F.U. resignation op-eds and speeches: dy-no-MITE!

Everyone is talking about Greg Smith’s buh-bye to his former employer, Goldman Sachs, which was published in the New York Times on Wednesday.  Here’s a little flava, for those of you who have been in the wilderness this week without internet or cable teevee:

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

Of course, some people are calling him naive, self-serving, and grandiose–the usual attack-the-messenger allegations of character flaws that are unfurled when people don’t like his message.  Maybe he is naive, self-serving, and grandiose–who cares, if he’s telling the truth?

Have any of you ever engaged in a public resignation of this kind?  Have you ever written a F.U. letter to a former employer, or given a speech on your way out the door?  I did it once–as it happens, almost exactly 11 years ago, when I resigned my first tenure-track job.  At the last faculty meeting I attended, I told them that it was evident they had no meaningful commitment to tenuring anyone in a line that had been open from 1984 to 2001.  I documented exactly how poorly I had been treated by the current department chair, and then I put a copy of my speech in everybody’s mailbox so they couldn’t misrepresent what I had said on my way out the door. 

Of course in the minds of those who were invested in disciplining and diminishing me, this just confirmed that I was a crazy b!tch–just like the four other crazy b!tches who had resigned from the line before me or who had been denied tenure.  But the problem with that department is that it operated like an alcoholic family, with no one ever acknowledging publicly or talking out loud about the abuse that was plainly evident.  I was always being counseled by my allies not to offend, not to piss anyone off by questioning their unprofessional and uncollegial behavior–I was told, “you’ll get tenure.  You’ll be O.K.”  But that wasn’t good enough for me.  Why would I want to be tenured through an abusive process in an abusive department?  And I was safe:  I had signed my contract with Baa Ram U., so I thought I might as well go out with a bang.

I remain a little amazed at my brazenness at age 32.  Would I do it again?  I don’t know.  Middle age has made me more cynical and more cautious, I suppose:  I’m not sure that F.U. speeches make any positive difference, and why should I spend my breath on a work environment that isn’t my problem any longer?  But I’m glad I said what I said.  I’m glad that I wasn’t the only pissed off person when I left that room.  That was my only realistic goal, and it was good enough for me.

Have you ever done something like this?  Have you ever been a witness to it?  What was the result?

37 thoughts on “F.U. resignation op-eds and speeches: dy-no-MITE!

  1. I have a story. But I don’t have tenure, so I won’t be sharing it. Let’s all take a moment to think about that.

    But I’m so very aware of how many departments, even entire colleges and universities, operate as a giant, dysfunctional, alcoholic family. And I really wonder how this happens. We see very clearly the hazing and forms of abuse that happen among our students. Why not among ourselves?


  2. We see very clearly the hazing and forms of abuse that happen among our students. Why not among ourselves?

    I think tenured people see it, but I think that many choose to look the other way when it’s not our ox that’s being gored. Others may not intervene or raise questions because they may be the damaged survivors of a brutal tenure process, and they may not have the energy or the appetite to fight it. (They may also have internalized the damage and have come to see themselves as unimportant or uninfluential, and so they don’t own their own power once tenured.)

    At least, that’s what I observed in my former department. I had allies who did their best by me, but because many of them were damaged by the same process, they were overly cautious and chose to behave like the alcoholic’s obedient children who don’t ask questions and try to cover up for the bad behavior.


  3. Let us start by recognizing that telling the truth is something rarely done in any setting. But if you think you’d like to tellt the truth though, instead of keeping your mouth shut (a viable option and better than outright lying or dissembling), you should carefully evaluate three things before going public: 1) Is it really The Truth in some objective way? 2) What will the fallout be from telling the truth? 3) And am I willing to accept the fallout when the hammer comes down on me?

    Careful, though, because if you think about this long enough you’ll eventually figure out that telling the truth is the only thing that matters. Ever. The only negotiable item is timing. Silence = Death was, I thought, one of the best slogans ever. Its truth pertains to more than AIDS.


