Tuesday, September 20, 2011
My campus recently got into a nasty little kerfuffle over something that shouldn’t have been an issue at all. Some very smart people became uncharacteristically enraged, and had trouble even putting together a reason for it.
After a few days of baffled questioning, I think I’ve got a bead on it. They were mad about issue A, but there was no obvious venue in which to discuss it. So when issue B came along -- the moral equivalent of a typo -- the frustration with issue A boiled over. And the conflict was as unsatisfying as it was precisely because it wasn’t about what it was about.
In subsequent discussion, a few folks started with the usual mantra about transparency, but actual transparency discredited the rage. That didn’t really help, of course, because the animating anger was about something else.
Lesboprof has a wonderful post up about learning to edit herself as an administrator. That’s hard to do, especially when you realize after an extended and draining conflict that you were shadowboxing the entire time.
There’s a real tension between transparency and discretion. I’ve learned that I have to try to edit my own emotions, while being utterly transparent about work goals. When a professor who has shown herself, again and again, to care only about the next course release comes along with yet another proposal for a project, I make myself resist rolling my eyes and try to pretend that I’m naive. It’s an emotional lie, but a work truth; even annoying people can have good and useful ideas, and peremptorily dismissing them for being annoying would carry a real cost. It may be inauthentic in the moment, but moods can lie.
Transparency works fairly well when the conflict is correctly identified. But that assumes that the issue at hand is actually the issue at hand. When it isn’t, transparency about the proxy issue won’t really get the job done.
To be clear, I don’t think that (most of) the parties to the conflict were being deliberately deceptive. The issue was more a lack of self-awareness, or perhaps misunderstood courtesy, than actual lying. But the fact of shadowboxing rendered transparency irrelevant. Shadows are already transparent.
Getting to a deeper transparency -- “what are you really angry about?” -- is maddeningly difficult. People don’t always know their own motivations, and might not want to share them if they did. And amateur psychiatry as a response to dissent has a dark enough history that it would be wise to tread lightly.
The only method I’ve found that ever works -- and it’s not foolproof -- is slow, patient listening. It’s emotionally inauthentic, but necessary. And even there, it only works with some people, some of the time. Some people are just too far gone, and some just enjoy being angry.
In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out a venue in which to discuss issue A, so we can stop the misplaced histrionics. I’ll be happy to have a transparent, cards-on-the-table discussion of issue A, just as soon as we can admit that it’s what we’re actually talking about.
In the private sector, it's clearer that "it's not about you" and it's not personal, it's business. This can be very difficult in academia.
I'm that way in my personal life. I might be mad about Issue A, but if I know I can't articulate a clear winning position (er, "I know I'm right, but I can't prove it") I'll take those emotions and hammer away at what I *can* win, which might be Issue B. And obviously both parties care just enough about Issue B to continue making it an issue; otherwise, one side would just give in and it wouldn't be one in the first place.
If you were shadow boxing me over Issue B, there's only one way you can stop: You need to figure out what Issue A is, and immediately give some sort of ground on it.
So why won't they just tell you what Issue A is? Because, in their minds, they already did, and they lost. They're sore about it, and they feel that if they tell you what they're really mad about, they feel that you will just dismiss them. After all, you already "won" that argument. (Or slight rephrase: If they didn't win then you did.) Why rip open the scab on that wound?
So what they're going to do is pick an argument over something they care about to at least some extent, but more importantly, something that they know they can win, which is Issue B. And they will hammer at it *hard.* Maybe too hard. But the only way they will stop is if you give them ground on the issue that they really care about. For that to happen, you have to figure out what it is and actually be willing and able to give ground on it. If you can't or won't, you're back to Issue B. Again, this isn't about *discussing* Issue A (they've discussed it and lost) but actually getting what they want on Issue A.
I know, I know, DD can't help it.
We can write academics off as being immature and call it a day, and I agree that I've also had frustrating situations where people who are old enough to know better should understand it's not always about them. But the system encourages taking it personally. On an administrative level, academia is so hierarchical. On a faculty level, it's all on you to get tenure or not - in what private sector job do a group of your peers and supervisors sit around a table and debate your worth after you've already given years to the job?
I'm not saying they're right, I'm just saying it doesn't come out of thin air.
I remember when I was a graduate student and there were hard feelings among some of the tenured professors against a new program and they were upset about the program for what I thought was a silly reason (while I was still innocent and didn't know how this sort of thing worked). It was mostly about a close to retirement tenured professor being taken for granted in a certain area and not being accorded the respect he felt he deserved. As a grad student of this professor, I didn't feel it was my business and I didn't tell. Don't know if it ever got worked out or not. I graduated before it ended. So, DD, think back who or which program has not been paid proper homage whether it continues or not? I'm suggesting that Issue A might not be a program at all, but a case of slighted ego/s by a powerful professor or professors.
Or Issue B might be used as an issue to promote an "us" against "them" mentality to build cohesiveness in a group which is crumbling.
You probably realize all of this.
So all I can say is stay respectful and as transparent as possible and someone or a few someones might tell what Issue A is eventually. Or maybe not. Good luck.
That describes people in every organization I've worked for (or with): large companies, small businesses, non-profits, churches, and governments — even the Boy Scouts (the leaders, not the kids). If you think this is purely an academic problem, you've either been very lucky in life or you've been missing clues…