Monday, October 09, 2006

The Joys of Academia, pt. 2

The Joys of Academia, pt. 2 -- politics

It may come as a surprise to no one that there are politics in academia. Things are no different at SLAC, although frankly, so far everything seems pretty mild. In fact, so far, most of the politics I've come across seem tied to a few egos. I think. There are probably bigger issues and bigger stakes if one looks at the competition between schools -- clearly the fact that one school has a standard teaching load that is 75% of the teaching load of the other schools might cause tensions, for example. But within my school, things seem pretty good, at least compared to what I'm used to.

After all, my first full-time job was at a place where there was a movement for a much-needed vote of no-confidence. The three years I was there were fraught, and politics were ugly and sometimes vindictive. Actually, I'd say some of the politics are still ugly, because too much damage may have been done for a return to health. The last full-time job I had was less politically challenging, but that's because I seemed to have fallen in on the right side of things. There was a definite old boys' club, and people who were invited in were taken care of with extra travel support, etc. TO be fair, the people who were invited in tended to be the faculty with the highest expectations and the lowest bullshit tolerance. They consistently got good teaching evals, served on committees, participated in campus events (cheering on the various teams, actually participating in in-service day symposia and workshops) and were, despite working at a CC, active in their fields. At any campus where such things were based entirely on merit, the rewards would probably have been distributed to the same group ... it's just that at this place, if you weren't already 'in', you might not have found out that there were rewards to be had.

So far at SLAC, I've been negotiating the personalities. On the good side, I've heard no faculty member actively badmouth another. I've also heard no nastiness from faculty towards administration. People genuinely seem to like working here. Still, I'm starting to see and hear evidence of the kinds of petty tensions that can be annoying at best, dangerous to a paranoid new faculty member like me, if I were stupid enough to take sides. Via one of my departmental colleagues, I have been very fortunate. I seem to have made friends with a group of faculty who have all just gotten tenure and (mostly) promotion. I really like them, and am thrilled that they seem to like me. I've also found myself invited to sit with some of the old guard on a number of occasions (almost everyone eats at about the same time, in the same place). I don't know that I'm particularly special in this -- I think any new person who's a little outgoing would find herself in a similar position. This is a friendly place, and there really is a familial feeling to it. Still, people have opinions, and some of those opinions, when held by the firmly entrenched and longstanding holders of positions, need to be treated with respect. It takes a while to figure out which person will consider a difference of opinion, however polite, an affront, and which person will see it as a necessary and almost enjoyable part of process.

I'm not so good at politics. That is, I can't see the point of trying to get in with the 'right' people, or identifying the movers and shakers. Me? I'm more worried about avoiding the pitfalls. So, when I have a colleague who makes me feel uncomfortable, I start to worry. I have a couple of colleagues like that, people who are giving me advice that just doesn't feel quite right, or that may sound like generally good advice, but which I can't entirely trust because the people, despite being more experienced, are also new to SLAC. I am wary. I am not saying that people are out to hurt me -- I certainly hope not! But I sometimes wonder if the advice isn't predicated on someone's own agenda or experiences. And frankly, I've been burned in life by trusting people too quickly. Plus, it doesn't seem to have hurt me much to be polite to people I don't necessarily like, friendly with people who are friendly towards me, and collegial to everybody, even if I don't like them. Part of that may be that I'm a natural mediator ...

