every sociologist’s repertoire.

In Marx’s words, “it is essential to educate the educators” -- especially those who persist in believing that teaching intro bores, frustrates, interferes, and suits only the academic proletariat.

Robert Brym
Author's email:

Robert Brym is professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. A version of this essay first appeared in Academic Matters, which is published by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

Lost and Found in the Classroom

In 1990 I began to mediate cases for the Harvard Mediation Program; that same year I was hired to teach law and conflict resolution to undergraduates at Mount Ida College. It took me several years to realize how my experience as a mediator could enrich and improve my teaching methods in the classroom. It all came together when I began to use labyrinths and mazes as tools for teaching the mediation process.

The terms labyrinth and maze are often treated as synonyms, but there is one key difference between them: A labyrinth has only one way in and one way out; you cannot get lost or choose a wrong path. A maze has choices, various ways in and out, numerous dead ends and deceptive paths. In the Greek myth, Daedalus was commissioned to build a structure to house the deadly Minotaur (half man, half bull). The so-called “labyrinth” he constructed was actually an intricate maze, which prevented the Minotaur from finding its way out. This is why (later in the myth) Ariadne gave Theseus a long thread to help him find his way back out of the maze after slaying the Minotaur.

Labyrinths were popular in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages; the famous pavement labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartres was designed to help people on their spiritual journeys. Pilgrims walked the winding path until they arrived at the heart of the labyrinth, a symbol of the quest for enlightenment.

I used to view teaching as a labyrinth, one way in, one way out: You came to class well prepared, gave interesting lectures, allocated time for group exercises and role-plays, assigned relevant readings and papers, and posed provocative questions for discussion. Students completed their assignments on time, came prepared to discuss the reading in class, studied diligently for exams, participated enthusiastically in group exercises, and mastered the major concepts of the course. What could be simpler?

You can stop laughing now. After a couple of semesters I realized that I couldn’t approach my courses the same way my professors had approached theirs. Students’ expectations often did not align with my own; they had different priorities, challenges and attitudes toward their work. Teaching was not, in fact, a labyrinth; it was a loopy and perplexing maze full of unexpected turns and dead ends, and I desperately needed a thread.

The thread emerged from my mediation training and practice, which, when I finally made the connection, helped me find a solution to the conflict between my students’ and my own expectations.

Mediation clients are not unlike our students: anxious, somewhat leery of the process, fearful of the unknown, hesitant to take risks. Disputing parties often expect the mediator to suggest solutions to their problems. But the first principle of mediation -- self-determination of the parties -- requires that the mediator not suggest but elicit solutions from the parties.

There are several reasons for this strategy, the most important of which is that if the solution does not come from the parties themselves, they feel less invested in their agreement and are less likely to uphold it. If a way out of their maze can be found, the parties must find it themselves, with the mediator’s guidance. In this respect, mediation is an exercise in critical and creative thinking, a form of teaching and learning.

At some point I realized that self-determination and ownership of outcomes was as important for my students as for my mediation clients. So I decided to apply this basic principle to one persistent problem I was encountering in the classroom.

I was frustrated in my Leadership Studies Seminar because students would not do the assigned reading before class. Instead of participating in a discussion of materials they had previously read, they came to class apparently expecting me to go through chapter and verse, highlighting everything they needed to know for the exam (and nothing else, thank you). Sound familiar?

I tried the usual strategies to encourage them to read the assigned pages before they came to class: in-class minute papers, group presentations, pop quizzes, study questions, penalties for lack of class participation. (I know that these tools can be helpful and even essential. They just didn’t solve this particular problem.) My students didn’t budge. I was giving myself a lot of extra grading and they still weren’t reading before they came to class. Yes, students who didn’t read the text got low grades on exams, but that didn’t improve class discussions or make me feel any better.

