He does his teaching well, but just appears to struggle to function outside of the classroom. The few times I've walked past his classroom and heard him lecture, he sounds coherent, confident, and clear, as if, in that one space on earth, in front of the classroom, he is king, and god, and country, all rolled into one. But outside of the classroom, he's a butterfly without wings, wondering where he parked his car, or if he even has a car.
Prior to today, in the more-than-five years I have worked with him, I have never had a conversation with Conan the Confused that I have 100% understood. One time, he followed me out to my car, and I was halfway down the block heading to the post office before I realized he had been asking me to give him a ride home. When I turned the car around, he was still swaying in the same spot on the curb, chuckling to himself, absolutely sure that I was playing a prank on him. I never did admit (until now) that I had completely misunderstood and that it had taken me a minute to figure out that in his ramblings, somewhere, he'd said, "If you could just drop me off, that would help. And the sugar goes really well with the development of civilization."
Sometimes when he's talking to me, I think about what it must be like to try to chew orange juice. It's not entirely unpleasant, but why would you choose to do it? And yet, there he is, mumbling to himself in his academically endearing manner and teaching his classes and getting by with being the campus eccentric (well, one of several). I have observed Conan apologizing to the printer and the copy machine and gleefully sharing a sentence from a poem that has just completely changed his day into one of glorious revelation. "Listen to this," he will shout from his office, and then proceed to share a line of beauty with anyone in the hallway.
When he has visited my office in the past, he has mumbled or laughed to himself about something, then, when I've asked how he's doing, he will blurt out what he needs to say, then remember somewhere he needs to be, rushing off in the wrong direction, swiveling around to remember to say goodbye to me, and then rushing off again in the right direction, leaving me smiling and shaking my head.
Conan the Confused has never had any outbursts or exhibited any behavior that alarms anyone, that I can tell. He just appears to be a very confused for most of the time that he's not in classes. When students visit his office for one-on-one conferences, he meets with them and gives clear feedback, focused and coherent, and they seem pleased with his feedback, so he has never been on my radar as someone to worry about, except to wonder if he's eating balanced meals.
Today, Conan had a moment of clarity when he chose to visit me in my office. Today, Conan told me that someone in our building (but not in our department) has filed a complaint against him. Holding out the official paperwork like a student handing in a late paper, he said to me, "I don't know what to do. Please tell me what to do with this hostile work environment claim." This is the clearest and most confused that I have ever seen him. Someone has claimed that his demeanor is hostile and interferes with their comfort levels at work; in essence, they are afraid of him because he appears unpredictable.
I am not the chair, although I do scheduling for and coordinating of a program in our department. All of Conan's evaluations have been stellar. Like I said before, students love this man! I'm not sure that I'm not half in love with this man. He is so completely endearing and well meaning that it's hard for me to even fathom that someone would view him as hostile in any way. The most hostile I've ever seen him get is to his door, when he attempted to open it with his house key. And even then, he talked sternly to the door, asking it to please open for him. He's just NOT a hostile work environment perpetrator.
This week HR is going to send a team out to interview us about Conan the Confused. In the meantime, he is required to go straight from his office to his classes and back, without interacting with the
And for that, I feel horrible. I've googled "hostile work environment" and have asked our HR people about the case (they told me to wait for the investigation to commence and that they cannot discuss it with me prior to that). Our chair has been notified of the case and also cannot discuss it with anyone. In the meantime, we (my chair and I) want to be able to assure Conan that all WILL be well and to make sure that it will, actually all go well.
Should we be advising him to seek counsel? He doesn't seem to be likely to do so without someone telling him to do so. Should we be stepping back and just letting the process play out? We don't want our involvement to hurt his case, but it is pretty ridiculous. Conan looks scared and small, and it breaks my heart to see him this way. I really just want to help rather than harm him.
FWIW, I asked Conant if I could ask my online friends for advice on this and he consented.
The only way to fight back these kinds of claims is to present a counter-argument. What is the precise nature of the complaint? The chair will definitely need to help defend dear old Conan, and having a variety of colleagues speak on his behalf will most likely help. But unfortunately, Conan is going to need to stand up for himself. Surely he has the capacity to organize some projects -- research in nature -- if he is working for your university. Perhaps he can apply those skills to setting up a defense.ReplyDelete
But I believe you should treat this as an intro class. Give him a specific list of things to do: first, outline the nature of the accusation so he knows precisely what the argument is. Then create a counter argument by establishing a different course of events.
As for counsel, you need to be honest: has Conan opened your university to a lawsuit? If not, trust HR. If yes, or possibly, then you need to engage independent counsel.
Great advice. In answer to your question about whether Conan can organize projects: he is an artiste. His creative publications (poetry, mainly) and dramatic performances (as in theater) count as research in his field.Delete
There is no hostility present by any definition. "Uncomfortable" is not the same as "hostile."ReplyDelete
HR is simply doing due diligence. They will find nothing and make a note in the filer's file to keep an eye on hir.
