Thursday, November 02, 2006

Getting Off the List

In the comments to the “Everybody Knows” post last week, someone asked about how to get off the “Problem” list when Everybody Knows (incorrectly) that you belong on it.

I've been mulling that one over for a while. It's a tough one.

The easiest piece of advice is to periodically act against type, and then call attention to it. For example, since I'm considerably younger than most of my faculty, some of them assume that I automatically prefer younger candidates for faculty positions. I don't, so when we hire someone relatively senior (40's or 50's, typically), I point it out, albeit indirectly. (Prof. X comes to us from Wherever State, where he taught for 11 years in the Opacity Department.) When we do the introductions of new faculty at the start of each semester, I make a point of highlighting whatever information would give a clue that I'm acting against type. Having done that several times now, I've noticed that the presumption that I'm all about age discrimination is fading.

Calling attention is the hard part. One of the reasons that many faculty assume that most academic administrators are knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing morons (other than its sometime truth) is that we're often spread too thin to notice everything. I don't have the luxury of attending only to my own classes or my own discipline; I have to keep tabs on folks in disciplines about which I know little to nothing. This is true of any administrator above the level of department chair, and, in some disciplines, sometimes even at the chair level. (My languages department teaches languages that the chair doesn't speak.) Since the administrative field of vision has to be broader, it is often shallower.

The mistake that many people make is in allowing themselves to get swift-boated. As long-suffering Democrats no doubt recall, John Kerry allowed some ridiculous charges to go largely un-rebutted for an extended period in the summer of 2004, sustaining serious damage to his campaign. If you think of being on the Bad List as being swift-boated, learn from Kerry's failure. Respond early and often. If you accomplish something good (especially if its counter to the stereotype of you), don't assume that it speaks for itself. Most times, it doesn't. Call attention to it, and frame it as you want it framed. Yes, there is such a thing as too much self-promotion, but I've found most academics err on the side of too little. (Easy visual clue if you're doing too much: watch for eye-rolling.)

The more frustrating case is when a trait that you perceive as a virtue is taken as a failing. I'm a relatively soft-spoken sort, and there have been times when that has been held against me. I can't really argue with the description – it's true and pretty obvious – but I do take issue with the way it's sometimes interpreted. Some people naively equate volume with passion, and assume that softspoken is another word for 'indifferent.' These people are wrong, but the assumption sometimes runs so deep that there's no realistic hope of changing their minds.

When that happens, you have to make some decisions. Sometimes you can point out successes that wouldn't be expected if your shortcoming was actually a shortcoming; once in a while, that can work. Sometimes you can just plow forward. And sometimes, in the worst cases, you have to start looking for another place to work.

Another variation is the demographic inference. If you're a white guy, some will take your employment as further evidence, as if any more were needed, that the institution is racist, sexist, and plugged into an old-boy network. If you're anything other than a white guy, some will take your employment as further evidence, as if any more were needed, that the institution is in thrall to the diversity police, political correctness run amok, etc. In either case, the common denominator is that you will be blamed for being who you are.

In dealing with this one, I've found a two-pronged strategy most effective. Take the high road, and assume that there will always be a bitter and nasty remnant who will hate you for breathing. Do the job as best you can, be fair, listen to people's complaints, and show that, whatever the circumstances of your hire, you're damn good at your job. It's hard to argue with that. (At my previous college, when I first crossed over into administration, a feminist professor who worked there for about ten minutes told me, to my face, that I would do well in the organization because I'm a white guy. What do you say to that? It's sort of like when Pat Schroeder ran for President in the 1980's, and a reporter asked her why she was running 'as a woman.' She responded that she didn't know there was another option.) Define 'success' as proving to any fair-minded person that you're good at what you do, and accept the frustrating reality that not everybody is fair-minded.

Wise readers – have you found an effective strategy for getting off the list?