Clearly, as I often urged my mediation clients, I needed to approach the problem from a fresh perspective. I wanted my students to read the materials in advance so they were familiar with the issues raised in our class discussions, and not rely on me to do the reading and thinking for them. I didn’t want to spend valuable class time on pop quizzes or questions that received blank stares in return. I wanted the class to be fun and thoughtful and to get students to engage more actively. I had reached a dead end and needed to find a way out.

I settled on a plan that allowed for more choice and autonomy in how students prepared for class. In each class we would explore in depth only one or two major issues, based on short articles or passages (students chose them from a selection) we would read together at the beginning of class. However, students were responsible for all assigned readings on the syllabus, whether or not we discussed them in class. If they had questions or comments about the reading, they could bring them to class. If they had no questions, I would trust that they understood the material.

For exams, students could bring in any notes they had prepared themselves or in a study group. (No photocopies or handouts were allowed.) This policy obviated the need for memorization of the text and encouraged students to use their time to read all of the assigned materials, organize their thoughts, and approach the reading with a critical eye to determine how the information might appear on an exam.

No exam question could be answered straight out of the text; all questions called for application of leadership theories and concepts to scenarios drawn from our films. Students were required to support their arguments with concrete examples from the text and films, and in most cases, analyze and draw conclusions about the choices made by the leaders we were studying.

In the last class, armed with their notes, students gathered in small groups and drafted a list of five essay questions they thought would be appropriate for the final exam. Each group chose two questions to share with the class, and group recorders wrote them on the board. We then discussed possible answers and supporting evidence. The final exam had one required essay and a choice of four of six remaining essay questions.

The experiment succeeded on several levels. We all enjoyed the short communal readings and in-depth discussions; the material was fresh in our minds and everyone was on an equal footing in terms of preparation. For my students, the pressure was off to complete all of the required readings before each class, and I didn’t feel as though I had to lecture and review the reading in order to fill an information vacuum.

Most students (I wish I could say all) did the assigned reading at their own pace, brought well organized notes to exams, and in some cases formed study groups. Since students didn’t have to spend time memorizing the text or fake their answers on exams if they drew a blank, their essays were much more thoughtful and well-reasoned, in some cases a delight to read. And because they were given a choice of essays on the midterm and final, they could present their best work.

One unexpected bonus was that, since I no longer reviewed all of the textual material in each unit (students now owned that task), we had time to surf the Web to find supplemental information on the leaders we had viewed on film. My students took charge of that and enjoyed teaching me shortcuts through cyberspace.

For me, this was Ariadne’s thread: my students were more active and engaged, wrote much better exams, and seemed to respect my goal of giving them more choices in the teaching and learning process. Our class discussions were thoughtful and lively. But best of all, I could stop being the Minotaur in the classroom.

Ellen Goldberger
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Ellen Goldberger is a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Mount Ida College, in Massachusetts.

Who Really Pays for Assessment?

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna be with me.
--Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher

Many essays in these pages have debated the pros and cons of assessment, but I have not yet seen a discussion about what from my perspective is a crucial question for anyone involved in the assessment process: Who pays?

For the purpose of this essay I want bracket the question of the value of assessment. In fact I want to imagine, as proponents of assessment claim, that the kinds of assessment now being required or proposed are distinct from the kinds of assessment academic departments have traditionally performed, and that these new kinds of assessment improve instruction.

But if these assessments add value, who creates that value? There is no such thing as a free lunch. And it is faculty who are very often being asked to cook up this assessment meal. The new work is not trivial. Of course, faculty members carry out assessment as part of their regular employment. This ordinary assessment includes evaluating student assignments, both individually and at the end of a course, and broader evaluation of the direction and effectiveness of academic programs.

Recent calls for assessment add new layers to this traditional work of the faculty. Indeed, there may be more than one externally imposed, large-scale assessment requirement. State education boards may have their version of assessment requirements, and regional accrediting agencies another. Because these requirements do not necessarily coordinate either with one another or with the kinds of assessment in which faculty have traditionally been engaged, members of the faculty can find themselves involved in multiple assessment projects at once, each with its own distinct requirements. There are additional labor costs involved in learning the frequently complex number of assessment cycles and report formats required, even before one does the actual work of a new assessment.

