The Rules of Academic Engagement

You know, sometimes I wish blogs could have subtitles. Or that when academic bloggers wrote, they gave their posts titles the way they title their papers. And in the interest of humor and familiarity, I decided to take up the challenge myself and make try a post that draws on the conventions of one form of academic communication to talk about another form.

[Addendum: Be warned, this isn't a blog post. It's a commitment. And as you may have learned, that means once you start reading it, you cannot stop. ]

That said, if this post was a journal article, it would be titled thusly:
Advice for Soon-to-be-Gumdrops Who've Been Following The Happy Gumdrop Dustup and Who Haven't Yet Killed Themselves/Their Senior Advisers or Completely Abandoned This Career Path: A Meta-Analysis
It's a long standing truism of academia (typically attributed to Kissinger) that the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small. Certainly we've seen some evidence of just how vicious they can be recently. Among the posts of lurkers in various places, of soon-to-be Gumdrops, and amongst those of us already in this particular set of trenches, the whole episode has raised serious doubts. But even so, there are some lessons to be taken from this whole hullabaloo. If nothing else, realize that the academic community, just like your family, is, shall we say, quirky at least.

Part of why I invoke Kissinger's quote - though I think he's wrong about the stakes - is that what you've just seen is the academic equivalent of guerrilla warfare. And while Kissinger didn't exactly know how to get us out of those situations, he did ultimately learn that the danger of guerrilla warfare was that the rules which were evident weren't the rules that should best be followed.

So, knowing the rules, you can begin to develop strategies to circumvent them. I'll be using the Happy Gumdrop Dustup as a means of both explaining the seeming rules of conflict management within academic society and strategies which may be of use by would-be gumdrops and gumdrop collaborators in helping circumvent these problems. For a concise history of the dustup, here is a useful reference.

If you look at the discourse so far, you'll see a few rules very clearly in evidence. Sadly, I'd like to say that these things just happen here, but having sat through faculty meetings at three different institutions (as Gumdrops go, I'm getting stale), served on a variety of committees at two, worked on organizational boards, and played at faculty poker nights, I can say that this isn't the only time I've seen this1

It must be stressed that while this behavior is more common than we might like, it is far from the norm. What triggers the behavior is up for debate, and its worth noting that a close reading shows some interesting metaphorical trends and is grounds for further inquiry.2

Rule 1: Give No Quarter

Kissinger says academic fights are vicious because the stakes are small. I say they're vicious because they are our equivalent of bare-knuckle boxing. Proving we're right is sport - and for some, it's a blood sport. And in blood sports, you must ALWAYS fight to win, not to compromise. 3

Strategy and Analysis:
This rule, in fact, suggests, the first and most important strategy to dealing with this sort of situation. Unlike the metaphorical cage match we are comparing this to, no one in fact is locking the metaphorical cage. You are free to step out at anytime, whether this be the debate or some larger situation, such as a job.

Along similar lines, you must be careful not to mistake the proposed solutions - which are often either/or solutions - with the full range of possible solutions. Most of your colleagues, when not in the heat of the battle themselves will recognize this (and the good ones will do this even if in the midst).

It's worth noting in the Gumdrop brouhaha that the arguing got loudest when people asserted these rights - whether in the right to leave a job or the right to leave (or to be asked to leave) a conversation. Arguments always require participants, and those who love to argue know very well how to try and gain them.

Rule 2: Choose Your Weapons But Don't Show It

In the academic dust-up, the chief weapons are definitions. This is a rule you should have learned in graduate school, where we've learned to cite our sources and clearly explain not just our definitions but why we've chosen them.

The academic dust-up, however, takes this rule and inverts it. In combat, after all, showing your strength is to expose your weakness. Offering up a definition is to allow the opposition to disarm you. So you must do your best to use your definitions stealthily, only revealing them as the briefest slashes of logic - enough to draw blood but untouchable.

Strategy and Analysis:
In any situation where you're being intentionally left in the dark, your goal becomes to try and gather information yourself. In the heated academic knuckle-duster, this is akin to dancing just out of reach while you study. Ask questions. Ask them different ways. Put the definitions themselves through their paces.

Just as importantly, be clear in yours. One place you can do this is in the academic interview. When I went through my first round of interviews as I was coming out of my program ABD, the fear of not having a job (and hence not having funding which would lead to not being able to finish the dissertation which swallowed the spider to catch the fly...) presented the temptation to try and be whatever a job wanted me to be. Resist this urge. In an interview, in your interactions with colleagues, be yourself. If there is a problem - and sometimes there will be - take it for the sign it is (and only for the sign it is).

