Practicing collegiality, and what to do when it's not returned

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers more great advice to junior faculty this week in “Get Out There and Shake It!”, in which she tells them not to sit in their offices waiting for invitations to lunch or coffee, and to get out and start making connections with their senior colleagues.  No, it’s not the primary responsibility of junior scholars to reach out to their seniors–but that might be the objective reality for many, as it was for her:

Unfortunately, most academic departments are far from perfect! So if you passively wait for others to initiate interaction, you are likely to be sitting in your office alone and isolated a great deal of the time. It is also the case that when you don’t extend yourself, others may negatively perceive you as aloof, disengaged, or un-collegial. Most importantly, you may be missing out on important relationships, access to critical networks, professional opportunities, and the mentoring you need to thrive.

To be clear, new faculty members should not be single-handedly responsible for initiating relationships and integrating themselves into their new departments. But this is often the reality, especially for women in mostly male departments, and faculty of color in predominantly white departments. If this is your situation, you cannot sit back and reactively wait for senior faculty (who will be voting on your tenure and promotion) to reach out to you and include you in their networks and activities. Instead, your goal should be to proactively initiate relationships with your senior colleagues so that you are spending time each week discussing research and teaching with them.

This is good advice.  (It’s worth a shot, anyway–it probably can’t hurt, and it will probably help you.)  Appearing to be the cheerful worker bee that you probably are won’t work with everyone.  But it’s good to remember that if you feel your colleagues are isolating you or intentionally excluding you, it’s not really about you–it’s about them.  It’s about their social awkwardness, their insecurities, their busy schedules (since they’re the ones doing the vast majority of the service work, on top of the same research and teaching you’re doing), and/or their obliviousness.  Extend the hand of collegiality, and you’ll probably be warmly received.

If it’s not, there are a number of things you should consider.  First of all, look for allies outside of your department, since they too can be crucial channels of information, advice, and sources of personal and professional support.  (This is easier if you’re attached to or associated with an interdisciplinary program or department such as Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, or International Studies –but it’s not impossible to forge collegial friendships with others whose research interests are aligned with yours.)  Next, be sure to cultivate allies in your field outside of your institution, since they also can be valuable sources of information and support.  Once you’re more than a few years out of graduate school, you really should find other senior scholars who can write letters on your behalf, because dossiers that include only letters from faculty at your graduate institution are less impressive than letters from people who have absolutely no personal or professional stake in your success.  Their endorsement might prove critical if you’re going to follow my third piece of advice, which is to buff up your cover letter and C.V. and look for jobs elsewhere.

Applying for other jobs is not an option for everyone, depending on hir personal and financial situation, and everyone has to make up hir own mind about whether relocation is worth it.  But, there are some circumstances in which it may be unavoidable.  Ask yourself:  is this a work environment in which you can thrive professionally and be the scholar and teacher you want to be?  Or is this an environment that will suck every ounce of optimism and joy out of you and turn you into a bitter, alcoholic and/or drug-addled wretch?  (Rarely is the choice that stark, of course, but the embittered, alcoholic wraith-like version of your now-competent and cheerful self is something to keep in mind.)  You don’t have to be best friends with your colleagues, or even friends at all.  But you must be able to set your own course and meet your career goals if you’re going to be satisfied with your professional life.  Look around and ask yourself two questions:  are there any careers in your department worthy of emulation?  And, are you being treated with respect as a competent professional?  If the answer is “no,” to both questions, then get ready to make your move.

What do you think, friends?  If you resigned from a job, what was your calculation?  How have others of you made peace with a less-than-ideal job, and make it work for you?

0 thoughts on “Practicing collegiality, and what to do when it's not returned

  1. To answer your last question first, Historiann–I did resign from a TT-job and did so in part on the calculation that I could see the future in my old position: the same round of classes and colleagues and institutional anxieties, repeated endlessly. I now cannot see all of the future and while that brings its own discomforts, at least boredom is not one of them!