All told, I would estimate that I spent about 50 total working hours last year on additional required assessments: these hours include tasks such as learning about multiple assessment formats and assessment software, meeting with assessment staff to discuss requirements, collecting information, drafting multiple reports and coordinating sections of these reports with colleagues. This 50 hours of time was just mine. To estimate the total cost to my department, you would need to multiply that number by 4 (the number of faculty members for whom this assessment was a principal duty), and then a fraction of that number -- say an average of 8 -- by another 15 faculty who helped in various ways with the assessment. The total hours come to 320. That's a lot of work, and hence a lot of work not being done somewhere else. Only a fraction of that work could be folded into the traditional forms of assessment done by faculty.

At my institution, moreover, there is little administrative support for these new assessment requirements. Our small assessment office works valiantly to keep up with its own ever-increasing workload, but because of the strains on that office there is little the staff can do for departments other than communicate information about assessment requirements and leave departments to figure out how to meet them.

Some proponents of assessment argue that the work should be understood as part of a faculty member's job description. As noted above, I agree that assessment of students and programs is part of a tenure-line faculty member's responsibility -- of teaching and service, to be exact. (I strenuously disagree, however, that already underpaid part-time faculty should be required to engage in these additional forms of assessments, as they sometimes are.) But you can't have your cake and eat it. If there is something new, and hence value-added, in the current calls for assessment, beyond the forms of assessment that members of the faculty have traditionally performed, then there must also be new work involved -- work that had not previously been part of the responsibilities of tenure-line faculty.

There are a few ways to understand how this new work gets added on. First, one could justify this addition by claiming that tenure-line faculty have been under employed. Those who believe that to be the case should state it explicitly, and provide good evidence to back up their claim.

Second, one could grant, as I believe is the case, that faculty already have full loads comprised of teaching, research and service. In that case, institutions could take seriously the idea of new assessment requirements by shifting faculty work obligations. What percentage of the faculty member's job should be devoted to new assessment requirements? Perhaps, for example, universities should lower research expectations in order to allow faculty time to carry out new layers of assessment, or perhaps members of the faculty should receive some form of course release.

Because universities are, very reasonably, unwilling to cut back on any of the current obligations of their tenure-line faculty, I suspect they turn (as at my institution) to the tempting strategy of piggy-backing. In this strategy it is hoped that since members of the faculty have always assessed instruction, they can just add the new assessment requirements to the mix. In my experience, however, this strategy is less piggy-backing than camel's back-breaking. Especially troubling is that the faculty charged with new forms of assessment are often those who were already most involved with forms of assessment traditional to the department or college.

For example, our undergraduate committee was delayed by a semester in carrying out planned improvements to the undergraduate program because our time was spent assessing and reporting according to the requirements of a new state-mandated assessment. At the minimum, advocates of new assessment requirements must be willing to state that they are comfortable asking faculty that have long-standing modes of self-assessment to give up (rather than double-up) these forms of self-assessment, in order to create time to comply with the new requirements.

There is one more approach, the worst of all. That's just not to care. This approach says (more or less tacitly) "if the faculty have more work to do, so what? Things are tough all over." This approach is not only unfair, but also counterproductive. The work gets done, but it gets done poorly. If one considers declines in service in businesses that are trying to do more with less (for example, the airlines) it is easy to see how disastrous an approach this is. Overburdening faculty, in fact, most adversely impacts the very constituency that assessment is supposed to help: the students.

So here is my proposal. From now on, all plans for assessment should come with plans for who is going to do the labor, where the labor time is going to come from, and, if need be, who will pay for it. This side of any assessment plan should be as detailed as the requirements for assessing itself, including an estimate of the added number of hours required for the assessment, as the IRS estimates the time to do our taxes. I would add that if there are readers who think I must be overestimating the amount of time my department spent on additional assessment requirements, at least I am providing an estimate (I wish, in this case, I had treated my hours as billable!). It would be helpful to see from assessment proponents how much time -- additional to the ordinary teaching and service responsibilities of faculty -- they believe the assessments should take, and, again, where that time should come from.

