Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dishing Dirt

I realize it's been awhile since I've discussed work here. I've been a bit lax in that regard, I think, and more ready to talk about how popular culture and fashion serve to distract us (okay, maybe just me) from more difficult topics.

Last night, however, one of my colleagues graciously invited a group of us over (how does someone DO that in the week before Thanksgiving? He and his wife are truly wondrous in that respect). As the drinks flowed and the pizza coma set in, we found ourselves discussing the makeup of our department (it must have been that someone raised the topic of the MLA--which, instead of "Modern Language Association" should, from a job candidate position, stand for "Mordor, Land of Academics." Because really, it's all about the evil eye on you at all times.) One of the talking points on the groaning table (not raised by me, surprisingly enough) was that of the generation gap in our department. We have a number of junior faculty, and a number of senior faculty, and almost no one in between. Generous Host commented that this is a problem in many ways, and it's compounded by the fact that the few people in the middle have eschewed any interest in or responsibility to departmental service. This, of course, leaves the junior and senior faculty to fight it out. No fun AT ALL.

I added that this dynamic was further exacerbated by the lack of people in the middle--because so many of them had left over the years. There were suddenly a couple of sets of widenened eyes. I suppose that's a little fact that will set you on your ass if you're brand new to this job: we've lost tenured faculty members. Not just one. I babbled blithely on, of course, but later I found myself thinking--what is our ethical responsibility to new folks? How much is too much to tell them up front? How much do they need to find out themselves, over the course of time? Particularly if you like them and want them to stay?

I remember very clearly that it took Yogini and I a good many "WTF?!!" conversations in our first year in order to figure out the dynamics of our department and Askesis U. itself. When someone finally sat us down, in the spring, and laid out a history of the department and the institution, we had two conflicting responses. The first was relief--we're not crazy, there are some old, engrained patterns of behavior here that we're stepping into time and time again. The second, however, was "Holy CRAP! You knew all of this and you let us stick our feet in our mouths over and over?!"

It's a tricky line to walk, I think. Too much too soon and I would seem like a venomous plotter; too little too late and I leave newbies swinging in the wind. What is the "right way" for someone to come to institutional knowledge that will help them navigate the waters of junior faculty life?


Blogger Kate said...

You know, this is something that came up for me a lot when I was union organizing in my department. If I tell them the truth of the situation -- that most of the male faculty are sexist, that the curriculum is a joke, that the rules can be bent and brownnosing is the rule -- I risk their getting all bent out of shape and angry at me. Then they go to the brownnosing grad students and say "ooh, that mean union person! She told me things were so bad and I know they're totally not!" And the brownnosers would nod their heads and say, "ah, you see why I'm anti-union." Not a good situation.

But if I try to be nice about it and only share the troubles of our dept sparingly, I get accused of being Pollyanna. I'm too positive about the agency we grads have to change the system and I'm just being silly.

I don't know that there's any particular good way to do this. The most necessary piece is to build good relationships and prove you're honest and trustworthy from the start. Then I tell them the truth, but give them space to have all their horrified feelings. I do risk the whole "venomous plotter" thing, but I'd much rather do that than be all breezy like some of my colleagues.

The fact is, being honest (and not being bitter about it but proactive) is not venomous or horrible. It's the best thing you can do to someone new. Tell them the truth, then give them a sense of how we can work together for change. I know that when I have a tt job that is what I am going to be looking for in my colleagues.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 3:46:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Great advice, Kate. And I like your distinction between using honesty to vent bitterness and using it to be proactive. What a sound rule of thumb. In addition, that last line about what you're going to look for in your colleagues is useful too. What would I have wanted? What would I want now?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006 9:14:00 AM  

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