Thursday, April 26, 2012

I feel for you, Prof. Silverback!

One of the silverbacks, had made an appointment to see me. He came to my office with a thick stack of papers. I was mildly surprised, as Prof. Silverback had been dean for many years and is a well-known electronic underwater basketweaver. He's also a pain to talk to, as his eyes drift to ones breasts, if one is a woman. Constantly.

But today he managed to find and hold my eyes. He needed someone to talk to. He's only got a year and a half left before he retires.  But these young whippersnappers that he hired, they aren't grateful to him. They've edged him out in running the labs; they've edged him out of the dean's position; now they are plagiarizing his teaching material and including wrong information on the hand outs.

He was honestly dejected - here he has spent his life setting up the electronic underwater baskeweaving laboratory, and has been in the press a jillion times about this. He loves to teach, has never taken a sabbatical, and is mystified at how his colleagues are treating him. The current dean won't listen to him because when he was dean, he didn't approve travel for this guy to a conference that had him listed as Dr. Gruesome, Gruesome Inc. with no mention of the university. Yes, it's a conspiracy. Is that somehow new to you.

I couldn't help much more than say
  1. Take that long overdue sabbatical!
  2. Decide what you want about the handouts, either don't sweat it or have it withdrawn, in between doesn't work.
  3. See to it that you have some fun with your students before you retire.
He gets extra points for bringing me a pink Christmas cactus as a thank you. But it is sad, the way the school just lets the older professors drift into retirement instead of using his talents. And the way the young whippersnappers are allowed to treat him with no one calling attention to how hurtful this is - this is indeed a problem. But you know what? We're getting old.

Ah well. I'm just glad he didn't try and hug me after the session.


  1. Ageism in America:

    May the next in line move up!

  2. One of my silverback friends retired early because she felt used and abused by a system that didn't allow any recourse when she no longer felt respected by students.

    1. holy shit. I'm going to have to put up with their disrespecting bullshit for another 30 years.

  3. "no longer" felt respected? When did the respect start?

    1. She had been teaching since 1963. She said she felt that students in the past 5-7 years got so disrespectful that she couldn't even fathom continuing to teach... so I'm guessing that somewhere between 2000 and 2005 (when she quit), she'd just had enough.

    2. She also mentioned that once she reached her late 50s, students treated her more disdainfully (as if she were someone's amusing grandma, not to be taken seriously). I don't know how much of this was her own perception and how much of it was true... I'll let you know in 30 years if that happens to me.

    3. Well, I rarely hear men being asked whether these things are "just their perception". I'd say the students' behavior was more about sexism--you know, once women aren't cute to look at anymore they also magically lose any other redeeming qualities, like intelligence or the presumption of rationality.

      They also turn invisible. It's like a superpower, except not.

  4. And what happens when one's pelt begins to turn silver, but one does not have the power -- or the pension -- traditionally associated with age and experience? While I am sympathetic to Prof. Silverback's pain, I can't help noticing that he has much more in the way of both choices and resources than I expect to have at his age. And I suspect that as the snowflake generation makes its way into the workforce, the pressure to make way for them -- from any parents who can afford to retire themselves, as well as from the snowflakes -- will only increase.

  5. Why doesn't he do what silverbacks do, and rip the arm out of the offending whippersnapper's socket and beat him over the head with it? Frankly, my current general-ed class is so retarded, it's gotten me to thinking seriously about retirement, which sucks because it's 10 years off at the very least. I had such a long struggle as a postdoc/Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor/tenure-track Assistant Professor under an incompetent Chair, and the traumas suffered are burned so vividly still into my mind, I don't care if anyone thanks me: I'm just grateful to have a place at the table. And of course, precisely that sentiment has made me an easy mark for exploitation: the show's not over yet.

  6. Someone who looks at your tits instead of looking at your face is a sexist. And you should call him on that.

    But "silverback" is ageist. I'm calling you all on that. You wouldn't use the "n" word or the "c" word or the "q" word, but "silverback" is somehow OK.
    It's not cute. It's not funny. So fucking stop it.

