Wednesday, August 04, 2010
Ask the Administrator: Incivility Amok!
This morning I followed up on a Chronicle article from the tail end of last week (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Do-All-Faculty-Members-Really/25897/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en), and I was truly disheartened by the comments. The idea itself I liked, mainly the idea of common space for casual interactions (I have experienced isolation both as a faculty member and as an administrator), but the comments were disturbing. How is it acceptable for "scholarly and educated" people to spit out such personal attacks? There were a number of comments that simply said "I think privacy and student conversations will be an issue", but many more simply went straight into the "what an idiot, what a stupid idea" mentality.
I have noticed this in the comments on a number of higher ed sites, even occasionally in the comments on your blog.
Has higher ed always been this way? Have you noticed an increase in this type of attitude? Or is this just an easy outlet for angry people?
I have been working at a community college for 12 years- 9 as faculty, in various ft/pt configurations, and the last 3 as an administrator. While overall I believe the faculty and staff at this college are dedicated and want to see things work, people (on both sides) are still keen to make personal comments and pass judgement on situations of which they have very little understanding.
Although I am a firm believer in the mission of the community college, and of higher education in general, I am considering exploring other industries that might have less rancor.
I suppose the easy answer is to just not read the comments, but then you miss the dialogue and sharing of actual ideas.
Is this something you have noticed?
Before venturing some thoughts, I’ll just make a distinction between the general topic and the historical angle. I’m generally skeptical of “people used to be nicer” arguments, and it’s hard to say in the context of blogs and online discussion boards since their history doesn’t go back terribly far. So I can’t really give an intelligent answer one way or the other on the question of historical trajectory.
But the larger issue of personal attacks is very real.
I’ve read that social psychologists have a term -- the “fundamental attribution error” -- for the common mistake of ascribing others’ objectionable behavior to character flaws, rather than to missing information or external constraints. (I stopped abruptly because someone cut me off; the guy who cut me off is just an asshole.) I’ve seen that both online and in my day job.
In the day job, I’ve been accused repeatedly -- to my face and in public -- of harboring secret agendas to “do in” this program or that one, of thinking of faculty as piece workers, and of being -- in the words of one particularly charming public interlocutor -- “just idiotic.” All of those have been in response to budget-driven decisions. None of them suggested realistic alternatives to my ideas; when pressed, none of them even involved a recognition that budgetary decisions need to get made at all. I’ve had to learn not to take the bait, and to recognize the lashing out as a function of propinquity more than anything else. If I’m goring somebody’s ox, it must be because I’m an asshole; surely there’s no such thing as a real resource constraint. When other administrators do the exact same thing -- since we’re all working against the same state cuts -- well, we’re all just assholes.
Online, of course, it’s frequently worse. In the comments at IHE to my recent posts about the tenure/adjunct dialectic, for example, I was accused of “pathetic self-absorption,” “turn[ing] into a monster,” and my personal favorite:
Dean Dad, when you are meeting with a candidate for a tenure track position at your college, do you tell that person, "You should be aware of the fact that I oppose the idea of tenure and believe higher education would be better off without it"?
It’s easier than actually engaging the argument, I guess, but it doesn’t exactly encourage others to join the debate.
It’s frustrating, but I’m not sure what’s to be done about it beyond sticking to the high road as much as possible. Online, I’ve had to learn to restrain myself from hitting back at comments like those, since the exchanges quickly devolve into free-for-alls.
On campus, of course, “contrapower harassment” is legion, and even blessed with honorifics like “gadfly” or “thorn in the side of the administration.” For a professor to attack me personally in front of two hundred people is considered academic freedom; for me to hit back would be considered retaliation. The double standard does nothing to encourage honest discussion, and frankly, drives a lot of good people out of administration over time. (Oddly, the folks who attack the hardest also complain about administrative turnover, and never connect the dots.) Tenure enables contrapower harassment, which is probably why the harassment is much worse in higher ed than in most settings.
The irony is hard to miss. The same tenure that’s supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas actually enables a culture of embedded hostility that frequently prevents honest discussion. In his wonderful book The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton notes that tenured academia is one of the most difficult settings in which to change a culture, since it’s structured almost perfectly to reward me-first behavior. (Notice that it’s a structural argument.) Once you reach a certain critical mass, there really isn’t much to be done.
That said, though, I’ve found a few techniques generally effective in settings that haven’t reached critical mass.
The most basic one is actually listening. People shout when they think they aren’t being heard. The longer they feel ignored, the more blustery and unhinged they tend to be when they finally have a moment. If you make a habit of actually listening, I’ve found that over time, most people will slowly calm down. (I say “most” because some never will. Just a fact of life.) If you only have one shot at being heard, you’ll swing for the cheap seats; if you know you’ll be heard on a regular basis, you can choose your moments more judiciously.
A second, related one is admitting when you’re wrong, and/or incorporating better ideas when you hear them. I’ve made a point of noting changes derived from public input, and of crediting the folks who made the input, whenever possible. It seems to help, since it shows (correctly) that constructive input can actually work. A lot of the more histrionic stuff seems to come from a sense that it’s all just futile anyway; disprove the futility thesis, and some folks will adjust accordingly. Show respect, and eventually some of it will find its way back.
Of course, there’s also modeling. This is tricky since nobody’s perfect, but there’s something to be said for leading by example. At first, it can feel like unilateral disarmament, but it ages well.
And then there’s just knowing your own limits. We all have our hot buttons, and we all have our lesser moments. Sometimes it’s best just to change the subject or postpone the discussion. And some people will be contrary or difficult for sub-rational reasons no matter what you do; once you suss out who those folks are, tune them out.