I have to hope that those who believe the most in the value of new assessment requirements would be the most enthusiastic about accounting for the monetary or staffing resources required to carry them out. After all, to the principles that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that you can't have your cake and eat it, we may add that you get what you pay for. If we're going to take new assessment requirements seriously, let's not nickel and dime them. And if we're not going to nickel and dime them, then we need serious and explicit discussions about who pays.

Unfunded Mandate
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Unfunded Mandate is the pseudonym of a member of the faculty at a large state university.

Knowledge Overload

Coping with the deluge of information is a major challenge for students, scholars, librarians and the general public. After all, with thousands of online newspapers, blogs, and academic journals, Google Books digitizing millions of titles, massive amounts of information coming online each day, major innovations in content management, and the ubiquitous impact of e-mail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new technologies, we find ourselves awash in petabytes of information of widely varying quality.

While we struggle to accommodate Web 2.0 and all of its implications, however, we are paying too little attention to another reality of our time: that the traditional ways of disseminating knowledge have grown well beyond our capacity to assimilate information. There is scarcely a field of academic inquiry that has not experienced massive growth in the past three decades. Few scholars even attempt to stay current in their broad discipline; most operate, sometimes in a near panic to keep up, in sub-disciplines, if not sub-sub-disciplinary fields. Those in multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary areas of inquiry face even more profound challenges.

When I entered the academy in the mid-1970s, it was quite possible to keep up with major developments in my sub-discipline of Canadian history. Each book, even in a distant area of Canada’s past, was worth noting, if not reading, and the handful of academic journals in the field were easily accommodated. Now, the profound growth of scholarly output has made it a formidable challenge to try to stay current, forcing many of us to retreat into narrow fields of inquiry, in my case northern Canadian and Aboriginal history.

Many academics have responded to the challenges by being more focused and, ironically, by reading less than in the past. After all, with professional rewards focused on productivity rather than receptivity, many realize that additional publications are more important career-wise than keeping up with the journal literature and reading the latest academic books, save for those germane to their current research. Now, of course, with online material expanding exponentially, the task of staying current has become that much more difficult.

But before we attribute the intellectual explosion to the Internet and digitization, we need to realize that the scale of academe has grown well past the point of saturation. Consider not the material available through new technologies, but focus instead on the old-knowledge systems: academic journals, books and conferences. The proliferation of journals has proven simply remarkable, providing numerous venues for scholarly dissemination (and producing an unhappy debate about the list of top-tier publications, impact factors, citation numbers and the like). The list of scholarly books grows seemingly exponentially – although the sales of these same volumes have been hit severely by declining library budgets, soaring costs and a flooded market among penurious academics.

And then there are the conferences. For those academics with professional development funds at their disposal, admittedly a more select group this year, there are dozens if not hundreds of professional meetings. They range from tiny workshops to national disciplinary sessions, from quiet retreats at vacation hot-spots to cattle-call mega-conferences. The attractions are obvious: a chance to network with academic colleagues, exposure to the brightest minds in the field, an opportunity to try out new ideas, book fairs and social time with like-minded thinkers.

There are brilliant conferences, where stunning ideas are introduced and where academe is at its very best. There are boondoggle conferences, which attract many registrants, few attendees, and produce little of scholarly merit. Most are in the former category and most scholars approach these events with seriousness of purpose and professional commitment. But even here, there are abundant signs that the scale of the academic operations has vastly exceeded our individual and collective capacity to assimilate and disseminate scholarly information.

Consider a major sub-disciplinary meeting in political science meeting, held recently in New York City. A junior colleague from my university attended and asked for advice on picking the most appropriate sessions. The online program was staggeringly large, running to more than 185 pages. The event lasted for four days, with sessions running, at 1 hour and 45 minute intervals, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Almost 50 sessions ran concurrently, with an average of four presenters per session. With five time slots, this meant that there were close to 250 sessions and some 1,000 papers per day, or a total of 4,000 scholarly presentations. This was an impressive conference. A quick review of the presenter lists revealed the presence of top scholars in the field, with contributors coming from around the world.