    1. Yet, someone whose eyes unconsciously drift to someone's bosom, has something of a child in him. A too-soon-weaned child maybe. Accusing him of sexism seems too long a jump -- by any definition of sexism (
      And, from the top of my silver-manned head, I call b. on you. It's kinda funny.
      (What's the word "c", by the way?)

    2. Philip, I know we've had this conversation before, and I'm still baffled (sorry Hiram, I don't mean to step on toes). Silverback is a term not of age, but of power, albeit a kind of power that comes with longevity. When (if) I achieve Silverback status, I will wear the label with pride, and I hope a touch of humility.

      A silverback is a dominant male gorilla. Google "silverback" images, and you get this and this and this. These hardly seem like objects of either derision, or pity.

      Well, except for the whole staring-down-the-barrel-of-extinction thing. That kind of sucks.

    3. Got to chime in here. Just as adulthood is not an age but a willingness to accept responsibility, silverbackhood is not an age but the ability to wield alpha gorilla power effectively. Ideally, one does so on behalf of one's troop. Do some howling, do some chest-thumping, engage in battles of dominance with the Dean because that's your role, get some scars but get some trophies too. I like the term.

      To me, it's not ageist, if we reclaim the positive meaning. Sure, experience does help one to wield that power, but there are some silverbacks at my place with kids in elementary school. As an aside, it's not sexist either; there are plenty of female silverbacks around my place ready to open a fresh can of monkey whupass on any student, admin, or proffie who smells wrong.

    4. ...positive stereotypes (if this one can be considered positive!)are still damaging. The term is ageist and the fact that we don't realize is is very telling. Ageism is the last acceptable form of prejudice. All the stereotypes we have internalized will come to bite us on the ass when we are older adults. As Edward Mendelson states, "The point of putting a label on a human life is to reduce it from a story to a condition, something predictable, something that won't ever change, something that isn't free to choose its own future. Now, when literature tells a story about old age, it tends to be surprising and even exhilarating. If you label Mr. Ramsay (in To the Lighhouse), you get him wrong. He's someone whose story grows out of his commitments to the past, but he knows it's never too late to find the way to a new and different future. Like all great literature, this novel is a fiction that points to a profound truth."

    5. Frankly, suggesting that the term "silverback" is as harmful as sexism or racism is a bunch of crap.

      You're born with immutable traits (sex, race, sexual orientation). Assuming someone lacks intelligence and competence based on these immutable traits is a civil rights issue.

      Age, however, not only can change, but does, whether we want it to or not. You might as well be upset that children don't get to vote as by being called old when you're old. It's life. It happens to everyone. It's truly democratic that way.

      "Silverback" refers to dominant old male gorillas. The ones with the power. The ones with the power can't be victimized by simply being called "the ones with the power".

      If, however, the real objection to "silverback" is that it smacks of being called "old fart" or something, well, tough. The ones with the institutional power can just put up with being called what they are--old farts. If they're lucky it will be said affectionately and, yes, with respect.

      If not, they still have the power and can just get over it.

    6. I like this new naming system where we're actually anonymouse but not, you know. None, what a genius. Nothing, that's me. Nobody is next. I can see how this will make the blog better.

  7. If you're referring to gorillas, then, sure, "silverback" denotes a gorilla in the prime of alpha malehood.

    But when you all talk about "silverback professors," the connotation is old fart, old fogey, someone who's 'way past his prime, ineffective (except for bellowing and pounding his chest), merely pulling down a disproportionately large paycheck, and not contributing anything except ego and angst to his department or campus.

    Please note, also, that I've used masculine pronouns entirely. There is no female equivalent for "silverback." So the term is sexist as well.

    Of course, I agree with David from Sesame Street: "Ageism is the last acceptable form of prejudice." By birth or by good fortune, we can dodge some or all of the other forms of instutionalized prejudice--sexism, racism, elitism, able-ism, and whatever anti-gayism is called--but you all will, if you're lucky, get old.

    So please, unless you're willing to throw around other racial and sexual epithets, knock it off with the "silverback" crap, OK?

    I can and do call myself a geezer or an old fogey or a silverback, just like African Americans can use the "n" word if they choose. But YOU don't get to.