So to answer your question, yes, I’ve noticed. I wish it weren’t so, but there it is. Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of dealing successfully with folks who think it’s reasonable to yell insults across crowded auditoriums?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
PS - I think that quotation is not correctly attributed by the first Anonymous.
PPS - Adjuncts have used shared offices since the start of time. Am I the first to get that in here?
I can imagine this would be the case if administrators with oversight over faculty/academic policies do not themselves have tenure. At many institutions, however, the simple and elegant solution is that administrators in such positions *must enter the position* with tenure, which is seen as a qualification that is essential for them to be able to do the job effectively.
You also write, about people's comments to your anti-tenure stuff, "It’s easier than actually engaging the argument, I guess, but it doesn’t exactly encourage others to join the debate."
Ok, fair enough. But the people who do engage your arguments, who offer well-reasoned objections to your claims, never get a response from you. I'm thinking of the many, many comments that CC Physicist has left for you over the years that ask you to fill in the details of your alternate to tenure. Since well reasoned objections get crickets, I feel like you're not really interested in creating a space where civil debate or conversation happens. One of the reasons that I think incivility is the norm in many comments sections on different blogs/sites is because those who administer the space don't take seriously their responsibility to manage how conversations in the comments go.
Regarding the correspondent's particular issue: I don't think the nasty comments prove academics are a singularly petty group. Rather, I think they demonstrate that advanced education is no proof against our lesser human impulses.
It truly amazed me when things were said in person during class discussions such as "that's dumb." (a rather mild example, but one of the most common; on the extreme I had a professor tell me that I had a "mediocre mind with a half-wit thesis") In the for-profit world a good manager would put a stop to such personal attacks; So, I was very surprised when NONE of my professors even tried to suggest that such comments were out of bounds. Not one!
So, I think this issue goes beyond tenure professors. I think at lot of it has to do with the "elitist" nature of academia. So many (but certainly, not all) folks in Higher Ed feel that they are better than the rest of us and have no problem with expressing their true feelings of contempt towards others.
The real question is what solutions can help to overcome this attitude? Are there any? Or is it hopeless?
In the academy, there's nowhere to go so there's really no reason to be nice. Since faculty rarely work together on projects, there's no opportunity to develop the teamwork skills that help move groups along. In fact, I'd say in my old department, the more nasty you were, the more likely you were to get your way because people didn't want to become your next target.
The way to power in that context is to form a silent majority and then use process, politics, and isolation to gain power. Blowhards are rarely organized enough to mount a political campaign so if you just isolate them and get everyone else on your side you can accomplish a great deal. If you are really evil, you can manipulate them into exploding at a key time, pissing off someone who is politically key, and then use that to accomplish your ends.
A more positive approach involves rewarding with position and power those who are willing to be nice and get along. This would be through the careful selection of committees or by assigning release time to people who want to do projects that will cause change. Takes more time and requires more resources but leaves one feeling much less dirty - I like this second way much better.
Finally, I think it’s a bit disingenuous for you, DD, to use your own blog as an example, since Dr. Crazy is right. You don’t ever really engage the substantive criticisms of your position on tenure, or respond to real questions about it (I for one have asked you several questions over the years about implementation, which you have never answered). Can incivility include lack of interest or engagement as well as explicit insults?
I think so. Pointedly ignoring or omitting someone is a classic passive-aggressive tactic, and can be pretty devastating to the right target. (eg a new hire who is consistently left off email lists and social invites.) I think it gets a bit trickier with online comments. I think a general policy of abstaining from comments is reasonable (journalists almost never descend into the pit), but ignoring one particular poster or argument seems less so.
I think it has a lot to do with the wimpy or passive-aggressive nature of many academics. On the one hand, on the other hand ... and Harry Truman goes looking for a one-armed economist. Criticizing students or stating an Absolute Truth just isn't part of how many faculty operate.
Just think for a moment about the comparison Charles made - between a professor (perhaps contingent or untenured) and a "good manager". Most faculty manage about as well as Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. When you are lucky, like I am, you get a Dean and a Provost who were the exceptional faculty who became good managers.
PS to Dr. Crazy -
Thanks for the compliment. I've been struggling with my college's public budget data to see if I can answer those questions for my own CC. It isn't easy, particularly because you need to separate fringe benefits and substantial pay for extra classes from the total salary numbers in our aggregated budget. Some are fixed costs (like health care) while others scale with salary, including extra classes.
Well, he said, to have actually brought someone to God, I would have had to have had a better class of prisoners....
Abolishing tenure might take the edge of some of the incivility, but the kind of people who typically go into teaching (and I speak of myself) are people who are generally timid but in the safety of their classes or meeting rooms often quite combative.
If they were otherwise, they'd be out in the world.
These are the class of prisoners you have got, deandad.
yes. you have people calling you out because of a blog post that was unsolicited to them, and isn't required for them to read in any way. sheesh.
there are quick, and i would argue proper solutions for incivility online, and those are a) don't allow comments on your posts, or b) implement a method for providing real user validation.
marco.org doesn't allow comments. so do a lot of other places. seems smart to me, as they don't have to worry about having to answer stupid claims and arguments.
in the end, who cares? the internet is full of hot air. just get over it, click on the next link, and enjoy that ad with a hot chic wearing some sort of witty t-shirt...
I also think we feel entitled because Dean Dad's blog is smart, thoughtful, and interesting - not the usual blog drek. Even when I disagree with DD, I want to engage with him, not sit back passively and look at "hot chics" (whatever those might be).