  4. I wouldn’t describe my department as an abusive alcoholic family, but there is a certain shall we say old-fashioned culture here in terms of its lack of transparency and lack of inclusiveness. Sometimes the tenured folks sit around and wring hands, saying How oh how can we change things? I’m untenured, and thus silent during these moments. Once and a while someone will ask for my advice on how to create a more inclusive environment for untenured faculty. I tend to give guarded answers, but what I want to say is BE KIND. It’s not rocket science. Make an effort. Don’t leave them alone and isolated and miserable for semester after semester trying to find their own way.

    I think for some departments, especially those that have had a lot of unhealthiness in their past, the middle career folks came of age (so to speak) within the dysfunctional culture, and they had to adapt to it. They’re not inherently dysfunctional folks, but they don’t see to what degree they’ve been compromised, or altered, by their acculturation (on the contrary, they’re clear in their own minds how they are not the bad Old Guard, even as they replicate many of the systems of the Old Guard).


  5. Urban Exile writes, “Is it really The Truth in some objective way?”

    Even historians doubt the existence of metaphysical Truth with a Capital T, but I think people can speak truthfully about their own experiences and observations. I think healthy institutional cultures not only tolerate but welcome it.

    Perpetua makes good points about the Associate Froggies in the gradually warming water: they may not know it, but some of them have already boiled.


  6. Urban Exile’s three questions are important. As a student and sometimes practitioner of civil disobedience, I understand also that willingness to accept the consequences of such actions is what gives them power.

    Some people put more on the line than others. What I see in Greg Smith is a rich member of a privileged group who will continue to be rich even after he’s pissed off some other rich white dudes. Former Citigroup chairman Jim Reed is another one in this class. I listened to his heartfelt conversation with Bill Moyers about bringing down the Banking Reform of 1933 because I thought I needed to hear it, but it made me want to puke.

    Plenty of bloodied and bruised people keep on fighting for what is right. That’s how change is made. I think tenured faculty tend not to stand up and speak out because they don’t have to.

    With head uncovered swear we all
    To bear it onward till we fall;
    Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
    This song shall be our parting hymn.


  7. “I think tenured faculty tend not to stand up and speak out because they don’t have to.”

    That is a shrewd observation, truffula, but don’t you think it’s short-sighted? (I think you’re enough of a fighter and enough of an optimist to agree with me on this!)

    Tenured faculty can’t change the behavior of other tenured faculty, but they can 1) band together to marginalize the jerks and troublemakers, and 2) after Perpetua above, BE KIND to the untenured. I can say that I’ve seen #1 strategy work even to the point where some people have modified their behavior. I can’t claim a clear cause-and-effect relationship, but because the results work better for all of us, I don’t care so much about the whys and wherefores.

    (And of course #2 is worth doing just because it’s the right thing to do.)


  8. I have a lot of sympathy for Historiann’s choice, and for Smith’s if comes to that. (The ad hominem arguments against Smith are tacit admissions that he’s right about Goldman.)

    I think what would swing the balance for me would be whether such a resignation would influence future decisions; it’s not that I would expect that such a letter would make people do what I want, but I wouldn’t write it unless it could change the terms of future decisions.

    I think Smith’s letter matters because he made it public in ways that will, no matter what anyone says, alter things for Goldman Sachs … maybe not much, but more than anything else Smith himself could have done. Clients and potential clients read that letter. Competitors and regulators read that letter. That means that on some level, Goldman Sachs will have to deal with it. Stakeholders outside the company can say they paid the letter no attention and still factor it into their calculations. That’s what I would do in their shoes.

    If I were to write an angry resignation letter, my goal would not be to change the mind of the parties who had angered me (since my anger would only make them dig into their positions), but to make my complaints visible to other stake-holders who might put pressure on those parties’ behavior.