    I would second or complexify your advice to junior faculty by noting that the problems of establishing collegial relationships with faculty are compounded when one is not on the tenure track: at both the institutional level and the personal level, I have not always felt that folks in adjunct positions are perceived as “colleagues” by TT-types. And “reaching out” (or “reaching up”) seems an even harder trick from the adjunct spot than from the junior faculty spot: being an adjunct, I fear, feels like being in the servant class: everyone’s glad adjuncts teach the classes they do, but “they” are not like “us.”

    I do like the advice to make friends in other departments: many of my best academic friends are historians: friends in other departments can be on our side without also being forced to take sides by having a vote. That makes a real difference.


  2. Tom: great points. You’ve hit on another reason to seek friends outside of your department: they can be a neutral sounding-board in ways that departmental colleagues cannot. They understand your work environment and can just be a friend and support you.

    I think the reasons many regular faculty distance themselves from adjuncts are complex. In my department, there are no formal (or even informal) meetings that include both groups–our faculty meetings are regular-faculty only. (This has not been the case in other departments I’ve served in.) But, I also think that many regular faculty suffer from acute status anxiety, and want to keep their distance from the adjuncts, as if that’s a meaningful difference to anyone outside of our particular Wonderland among workplaces.

    To me, it’s stupid. Two of our adjuncts at Baa Ram U. got tenure-track jobs last year, one of them in a department that outranks ours (it has a solid Ph.D. program.) My basic philosophy is that more friends are better than fewer friends.


  3. It will be interesting to see what will happen now that more and more hires are not tenure track. Will increased usage of non-tenure and adjuncts change the often strained relationships they have with TT folks?


  4. Another good tip for new t-t faculty (perhaps not in the first year) is that signing on for service work both within the department and in the university is a great way of meeting colleagues, figuring out the lay of the land, and finding a niche for yourself. I feel like I never quite get how my department functions until I’ve sat on a committee (department meetings provide tantalizing glimpses, but I think one needs to be behind the scenes).

    Struggling to gain the attention of senior colleagues at a new job can be disheartening indeed – especially considering it might take you a while to learn everybody’s names, depending on the size of the department. I’ve been in two depts, one very friendly and welcoming (an almost oppressive round of dinners and lunches) and one very cool (people don’t really lunch or chat, it’s much bigger and more impersonal, harder to fit in).

    I’ve never taught at a dept with a permanent underclass of adjuncts (by which I mean people who are hired year after year after year) – mostly one year appointments, as adjuncts or visitors. It’s true that these folks are very often ignored. I always chalked it up to the T-T faculty not wanting to invest in someone who is leaving right away. My partner and I have been on both sides of this, so now that we’re t-t we work hard to make the “temps” welcome, especially if they’re single.


  5. Sic Semper Tyrannis–I think the tensions are there precisely because temps/adjuncts are more numerous. I taught in two departments as a full-time but non-tenure track lecturer. In one department I was one of two lecturers, and in the other I was the only full-time non tenure-track person (but I think there were a few other adjuncts who were true adjuncts–they taught just one class at a time, on loan from another department or program.) Both departments were welcoming of me, and in one department I even attended faculty meetings. I look back on that and think that I was treated equally because I was in departments that weren’t adjunctified.

    A friend of mine at Baa Ram U. is very involved in our Adjunct Council. She says it’s difficult to get our adjuncts together–they don’t all want to identify as adjuncts and bond together for a common purpose. So, just as there is a divide in many departments between regular and adjunct faculty, both of those factions may in fact be highly subdivided.

    perpetua: Good point about the size of departments making for different departmental moods. Larger faculties tend to let people spin on their own, for good or for ill. Smaller faculties might appear warmer and more welcoming–but there may be a price for all that intimacy. (As in, buttinskyism in your career, etc.)


  6. I’m aware that the local culture here is not very sociable, so it’s my job to start creating that community. People are stretched so much, though, it’s not personal. Still, I was astonished that in my first semester, one person invited us for a meal.

