It will surprise no one familiar with her work that Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a fan of tenure. In recent years, the former writer and deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of the book God on the Quad has emphasized themes, both in writing and on panels, of what she sees as the damage that tenure can wreak.
Higher Ed Holdings' recent efforts to partner with one university were thwarted amid faculty outcry. At other universities, however, the company's model is going forward -- raising concerns about whether mass education online is coming at the expense of individual interaction, and evaluations based on essays as opposed to multiple choice.
A friend was up for tenure last year. She was approved by her department. Next step was a vote by some larger faculty committee and then a vote by some smaller administrative council. The faculty
approved her. So did the administrators -- less one vote. That one negative vote so angered her it threatened to spoil the award of tenure by the time the requisite presidential letter arrived.
She felt certain the man who cast that vote was the same one who tried to embarrass her publicly when earlier in the year she had to explain a new course proposal. What struck me is how she loathes this man, with whom she'll have to contend during the rest of her time at the university. "If I passed him in an accident, I'd pour a can of gasoline on him."
What's the reason for the man's hostility to my friend? She doesn't know. It seems the two have scarcely spoken. It further seems nobody likes the man (except the president). At the university there appears to be a veritable society of people (including office workers and even one custodian) who are solely united by their detestation of a noxious administrator.
The interesting thing to me is that few of them are, properly speaking, colleagues, if we restrict the definition of the word to some formal relatedness at the disciplinary or departmental level. This
is what I would try to do myself, although I've never worked at a college as small as that of my friend, where in effect the entire work force is in position to be any one individual's "associate" in some way.
Similarly, I've never worked at an institution so large that virtually the entire work force outside one's own department is effectively excluded from any one individual's horizon of associations. Size matters, regarding colleagues. What may matter even more is that nothing, not even status hierarchy, necessarily excludes anyone at an institution from thinking about anyone else as a "colleague."
Admittedly, it would seem odd to have either the president or the custodian who regularly cleans out his or her office refer to the other as a "colleague." It is assumed that, in order to be colleagues in the first place, everybody is in a position of equality. This is the reason students can happily refer to each other as "colleagues." However, American students normally avoid this designation, perhaps because it sounds too work-coded.
How much does work in fact govern the colleague relation? In one sense, thoroughly; a colleague is not a friend, who can exist quite apart from the conditions of work. In another sense, loosely, if only because a colleague can become a friend, and shed an initial official circumstance (a proximate office, the same committee) like an unwanted skin. One could even say that colleagues, to be colleagues in the first place, must share the potential for becoming friends. Or at least for
becoming, rather paradoxically, more than colleagues.
What exactly would this last state entail? Nobody knows. Thus, for example, our current vexation about the meaning of "collegiality."ï¿½ To whom should we be collegial? Everybody? Only some? Our colleagues, so-called? But when to make the cut? Sometimes the term seems suitable
(or mandatory) for people who are strictly colleagues; sometimes it seems lamentable for colleagues whose relations (or feelings) are more akin to those of friends.
"Collegiality"ï¿½ attests to the baffled sociality so pervasive in academic life. We might all be better off if we knew precisely where to draw the line between being colleagues and being friends. Alas, though, we don't -- and this may be as it should be. Despite having become academics, we remain human. So our relations partake of such unhappy situations as those of my friend above; she seems to be entangled in a relation with an administrator who is even less likely to become her
friend than her colleague and yet who demonstrates with respect to her a degree of personal animus more akin to a close personal enemy than a distant college official.
"Never make friends with anybody in your own department."ï¿½ So quoth a professor many years ago to a group of my, er, colleagues, when we were all grad students. I don't think we understood why anybody would say this. Now I think I do: friendships easily proves threatening to a department, and departments just as easily prove threatening to friendships. Trouble is, now I want to protest: so what? Colleagues we are given. Friends we must make. With whom best to make them than with colleagues in our own department? To hell with the fact they may one day have to cast tenure votes against us.
And yet, and yet. Friends are not always or even necessarily to be preferred to colleagues. Years ago I spent the summer in a National Endowment for the Humanities program of postdoctoral study and got close to one of my fellows. We had common interests; more important, we had common sportive attitudes toward their -- and our -- academization. So it was painful to realize at some point that the qualities that made Ron so attractive as a friend might well make him less attractive -- even
unbearable -- as a colleague.