    If my dysfunctional department couldn’t keep a line filled because it mistreated everyone it hired, I’d want that charge to get to the deans, so they could judge the department’s future behavior against that narrative. My hope wouldn’t be that the department chair would suddenly change heart, or that the dean would call the chair onto the carpet after reading my letter. My goal would be that the chair would have to beware taking further actions that seemed to confirm my charge, and want to avoid losing the next person hired for that line.


  9. I wrote a few letters like this when I was very young; I haven’t written one since I was 22. That last one–about a problematic situation at a summer job–was probably the most successful one I’ve ever written in terms of active response/change from the higher-ups, in that I got the bullying colleague off my back for the remainder of the summer. However, I do know said colleague is still at that organization, many years later–and presumably still bullying the summer students. Since then I haven’t bothered, as I’ve developed much more cynicism about their effectiveness, or indeed the effectiveness of any kind of resistance to institutional norms from the people at the bottom of the pyramid.

    I think Urban Exile’s comment about consequences is key when deciding whether or not to take this kind of stand, though I would go further and say that the problem isn’t just consequences, but often a willingness to burn bridges (which often means leaving the situation and/or profession you’re complaining about–an especially keen problem in a reputation-driven profession like academia), which is much easier when you have another situation already set up (as you did, Historiann). I’m also skeptical about what kind of impact letters like this have unless they’re written by someone who has some serious authority, as it’s easy to write off subordinates as disgruntled. Even if I have a few letters like this that I’d love to write (and, er, I do), is there any point if a) the consequences just rebound on me, AND b) they have no effect?

    Or, to put it in a more light-hearted way, do we all want to be Jerry Maguire?


  10. That is a shrewd observation, truffula, but don’t you think it’s short-sighted?

    I agree 100% that faculty should get busy but I think you don’t read me cynically enough. IMHO, we are not busy organizing and strategizing about how and when to storm the barricades because we don’t have to. Our jobs may suck but they are not literally killing us and we either don’t care enough about anybody else to get involved or we have a self-preservation minded reason to not get involved.

    I’ve had my share of dust-ups with administrators and I’m sure I will continue to do so until the day I retire. All I’ve got going for me in this, really, is that I lay my principles bare for inspection, I self-check, and I acknowledge when I am in error. My best routines are strict adherence to (my reading of) the rules and righteous indignation, neither of which work if your principles are malleable or unclear. I’m working on new performances. I know a former department head who had great success with a dumb-bunny kind of “you’re going to have to explain that to me again because what I heard you just say didn’t square with that other thing you said” routine but I don’t think I could pull that off.


  11. I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of how do individuals contribute to social change. And I have came to the conclusion that we need to own our power. I think quite a lot of the time speaking out at everyday injustices, or being kind, or refusing to participate in ‘bad’ behaviour actually comes at relatively low cost. Recognise that you are part of your department’s culture too, and ask yourself do you really want to be there if it makes you toxic too? So, how I think this would work in practice is that when you encounter situations where you have the opportunity to have a say, make sure you do; when people treat people badly and you’re in a position to say or act, do it; and when you have some power yourself make sure you own it. (This is not to say you should put yourself in danger – and you get to decide what that means – but maybe be willing to take a bit of discomfort).

    I don’t think that’s necessarily easy, nor will be it risk free, but what’s the point of worrying about the world’s wrongs if you aren’t prepared to stand up for what you believe.

    So yes, we should all be Jerry Maguire!


  12. As I was leaving my last job (new offer in hand) the department was going through an external evaluation. I spoke the truth in front of the department and the evaluators. The fallout was significant, but I do not regret it in any way. My sense is that the shake-up that resulted was good for the department, and for the administration that also deserved much of the blame. It wasn’t really cathartic because it was so painful. But I’m not sorry.


  13. As in most discussions, I find this one skirting issues and presenting them in a fake intellectual attire. My family, me and two kids, are faculty in known or very well known schools. My wife brings in two more academics, married couple, in well know university.