    What's so hard about that?

    1. Ageism is a huge part of one of the courses that I teach. In one class, we were discussing retirement and how airline pilots MUST retire by age 60. One of my students said, "Of course, airline pilots should be forced to retire by age 60. They have to pee every 10 minutes by that age!" Wasn't Sully Sullenberger 58 when he landed a plane in the Hudson River, a working river filled with barges, tugboats, and other boats? No one died and Sully made sure that everyone got off the plane safely. He landed a huge plane in a crowded, working river. -At 58, without stopping to pee-

      The connotation I get from "silver back" IS over the hill, someone to be tolerated until he retires, geezer, old fart, senile. That's the connotation. Ageism is an equal opportunity form of prejudice. We all will become victims of our own prejudice.

      The rules here are not to use racial or sexist epithets. But, when it comes ageist epithets, we argue that they're not epithets, they're positive reflections of older age. They're not. Ageism, just like racism, causes huge social problems. In ageist cultures,people die earlier than those in non ageist cultures. People who live in ageist cultures experience declines in health and wellness. Ageism actually CAUSES cognitive decline in older adults.

      I truly hope that at least here, we can be mindful. Hope springs eternal...

  8. I hear the arguments and understand them, but any complaint I have about a "silverback" is about someone who wields capricious and often destructive power on a department because he/she has the magical "seniority." I think most silverbacks are assholes, not because they're old, but because they think their seniority trumps all.

    1. That's my take on it also, Darla. What's interesting to me is that some people who engaged in silverback behavior toward me as a new hire were then in their respective positions as long as I have been now. By that standard, I should be a silverback, but I'm not, at least not according to my department. I am not old by Large Urban Community College standards. I took the traditional path of BA/MA/PhD straight through, whereas some of my colleagues did BA/other job or stay-at-home motherhood/MA/other graduate work (rarely PhD) and thus were older when they started the job.

      I have never forgotten the sting of how I was treated in the name of seniority. I'm not a mean person by nature, so to this day I will go out of my way not to say and do some of the things that were said to me with such disdain. I would rather give positive, constructive advice when asked than put someone younger in "his place." Seniority has made my department's culture toxic in many ways. We're one of the few at my college who use it for anything. Seniority already gets people higher pay for their greater experience, as it should. I don't think it should be a free pass for abuse, the best schedules every time, and automatic greater respect for their ideas.

    2. @EnglishDoc: Good for you. It feels good to know you're better than the supposed mentors you had, doesn't it? When I was department chair, I wouldn't tolerate this: whenever I saw it, I'd openly say to the miscreant senior: "Excuse me, but we need to HELP our junior faculty. The point isn't to see how much stress we can dump on them!"

  9. I will never take anyone seriously when they call whatever "the last acceptable form of prejudice." Sexism, racism, and homophobia are plenty acceptable the last time I checked, and only a privileged twit would think otherwise.

    Silverback might be a derogatory term (and we do use it that way often here) but it refers to the PRIVILEGE that comes with age: the privilege to do whatever the hell you want - slack off, be irrelevant, be a waste of oxygen - because you've been there so long and you've earned the right. That's not disenfranchisement no matter how you spin it. No way in hell.

  10. I think you've nailed it, TMR. And as EnglishDoc points out, the term "silverback" relies more on privileges attached to seniority (i.e. one's position in a clearly formed hierarchy) rather than any measure of relative age -- although the two do tend to go together.

    For my two cents, I've always read the term more as a metaphor than a stereotype, although that is perhaps too fine a line to draw.

  11. I understand the problem (as I mentioned above, I, too, am concerned about ageism, in part because I'm pretty sure that, for both gender and power reasons, I'll never be a silverback; as a short, round person, I'd also point out that fat prejudice is probably at least as acceptable as ageism). Still, I think "silverback" does have its uses for referring to people for whom age and seniority have brought a degree of power, which may be used badly or well.

