Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Tenured Radical has a thoughtful piece about faculty taking the bait when students with political agendas try to provoke them. It’s well worth a read.

Much of my readership won’t like this, but some faculty do this to administrators, too. They seem to think they’re acting on some sort of principle. They provoke and provoke until they get a recognizably human reaction, at which point they wield the reaction like a pelt. It’s a surprisingly common cause of people leaving administrative roles; eventually, they just get sick of “gotcha!”

I’ll share a fundamental truth. We are all human. We are all imperfect, sometimes tired, sometimes frustrated, sometimes impatient. That is true of radicals and conservatives, students and professors, administrators and trustees. “Exposing” a human moment is exposing nothing. At its base, the move reflects a failure to understand the difference between a role and the person occupying it.

In my teaching days, I recall being simultaneously annoyed and proud when a pain-in-the-ass student got an ‘A’ in my class. I was annoyed that the jerk was rewarded, but proud of myself for rising above my own human response and fulfilling the professional obligations of my role. (The same also held in reverse: although it pained me to give bad grades to likable students, their work was what it was.) In unguarded moments at home, I would occasionally vent about some particularly grating student. Was I “exposing my true agenda?”

No, I was venting. My true agenda was to teach as best I could, which necessarily involved putting aside my personal preferences at key moments. As long as I fulfilled the role in an aboveboard way, my private emotional reactions -- though real -- were of no import.

In administration, the same dynamic becomes even more important. Students come and go; even the most annoying student is usually gone in a year or two, and often less than that. Faculty are forever. Abiding a self-important jerk is not the exercise of months; it’s the burden of years, and even of careers.

Over time, maintaining that professional equanimity can be difficult, especially when repeatedly baited.

If we had a more mature political culture -- since this is really about politics -- people would understand the difference between the actor and the role. The occasional expression of frustration would be seen as merely that, rather than as the accidental revelation of a “real” agenda.

But that’s not our culture. In a “gotcha!” culture, the under-the-breath human moment is taken as far more “real” than anything actually done. Which means that you have to refuse the bait.

Of course, the smartest passive-aggressors characterize that as “stonewalling,” or “shutting down dialogue,” or whatever euphemism they prefer for ignoring them. They call for “open dialogue,” pretending not to notice that they’re allowed to vent publicly and you’re not, or that they have life tenure and you don’t.

Knowing the difference between an honest, if difficult, question and “bait” is tricky. It’s necessarily situational, and any given question can be a little of each.

Most of us have identified people in our lives who are simply never satisfied. They’re happiest when angry. Once you’ve figured out that this accurately describes someone, there’s no point in trying to meet them halfway. They’ll just move the goalposts. For that type, disputes aren’t about finding the best solutions; they’re about drama. For the soapbox junkie, compromise is self-defeating; therefore, reasoned dialogue is pointless.

Others have issues with authority of any stripe, other than their own. (I’ve noticed that some of the most anti-authority faculty are the most authoritarian in their own classes.) Again, there’s no point in engaging this group in serious discussion. I’ve been burned multiple times by this type. I spend months delicately forging some sort of peace, only to have them burn it down in public a few days later just for the hell of it. Burn me enough times, and I’m done with you.

The delicate balance is in walling off the truly malignant without also walling off difficult, but necessary, discussions. Moving past the culture of “gotcha!” would make that a hell of a lot easier. But until we move away from politics-as-competitive-victimization, selective deafness may be the best that can be done. Taking the bait won’t serve the goal of transparency, or civility, or real debate; it will only feed trolls. Those who don’t wish to be mistaken for trolls shouldn’t engage in the politics of “gotcha!” It’s easier to engage in dialogue-as-problem-solving if we don’t assume that identifying the problem, and even expressing frustration over it, is out of bounds.