Friday, October 10, 2014

Some Chair Misery from Academic Charlotte Anne.

You know what they say about good deeds…

You do one and then someone else blows your tea-partying face off. Like many of you I have crappy colleagues who are lazy slackers and good colleagues who are hard working professionals. The other day, after a particularly unpleasant department meeting, my good colleagues (none of whom have tenure) beseeched me (good colleague with tenure) to please, dear Jeebus, talk to the chair about the egregious inequities in workload. You know the formula, the slackers don’t do their work, and because they suck, nobody asks them to do work, because it won’t get done and the hard workers get rewarded for their hard work with more work, plus the expectation that they will “pick up the slack” that the slackers leave behind.

So I go to the chair (I should have known it was a fool’s mission, but I really wanted to help the newbies). The exact details don’t much matter, but let us just say that the chair did nothing but defend the laziest of our colleagues and then explain that the reason why the other slackers are allowed to keep slacking is that the “bar” for college/departmental service for this group (FYI all at a secondary campus) is set very low, and it would be unfair to change it now. Then I was told that it was my JOB to not feed the negativity and to squash such uprisings of the newbies. Um. WTF? Of course, it didn’t end there. The chair went on to tell me that I had a bad attitude and that s/he had made a lot of concessions for me this semester. REALLY? What would those be? And for the record there is NOTHING in my contract or the evaluation procedure to address “my attitude,” bad, or otherwise. For some flava of our college history we used to have a “plays nice with others” portion of our yearly evaluation, but it is gone-as it was rather subjective and used for petty departmental grievances-shocking to think academics might use this to be petty asshats. After a bit, I did figure out the “concessions” issue. I am on a committee with the chair and Slacker Sam. Shockingly, Slacker Sam is not doing his job. The chair asked me twice “When is Slacker Sam going to do X?” Um, maybe you should ASK HIM. I have made it clear that I will not do Sam’s job. So now the chair isn’t mad at me for not doing my job, s/he is mad at me for not doing Slacker Sam’s job. Totally reasonable using administrative logic!

One might think that this was enough of a beatdown for my meager attempt at a good deed. Oh no, the fun continued when the chair said that I was really just like laziest colleague, Lazy Larry. He didn’t do his job, by the chair’s own admission, for two years. I have done all parts of my job, but two months of “a bad attitude” apparently is equal to two years of total slackitude. Administrative math is so much fun. Oh and one more fun fact. The chair, in a most condescending tone noted that s/he was being very supportive of my sabbatical request so that I could “take all that time off.”

WTF?? First of all, TIME OFF? This isn’t a three month vacation, and I will probably work harder during my sabbatical than my slacker colleagues will work teaching full time. Second, I didn’t ask for a sabbatical, the chair was the one who suggested I take a sabbatical (I should have known it was a tea-partying trick).

And in the end, all I wanted to do was try to even the playing field for my untenured colleagues. To show them that I care about their mental and professional health, that not all tenured faculty are lazy place holders. To my hardworking colleagues, I apologize. I didn’t help, and likely only made things worse. And to my chair, getting my face blown off has done wonders for my attitude, way to go.

- Academic Charlotte Anne


  1. I think you should take the sabbatical, no matter how gauchely it's offered to you, if for no other reason to get away from that hellish environment. Also, as Ed Nather wrote in his essay, "Advice to the Young Astronomer":

    "Committee assignments: the theory here is that everybody should share in the burden of administration, taking time away from their research work in the process. If you are very good and conscientious about this stuff you will be given more and more of it, since you get things done, to the lasting benefit of the department administrators. On the other hand if you thoroughly neglect it, fail to call or attend any committee meetings, and generally do a lousy job, you will get fewer and fewer committee assignments, and you can get on with your research. You should not be too blatant, though. When pressed, have a meeting by email - just send each committee member a copy of the topic to be considered (obscurity here is a virtue) and ask them to respond. Make a single file of all the individual responses and send it back to all of them, and a copy to the department chairman. This should create enough dissention and warring messages that you can tell the chairman you are uncomfortable making a decision without a consensus, and that he had better do it. You won't be assigned to that committee again."

    1. My Ph. D. supervisor had a similar attitude. He told me that if there was something he didn't like doing, he made sure he did it badly, figuring that the task would be dumped on someone else's desk.

    2. This incident actually happened last year, my sabbatical starts in January! I think the chair was secretly, or not so secretly, jealous of my sabbatical, as s/he never took one.

    3. Sadly, I think this is one of those tricks that generally works out better for men than for women, sort of like washing the reds and the whites together, and being relieved thereafter of laundry duties. Except I'm not sure what the academic equivalent of the countermove -- the owner of the ruined clothing deciding to just do her own laundry, but not anyone else's -- is, unless that *is* just doing your own research and teaching, and ignoring service (except you can't actually ignore service; you have to somehow pretend you're doing it, a la Frod's email-meeting example). And, as in families (especially when children, or even animals, enter the picture), there are some duties which just can't be ignored, lest one's conscience start pricking, and/or CPS/the humane society/the accrediting body start making threatening noises. Someone has to do something, and, ultimately, thanks to whatever combination of internal and external pressures (including the sorts of unspoken assumptions about who will pick up the slack for whom that Charlotte Anne describes), it seems more often than not to be women who end up doing the "housekeeping" work (with career consequences that we can all describe).

      The flip side is that there are probably a few more women than men who end up making rules and procedures and other service-related stuff their gods, and driving their colleagues crazy in the process. But I'm pretty sure that subspecies comes in both genders (as, to be fair, does the slacker, but I still think it's harder for women to pull off, and they/we get hated more when we do).

  2. This seems like a serious problem in your department. Perhaps you could form a committee to look into it...

  3. I'm in the "take the sabbatical and run" camp. And maybe consider becoming chair some day (we need people who actually care, and can see the big picture, and haven't drunk the administrative kool-aid, as chairs). Or is this person chair for life?

  4. Enjoy your sabbatical, Charlotte!

    My colleagues are like yours: many are great, but there seems no end to the slacking, or more correctly, avoidance through incompetence. Administration exudes benign neglect, then when some mandate gets accomplished through the will and grit of the functional faculty, who have distributed the leadership and work between themselves, administration claims victory for the ease with which the project was pulled off.

    I'd claim that our leaders were also incompetent, but their approach is sheer genius: start a project that's too big to fail, thus ensuring that front-line faculty will be dragged under the bus if success is not achieved, and the faculty will get it done. They will lose sleep, grow unfamiliar to their families, lose hair, gain weight, but they will get the fucking project done. All so easy.