    Universities, by and large, are highly dysfunctional frequently resembling a communist bureaucracy. You can talk until you blue in the face; they don’t understand you, resist changes, are abusive and, like all powerful organization hate democracy.

    I always speak my mind. It makes absolutely no difference. If I prevail it’s due to a coalition that supports me. I did resign a lucrative consulting job because I didn’t like the atmosphere. Resigning my tenured job doesn’t make sense: it wont change anything and the next school will be dysfunctional too.

    Finally, you don’t have to be right, correct or speak the truth. All one asks for is an open mind and listening; perfection and your two pennies are strangers.


  14. But ultimately institutions are made up of people. It’s the collective choices that people make in those institutions day in and day out that determine what happens in them. But nobody is willing to own that, even at the top they blame the stubbornness of those below for not being able to change. And I say, fuck that, be the change you want to see, and try to encourage others to do so as well. And while there are lots of things, depts have no control over, they are a lot more autonomous than many organisations and so depts do have some control over their own culture.


  15. Widgeon: what did you say? Why was it painful? I’m sorry that it wasn’t cathartic.

    I’m not *yet* as cynical as koshembos. I agree overall with his suspicion that universities are bureaucracies that are largely similar all over, but I disagree that every work environment is the same. After the budget, equipment, and human resources are dispensed, working conditions are usually determined at the department or unit level, not by the faceless bureaucratic maw at the top. IOW, individuals have authority, power, and influence to make a work environment happier or more miserable; fuctional or dysfunctional.

    Finally, Feminist Avatar sums it up for me exactly: own your power. What is the point of tenure if you’re not going to use it?


  16. Isn’t blaming everything on “they” a little to easy, koshembos? Even blindingly brilliant faculty at very well known schools ought to be able to figure that out. The institution is the people. Owning your power is important, so is owning your failures.


  17. I’ve never done anything like this, I don’t think. I definitely have challenged (what I perceive) as injustice, and I do it very directly, but I tend to do it in a one-on-one sort of a way with somebody who has the power to do something about it. Sometimes it ends up going my way (I’d say maybe 60-70 percent of the time), and other times I end up having to apologize in order to keep the peace. And when I’ve been in a position to need to apologize, I do it whether it’s genuine or not (in other words, I lie when it’s expedient), because I want to live to fight another day. In my heart, I fear that I’m too much of a politician, at the end of the day. I don’t know if this is a “good” quality (I’m pretty sure it’s not), but it is one that helps me to get things done.

    I can’t talk about specifics, but a colleague of mine (in another department) did a “speaking truth to power” thing recently, which involved a speech to zie’s department as well as going to the campus newspaper. I’m pretty sure that the only outcome of this is that zie spent whatever political capital zie had on campus but that no positive change will come out of it, other than that the person gets to feel superior for having spoken truth to power. A similar situation happened a couple of years ago with another colleague, and again, nothing was achieved by it. With these examples (and some others) in mind, I’m not sure I see the point of such displays, other than to make the person doing the displaying feel better. Because it sure doesn’t make institutional change happen.

    With all of that being said, I’m also not as cynical as Koshembos. Yes, change happens if a person can speak his or her truth but can also form coalitions of allies to support that. Why exactly is that sort of organizing a bad thing? I’d much rather work with people and have people on my side in order to get things done than grandstand as a Speaker of Truth without a coalition and get nothing done.

    Again, in my heart I’m a utilitarian, political wheeler and dealer. I don’t like it about myself, but I do like the results I get because of it.


  18. I admire what you did, Historiann – and I know of a couple of other female scholars who went the other route: waited until the day after tenure was awarded and then gave it to the departmental bullies and jerks with both barrels. They saw it as their chance to change the system from within. But some places are not going to change, you presumably made the best choice in leaving.