    As for the rest, I think status anxiety may contribute to the lack of outreach to adjuncts, but so does time. Many faculty lead complicated lives, with teaching, service, and families. I’ve noticed as I get older that establishing relationships becomes more difficult, just because people already have full lives and you have to squeeze in. So a few stories from my history:
    When I finished my Ph.D., I had a 2 year post doc at a major university. One of the senior people there told me that when he and some of the others had arrived as “young turks” 10+ years before, they thought the senior people were not sociable. Now they were senior, and he realized that *they* were not sociable.

    After I was denied tenure at SLAC, I stayed in touch with several colleagues (in other fields). One of them said to me that after I was denied tenure, she didn’t want to become friends with any more junior people because it was too hard.

    So there’s also the sense of transience, that makes developing relationships with adjuncts, lecturers, etc. more tiring. So I think people do it, but occasionally rather than usually.


  7. Taking on service assignment outs your professional in risks and we try to delay it as much as possible. Departments themselves and their chairs can help out by assigning mentors, inviting people for lunch, have departmental gathering, etc. In a society where communities are not common place, special arrangement can be made.


  8. @ koshem – the conventional wisdom in most departments is to protect junior faculty from service obligations. While I agree with these efforts, it’s not always feasible. In addition, people have different response to service work. I never found it especially onerous (and even sat on a search committee as a 2nd year faculty member) – it tends to cluster work at certain times of year and then let up. It depends very much on the committee, of course. But I have always been happy to do (some) service work, and found it a really helpful way of meeting colleagues and understanding my new department(s) better.


  9. Another blogger coined the phrase, “Be like the colleague you want rather than the colleagues that you have.” I think that is generally good advice and can go a long way to changing institutional culture (Rather than getting into the trap of “everybody else is out for number 1, so I should be too!”).

    As you and I have discussed many times, I think that hostile departments thrive on the expectation that it would be “impossible” for people to leave. It is tough to find other academic appointments (now more than ever!) and it might take a couple of years; however, it is well worth the effort if the environment is toxic.


  10. These are all great comments that got me thinking about how I’ve found myself fitting into different teaching situations. In both cases (as an adjunct and on tenure track) it was surely myself who did all of the initiating.

    If an adjunct wants to reach up (as I did), having an active research agenda and cannot but help. But in all cases, it pays to show an interest in those around you. Too many beginning assistants (and job candidates) arrive like movie-stars on Oscar night – expecting all eyes to be on them at all times. It’s hard to keep a conversation going when interest is not reciprocated, and the truth is that when you get to a new department, most everyone there is already as networked as s/he wants to be. (People with kids are even more enmeshed in their school-communities, making such connections harder yet to forge.) If you want to know your colleagues better, make the invitations yourself – knock on doors, send e-mails, and ask questions. Listen to what’s being said and ask follow-up questions, since the all-purpose “how’s your work going?” may not get you very far. Showing an interest in the lives and work of those you’d like to have as friends and mentors is not kissing up; it’s the art of conversation – and connection-making.


  11. Jacqueline–welcome. And, very well said: “Showing an interest in the lives and work of those you’d like to have as friends and mentors is not kissing up; it’s the art of conversation – and connection-making.” I’m glad it worked for you!

    Because adjuncts may or may not be around most days and may or may not be teaching at multiple colleges, the regular faculty may not know their schedules and routines. Striking up a hallway conversation is a perfectly fine way to indicate that you’re interested in a collegial relationship.


  12. You offer great advice. Perhaps you have thoughts on this question: What if a tt asst prof. were to leave their post after their first year? Can one resign a TT position within a year (especially for a “more prestigious” school) without ruining their relationships with their colleagues? Is moving quickly considered okay within the field at large or can it damage your professional reputation?


  13. onlooker: let’s throw your question out to the knowledgeable masses of people who read this blog. I think you ask a great question–in the end, we can’t control how people think or react, but there may be some strategies for avoiding jerkitude.


  14. Pingback: Resigning without regrets : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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