Life in an academic department is not always a “bed of roses.” In fact, sometimes it can be downright fraught with tension and backbiting. In that sense, academe is like every other worksite—humans interact there, and humans don’t always get along well.
I want to write a series of blog posts about departmental politics—several readers asked me to consider the topic and I found the request intriguing. I’ve decided to start with the role of senior faculty colleagues, because I know it best. Next week I’ll talk about “newer” faculty. Then I’ll turn to department heads/chairs, and lastly, I’ll talk about how to get help if you feel you are in a situation that is unmanageable.
If you are a senior faculty member (but not the chair/department head), are there things you can do (and not do) to try and lessen tension? I think that there are.
Don’t reply immediately to a new idea with criticism (especially if it comes from a junior faculty member). Even if you can see lots of potential problems should the idea be implemented, let the idea “sit.” Listen to what others have to say, first. I found this to be a very useful strategy during the last five years before I retired, even before I had officially announced my retirement date—I knew it was coming and I wanted to be a good departmental citizen. So I made a commitment to myself to pull back a bit from programmatic conversations, because ultimately, many of them wouldn’t involve me, long-term. I chose to only raise concerns if I knew or if I was worried that the idea (or more often, the implementation of the idea) might violate university or system policies or procedures. Then I would raise the issue, but I’d suggest—if possible—ways to implement the idea, just within the existing policies or help draft a request for a waiver.
Refrain from constantly referring to “when I started out teaching.” Some newer colleagues might not have been born when you started teaching—let that sink in and help you to self-edit. Your colleagues could choose to tune out if you keep harking back to “the good old days when….” The profession of teaching has changed in the thirty-some years I was a part of it—use of technology, class size, funding, availability of tenure-track positions v. number of adjunct positions, publishing requirements, and I could go on. So comparisons to “back in my day” often alienate instead of unify.
Communicate with your colleagues. Not to talk with them is a sign of disrespect. I had a colleague who would attend every meeting of our program faculty, but would never say a word. But then the faculty member would vote—often differently than the other faculty—and wouldn’t offer explanations or clarifications afterwards. It was hard to feel that that senior colleague was “one of us” when we never learned what was on his mind about the curriculum, the program, or the relationships between all of us in the program.
Don’t be a jerk. Understand that as a more senior faculty member, you have privilege, be it seniority/tenure, or likely a higher salary due to rank, a better office, and so on. Use your privilege if you see sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc. Don’t make newer colleagues have to do it—especially if they are the victim.
Put the students’ needs first, then the needs of the program, unless there are extenuating circumstances. I understand that parents might need to start their teaching day later or end it earlier than those of us who do not have children to drop off or pick up from school. I taught an 8 AM section for years because I loved that hour and wanted to help out my colleagues and our program. But I never liked having senior colleagues (and not just them) who would just issue edicts, about, for example, the classes they wanted to teach next semester and were intransient about negotiating, even if it meant that required courses had to be taught at the same time, thus increasing students’ time to graduation.
And the cardinal rule to follow is,
Don’t denigrate students, even behind their backs. I realize we all can have a bad day and share something that happened in class as a way to vent—I get that. But if day after day, all a senior faculty member does is talk bad about students to other colleagues, it sets a bad example and can poison the learning environment for all.
How do you think senior faculty should act, in terms of departmental politics? Share in the comments.
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