Intellectually, the conference offered a wealth of opportunities. Paring the massive list of possibilities down to a manageable selection proved extremely difficult, even with access to a convenient online feature that produced a personalized program. An initial run of preferred sessions revealed a minimum of three sessions per time slot, making the final decision very difficult. By any measure, this meeting had the potential to be a challenging and impressive intellectual experience.

Of course, the execution proved much different than the promise. The same math would suggest that, with 4,000 paper-givers and perhaps another 1,000 others attending, that there would be approximately 100 people at each session (varying according to the speakers, topic and collective interest). The sessions my colleague attended attracted small audiences, typically around 20 people and sometimes many fewer. By the time that the chair’s introduction and the commentator’s contributions were added to the presentations, there was rarely time for more than a handful of questions. The tightly packed schedule – only 15 minutes between sessions – restricted opportunities for follow-on conversations. The debate and exchange that one hopes for in academic sessions was episodic rather than commonplace.

Given that this conference was devoted to my colleague’s sub-discipline, it is not a stretch to suggest than 50 percent of all of the papers related somehow to her teaching, professional and research interests. So, back to the math quickly. Assume that papers were collected from these selected presentations – some 2,000 in total. It would take, realistically, approximately one hour to do justice to each contribution. The time frame is daunting. Two thousand hours represents the equivalent of 50 weeks of full-time reading, clearly an unachievable number. So, let’s reduce this to a mere 10 percent of the papers, or 400 in total, and a more “manageable” 10 weeks of full-time reading. Allow for some speed-reading – half an hour per paper instead of an hour – and the time frame is compressed to a mere five weeks of reading.

The point is obvious, simple and telling. A scholar cannot begin to do justice to the intellectual potential of an academic conference by attending the event. In this instance, assuming full-time attendance over four days (which would be an accomplishment given New York City’s many fine attractions), my colleague could attend only 20 sessions and hear only 80 papers – a full enough slate but representing only 2 percent of the fare on display at this intellectual buffet. Nor, realistically, could one person ever collect and read more than a small percentage of the total academic output from this one gathering. And this is only one conference in one year, only a tiny drop of water in the floodwaters of the contemporary academy.

So, in our haste to prepare ourselves for Academe 2.0, let’s recognize that the old analogue academe has already overwhelmed our capacity to gather, read and assimilate the research, analysis and collected wisdom of our age. Wading through hundreds of conference programs, scanning (thankfully now electronically) thousands of journal indexes, and struggling with hundreds of book catalogues – let alone finding the time to read all of the relevant material -- has us already falling well short of staying truly current.

There are those who argue that the proliferation of scholarly output is a case of bad writing driving out good, and that we should turn to the best journals and the best university presses as gatekeepers for what truly matters. I am not in that camp, having long-ago realized that insight and inspiration can come from many quarters, that some of the big name venues are more conservative than courageous intellectually, and that we need to let as many scholars as possible find their voice.

But there is a fundamental problem here that needs to be addressed. Look at this issue from the other side. A significant number of articles, including many published in small circulation periodicals, are never cited by anyone. Think, too, of the conferences papers that fail to attract meaningful audiences, the journals that have tiny circulations and very small readerships, and the fact that most academic books are published in press runs of under 1,000 copies, despite the growth in the number of academics and university and college libraries. Put bluntly, we are researching without having an impact, speaking without being heard and writing without being read. Furthermore, our tenure and promotion procedures reward publication more than they do awareness of the field, thus pushing up conference attendance, and journal and book submissions.