In her essay on Camus, Susan Sontag states the painful matter very succinctly while differentiating great writers on the basis of being husbands or lovers: "Some writers supply the solid virtues of a
husbands: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the qualities of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness."ï¿½ As Sontag adds, "it's a great pityï¿½ to have to choose between them. But academics don't have to choose -- as academics. Colleagues are what we expect ourselves as well as others to be in our official capacity. And colleagues are husbands, not lovers.
Lovers, it might be said, we choose at our peril (especially if we are married). This is precisely the case in academic life with friends, most certainly if they are members of your department. I've had a few myself, and, while the friendships lasted, they were some of the best of my life. One relationship moved outside the department, into our respective homes or on occasional trips. Another didn't. Each came to grief ultimately for the same reason: the friendship couldn't survive
the inevitable tensions of either the departmental structure or just the work itself.
Strange, because the friendships, however different, were the products of those tensions. The men and I were friends because of common enemies, common problems, common circumstances, all experienced anew each working day. Remove these circumstances, and it was as if the whole logic of intimacy collapsed. Bred by the position, it died with the position. How many other men and women have experienced this? Has the rise of e-mail changed anything? Could email enable more people now -- many scarcely meeting face-to-face -- to remain colleagues without suffering a fateful fall into friendship?
Of course most colleagues never suffer this fall. Perhaps most come to abide after a few years into a state about which our vocabulary is very poor -- something more than colleagues, something less than friends. ("Collegiality" is no help here at all.) And as always, the narrative you construct about colleagues will be governed by examples so highly individual as to elude almost successfully the terms of the discussion. This past year, for example, I chanced one day to meet a fellow teacher in my department, except that we were each adjuncts teaching at different locations. "The department"ï¿½ was a fiction that amused us both. We became friends, but only through e-mail, passing right by the condition of having first been, for lack of a better word, colleagues.
Now this woman is out of academic life. We remain in touch. But it probably would be better for the friendship if we had been colleagues for awhile longer, even though this supposition contradicts the logic I've been trying to trace. So it goes. Friendship is the stuff of classic essays (Montaigne, Emerson). Who wants to write an essay on collegiality? As a human essence, it lacks development, provocation, even definition. Colleagues? The relation is finally too superficial.
Colleagues? In any organizational structure, the most interesting examples of human behavior with respect to others may be enacted by people who are not in place to become colleagues at all. Indeed, the happiest formal relation in academic life may be that of teacher or mentor to student -- to judge anyway by the written record, full of testimonies by the one to the devotion or worth of the other. Humanity floods the relationship of mentors to students. In such contrast, humanity seems to recede from the relationship of colleagues to each other.
The finest fiction I know of this kind is Bernard Malamud's superb short story, "Rembrandt's Hat." (In the collection by that name.) It concerns two men who teach at a New York art school. Arkin, an art
historian, is a dozen years younger than Rubin, a sculptor. Arkin, we read, "was friendly with Rubin though they were not really friends." In other words, the men were colleagues. However, the relationship has apparently not been without its unstated or unexplored depths. These surface one day when Arkin chances one day to admiringly compare one of Rubin's many odd hats to a hat from a middle-aged self-portrait of Rembrandt.
After this Rubin ceases to wear the hat and appears to Arkin to be avoiding him. "I'll wait it out,"ï¿½ Arkin concludes. He doesn't think to ask Rubin about some possible offense; this is the sort of thing that friends do, or care to do, whereas colleagues adhere to a consensual surface. Months pass. One day Arkin enters Rubin's studio. There's really only one piece he likes. Another day, while showing some slides, he notices that the particular hat Rubin wore months earlier more
resembles that of a cook at a diner than Rembrandt's.
Later he returns to the sculptor's studio, congratulates him on the one fine piece, and apologizes for his remark months earlier. Rubin accepts the apology. But it provides no ground for some reassessment of their whole relationship. Instead, the two men (we are summarily told) remain no more than cordial to each other; "they stopped avoiding each other and spoke pleasantly when they met, which wasn't often." Once, Arkin spots Rubin regarding himself in the bathroom mirror in a white cap that now really does appear to resemble Rembrandt's hat.
