Thursday, August 31, 2006

 

Cousin Oliver

Over at acade(me), there's a fascinating discussion of the paradoxical position of a new, young professor walking into a department dominated by a much older cohort. She was hired, in part, to bring new energy and perspectives to the department, but upon arrival, got the message in many unsubtle ways that she is not to rock the boat. She is to be just more of the same, albeit with a younger face.

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

When I was hired to my current position, the then-VP made it very clear that I was to be an agent of change, the person to bring the next generation of faculty to the college. Then we didn't hire anybody for a year and a half, during which time that VP left, to be replaced by an interim VP who didn't want to make any decisions to bind her successor. So this (relatively) young Dean, hired to be an agent of change, had to sit on his hands for a year and a half and whistle a happy tune.

It was a fascinating sociological experience, in that my previous college had a much younger cohort of employees, so I went from average-age to conspicuously-young overnight. Although I was unable to effect much meaningful change at all in the first year and a half, that didn't stop some of the old guard from seeing me as a mortal threat. So I got the worst of both worlds – all the enmity that a change agent normally generates, without any of the actual accomplishment. “Frustrating” doesn't begin to capture it. I was to be the new young packaging on some very old product. A fresh new spokesmodel for a creaky regime. Cousin Oliver in the final season of The Brady Bunch. Not a good thing.

Since then, it has been a bumpy ride, but at least it has been moving. A few departures and retirements in key positions removed some major obstacles. (I made damn sure to have input on the selection of the new permanent VP.) A serious fiscal crisis has brought some clarity to the need for certain kinds of change. Some well-chosen faculty hires (fewer than have left, but still...) have, cumulatively, changed the tone in several departments. A few victories led to some credibility, which made subsequent victories easier. Some of the folks who, initially, wouldn't give me the time of day, have made peace with the fact of my presence. (Now that I've been here for several years and multiple VP's, it's getting harder to sustain the illusion that I'm some sort of temp.) Over time, sheer exposure makes it harder to paint me as some sort of demon (or, alternately, some sort of lightweight).

I think it was Hegel who said something to the effect that “there is nothing in the essence of an object that does not manifest itself in the series of its appearances.” In other words, over time, what you are will become obvious. The comfort level of the old guard with each other, even with those they can't stand, derives from familiarity. After many years, it's possible to read Bob's outburst as “that's just Bob being Bob again,” and not to get overly bothered by it. As the new kid, they don't have a good read on you, and the devil you know beats the devil you don't. But over time, the newness wears off, the real strengths start to surface, and some folks retire or leave. When the sands of time move, lines drawn in the sand move, too.

Some well-meaning folks give newbies the advice to “keep your head down.” I disagree. Don't be needlessly provocative, certainly, but hold your head up high. Nothing evaporates the idiotic fantasies that the old guard will project onto you like exposure to reality. Show your strengths without apology, and win, slowly, by taking the high road. It won't work quickly, necessarily, but over time the naysayers just start to look out-of-touch and slightly pathetic. Once you've become a fact on the ground, which doesn't happen overnight, even those whose hearts and minds are still fighting the battles of the 1970's will have to deal with you.

The beauty of taking the high road is that it's incredibly hard to defeat. The danger is that the payoff is slow, and you need at least a modicum of security (in whatever form) to be willing to invest the time. It's also incredibly difficult to fake, which is exactly why it works.

The most interesting and successful new faculty here have made their marks without actually going toe-to-toe with anybody. Rather than fighting old battles, they've changed the subject. It can work, and it has the heartening effect of disarming some of the less pleasant combatants altogether.

I once heard a new hire to an old department compared to a new lamp in an old room: it shines light into some previously-dark corners, showing where dust gathered without anybody noticing. Sometimes what gets exposed isn't flattering or pleasant, and the human tendency to shoot the messenger will surface. But it's bullshit, and over time, if that light keeps shining, that bullshit will get progressively harder to sustain.

Cousin Oliver had no substance and didn't last. If you're confident that you have substance, take the high road. Bring the new perspectives in a classy way, but bring them. Over time, with patience, you'll be surprised at what can shift.

Comments:
"I went from average-age to conspicuously-young overnight"

I had this experience too, moving from my previous (non-profit) job to academia: I was almost 20 years younger than the average age in my (administrative) department. Very disconcerting, and it took me a LONG time to get accustomed to it.

Actually, it still gets under my skin from time to time, now that I think about it. :(
 
It goes the other way, too. I went from being the "junior" faculty member in my field to eing the "senior", when the other two gius retired in the same year...
 
How funny -- I've just run into this kind of thing. And my gut impulse was to do what you suggest.
 
Great post. I've had this same experience as faculty, and I agree about "not keeping your head down." One of my mentors gave me what I thought was excellent advice:

"The best way to get tenure is to act like you have it." He didn't mean that I should be a pushy, argumentative person, but rather that I should be *myself*, and let the other (older) faculty see who I am.
 
Loved your analogy.

"Poochie the Dog" would have worked, too.
 
I imagine that it is different on the faculty vs. admin level, but one important thing for a new hire to remember is that somewhere in the process, a majority of a committee (or department) thought that they would be a good choice and fit. The committee/dept members may not choose a candidate for the same reason, but it gives the new hire a chance to show a feuding dept how they can relate to each camp, without taking strong sides. To me, this is an example of the "changing the subject" strategy mentioned by DD.
 
Interesting, as always. Not sure myself about advice, having been myself in my first job and canned for the effort. I am more cautious now, more reserved, and distinctly more distant and mysterious. That doesn't mean I lie, necessarily, but I do fudge. That's not about survival as much as just getting along.

But I do like your egg-head version of "Turn that Frown Upside Down." As a new fac at Sadistic College, I initiated changes that were good, useful, and necessary, but which also engendered the ire of some tired-ass dead wood. At Cold City U., there's a lot of things that need changing, but now I guess I am more interested in suasion rather than blunt force (although I will still open my big mouth at inappropriate moments).
 
DD, thanks for this great and informative reaction to my initial post. I was just led to your blog by a commenter on my own.

I like your suggestions here -- especially, I like the analogy of a "new lamp in an old room." I'm trying to figure out how to be an agent of change in a way that is not too offensive to the old guard, but in a way that is true to what I believe needs to be done in order to best educate our students.

When I initially read the comments on my post about this issue, I thought, "Gosh, that's right -- I'm NEW and YOUNG and I should just be very careful not to step on anyone's toes." But that's not why they hired me: they hired me to fill a void, and they're already calling on me to fill voids I didn't even know existed when I accepted the job. I am an integral part of the department and classes haven't even started here. And being "integral" means that I have a stake in departmental policy and shouldn't be afraid to state my positions (but in a "classy" way, as you say!).

So I'm not going to be annoying and I'm not going to make my colleagues feel like the way they've been doing things is all wrong (even though, in some cases, I think it is). Instead, I'm going to be persistent in pushing new ideas, gathering support from other members, and educating my students on my own views of how they should structure their time in our department.

We'll just see what happens. It could be very, very exciting.
 
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