Who's the Boss?

"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.

November 21, 2006

"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.


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