The most interesting example of this from the Gumdrop debate was a member of the senior faculty camp who was upset that mentoring and invitations to dinner and invitations to dinner didn't net a junior faculty member's continued presence in the department. As a member of the gumdrop camp, I never would have imagined that a colleague's invitation to dinner(s) would equate to anything but some conversation and collegiality. Honestly, would any of us go to dinner with anyone if we knew it meant the possibility of shackling ourselves to their image of how we should behave for the next year of our lives? Sometimes a steak should just be a steak (or a veggie burger for my West Coast friends). Failing that, at least make sure if your dinner comes with a cost, that you actually put a bill out there. My assumption- and I think a reasonable one - was that the last time I had to put out because you bought me dinner was at the interview.

One of the truly distressing moments in the Gumdrops debate was that there was little attempt to define the problem. Reading between the lines of the debate, there were at least two different things happening. On one side, the junior faculty at the start of the debate didn't actually fit the definition being offered by seniors at the end. None were of the "one and done" variety being decried for taking a job and then leaving. Moreover, many of the faculty lumped into the Gumdrops actually fit a more senior role. Part of the underlying struggle shifted in the midst to trying to clarify what was actually meant by "junior faculty" because there were a substantial number of people in the middle (if only the early stages of it) of their careers.

Rule 3: Control the Terrain

Notice in the discourse of the academic dust-up how often one side or the other assumes that their context is every one's context. One thing Sun-Tzu has taught is that he who controls the battleground controls the battle. This is particularly true in the battle over meaning, where the clearest way to control the battle is to know the terrain better than anyone else. Begin by making them come to you and never, ever concede that there could be another possibility.

For example, while even recent studies show there is marked difference in how academics of different generations view their careers, including what they were and weren't satisfied with, this was largely left out of the debate.

Strategy and Analysis:
Most academic debates become about the context of the people involved. Sadly, as seen in the Gumdrop debate, there is no certain to guarantee that even when you offer a context for yourself that anyone will pay attention to it. But be sure you know yourself well enough to know not only what you want but why you want it.

One of the frustrations expressed by the "senior faculty" was ultimately that they couldn't understand why junior faculty didn't love their department/university/city as much as they did. While this is largely their failure of imagination, there are things you can do to try and prevent this problem in your own relations. First, ask questions about the things that matter to you. Almost invariably with the academic interview, there is not only time set aside for your questions but some time set aside for a tour (this may simply be a lift from the airport). This is your moment to begin to mark out and determine whether this is the place for you or not.

Rule 4: There are Two Kinds of Intelligence - Use Them Both

You know you are intelligent; that's how you got here. Rely on that. But don't be afraid to find intelligence about your opponent and to take advantage. If this means referencing some unfortunate behavior or some unthinking disclosure to gain advantage, you must do it. To some, this would equate to dirty fighting, but in any blood sport, you can't be afraid to press your advantages and take advantage of tactical errors

Strategy and Analysis:
This was one of the most unfortunate moments of the dust-up and probably the most distressing. That members on both sides began to strike out in highly personal ways on the road to trying to make their point. Honestly, it's pretty embarrassing imagining students or colleagues or donors somehow chancing on these moments. And that's the question I've been asking myself today: how would this look to someone not in the midst of it.

I would also imagine, having read some of the more vitriolic moments, that there's a temptation by bloggers involved to stop entirely. Charitably, I'll say that this wasn't an attempt at an actual chilling effect on the parts of the posters who felt the need to resort to attempts at using personal details about members of the blogging community as a means of bolstering their arguments. I'm not personally convinced of that. From the standpoint of those who have benefited from others blogs, I certainly hope this won't be the consequence.

But the bigger point here is that you've got to be prepared to own up to what you say and you've got be prepared that it might be used against you. This sort of thing doesn't happen just in the blogosphere, though it is (in my experience) much more common here. A recent Chronicle column (which I cannot find at the moment) suggested that new faculty should guard their secrets. That's not bad advice, though again, you mustn't be so guarded that you miss connections or somehow misrepresent yourself.

One of the secrets to negotiating any group dynamic - and take this form someone who's survived corporate America and is now navigating the Ivory Tower - is that spending more time listening than speaking will usually tell you all you need to know about your colleagues and your campus. As Gumdrops (or Gumdrops-to-be), spend those first moments of service listening - while we value your input we also understand that it can be overwhelming to be thrown onto the Curriculum Committee or Strategic Planning or whatever - and so we expect you'll be a little quiet. That's your chance to feel out where things stand and whether you've made the right choice or not.


There are a few important conclusions that I think can be made here.

The most important one is that those of us who blog and respond to blogs are only one segment of the faculty you're going to meet. The very fact that we're here and posting suggests something about us and how we deal with problems. We're a vocal minority, and should be interpreted as such. Recognize, too, that we use anonymity in productive and unproductive ways, and that same feature may well have been used against some of us in the community.

