Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ben's Big Thirsty Re-Posted.

Sorry, but some off topic comments derailed a cool Big Thirsty, so I'm top posting it again in case anyone wants to weigh in.

Big Thirsty: Are you alone?

In our chat session yesterday, somebody mentioned that CM gives them the feeling of "I'm not alone" - that it's refreshing to connect with faculty who share your annoyance with students, committees, deans, etc.

I'm surprised to hear this because I complain with my colleagues about our job all the time. Sure, it's behind closed doors and doesn't result in any action to correct the problem. We get it off our chest, commiserate and encourage each other, then get back to work. I know several K-12 teachers and they join in when we meet at a bar on Saturdays. Even Mrs. Beaker Ben lends a sympathetic ear. This type of group support is normal to me.

Here's my Thirsty:

Do you have a colleague, friend or group that you can share your complaints about academia, beyond online acquaintances? If not, what do you think is holding you back from talking to people at work?


  1. Where I teach is absolutely poisonous. I've never experienced any workplace like this, even as a temp working through school. I'm an adjunct, but there is no sense of at all of even being people together. No one chats about anything more than the weather or how the local sports teams are doing. No one socializes. No one goes to conferences together. Any research happens almost under the table. People used to do the normal grousing that happens at any workplace, but that's been shut down with a new set of administrators a few years ago who encouraged ratting out others for fun and profit. This may out me to anyone I work with (wouldn't surprise me if someone reads blogs like this and tries to track down who posts what, then uses it to fire the person -- it's happened with staff jobs) -- I have been going through cancer treatments this year, and have zero support or even interest, let alone well wishes. I have gotten a reduced class schedule, which I'm told is entirely unrelated (not as if I need the money), but I think the whole thing is seen as embarrassing for me even to mention. I take that back -- I think the schedule is unrelated, because no one cares enough to bother with a deliberate schedule change. I'm trying to get other things lined up, but it's difficult between the job market, health, and other life circumstances. At least this means I'm more angry than depressed.

    Oh -- to answer the questions (like I'd want any student to do): No -- no one at all other than my husband and a few people online. Non-academic friends and family seem to think that this isn't possible, and if it's that bad, I should just get another job. What's holding me back from talking with people at work is a combination of malice and apathy. No one cares to be social, as people are afraid that if they are social, it will hurt their employment.

    1. You have our support, for all the things.

    2. Hey, I keep reading here (even when I don't get up the nerve or coherence to post comments) because it's escape and really does give support. When I think that I've been a failure or a chump, I can see that there are others in sucky situations, with sucky students, and petty administration. There have been a few times when I've seen something at school that would seem to be outrageous, then I see here that it's happening all over the place. When the students seem to stupid and the administration too venal, I think to myself "the correct answer is D" (referencing a long-ago post from a CC test -- all answers were "the correct answer is D, except D, which read "This is the correct answer" -- and students still got it wrong). My computer desktop picture is a cartoon tree in winter; the title is "where snowflakes are made".

    3. Ugh. The feeling that workplace decisions that adversely affect you aren't even personal, because nobody's even thinking about you, is, indeed, about as demoralizing as it can get. I'm glad this place provides some relief, and hope both the treatments and the search for alternatives have positive outcomes. At this point, anything that keeps you moving forward -- even anger, which has its place* -- sounds positive.

      *If you don't already know it, I recommend Harriet Lerner's _The Dance of Anger_ -- an oldy but a goody on the positive uses of anger, especially in diagnosing when a situation really is bad for us, and needs to be changed.

  2. from the Cynic:

    Last week a student complained about how the free tea and coffee we offer in our department wasn't sufficient and we needed more variety. This is tea and coffee we provide out of our own money (as in the faculty each take turns to bring in a box of tea bags or coffee). Ungrateful!

  3. from Peter K.

    I have very strong feelings about the conditions under which we operate, but I don't share them with colleagues. With senior colleagues there is a history--very soon after coming here (20-something years ago) I started being called names like "elitist" and with "unreasonable expectations for our students", partly since I did come from "elitist" places (unlike most of them), and partly as payback for being an outspoken assistant professor. People get older, and right or wrong first impressions stay. (Two-thirds of the current full profs were already tenured when I arrived). Those impressions are passed on to more junior, more "social" colleagues (all my allies having long since left), and any "whining" from me would be met with a bored eyeroll. Also, being a good boy/girl is rewarded with teaching the few more or less competent students we get, so no one wants to be seen as "the malcontent".