    Maybe we need more, more precise terms? I'd propose that "silverback" may need to be modified by adjectives on occasion, to indicate whether the person in question is in his (or, in some cases, her) full power, using it well or badly, in decline, phoning it in, etc., etc. Modifiers such as "reigning," "chest-thumping," "increasingly decrepit," "now mostly impotent," etc., might work. And perhaps, in some cases, we need other words. It strikes me that there is a handy term to describe the person Suzy describes above that also fits nicely with a theme of the page: "lame duck." Perhaps we need to add that to our lexicon.

    Or we could just stick with the general, all-purpose, age/gender/race-neutral, "asshole." Sadly, more often than not, that works.

  12. I like Contingent's ideas for a more nuanced vocabulary, and Edna's view of the term as a metaphor. They suggest to me that there isn't a consistent interpretation out there. To my ears, "silverback" is synonymous with "badass" which is why I shamelessly use it for myself :) Of course, it can be good or bad, depending on if the badass in question is badassing on your behalf or not.

    To the extent that can come with seniority, that can be good or bad too, no? Seniority for seniority's sake, meh. But seniority representing a career full of experience, accomplishments, and accumulated political power? Yeah, I'll use Silverback in the honorific tense for that badass. But clearly many take it to mean what I would mean if I were to deploy a term like "deadwood" -- meaning old, useless, irrelevant, in the way. There's no redeeming that epithet, and if I heard that I'd be offended too.

  13. Philip,

    I hear what you're saying (or at least I am listening, and I hope I am hearing) and I promise to think about it. I think slower than the internet moves, so by the time I come to any sort of resolution, this post will be last week's news. And I caution you that thinking about it contains no promise that I will entirely agree with you. But in good faith, here is what I will think about.

    I understand that words can hurt and demean, even when that is not the intent. I understand that I speak from a position of privilege, being white, male, tenured and not yet old. I will make no claim to be pure as the driven snow. I am sure that I hold prejudices of which I am unaware. I hope they are relatively minor. I hope that they emerge from ignorance - from not knowing what it is really like to be someone else - rather than some hidden malice within my soul. I do not want to cling to them. And so I will examine my assumptions.

    But I will also examine your assertion. What I will try to resolve in my mind is this: If someone experiences discrimination and comes to associate a word with that discrimination, does that mean the word is discriminatory? Or could the perceived association by mistaken? And by what criteria would we distinguish between these two possibilities? If one person hears "silverback" as "old fogey", or "doddering fool", not everyone does. The sentence (from earlier) "Why doesn't he do what silverbacks do, and rip the arm out of the offending whippersnapper's socket and beat him over the head with it?" simply makes no sense if we replace "silverback" with "old fogey".

    It will be very carefully that I approach your premise that "silverback" is as offensive as "n_____". This is a strong claim and I think it weakens your position. I can't help noting that the phrase "whatever anti-gayism is called" (it's homophobia) didn't do much to suggest a careful analysis of discrimination in your assertions.

    So I may not wind up agreeing with you, but I will think about these things in good faith. You have my word.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, R Andor G. I hope you'll continue to scroll through CM stuff and click on "Older Post" so we can continue the discussion.

      I'm not saying that "silverback" is offensive as someone's using the "n" word. But it IS offensive.

      There's a hierarchy of nastiness, isn't there? Sexist epithets might top out with the "c" word. Then there's the "b" word, followed by lighter-weight stuff like referring to women as "girls" or a list of attendees at a department meeting that reads "Dr. Jones, Dr. Smith, Dr. Brown, Susan, and Cheryl." But any of these connote that women are somehow less-than, that they deviate from the norm.

      But here's my real problem with the context in which "silverbacks" is used. The first sentence of the post we're discussing says "One of the silverbacks had made an appointment to see me." There are two ways to read the presuppositions of this statement, One is offensive, the other is not.

      1. All older male faculty members are chest-thumping, tenured, chauvinistic slackers.

      2. There are x older male faculty members in the department. A subset of x is limited to y older male faculty members who are chest-thumping, tenured, chauvinistic slackers. The breast-fixated older male faculty member is a member of subset y.

      So, please, which presuppostitions hold for a sentence like "One of the silverbacks had made an appointment to see me"?

      If you really, truely, and honestly read the presuppositions in this sentence as #1, then I'll shut the fuck up.


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