There may well be a convergence possible between Academe 1.0 and Academe 2.0. New technologies certainly do find things faster and share them more broadly. Digitized materials are readily assembled and moved from producers to libraries to end-users. But there is a major impediment to improvement in this regard: the capacity to read. No one has yet found a system that will truly allow us to assimilate new research more effectively. And so, we read indexes rather than journals, abstracts rather than papers, review essays rather than books. Awash in a sea of academic discourse and analysis, we look desperately for an intellectual life-raft, all the while feverishly seeking to add to the accumulated scholarly wisdom ourselves.

It is time to take a very deep breath and to step well back from our current approach to academic dissemination and publication. Consider that New York conference. Would the discipline and the practitioners not have been better served if there were three or four large concurrent sessions, each involving the key and most innovative thinkers in their field, rather than a vast proliferation of tiny sessions? But how many colleges and universities will provide travel funds, or even partial support, only for scholars who are giving a paper? And do we, in the world of Web 2.0, really need to constantly add to the number of published – and sadly unread – academic journals and books. Can we not elevate the scholarship of synthesis and interpretation back to the highest rank of professional inquiry, recognizing the remarkable talent needed to bring together in a readily digestible form the accumulated insights of thousands of scholars?

The irony in all of this is that it is academic career and advancement requirements, more than faculty preferences, which are driving the current pattern of academic dissemination. New doctorates, eager for a place on the tenure track, work like crazy to get into the right conferences and journals. Recently hired faculty know that tenure rests on getting the right hits in the right journals and, maybe, getting their dissertation published as a book. Tenured faculty know that merit and final promotion – indeed, their personal standing in the field – rests on continued and even accelerated publication output.

We have collectively created the equivalent of an academic monsoon over the past three decades, with no change in the forecast for the coming years. Without a major reconsideration of how we share and use information, how we keep up with the field, and how we recognize academic accomplishment, we will continue to add to the floodwaters, all the while spending less attention on whether or not anyone reads our work, listens to our presentations, or appreciates our professional contributions. Academe 2.0 offers tools to build more effective dikes and even to regulate the flow. But we need to realize that the lakes at the end of the bloated academic rivers – our faculty, researchers and students – have finite capacity, in terms of time and ability to assimilate information. Controlling the scholarly input is crucial to ensuring that we actually learn from and about each other, and ensuring that our academic work truly makes a difference.

Ken Coates
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Ken Coates is professor of history and dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo.

Defending Collegiality

In his provocatively titled recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton argues for zero tolerance of “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” in the workplace. These individuals systematically prey on their co-workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaving their victims feeling humiliated, belittled, and demoralized. Their weapons include personal insults, threats and intimidation, hostile e-mails, public ridicule, and scornful interruptions. In the environments that they poison, enthusiasm for work gives way to anxiety, resentment, and a longing to get out.

The importance of a civil workplace struck Sutton more than 15 years ago during a department meeting at Stanford University, where he teaches. As his colleagues debated hiring a candidate for a faculty position, one of them remarked, “Listen, I don’t care if that guy won the Nobel Prize ... I just don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” Sutton describes the group as a collegial and supportive small department, “especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.”

Although he goes on to cite many businesses that have the zero tolerance policy that he advocates, he does not return to his bleak characterization of academic life. Neither does he explore the reluctance of universities to hold faculty members to the rules of conduct that many businesses are implementing — rules that supplement standard prohibitions against harassment and discrimination — even while they apply them to staff. At my own university, for example, exempt and non-exempt staff are explicitly required to “cooperate and collaborate with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality” as a condition of their employment. Faculty members are not.

The reluctance to adopt a code of conduct for faculty members stems in part from a belief also expressed in corporate workplaces: that geniuses must be jerks and that some belligerence, indifference to others, and rudeness are inseparable from the achievements of a Steve Jobs or Bobby Knight. Sutton counters this view by observing that not all successful people are jerks and that jerks succeed despite their cruelty to others, not because of it. I would add that the odds are slim that the professor yelling at the departmental secretary spends the rest of his day bringing about a Copernican revolution in his discipline.