If it's any consolation, Conan probably won't remember it next week.
It sounds like Conan might have a genuine mental health issue. If so, he probably has some human-rights law and university regulations to back him up.ReplyDelete
It'd be fun to report the reporter. What is wrong with people. There seems so little tolerance of Conan's eccentricities, and I've seen similar things - though not as bad - in my own department. Someone's a little different. What matters is the classroom. Conan sounds like a true original, and he'll have that beaten out of him by HR goons if they get the chance.ReplyDelete
I'd suggest to offer as much support as you can, and then hope for better souls to prevail.
I want to report the reporter!!! I want to run the reporter over with my car, or, at the least, sit on hir until s/he recants. Apparently that is considered quid pro quo and we are not allowed to do that, but I certainly feel like our building is now a hostile environment BECAUSE of this one individual who feels Conan's eccentricities are a threat because he presents as different.Delete
Actually, if it weren't for the complaint, it sounds that Conan is utterly, completely happy. Don't try to help him to change.ReplyDelete
And, about the complaint, yes, he needs help as a child needs to get its diaper changed. There's probably a moral duty for sensible people to protect the clueless.
You could start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay Conan's legal fees. You know his students will donate. And it will also serve as a referendum against the asshole/reporter without actually mentioning that person.ReplyDelete
This person really filed a complaint based on someone's general weirdness in the hallways? I'm asking because I can think of at least two people I've worked for who could have been styled as "absent-minded professors" and were also prone to blurting out inappropriate things along with all the other things they tended to blurt. One I've decided so far is harmless and the other constantly gave me the creeps, as in, would not talk to him with office door closed creeps.ReplyDelete
[Bear with me here] One of the signs of grooming vulnerable people, like kids, for abuse is allowing them to break rules. It can be easy for someone who wants to cross boundaries for whatever reason to hide that impulse under a cover of "wow, I'm so wacky, I just don't even know what boundaries are!" And then of course there are the clueless good souls who truly don't know what what comes out of their mouths is out of bounds sometimes. I believe you that your colleague is the latter, but this is just what came to my mind here.
Adding to Kate's comment above: there are always 2 sides to every story. Conan has some severe functional problems (you've admitted as much) outside of the classroom. So, is it within the realm of possibility that this person may have a legitimate complaint? I've seen the 'absent-minded' professor become the 'clueless about appropriate physical contact and sexual statements' professor more than once.ReplyDelete
Although, I've also seen people go completely aggressive on fellow faculty for no good reason before too.Delete
Ugh, I guess if it was me, I'd be supportive, maybe write a letter; but would let HR do their thing and not jump fully into the mix.
There may be elements of the original report you're unaware of and HR has not disclosed. However, on its surface it certainly sounds to me like a case of bullying. Pisses me off. It sounds like someone, disturbed by eccentricity, decided to try to shut it down. Welcome to the goddamned panopticon, Conan.ReplyDelete
It sounds like Conan is an undiagnosed autistic, most likely having Asperger's. I have that and do many of these things (not to Conan's degree). When we were kids, there was no diagnosable thing, so we've grown up not knowing. I only found out last year. Yes, we unintentionally make people feel uncomfortable just because of how we process the world and interact with it. Here's the problem: legally, if he doesn't have a diagnosis, the school can, and will, continue to treat him like he's the problem. Also, if he gets diagnosed (presuming this is what is going on), the school can use any claims against him that happened pre-diagnosis. But it would be a cold-hearted place that would. Can you ask him or is there someone else on campus he trusts who can talk to him about this?ReplyDelete
Are you all unionized? If so, he needs representation with him through every step of this. Actually, even if you're not union, you might suggest to him that he have a colleague, preferably in another department, sit in on any meetings he has with HR to take notes.ReplyDelete
No, we are at a religious SLAC, the only unionizing going on is through prayer circles (scoff scoff).Delete
But great idea to at least have representation in the form of a witness.Delete
Hmm. . .I wonder if there is an advocacy/social justice organization within the church that might help? Or an interfaith one? (Of course, in some places, involving an interfaith/different faith organization would be like waving a red flag in the vicinity of a bull).Delete
It sounds to me like a lawyer would be a worthwhile investment (and/or a union rep might be a good substitute). It also sounds like he might benefit from sort of help from someone with an awareness of mental differences, and experience helping people on the further ends of the functional spectrum cope. Figuring out who could best help him is a hard thing for a colleague to do, however, especially in the middle of an investigation. Do you know if he has any family and/or friends with whom he has a decent relationship? It sounds like he really does need some sort of support (but this also doesn't sound like the time to try to re-forge relationships that haven't worked well in the past). An advocacy organization might also help, but it's hard to figure out which one without a diagnosis, and there's also a risk of his becoming someone's poster boy/cause, which might hurt more than help. There is an organization called NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill), which has local chapters, and from which friends have gotten useful -- if not particularly encouraging -- advice in coping with seriously mentally ill relatives; if you want to do something, you might try getting in touch with them for advice (though how Conan would react to being labeled mentally ill is another question; on the other hand, you could truthfully say that he appears to be in the process of becoming depressed).ReplyDelete
I also found myself thinking somewhat along the same lines as Kate and Bison, especially given the "hostile environment" charge. Is it possible that Conan has fallen in (presumably unrequited) love? That could account for his behaving differently with the object of his affections than with other colleagues, and could also account for someone feeling more threatened by his behavior than others might. It still sounds like the colleague may have escalated things prematurely (if he's awkward but instructable, as he sounds from your description, it seems that someone -- the chair, HR, whoever -- could sit him down and set down some boundaries, and he would obey. In fact, that's what he's been doing with the boundaries that were set down, correct?). Still, the alarm might be a bit more understandable (and/or even more complicated if the complainee is male).