    But that's secondary. I think the main reason we don't talk about this is "might as well talk about the weather". The things we talk about here--adminiflakes with misplaced priorities, incompetent/lazy students, the corporatization of academia and the diution (tending to extinction) of tenure--are accepted as "boundary conditions". There is literally nothing we can do about these things, so we might as well teach with what we've got and spend most of our time more usefully, on research and graduate advising.

    The primary factor limiting any meaningful change is not lack of ideas or enthusiasm from the faculty, and not even the "corporate" nonsense; it is the realization that, no matter what we do, there is no way can recruit better students. We are the public university in a state with a weak education system, and generally low respect for intellectuals or academics of any stripe. So, if anything, it is going to get worse.

  4. from Ana Thyrosis

    I did have a colleague with whom I'd complain with a lot, but then I was made department chair. Now I am privy to things I shouldn't really be discussing, and even things I can discuss--like which jerkface left his unwashed dishes in the communal sink again--take on an unsavory quality when it's jerkface's "boss" bitching about it to jerkface's peer. Plus, now my complain-buddy has turned into someone about whom I occasionally need to complain. So our friendship is now at best cold, at worst, over.

  5. from Academaniac

    I learned early on that my comments were often taken out of context, repeated to others in a way that painted me as a malcontent. Yes, I have always been outspoken but that didn’t necessarily make me a malcontent. I didn’t whine. I offered constructive solutions. Yet my suggestions accomplished nothing and were dismissed. So I’ve learned to keep my thoughts to myself.

  6. from The Monkey

    I do have my circles of sympathetic colleagues, but I have learned the hard way never to complain to them. One never knows who is a naturally honest person, and who is restraining their true self. I've worked with the kind of people in the past who start bitching sessions only to create a sort of recon so they may report back to higher-ups. It makes them look good, or something. Except that it doesn't. Either way, the entire circle of friends gets busted up by these people. So as a policy, I may joke about the institution but I never say anything incriminating.

    But then, I work at an insane place.

  7. from Kate (Not that one...)

    One year I gave up complaining for Lent and it damn near killed what had been a fairly close friendship. It made me think pretty seriously about the role complaining plays in bonding and how much I want to pursue that.

  8. At the place where I used to teach, I generally kept my mouth shut about what was really on my mind until I was made permanent. After that, I was more outspoken, believing that by having that status, I was immune from being canned if I behaved myself otherwise.

    Towards the end of my time at that institution, there was a colleague I would air my beefs with. After that, certain things happened that didn't make sense. I wasn't until some time after I quit that I began putting the pieces together. The only explanation was that my confidant had grassed on me to one of my departmental enemies, an administrator who long had an axe to grind against me.

    Unfortunately, considering the bullying and harassment I had to endure during that time, I needed to vent to someone and he seemed friendly enough.

    I shouldn't have been surprised. There was evidence that a former staff association president who I complained to about what I had to put up with was actually collaborating with my enemies.

    Nice and collegial, eh?

  9. So, I got tenure in my 3rd language / culture, and in a department of 50-odd (some very odd) teachers I’m the only one of my ethnicity and / or language background.
    Despite this, I don’t feel so alone. Mad uni president aside, I have little misery to report. And to answer the question, yes I have flesh and blood people I can talk to.
    But I love CM, and AWC, and RYS. I’m lucky to be where I am, and if I had to change I know I would likely have a lot more misery.
    My attitude to the site and its current and previous mods is one of deep gratitude.

  10. Like Ben, I'm lucky enough to have a number of excellent, supportive colleagues with whom I can blow off steam. Yes, I'm selective about what I complain about to whom (conversations about salary, workload, etc. with tenured colleagues can get awkward fast, even though their situation, too, is less than ideal), but, as other comments above attest, the situation could be much, much worse (and an awareness of that -- and of the general fact that it's tough all over in higher ed these days -- is one of the things I get from reading CM).

    I've also got friends (mostly grad-school classmates) who teach at other schools with whom I can commiserate, though academic-class issues can rear their heads in these conversations, too, since we -- all holders of Ph.D.s from what most would consider a pretty prestigious school -- span the range from tenured to adjunct. Sitting where I am in the middle of that range, I both find myself sometimes feeling that others are oblivious to their privilege, and wondering whether I'm sufficiently conscious of my own. Still, we seem to manage to stumble through such awkward moments, and to be supportive of each other.

    I also belong to a supportive church community, made up mostly of very well-educated people, many of whom have a pretty good understanding of what I do, and the difficulties created by changes in higher ed (sometimes because their own professions have been changing, too).