Secondly, though, I think you'll see that part of what really underlies the problem here isn't so much a generational thing (though that might be something of an intervening variable) but one of communication itself. By and large, those "senior faculty" who complained were really talking about how they felt deceived and used, a set of feelings the Gumdrops also feel but for very different reasons. My generalization of it is that for "senior faculty," it's about trying to foster relationships that fail, and for "junior faculty" it's about how relationships are set up to fail in the current structure. Those questions aren't going away anytime soon.

Third, I hope it's recognized that most (if not all - I couldn't say for sure) the "junior faculty" all did more than a little to give their jobs a chance. Taking that time to get to know the place and the people is certainly worthwhile, but that doesn't mean you have to stay. I've been advised by more than a few senior faculty (I know them and their credentials, so no quotes for them) who've advised me that even in the second year it's acceptable, but the third year may be seen as more preferable.

Finally, I hope that while the waters here seem treacherous and uncharted, that it's realized that most people really do want to work with you and see you advance in your career in a way that works for you, not just for them.

[Addendum: What? You're still here? Well, alright, have some footnotes then.]

1: Please note, however, while this implies that such academic guerrilla warfare is more common than just this thread, it does not imply that it is ubiquitous.

2: There are a few interesting patterns here. The question of academic vocation is often tied to a series of very particular metaphors. The first is of academia as a calling. Outside of academia, this use of languages often carries with it a particular religious connotation. The extreme version of this, in both academia and religious callings, becomes a form of zealotry or fanaticism. The second metaphor has attempts to speak of the academic career in relationship (typically marriage) terms. In this formation, questions of abandonment, and infidelity become metaphors for behaviors by faculty in relation to each other, to structural agents, and to institutions. Both often carry with them implicit power dynamics that suggest peculiar (and often disturbing) implications.

3: This rule suggests certain corollaries:
C1) First, the more marginal you feel your research/teaching is in relation to another variable (your colleague's research, the university's goals, the funding you receive, etc), the more likely to view to go the bloodsport route.
C2) The more marginal you feel someone else's research/teaching is in relation to another variable, the more likely to go the bloodsport route.
C3) The longer the pre-fight, the bloodier the match.


10 Responses to “The Rules of Academic Engagement”
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squadratomagico said...

I just found you.
You are interesting.
I will read more.

November 1, 2007 at 8:36 PM
Maggie said...

I have to admit, as interesting as this was, my head hurts now. It was the footnotes. Can you please go back to writing about basketball now?

Thnx. --maggiemay

November 1, 2007 at 8:49 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Sq - First, that's much handle. Welcome aboard; Glad to have you aboard.

Maggie - Sorry to make your head hurt. This was, I think, my attempt to wash this stuff right out of my hair. I can't promise basketball posts (but do let me know when you pick your team), but I am hoping for some different fare soon.

November 1, 2007 at 9:11 PM
Maggie said...

If this is your way of washing this stuff out of your hair... then you really are in the right profession.

Seriously, if this was at all related to my field, it would make an awesome paper: a survey of disgruntled academics everywhere, close interpretive readings of their insane responses... omg, it's like a party waiting to happen.

November 1, 2007 at 11:02 PM
Dance said...

I'm just imagining the day 80 years in the future when a dissertating grad student working on the historical sociology of informal networking in the academy happens across this, and leaps in excitement at finding a flashpoint to hang a chapter on.

November 2, 2007 at 7:05 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Well, I hope that happens. In truth, this started out as a joke. But (maybe) because it was written in two-minute bursts between lectures and umpteen advising appointments, there's a moment where it absolutely changes tone (or, less charitably, lose the tone it intended).

Either way, thanks to all of you for slogging through it. I'd like to promise it won't happen again, but who knows?

November 2, 2007 at 9:36 AM

You are free to step out at anytime, whether this be the debate or some larger situation, such as a job.

This is what I need to have engraved over my desk or something - I always get sucked into these kinds of debates, and really, is it going to solve anything? Clearly I'm not going to change their minds. Why do I persist in thinking I can?

Anyway, cool post!

November 2, 2007 at 11:22 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

New Kid - that's one of the lessons I can thank my family for.

Part of why you persist, I think - and this is me projecting, is probably because we're in an area that is built around that. It's not a bad thing to do, but sometimes, sadly, even the folks in the same racket we're in aren't interested.

November 2, 2007 at 7:13 PM
amelie said...

You are insane (but in a good way).

November 2, 2007 at 11:02 PM
adjunct whore said...

lovely, thank you! new bloggie friend i like.

November 6, 2007 at 12:09 PM