I do hope things work out. Every university should have a Conan or two (not too many, since they can get exhausting and aren't, I suspect, very good at committee work, but a few).
As always, great advice. I am going to talk with the Disability Support folk to see if some informal diagnosis can at least take place. From what Conan says, no interaction with this person has taken place beyond what the rest of us encounter, which is so puzzling to all of us. But perhaps we are so used to his mannerisms that we don't notice him anymore.Delete
I've never heard of a case involving colleagues in an academic setting where HR is brought in and terms like "hostile work environment" are used before there's even an attempt to resolve it in the usual way: you go to the chair, the chair gets the parties together and tries to clear up the misunderstanding. So all of this sounds strangely overblown to me. I've always thought of HR as an office that processes a certain kind of paperwork, but does not get directly involved with academic personnel.ReplyDelete
The important thing to do now is for colleagues to go to Conan and as visibly as possible let him know he has their support. I assume there's no prohibition against talking to him directly about the incident, and getting his version of it. The more people do this, and the more openly, the better. As for "not talking to each other about the case": that sounds like an unreasonable restriction. Conan's worst enemy at this point is precisely secrecy. If it's that serious, then of course he should have hired counsel already. Annie Oakley's idea of having a colleagues sit in on any meetings he has with HR (or any admin) about the issue is very good.
HR has claimed that normal grievance channels become moot once a formal complaint is filed and that it now falls under their domain of state law, but I'm not sure whether the chairs were notified and whether attempts were made to talk with Conan. He claims this was the first he had heard of the complaint and that he had no idea that someone was even upset with him or his behavior.Delete
Thanks, all, for your advice. We are going to rally around Conan to at least let him know of our support. :)
Seriously: thanks everyone! If I remember to and am allowed to talk about it, I'll update you on the outcome. Conan read this and was surprised and thankful that others who don't even know him cared enough to offer thoughtful advice. He also cackled about my description of his behavior and conceded that about 78% of it was how he viewed himself, too.ReplyDelete
FYI: autism is not a mental illness; it is a neurobiological developmental disability. There's stigma enough attached to having Asperger's, we certainly don't need a mental illness label to boot. I do give props to CC for bringing this up on Conan's behalf; this could be a huge, positive moment for your colleague.ReplyDelete
I am terribly sorry if I said or implied that autism is a mental illness. I don't think I said anything of the sort or even claimed that Conan is autistic in any way, but if I did, and if I offended you or if I perpetuated a stereotype about it that is incorrect, I apologize.Delete
I think I might have implied it, by suggesting NAMI as a possible resource. I was actually thinking (but should have explicitly said) that, while something on the autism spectrum does sound like a possible diagnosis, some personality disorders also tend to manifest as the sort of artistic/eccentric personality you describe. So: disability advocacy organization might help if he has a disability, NAMI if he has a mental illness (both if he has both*).Delete
It does sound like a diagnosis might be useful, if only to determine what laws/protections imply, though it's too bad that Conan needs to seek one if he wasn't already so inclined, since whatever labels may happen to describe him, he seems to have been functioning to his and (most) others' satisfaction up to now. A diagnosis is great if it provides useful protections, accommodations, coping mechanisms, and/or other support, not so great if it decreases the chances of people seeing him as an individual.
*I have the feeling that, in 50 years or so, we're going to look back at our present understanding of variability in human brain structure/function and its effect on behavior/interactions, and wonder at how primitive it was. I also suspect that we'll be making fewer, or at least different, distinctions. But, for the moment, we have the ones we have, and laws, social attitudes, etc., that go with them, so, yes, it's important to make the distinction.
No offense taken, just a clarification. Best to Conan!ReplyDelete