'Civil' Wars

Just because civility may not be an appropriate reason to hire, tenure or fire academics doesn't mean it shouldn't matter in higher education, writes Judith Shapiro.

September 8, 2014
 

The topic of “civility,” including its place among the professional responsibilities of faculty members, has come to the fore recently, as it does from time to time when there is some especially hot-button, polarizing issue in academe. This time, the context is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Much can be said – and has been said – about this particular context, including the observation there is a large body of writing by academics and public intellectuals that is highly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that is based on research, evidence, and analysis. While this may not be an invariable guarantee of accuracy, such writings have a claim both to serious attention and to the protections of academic freedom for their authors. Such efforts and contributions are not well-served when faculty colleagues indulge in loose invective in what are now relatively public channels of communication – channels that are, in these times, open to students.

The same might be said of the more serious and substantive efforts of those who also engage in intemperate blogging and tweeting themselves. To take a not-quite-the-same-but-perhaps-close-enough-for-comparison case from the profession of journalism: would Paul Krugman’s work be more effective or less effective if he were sending out personally abusive tweets about Angela Merkel on the side? And, if he were, would The New York Times be just as proud and happy to have him on the roster? And would the newspaper’s editors and board be in as strong a position to defend him against outside pressure from those who do not share his economic, political, and moral views – that is, would they be in as strong a position to defend freedom of the press, an important responsibility of editors and boards of newspapers?

The American Association of University Professors has been understandably wary of the use of “civility,” particularly in matters of appointments and tenure. Like its close associate “collegiality,” it is open to multiple interpretations and may be put to various ignoble purposes. It may simply be thrown around too loosely for its message to be clear. Invoking it in the context of current affairs in the Middle East may seem ironic to some, downright offensive to others.

When we invoke “civility” in the context of higher education the focus must be on maintaining the kind of light-to-heat ratio that serves our role as teachers and scholars. What it certainly does not mean is sweeping difficult, controversial, painful issues under the rug. Let us also bear in mind that when we or our colleagues may be found wanting in the exercise of our professional responsibilities, this can be addressed in ways well short of the to-be-or-not-to-be of hiring, firing, and tenure.

Some critics of the civility standard propose that it can only be useful if operationalized and thus able to pass muster in terms of specificity. This, however, requires us to face the fact that formal codes and procedures are no substitute for shared norms about appropriate, responsible, civilized behavior.

We have seen this in the misbegotten attempt to address prejudice, ignorance, and general nastiness through formal speech codes that have the additional disadvantage of falling afoul of our legal systems.

We have seen it in the attempt of the University of Virginia’s board to pass a formal policy preventing trustees from speaking out of school, i.e., publicly criticizing decisions made by their fellow board members – yet another occasion for the university to receive negative attention in the higher education press.

Most recently, we have seen it in the “trigger warning” initiative that demeans both faculty members and students, treats a serious condition like PTSD as something that can be addressed in a syllabus, and invites the need for complementary “spoiler alerts” to serve the interest of those students who do not want to be told about significant plot elements in literary works ahead of time.

Societies have various means of social control at their disposal. There is what the Quakers call “eldering,” whereby a respected, usually senior, member of the community offers guidance. Less kindly approaches include withholding important social rewards: positions of authority, honors, invitations. At the social extreme, there is ostracism.

This is not intended as a to-do list, but rather as examples of how a community expresses its attachment to what it sees as core values. Surely, we can manage to promote such values without sacrificing the forms of individualism and eccentricity necessary to academe.

And, also surely, it would seem desirable for such standards to be maintained first and foremost by faculty members themselves, rather than by administrative action from above (or, as some may see it, below).  “Corporate” has become a term of abuse in academe, but we might go back to its more general reference to a group of individuals acting as a body, a community.  It may well be that the corporate exercise of professional responsibility on the part of the faculty is key not only to preserving the tenure system but to making our colleges and universities the kinds of places where we truly want to work and live.

Bio

Judith Shapiro is professor of anthropology emerita at Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.

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