Sutton also argues that even in the extremely unlikely event that the bully is a genius, he still does more harm than good — which is why a Bobby Knight or Michael Eisner eventually wears out his welcome. Making exceptions for seemingly special cases can be damaging, not only in spawning imitators but in depressing the initiative of others. Sutton rightly emphasizes that “negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions”: “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.”

However, the November 1999 American Association of University Professors statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation — while conceding the importance of collegiality to teaching, scholarship, and service — favors limiting a faculty member’s evaluation to these three areas on the grounds that vigorous discussions are essential to academic life. Adding collegiality as a yardstick, the AAUP asserts, is not only unnecessary — it risks “ensuring homogeneity,” “chilling faculty debate and discussion,” and curtailing academic freedom by stigmatizing individuals who do not fit in or defer to the group:

In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrations.

Weeding out the gadflies, critics, and malcontents (via the criterion of collegiality), according to the AAUP statement, leaves us with the “genial Babbitts” and casts “a pall of stale uniformity” on what should be a scene of vibrant debate.

“Should be” is the key phrase here. The individuals Sutton is criticizing — the bullies, jerks, and so on — themselves chill debate through personal attacks, intimidation, and invective. One sign of this is the relief felt when they are away. Instead of disappearing, dissent blossoms, as individuals can now express ideas without fear of vicious recrimination and unfounded attack.

Thus, some faculty members have begun exploring codes of conduct, not because they want to squelch free debate but because they want to enable it. They are especially concerned about the most vulnerable faculty members – often newcomers with fresh perspectives and much-needed enthusiasm – who may shy away from departmental deliberations lest they jeopardize their personal futures. The motivation behind codes of conduct is not to make everyone agree but to let everyone feel free to disagree, allowing all voices to be heard.

The literary scholar Linda Hutcheon offers a version of this argument in her recent essay “Saving Collegiality,” in Profession, published by the Modern Language Association. While acknowledging the potential dangers of poorly worded and insensitively enforced codes of conduct, Professor Hutcheon reaffirms the importance of mutual respect, civility, and constructive cooperation to healthy debate: “Harmonious human relations need not stifle the right to dissent that we all so rightly treasure; instead they can make dissent easier, because safer. I fail to see how inclusivity and collaboration would necessarily chill debate.”

I think that this mounting interest in collegiality stems from the intensification of the forces arrayed against it:

  • A star system that widens inequities between the haves and have-nots and equates academic success with a reduction in teaching loads, service commitments, and other work on behalf of the institution.
  • Greater reliance on adjuncts and part-time faculty with little connection to the departments that hire them.
  • Tension between administrators and faculty exacerbated by top-down methods of management and increased demands for narrowly defined measures of accountability.
  • A poor job market that places individuals at institutions where they may not want to be, thereby fostering feelings of estrangement, disdain for colleagues, and single-minded efforts to leave via one’s research.
  • Heightened specialization subdividing already splintered departments.
  • Recourse to e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face collaborative decision-making. Its impersonality unintentionally licenses individuals to fight and distrust one another even more (as Sutton explains, “apparently this happens because people don’t get the complete picture that comes with ‘being there,’ as e-mail and phones provide little information about the demands that people face and the physical setting they work in, and can’t convey things like the facial expressions, verbal intonations, posture, and ‘group mood’ ”); and, finally,
  • Inadequate salaries and benefits at many universities, deepening resentment, stoking competition for increasingly scarce material rewards, and adding new urgency to often longstanding rivalries and feuds.

Add to these forces department chairs who are inadequately prepared for dealing with conflict, and an already fragile community begins to pull apart, giving antisocial behavior even freer rein.

The disintegration of community takes a special toll on academic workplaces. In a chapter of tips for surviving nasty people and hostile workplaces, Sutton mentions developing indifference and emotional detachment, limiting contact with one’s adversaries, and doing the bare minimum required by one’s job — in effect, disengaging. These are not solutions but survival strategies intended to assist individuals stuck a demoralizing job that they cannot change or escape.