But this final moment becomes yet another that goes unexplored, unacknowledged, and unsaid at the workplace of these two men, which constitutes their only lifeworld. In the end -- all violent resentments aside, from Arkin's part, and all fears of self-disclosure, from Rubin's part -- the men have only the relationship of colleagues with which they began. It is a triumph, of sorts; they could have remained enemies. Hats off to them. Most of us do what we can as colleagues, whether or not we secretly fancy ourselves Rembrandts. We try to make the best of it. Hats off to us all.
Terry Caesar's last column explored how academics avoid thinking of themselves as having or being bosses.
"I wasn't anybody's superior."
--Amélie, in Fear and Trembling
One way to characterize work in higher education: It has no bosses. The boss-ridden business world that strikes such glacial terror in the recent movie, The Devil Wears Prada or such giggly absurdity in the current television series, "The Office," is not our world. Miranda Priestly as a dean? No department chair (or provost) would tolerate her. Michael Scott as a department chair? The faculty would just watch him implode.
For us, the authority of The Boss, in contrast to business, is far too absolutist, not to say just plain absolute. An academic abides in "leadership positions" as part of a structure and his or her authority is to a considerable extent mediated though committees or modified by various official and unofficial protocols. The vocabulary of a "boss" is unacceptably blunt, unyielding, and crude for academic discourse, whose protocols are more subtle, indirect, and refined.
Put another way, "bosses" constitute an appropriate idiom for the staff who crunch numbers in human services, the secretaries who type memos in departments, and the custodians who empty waste baskets in all the rooms. The rest of us have committee heads or supervisors, chairs, assistant deans and so on up. We stand before them as, if not exactly equals, at least as fellow professionals. There is the presumption that everybody is on a first-name basis, however variously embedded in the institutional structure.
Therefore, how to explain why another recent [French] film, Fear and Trembling, proves to be so unsettling for an academic viewer? It should not be so. Set in a large Japanese corporation, the vocational structure is an inverse of academe: Authority is unquestioned at every remorselessly graded level. The president is likened to an emperor, and all below Him partake of His authority. The Belgian heroine, Amélie (who has decided to return to Japan, where she was born) must either obey the most inconsequential order of any superior or else quit. There are no other alternatives.
She strives to obey. The strangest thing is that although of course her obedience is easily available to psychological categories of understanding (in terms of masochism and sadism) to Amélie herself the experience becomes something profoundly spiritual. Told to check some numbers, and then recheck them, and recheck them once again, she eventually speaks, for example, of "invoice serenity." Eventually her one-year contract is up and she decides not to seek renewal. But not before achieving a felt state more akin to freedom than humiliation.
What makes this movie so resonant if you've never had a boss? I suspect the answer is simple: You do have a boss. We just choose not to see it this way, and instead emphasize what Fear and Trembling explores: the presence of inner freedom. Why do we choose not to recognize our bosses as such? We don't have to. They are already effaced, according to the logic of what Stanley Fish terms, in a notorious essay, "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," our ceaseless translation of everything (ranging from the conditions of the job market to the consequences of tenure decisions) into the "language of higher motives."
The essay -- in his collection There's No Such Thing as Free Speech -- ought to be more notorious still. According to Fish, academics will do anything to distinguish themselves from "the realities of the marketplace." One of whose realities, I am suggesting here, is that bosses do exist in both realms. Perhaps we can't abide a vocabulary of bosses because the need to distinguish ourselves from the world of business is so crucial. Or, more interestingly, perhaps we already have enough oppression. "In the psychic economy of the academy," Fish explains, "oppression is the sign of virtue. The more victimized you are, the more subject to various forms of humiliation, the more you can tell yourself that you are in proper relation to the corrupted judgment of merely worldly eyes."
The situation is almost more perverse than paradoxical. We academics continue to lament the need for more points of contact between ourselves and the rest of society in part because we continue to withhold from consideration one point of contact that could not be more urgent: the fact that people have direct power over us, on the basis of which we could all lose our jobs. Instead, we maintain that in academic life it's not this simple. Therefore one result, according to Fish, is that our own precious oppression remains, if not exactly worse, at least more complex, more superior, or at least more, ah, refined.
