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.