Tuesday, April 25, 2006
If you haven’t seen Bitch, Ph.D.’s brilliant keynote address, check it out. Although we accent different syllables, I really like her recognition of the clumsiness of fit when you try to squeeze three-dimensional people into a one- or two-dimensional profession.
‘Fit’ has been used, historically, to exclude people according to race, gender, etc., and it’s that kind of pernicious use that gives the concept a suspect scent. But it’s real, even if it usually shouldn’t be used from the top down.
As someone who went directly from working in an ice factory in Northern Town to Snooty Rich Private Liberal Arts College, I became aware of ‘fit’ pretty quickly. As an introvert in an extroverted culture, there’s a chronic lack of fit that, while it can sometimes fade into the background, never really goes away. (Once, and for the record: ‘outgoing’ is not a morally positive trait, and ‘reserved’ is not a morally negative one. They are morally neutral; they are simply different ways of being. I wince every time I hear somebody praised as ‘outgoing.’ Just imagine what a lovely world it would be if more of us, Americans in particular, actually thought before we spoke. But I digress...)
That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes stare in wonderment at people who didn’t get one of the unwritten cultural memos. Male readers will understand this one: at my previous college, there was a high-ranking administrator who violated the sacred rule of the buffer urinal. If I was at urinal five, and the others were empty, he would sidle up to urinal four and try to strike up a conversation! I think he was raised by wolves. Every guy knows this rule. It’s part of what separates us from the animals. I mean, sheesh...
(From what I’ve seen, women have many more unwritten rules like this, and they’re much more complicated. When two women with different conceptions of these rules meet, you can actually feel the charge in the air, like when magnets repel each other.)
But most unwritten rules are subtler than that, and many of them are specific to location.
For example, at my previous college, there was a weird rule about ‘face time.’ Staying late counted in your favor, but arriving early didn’t. Leaving early counted against you, but arriving late didn’t. I don’t know why, and it isn’t as true at my current college, but it was pretty dramatic there. It wasn’t written anywhere, but you figured it out pretty quickly, and there was no court of appeals for special cases. Either you fit or you didn’t.
That’s the tyranny of unwritten rules. At least with written rules, there’s often an avenue for appeal. With unwritten rules, you just have to suck it up. And if the unwritten rule consistently works against you, for reasons you either can’t or won’t change, then you don’t fit. You’re the problem, whether the unwritten rule actually makes any sense or not.
Upon checking out a prospective new job, it’s hard to know what the key unwritten rules are. You can ask, of course, but one characteristic of a really good unwritten rule is that it wouldn’t occur to people to mention it; it just is. You don’t know it’s there until you break it (or you see someone else break it). A site visit helps, but some rules (men wear ties) are more obvious than others (praise must be delivered via coded sarcasm). Some rules only make themselves felt over time, or aren’t initially applied to rookies.
I have to maintain some abstraction here, so I’ll shift the gaze outward. What are some weird unwritten rules you’ve encountered?
Small wonder to those that know me--I still have the beard.
We have a bit of the upstairs/downstairs syndrome. The staff should remain invisible to the faculty. And one rule that I think is increasingly less true as we get younger faculty is that you shouldn't tell faculty what to do in the classroom. I say it's less true because I actually get asked for advice from many people now.
I work at an academic press, in journals production. The unwritten rule that annoys me every time it manifests itself is: when an editor has a problem with something I do, they don't let me know what they'd like me to change. They go to their boss, who talks to my boss, who relates some anonymous person's displeasure to me.
Generally, my approach to unwritten rules is to ignore them until someone takes me to task for violating them. I do this even if I have an inkling that a particular unwritten rule exists. It's a bit passive-aggressive of me, I suppose, but I am introverted and a bit socially impaired, and I doubt I could pick up on them consistenly even if I tried, so why try? I would just make myself (and likely everyone else) nuts.
Needless to say, I will never win any popularity contests among my colleagues.
I'm going to decline the invitation to name specific unwritten rules that I have come across. Once I get started, I might not be able to stop. Great post, though.
Conversely, if your affection for teaching is sincere, and you proclaim it so frequently, you are still obliged to moan about how thik the students are while everyone else (who claims teaching to be a central cncern) moans about student density (population and intellect, both).
-- YES! That's my boss's management system exactly: all criticism (and praise) is delivered as jokes, so you never know whether you've actually screwed up, or are just being teased. Which saves face, but makes it very hard to know how you're actually doing....
But in my wife’s family, the unwritten rule was that you should ask for what you want. And hearing no is not a big deal.
A clear disconnect in expectations.
Hilarity (and stress) ensued the first time my wife and I stayed with my parents. She got what she wanted, everytime. But they were mad as hell at her nerve in asking for things they did not want to give her (but had to, by the rules). Yet she said no to some of their requests.
The big unwritten rule in grad school I've found is, "If you pass your comps, all sins before that are forgiven and you start anew." Saved my bacon, I gotta tell ya.
I'll have to think a little harder about unspoken rules at my university. One for sure is, "Do not bother anyone with a Ph.D. who is outside the building taking a smoke-break. Especially not the head of the department...even if the building is on fire. Adjuncts with MA degrees may be bothered at any time during a smoke break, whether or not the building (or anyone's butt) is on fire." This only applies to smoking breaks and not other breaks; I guess we still have a lot more smokers here in the Deep South than in other parts of the country. I'm lucky that at my U, almost all the full-timers and admin folks are willing to talk with you anytime about problems and concerns.
*Shrugs* I just find it odd.