Friday, November 5, 2010

Ursula from Ukiah Poses a Friday Thirsty On Colleagues.

A couple of comments Merely Academic has made about finding her colleagues difficult has given me a bit of courage to ask what I can do about mine.

I have a really great job. It’s not prestigious, but my students are fantastic – smart, funny, and not at all entitled (for the most part) – and my colleagues are smart and interesting, if not hugely productive (as a group – we have some individual dynamos). I teach a very rational load, get paid a very good salary (for humanities), and the expectations for research are commensurate with my teaching load. I was over the moon to be there for the first little while.

Then suddenly it felt like my colleagues, the ones I’d made a particular effort to spend time with, just turned on me. It felt like it was the whole lot of them, but of course it wasn’t. I’m not the most tactful person in the world, but people generally like me, and I’m pretty decent at my job (not a star, but a good, steady producer, a good teacher, and a good sport about committee work). In grad school, I had a group of great friends and generally got along with most people (though I guess I do get into it a bit with the politically conservative types).

Anyway, now it feels like everything I do or say is wrong or has been misconstrued in some way. I feel like I’ve busted my ass to do my job well and be a good department member, but maybe I’m just a gumdrop unicorn. Or maybe it’s all in my head. I don't know. I feel crazier, stupider, and less competent every year I'm alive, so maybe it *is* all in my head. What I do know is that I’m miserable and lonely in this great job that I should be grateful for every day.

Q: Has anyone else felt like this? Is this a common experience? Have I done something dreadfully wrong that I can somehow fix?

A: Post replies to Ursula below.


  1. I could have written this. I think that it is in our heads sort of. I didn't really get this until we got a new green faculty member.

    When you first start your job everyone expects that it will be a bit of a rough ride. You will have different expectations than your colleagues. You will have had different life experiences which will shape how you behave. All the old guys understand this. And they are willing to put up with more "crap" from you than a more senior colleague. The idea is that they will start to silently shape you into the person right for the school. (For the record, I don't think this is always a conscience idea it's just what seems to happen).

    When I compare myself today to the person who started here a time ago, I can scarcely see they are same person. I've grown and changed a lot. I have different reactions to things and seem to mesh more now with the attitudes of my colleagues than I did when I first unpacked my books.

    The issue maybe that a few of them have less patience than others. When you're at the end of your abilities to deal you tend to lash out.

    We've got a new woman that I love to death on a personal level. She's funny and smart. But the way she deals with some situations is "not how we do things around here." This isn't her fault. This comes from her grad school "upbringing." When she has a problem, we listen and offer casual advice that we expect she'll end up ignoring. In time, she'll settle in and start to behave within epsilon of our expections.

    I guess it's a lot like being in a good marriage. It's heaven at first. Then we start to see these little annoying aspects and we react. Finally we learn that those little things, while annoying, aren't the most important part of the marriage. If something is important to our spouse we learn to go with it. And eventually we grow into a more single mind.

  2. I think and hope that CMP is right. But on the off chance he/she is not, do you have a trusted colleague you can just ask? Not in the "nobody likes me" mode, but in the "am I doing something terribly wrong here" mode? My most valuable mentors have been the ones who gave it to me straight, even when "it" wasn't pretty. You will either find out that you do, indeed, need to fix something important to be perceived as functioning well for the department, or your mentor will do what one of mine did and say, "Oh dear... you are caught in a gigantic political tuna net not of your own making," and explain. Then at least you will know a bit more about department politics.

  3. Clannishness is common in departments. It's always a struggle to get to that balance between being who you are and assimilating some of the culture of where you've ended up. Presumably they hired you because they thought you could do a great job and bring something they needed to the college/department. I don't know how large a group you're talking about here, but usually it's not hard to find at least a couple of people who will accept you while also helping you learn the ropes.

    Maybe it's because my school is so large, but I eventually learned that my department is not in fact a unified culture. Some like to pretend that it was in the good old days and we "newcomers" (including in that term people who've been here for almost 20 years!) ruined it. I don't believe it anymore than I believe that no snowflakes existed before the current generation. I also learned that there were like-minded people in other departments with whom I could work on interdisciplinary projects. It always takes time to find your place, particularly when you've come from outside the region, but with time and some support, you'll get there.

  4. There's not nearly enough information here to go on to provide a truly helpful response. My first instinct would be to say you did something to really piss them off, but it's hard to say what. I think it's rare for several friends at the same time to individually suddenly turn cold. What makes you think you're being frozen out? You don't provide details. I have a friend that's always imagining someone is angry at her, though she rarely imagines several friends are angry at her at the same time.

    But I'd echo the idea to ask someone that will be truthful with you. Not everyone will. But don't ask unless you really want to know the answer.

  5. I'm sorry you're feeling miserable and lonely. For what it's worth, I generally get along with my colleagues; there's the odd spat, but overall we're all on the same side and engaged in the same enterprise, and are professionally supportive of one another.

    My first year in the job, on the other hand, and into the second year, I was also miserable and lonely, although people were being quite nice to me; but I did not have the friends I used to have in grad school, and it took me awhile to grasp that the people I was now working with weren't my friends, and were under no obligation to become my friends; they were my colleagues, which was quite different. I eventually made friends (elsewhere, in other departments and off-campus) and it all worked out.

    But that initial period, of very much wanting social interaction that I very much did not have in my new city, not having friends and not being able to make friends with the only people I met regularly, was a trying time; and I also felt that my department was a cold place.

    I would also recommend that you talk to someone to find out if you have genuinely done something to irritate a whole group of people; that would be useful information from a professional standpoint. If (as I suspect) you haven't, this will reassure you, and you can carry on with the task of making friends in the wider community. (If you have done something wrong, then you can fix it, too.)

  6. I always suspect the big political tuna net, myself. It's really hard as junior faculty to figure that stuff out, especially when the net involves hidden strands spread out into other departments/dean's offices.

    I second the "consult a mentor" suggestion if it is possible.

  7. Thanks all -- advice and good wishes much appreciated! I've already beat you to the punch on asking someone -- he confirmed the hostility, but that was a couple of years ago. I thought the incivility was linked to some specific issue (a tuna net issue), and that I'd fixed it, but it seems not in some quarters.

    I think you're right, Merely, that I'm wishing for friends as well as good colleagues, and you're absolutely right that my colleagues don't owe me friendship. Most are at pretty different ages and stages from mine, which is usual for smallish departments, so I can see why.

  8. Bringing in a few million in grant money for the department would help. But if that doesn't work out, you could create a traumatic situation and then be there with your colleagues through the thick of it. You know, ti would be like in those action movies where the dust is still settling and the hero is already making out with the bitch he just rescued from certain death. It can be like that, but not necessarily romantic, just friends. The members of the department will become like old war buddies who stormed the enemy trenches together and now realize that petty differences no longer matter.

    Some ideas:

    - Set the building on fire. Don't let anyone know it was you that set it on fire, though. Then help put it out. You can organize the bucket brigade.

    - Hire a hit man to kill someone in the department. The rest of you will grow closer as you weep together.

    - Propose a faculty outing and arrange to have the whole group taken hostage for six months. You'll be welded together in a way no other department at your school could ever be.

    - Create external enemies. Create a scandal at a neighboring department that implicates yours. The other department will get angry and yours will become closer.


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