An example. The other day a friend, an adjunct, told me he had to make a special trip across town to copy his syllabus at the department because the chair insisted each page contain the college letterhead. Humiliating? Sure. But my friend doesn't see it quite this way, or only does as a minor instance of the systematic oppression of adjuncts that constitutes academic business-as-usual. I think he would be more emphatic that he does indeed have a most specific boss; another person, say, might not be so insistent about the logo. And yet he would have to admit that there is, again, a system in place, and so the boss-chair is even in this instance merely an expression of the system.
We all, in turn, will perhaps be more eager to maintain a whole host of additional exceptions and qualifications. For instance, the chair's insistence would seem less like the action of a boss if its object were an associate professor. (In a very real sense, all adjuncts have bosses, or are "in position" to have them. Tenured faculty are not in the same position.) Or, the chair himself may well be groaning under the authority of the dean, who is in fact more like a boss to him than he to the adjunct. And so on. And we haven't even mentioned higher motives, beginning with the importance of uniform institutional policies.
Nevertheless, to see Fear and Trembling is to realize that the task required (it's not clear if was ordered) of my friend is exactly the sort of trivial, pointless task Amélie has to perform so ceaselessly, until she comes to accept it as a species of spiritual discipline. Just so, I believe, we academics come to accept such things because they are good for us, since, as Fish explains, oppression is a source of virtue. However, we might not agree with his most extreme statement on this point: "Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don't care whose shit they eat."
Wait a minute. We do care! One example: no bosses. Or rather, no comprehension of "shit" in such an idiom, lest the ground of our distinction from the vulgar marketplace be cut from under us, and our oppression revealed to be, in the end, pretty much the same as that of any other workers, whose jobs depend upon fulfilling demands made by particular individuals who have direct power over us. No, we are to be distinguished from others. The man who enters the "cyber parlor" of the movie Minority Report and announces, "I want to kill my boss" -- He's not one of us. We would throw him out, just like the management of the parlor does.
And there is a final reason for our unease with this talk of bosses: Our professional identity is compromised. Much of it is founded on the fact that we don't need bosses. Maybe everyone else does. (Certainly Amélie does; herein lies the difference between her workplace and ours.) But not us. Our work is self-driven, self-sponsored. (Again, though, adjuncts must leave the room.) Indeed, so self-actualized are we -- as teachers, as scholars -- that we can afford to ignore how continually we are, well, bossed around, by committees, chairs, deans, and rules. How often in the experience of each of us does one or more of these categories of authority materialize into the hard, implacable
form of single individual who is too much like a boss to be less than a boss? Often enough. But again, we don't prefer to see it this way, even while we effectively groan under another's yoke as much as any office worker.
Nobody is a better guide into the heart of such mysteries than Fish. I don't wish to endorse every philosophical position he takes (and one secretly yearns to read the reflections of somebody under him during one of his late administrative adventures). I do wish to praise the provocation by which he lays down certain uncomfortable truths about, say, abiding under a regime of what is ultimately ideological control. There is no escaping such a regime, no standing apart from it. In another essay, "Force"--this can be found in another collection, Doing What Comes Naturally --Fish puts the matter thus: "There is always a gun to your head." If not an actual weapon, the gun is a reason, a desire, a need, or a name -- some form of "coercion" that we have already internalized, which is mistakenly conceived as somehow exterior to us.
Or to put it another way: Not only is there always a gun to your head; the gun at your head is your head. This doesn't explain everything about authority amid the ideological peculiarities of academic life. For one thing, all are not equally coerced. Not only is a lesser caliber of ammunition given to adjuncts; they also need more gun training in the first place. (Workshops in collaborative learning comprise an excellent current form.) But Fish's point suffices, I hope, to explain why as academics we don't presume ourselves to have bosses. We are our own bosses. This is a happy truth given to us by our ideology.
Therefore, as we trudge down to the copy machine in order to finish copying the syllabus -- to take a random example -- what matter whether or not the chair explicitly ordered us, the dean reminded the chair, or what the hell, the president actually spoke about the matter to the dean? In our syllabus ultimately lies our freedom, not our oppression -- and so it goes in pretty much all things (the next twist of the tenure screw, the last diversity directive) even while we may choose to complain about every single one. Nobody actually ordered us to do anything. At least we don't have bosses.
Terry Caesar's last column was on the importance of having places to read.