Thursday, October 26, 2006


Like a Family

There's one department in my area that consistently gives me fits (and gets them right back). The instincts of its leadership clique strike me as consistently and mysteriously wrong. It's as if they're right-handed kids stuck using left-handed scissors – despite their best efforts, everything just gets mangled.

From what I hear in the grapevine, the reverse is also true. They have absolutely no idea how to read me, and it's making them crazy. I violate as many of their unspoken assumptions as they do mine. Of course, they all got tenure during the Nixon era, so there's a limit to how many issues I can force.

A chance comment by one of its leadership clique this week helped me start to bring it into focus. She mentioned, proudly, that the group is like a family.


She's right, and that's wrong.

Although I spent years in feminist theory seminars learning that the public/private distinction works to the detriment of women and other excluded groups, I've found in practice that a good public/private distinction actually works to preserve sanity. Mixing the two is when things go haywire.

Family relationships are permanent, developmental, complicated, binding, and particular. Families have internal traditions that are both arbitrary and enforced, and that's fine; some take an annual group vacation, some have annual drunken brawls over long-simmering resentments, and, most embarrassingly, some willingly eat lutefisk. It's part of what defines a family. Families have their quirks and rhythms based on a generational life-cycle.

Work relationships are temporary (tenure aside), ephemeral, role-based, and restricted to grownups. Although you wouldn't know it from the way some people talk, none of the professors here was raised in the office from infancy. In a work setting, arguing from data should trump arguing from loyalty. In a family setting, not so much. In a work setting, judging performance is not only permissible but mandatory. In a family setting, it's hard even to define what 'performance' is.

For whatever reason, I've got a cluster that honestly thinks of itself as a family. So when “outsiders” show up, requesting “change” for the sake of “improvement,” they see it as interloping. Would you add a new grown sibling to your family for the sake of affirmative action? Of course not. When the colorful misanthropic uncle blows off work, the family rallies around him to hide his shortcomings and deny any damage. When an “outsider” starts asking about it, the outsider is the problem.

That's fundamentally sick.

I don't know about their home lives, and I honestly don't want to. I don't want to be the son-in-law or oddball family friend. I need them to step up and work like the work matters, and to deal with professional relationships professionally. It's one thing to juggle 'dean' and 'dad,' but quite another to confuse them.

This is a very difficult set of assumptions to change, since most of them regard the 'family' ideal as both desirable and a reflection of years of hard work. Disenchantment of the world is a hard sell. It's no fun to tell a close-knit group that their beloved father figure hasn't lifted a finger since 1982, or that the compromises they've worked out on several procedural matters stink to high heaven and stand to get us slammed at the next reaccreditation visit. Their first reaction is to unite against the common enemy, since that's much easier than confronting reality.

Add the fact that I'm dramatically younger than most of them, and their visceral discomfort starts to make sense. There's no room in their family narrative for the youngster to outrank them. The only way that should happen should be when they're on the decline. The way to prove they're not on the decline is to beat the crap out of the youngster who doesn't know his place.

But I do. My place is in the dean's office. Their place is at work. A department is not, and should not pretend to be, a family. Leave the dysfunctions at home, where they belong. We have work to do.

You are absolutely right. However, the department that values this state will be impossible to reform. They will cling to that endlessly, until it becomes impossible to continue. Then they will implode.

At that point, many will run for the hills. That may be better, though.
As usual, Dean Dad, you've described my task force world to a "t". God bless you.
A retirement or two and some new blood (fresh meat?) will sometimes break them out of the "family" mentality.

When I was hired, my department was ruled by a group of senior women faculty. They basically controlled the department. In the years since, a couple of them retired, new people replaced them, and little by little, the department has changed. Within a few years, only one of them will be left.

Time takes care of a lot of things that politics, etc., can't touch.
I think I can go one better - I spent 10 years at an SLAC where the entire faculty was repeatedly referred to as "the _______ _______ college family."

Having come from a marginally functional family, I saw no wrong with this. I should have known.

Just like my family, most of the attention went to the tiny percentage of dysfunctional "siblings." People who did what was expected of them (not above and beyond, just their regular jobs) were praised beyond all belief, &c.

The biggest problem was that, just like in many families, disagreement was consistently swept under the rug. And it built, and built, until every few years a Dean or a President was thrown under the bus.
Early in my (admittedly brief) academic career, a friend of mine pointed out how many people in our department had no real lives outside of work. I knew so many academics with dysfunctional home lives, but I could never figure out the chicken and the egg: Were they drawn to academic life (the meetings, the conferences, deadlines, papers to grade, publish or perish) because it filled up their otherwise empty lives? Or did their obsession with their jobs kill their families? And yes, I knew quite a few people who found a balance between personal fulfillment academic success--I never did. I'm talking about people who refered to The Profession much as I imagine medieval monks referred to The Church.
I always thought the timing of the MLA was a big "screw you" to those of us so blinkered and bourgeois as to cling to tradition. To me, people who looked forward to the MLA were admitting clinical insanity.
Perceptive and thought provoking. You may already be a Libertarian!
However, Dean Dad, the "family" relationship is the closest analogy to academic relationships anymore. What other relationship is this long-term? Nobody but us holds a job for 20-30 years nowadays. The kinds of performance indicators and data-driven decision making models are ones that often treat corporate workers as disposable.

Don't get me wrong, I think the family model is incredibly dysfunctional. I am uncomfortable, however, modeling our workplace on the rather dehumanizing measures of the private sector. Is there some third space around here, anyone?
You're right! I know a similar department (I'm not saying it's mine, it's my cousin's ex-boyfriend's neighbor's department) that is also much like a family. Your analysis fits my cousin's ex-boyfriend's neighbor's department perfectly. Quite an insight. Thanks.
Oh, thank God someone has said this out loud! Or, I should say, written it down - thanks, Dean Dad. I loathe the family metaphor when applied to academia because I usually see it as a way to screw over faculty (because you know, family members show up at all events and don't demand higher pay!). But you're absolutely right that it's detrimental in all its manifestations. And as a quick response to artiswork, I think that even for academia the model of holding the same job for 20-30 years is changing. Granted, perhaps more academics will stay in the same general field for 20-30 years, but I think there's more moving around from institution to institution than there used to be. And I think people in my academic cohort are more willing to leave academia and figure out something else when it gets so dysfunctional. (Though I should add that this is just based on personal experience, so is hardly scientific!)
I think the family metaphor is totally fine, as long as you realize that the family in question is of the Sopranos variety.

I guess that would make you the FBI. Is wire-tapping out of the question?
I used to hope that retirements and fresh blood would break the 'family' mentality, but I have often noticed that this mentality reproduces itself, and the new people end up filling old roles and niches.

Where I went to school, things were very professional, so when I started working in these departments which are 'like families', and this was considered a positive thing, I could hardly believe it. My current chair likes to say we are an 'ecology', which I don't like either, although it is better in some respects.

If it's a family, there are always parents and children, and, well, you see where I'm going.

A clinical psychologist, however, informed me that "workplace issues are family of origin issues" ... which suggests that family-ness is to some degree inescapable, especially given that we spend more waking hours at work, with our colleagues, than at home, with our families. These, in my view, are not reasons to accept the family-ness of some departments, but to the contrary, reasons to stamp it out with yet more resolve!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?