Still, what's a junior faculty member to do? Here's what I'm doing, and why.
  • Seek out some committee work of an appropriate level -- some committees are closed to junior faculty, and some require lots of institutional knowledge. So I looked for a couple of committees that would allow me to draw on my own expertise in pedagogy and assessment -- not entirely the kind of committees junior faculty usually get on, but those are the ones where I feel comfortable offering input
  • Continue to get to know as many of my colleagues as possible. I think that the people I've already started to socialize with will continue to be my friends and the basis of my social circle (did I mention that I kind of feel like they're the cool kids?), but there are a lot of good people who have interesting lives and a lot of experience. I might not hang out with them or go shopping with them, but I think it's a shame to get too comfortable with one little group too quickly. I never really liked clicques, and I want to take advantage that I can sit with different groups of colleagues and staff.
  • Think of my friends as mentors and not blur the line between friends away from work, colleagues at work. I think that, on small campuses, it's very normal for people to become close friends with colleagues. But the reality is that we evaluate each other, we make decisions on who gets development money, etc. It has to be clear that we will give each other the respect we deserve and hold each other to the same standards, friends or no.
  • (I did this today) Go to the Dean and ask him for a recommendation for an unofficial mentor -- someone not a personal friend, nor in my department, but rather a neutral person who can give advice on avoiding the occasional buried skeleton or how best to approach awkward situations. Dean had an idea for one, and will let me know.
  • Trust my gut and keep my mouth shut. One of the things that makes me paranoid is finding myself in a conversation where the other person utters such things as, "what's the deal with her?" or, "there's more going on there than you know" or, "there's background; I'll tell you about it someday." Again, I don't know that anything is malicious -- small school, academics are gossips, etc. But I'm afraid I see things like this is a test. I'd rather come out as a person who is fairminded and neutral than as a person who has thrown in her lot with one group. It's not that I don't want to know about these things -- just that I think it's the kiss of death to take sides unless you are either sure that you need to -- and then, you should take the side whether or not you think you'll win.

I hope my plan, such as it is, isn't too stupid. I'd like to think that all of those things are really just part of being a good colleague and doing the job properly. In fact, I don't like that I think of it as a plan at all. But I want to stay in this job, and that means understanding what I need to do to make that happen. The fact that there are people giving me dubious advice on that just makes it more necessary to concentrate on doing the things that got me the job and that I already seemed to be doing right, and avoiding doing things wrong. What are you other junior faculty doing to avoid the pitfalls?


medieval woman said...

Well, I'm not tackling any pitfalls myself at the moment, but I wanted to say that I think your plan sounds really good - from the more general things (like being collegial with everyone) to the more specific (asking the Dean for an unofficial mentor recommendation) - those all seem like good proactive things to keep in mind. I have to draw myself back from the brink often because I luuuuuv to hang over the back fence and chew the fat with people. But when I'm a permanent part of a department, I'll have to keep reminding myself to be more neutral...

Good luck!

Kelly said...

Sounds like you are off to a great start. However, I would caution going directly to a dean on anything - even outside your department - some view not going through the chair as a direct affront - although they might not tell you that directly. And it doesn't matter how noble the cause since it may be taken as a challenge to whatever mentoring system is or isn't in place.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, the Dean is also in my department, but point taken. The campus culture here is that people tend to go to the Dean with everything -- probably normal where there are lots of departments with under 4 people.

Bardiac said...

You're right to recognize that everyone has an agenda. They may honestly think the advice they're giving you is the best advice for you, but it still comes from an agenda. It sometimes helps to ask "why" about the advice a lot.

It's not bad that people have an agenda; and if they can explain their position, you'll learn a lot.

As for not taking sides, that's smart at this point. Learn the positions, and get a sense of the history, but without being a slave to it. (Don't do something because it's the way it's always been done, in other words.)

For now, you can fall back on the "I'm learning so much right now, I'm still trying to figure out what's best" response. And that can sometimes get you really good explanations.

Good luck; it sounds like you've got a good, solid plan.

Miriam Jones said...

You are a role-model of circumspection!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Bardiac!

mj ... er ... was that facetious? If so, *smiles*, if not, wow, thanks!

What Now? said...

I love Bardiac's suggested reply. And I think that you are so, so smart to have adopted this plan. I'm afraid that I fell afoul of college politics in my very first semester in ways that continued to haunt me, and it was largely because (a) I had no mentor -- which was mostly my own fault for not looking for one, and (b) I was convinced I already knew which side was "right" and "wrong," based on my, oh, two months of experience. Big, stupid mistakes! So I admire you and applaud you for your approach outlined here. (It probably helped you to have seen ugly politics up close, even though I'm sure it wasn't helpful. I know that I will approach politics *much* differently if I'm lucky enough to get another job.)

Stacie said...

I recommend a book called Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth.