Department Politics: Getting Help

In the past three weeks I have talked about how to be a good senior colleague, a good junior colleague, and an effective leader. So it’s time to talk about what to do if there’s ongoing tension in your department or academic unit.

Photo of person, head on desk. Says, "If drama follows you wherever you go, maybe you are the drama.First off, this has to be said. Are you sure that it’s not about you, at least partially? Take a week or so and really examine your behaviors and attitudes. Are you contributing to an escalation in tension? To its maintenance? Be honest here—it’s often hard to see how we might be supplying some of the oxygen for the departmental drama. You might want to ask your mentors for their opinions and really listen to what they say. Talk with your departmental leader (unless he or she is part of the tension) and ask the same question.

Black t-shirt which says, "Be the adult in the room"Are you acting like the adult in the room? Are you being kind to others involved in the tension (especially in front of students), no matter what their behavior might be toward you? Have you tried at least twice to have private conversations about the tension, as a way to cool things down?

Have you analyzed what seems to be the issue? Is a generational change in power happening? Is there an ideological divide at the core of the tension? Is the power in the department shifting between various academic disciplines? Does it seem to be a personality clash? Where did the tension first start? Was it at work or after-hours socializing? If it was the latter, was a substance like alcohol involved? If it was, might it have distorted behavior at the time and memories after the fact?

But regardless of the “why”—the tension exists and often interferes with how we go about our job. When arriving on campus causes you anxiety, fear, tears, or nausea—things are bad, regardless of the cause. So what can one do?

-Keep doing your job to the best that you can. Try not to give anyone a reason to think less of you. Be on time to classes and meetings; hold office hours; meet with students; treat students and colleagues well; do all administrative paperwork on time. Be a good colleague in every way you can, despite the stress.

Anxious African American female, looking at computer, holding up sign that says "help"-Identify campus resources that could be helpful which are outside of your department. These could include Human Resources, the campus mediation team, the Social Equity office, or the counseling center. Do your homework about these, however. Many persons outside of academe say that the mission of corporate Human Resources is to take care of the organization and its “brand” more than to help solve interpersonal issues. So talk with your mentors and other faculty, without sharing the actual issues, about the reputation and interventional strategies used by HR, Social Equity, and the mediation team. You want to gain a sense of how these organizations work and to whom they report as you consider which one(s) might be most helpful to you in trying to solve the departmental tension.

Two females, having coffee. Text says "You don't have to do it alone"-Many times, campus resources allow the faculty member to bring in an advocate who can be there with you. So do your homework and read about these academic units’ policies. If an advocate is allowed, I suggest bringing the person of your choice to every meeting you have, including the first one. If you don’t have someone in mind, consider looking at the teaching and learning staff, the staff at centers focused on race, gender, sexualities, religious studies, and international studies for possible allies—they are more likely to have training in assessing power dynamics.

Spiral notebook open to blank page; fountain pen on it, waiting to be used-Write everything down. I suggest you keep a notebook and divide it into two sections. The first should be—to the best you can—a blow by blow account of events causing tension. Don’t edit anything out but also don’t embellish. Think of this section as “just the facts” (as you perceive them). The second section should be how the events made you feel. But be careful not to blend the two sections, to the extent that you can. Keep the notebook off campus (i.e., in your car, etc.), even if that means you have to write ‘in the moment’ notes during the day and recopy them to the notebook at night.

Man holding up phone, text says "Dangers of oversharing"-This might be controversial, but I strongly suggest that you keep details of the tension to yourself, your advocate, and the chain of command only. Have friendly colleagues who will support you without you having to share all the details with them. If you need to vent, choose people who don’t work at your institution. I realize others will disagree and will suggest sharing details with many others at your institution so that what is happening becomes well known. Think through your decision; either one will have consequences.

Small silver trinket, says "celebrate the little victories"-Remember, partial victories can be better than total defeats. It can be a good thing to be perceived as someone who is willing to compromise strategically. Of course, what constitutes a partial victory, matters. Giving in to systems of oppression because they have worn you down is no victory at all. Compromising in ways that change systems of oppression, even somewhat, is a win. Take it. Celebrate it.

So ultimately the best advice I have is to take care of yourself. The stress of being caught up in departmental tension can be horrific. So pay attention to your body. Rest if you need to and be proactive about staying physically and emotionally healthy. Don’t go overboard, be it with food, alcohol or other substances, or even exercise. It can be tempting to do so because they at least are in your control and can (seem to) give comfort, whereas the tension is not under your control. Next week’s blog will have more self-care ideas.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.



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