    So, overall, I'm pretty lucky, and don't feel alone. So why do I come here? Maybe I just like to complain. But I also feel that I get a sense of the bigger picture: what it's like at different kinds of institutions, in different disciplines, at different ranks, etc. I can be a bit more frank with people here who have tenure than I am with my own tenured colleagues (and probably vice versa; I think I'm more aware of and sympathetic to the burdens faced by tenure-track colleagues overwhelmed by service and/or administrative work because I read this blog, and others). And (despite the occasional discipline-based tensions that break out here), I very much appreciate the chance to see things from different disciplinary perspectives (because I find such information interesting, and because I teach writing in the disciplines).

    So -- not alone, but still very grateful that this community is one of many to which I can turn when I want to blow off steam, share impressions, or just hang out (sorry I missed the chat; I think I was commuting, or maybe grocery-shopping. I hope the timing will work out next time).

  11. @SelfOfSteamRoller: Your situation sounds crushing. Big virtual hug, shoulder, ear, and beer.

    @EC1: Tenure in your third language and culture? As we say in my shallow first culture, you are awesome.

    As for the Thirsty, Cassandra has, as usual, provided most of my answer. I'm in a good, friendly department with some colleagues who bitch way more than I do, mostly about the powers that be. We tend to root for our students, except when they cheat, or fail to read, or ignore the directions, or disrupt class with their drama; okay, we bitch a lot about students. And when I need to bitch about some of my colleagues, I have a few good friends who are also academics.

    But, having been bullied and harassed in my previous position, I'm very grateful for this community and empathize with the folks who have nowhere else to vent.

  12. Jeez Louise. I go out of town for a few days, and miss all the excitement.

    It’s widely acknowledged that beginning one’s teaching career is difficult. For me, what made it particularly hard was a strong feeling of being very much alone. It came closely coupled with a feeling that the lunatics were running the asylum. This was because, at that poorly run department and university, they were.

    The relationship between the faculty and the administration was feudal. Admin’s response to ANYTHING was “You can be replaced.” In no way did this stop them from demanding we bring in high levels of external funding. There was no transparency whatsoever: my conscience bothered me in that we simply were not given the budget to provide our students with an education commensurate with the top dollar they were paying. Did I mention that promotion and pay were lousy, and that there was also no tenure at this university?

    The first time I saw “THE BEATINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES” scrawled on a bathroom wall, I burst out laughing. It fit that place SO well. It flew so in the face of what I’d learned in the U.S. Navy, in which people in positions of leadership are held responsible for their subordinates’ performance, AND their well-being and morale.

    All the faculty were too cowed to say much of anything. The students were not blameless, either. Grade inflation was rampant, since the guy I replaced was a particular cream puff, many of the upperclass students resented that I was not. All the time, pundits from the education school who’d never taught physics were advocating teaching techniques that are clearly inappropriate.

    It seemed like everyone around me was crazy, mad, nuts, cuckoo, loco, bonkers, INSANE! Reading “Generation X Goes to College,” by Peter Sacks, was an epiphany, since he described precisely what I was going through so well.

    After two years of that punishment, I got a tenure-track assistant professorship. Things improved a lot, although they were still hard. I had a completely incompetent department Chair who always took the advice of the department bully, who thought junior faculty should go through some kind of fraternity hazing. I was one of the research stars of the department, not difficult since there was so much deadwood. All of this contributed to the feeling that I was alone.

    So, since gaining tenure and seniority and serving as Chair myself, things have improved a lot. Since I’ve been there myself, I am sympathetic to conscientious faculty feeling alone. I can share complaints with many colleagues now. We are in fact on the verge of mutiny against our current Chair, who’s clearly in over his head: I’ll keep you posted on this, as it develops.

    1. Fros, I think you touch on an important point. Rhe department head and senior faculty set the tone. In my case, the department head complained about studens' failings so that gave us junior faculty the support we needed to share our gripes as well.

  13. heh, as it turns out my mentors are all younger than me. But they give good advice. A couple things about doing this as a 2d career when I'm already well into my 50s...
    1. I started off with an "I'm too old for this crap" outlook which actually helps me cope. Stuff that would have driven me nuts before now get an eye-roll followed by a shrug before I go about my business.
    2. I learned how to play the internal politics game in my previous job. You need a memo or report? I already speak fluent Bureaucrat and the academic dialect is not hard to pick up...
    3. Tenure review holds no terror. What, you're going to deny me when I'm 60? Fine, I'll retire and send you postcards from the beach. Make no mistake, I WANT tenure, and I will work like hell to get it, but getting tenure is a point of personal pride and won;t make or break my career.

  14. The short answer is yes, yes I am.

    The long answer is, I don't want to talk about it now. I'll get back to you on it.