So collegiality turns out to be important as well as endangered: important because necessary to the free discussions, voluntary service, and constructive collaborations that universities depend on and endangered because so many institutional developments militate against it. Thinking about the collegial atmosphere of a particular institution, one of the contributors to the Profession symposium wonders if it might not just be “the luck of the draw,” the happy byproduct of a mix of people who just happen to get along, rather than the result of institutional intention.

But other contributors rightly counter that some steps can be taken, especially by department chairs, to foster collegial professional relations: for example, modeling respectful treatment of others, expressing appreciation, hosting social events and lunch meetings, sharing information, informally consulting with and involving colleagues, distributing responsibility, supporting reading groups organized around certain topics, setting up forums where faculty members can discuss teaching or present their research — in short, creating a vibrant social context for decision-making and debate. It can be harder to demonize people you eat lunch with or see at a reception with their children. One contributor to the symposium shrewdly defines a dysfunctional department as “one where the main interactions with the faculty are around tenure decisions.” Embedding difficult discussions in a network of relationships cushions their potentially divisive impact.

At the same time, another contributor to the Profession symposium, Gerald Graff, makes the important point that these “soft” ways of nudging faculty members into collegiality, though necessary, are not sufficient. As “add-ons” or “Friday afternoon solutions,” they must compete with other priorities in a busy professor’s life. When deadlines call and the pace of the semester picks up, attendance drops off and enthusiasm wanes.

Professor Graff argues for supplementing these measures with structural changes in the curriculum such as team teaching, exchanging classes with a colleague at mid-semester, and teaching one another’s books. Overcoming the customary isolation of teaching enables collaboration to be incorporated into what we do every week.

There remains, however, the problem of those admittedly few angry, disruptive individuals whom no one would want to teach or mix with — the “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” that I started out this essay with.

It is always tempting to ignore these individuals, hope they’ll go away, or find some way of excusing them. In “When Good Doctors Go Bad,” Atul Gawande observes the extraordinary lengths physicians will go to look the other way even when one of their colleagues repeatedly botches surgeries, abuses patients, and triggers lawsuits. As with many cases of professorial misconduct, the people in the best position to see the damage being done can be in the worst position to take action against it: junior physicians, nurses, staff members. Meanwhile, senior physicians are held back partly by the tremendous work involved in documenting and substantiating evidence of incompetence and partly by social pressures.

There’s an official line about how the medical profession is supposed to deal with these physicians: Colleagues are expected to join forces promptly to remove them from practice and report them to the medical-licensing authorities, who, in turn, are supposed to discipline them or expel them from the profession. It hardly ever happens, for no tight-knit community can function that way.

As in academic departments, intervention gives way to avoidance but at great cost, in the one case to the incompetent physician’s patients, in the other to the abusive professor’s colleagues and students, who sometimes come into play as prizes to be fought over or enemies to be scorned because they have sided with a rival.

Even so, despite the odds against it, in hospitals and doctors’ practices sometimes the bad physician loses his license or gets sanctioned in some other way.

In universities, here is where a carefully designed faculty code of conduct can become necessary — as a last resort, when other interventions have failed and the behavior in question falls through the cracks of the faculty handbook. The threshold for invoking the code should be high, not just by one isolated outburst. But the expectation of collegial behavior, of cooperating and collaborating with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality, should be there — not as a distinct criterion for promotion and tenure but as a condition of employment for faculty as well as for staff. Once faculty members make the difficult decision to act against a disruptive colleague, they must have the means of doing so, lest powerlessness and frustration make their demoralization even worse.

After a code of conduct is institutionalized, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to use it. In my experience, most people treat others in the academic workplace with respect, consideration, and care, conduct code or no conduct code. My intent here has not been to legislate collegiality but to make sure that in those rare instances when enough is enough, when egregious behavior persists and reaches a carefully defined tipping point, faculty members and administrators are in a position to do something about it.

Michael Fischer
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Michael Fischer is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, as well as a professor of English, at Trinity University, in San Antonio. Prior to joining the Trinity administration, he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of New Mexico. A longer version of this essay will appear in Change and is available on the magazine's Web site.


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