    Regarding why tenured and otherwise senior folk don’t speak out about the misbehaviour of their colleagues: do not underestimate people’s desire for a quiet life. I’ve seen this in a number of institutions – some faculty members, in common with other human beings, just DO NOT WANT TO KNOW what problems are going on for other people.

    Btw, thanks for joining the discussion over at my blog – the advice is interesting and helpful.


  19. Ok, maybe it was a little cathartic. I mostly discussed the lack of support for junior colleagues, and I called out a senior male member of the faculty on his atrocious behavior. Other senior faculty thanked me later, with no real recognition that they were the ones who needed to do this. But I think Katrina is exactly right, most senior folk desire a “quiet life.” Confrontation is too difficult for them. Unfortunately it’s often the most vulnerable members of the department who pay for this cowardice.


  20. Dr. Crazy: I wonder if you can really know the effects yet of your colleague’s public dressing-down of hir department & publicizing of issues in the student paper. No one expects change to happen immediately–at least not anyone familiar with how very conservative and bureaucratic universities are. You may be right in that it will end up marginalizing hir, but it may be just the beginning of more people speaking up.

    Katrina: I should say here clearly that I don’t think of what I did as particularly courageous: I was resigning and had another job, after all. The more courageous thing would have been to stick around for the fallout, I suppose!

    The case you describe of people waiting for the tenure vote to unleash 6 years of frustration also doesn’t strike me as the most productive way to go about seeking change–and I’m assuming that if they were tenured, they would be more interested in effecting change than in just calling people out. Here’s where Dr. Crazy’s approach is smart: seek out allies who also want to make changes, and suck it up when you have to.

    But when you don’t have to suck it up, and like widgeon you are leaving for greener pastures, letting people know exactly why you’re leaving can be a useful and instructive example. (And what do you care what they say about you any more? They’ll say horrible things about you anyway whether or not you tell them where to stick it.)

    I agree that most tenured proffies want to lead quiet lives. I sympathize with that impulse–I like my quiet life, too. But confronting smaller problems and speaking up when someone else is being slagged is sooooo much easier and more conducive to a quiet life in the end than is ignoring small injustices until they add up into big problems for everyone.


  21. I resigned from a dysfunctional department, giving a year’s notice because I owed the College some sabbatical time. I had been bullied for over a decade. Two chairpersons had been harried and then ousted by the same married couple who made my and other faculty members’ lives awful. Their very parochial views about the discipline and profession were the only legitimate views, and they acted in such a way to sway graduate students of those views, so much so that they had the majority of thesis and doctoral students. In my thirteen years in said department, I saw many junior people leave the department. To a person they cited this couple’s behavior, among other issues, as a reason for their leavetaking. All the people who left were women, people of color, or foreign born.

    I didn’t note all this in my resignation letter. After the newly installed chair raked me over the coals after he didn’t like the advice for which he had asked me, and after a meeting with the fifth dean our college had in 13 years, I realized that it wasn’t worth staying. I had been elected to direct a program, but the dean hadn’t even bothered to tell me he had chosen someone else–based, in part, with having discussed all this with one of the bullies.

    I had a lot I could say, but all I stated in my letter is that I was resigning. The new chair, at his first faculty meeting of the academic year, passed it around. (I wasn’t there. After one of the bullying couple threatened me in a faculty meeting, I refrained from attending any more.) I thought this action odd, but then I realized that the bullies and the “quiet” faculty may just have wanted to take the letter in their hands as some sort of ritual.

    What I found is that I subsequently didn’t have to worry about the consequences of my actions. I had, even when tenure-track, took on ethical issues of my tenured colleagues when they affected tenure-track and senior colleagues. (The bullying couple, for example, tried to demote from graduate faculty status the persons they had forced to resign from committee and departmental chairs–persons who had carried on administrative duties the bullies didn’t want to take on. What was considered professional review was just an opportunity to be punitive.) The one excellent dean and several excellent assistant provosts always sided with me; the crappy interim deans made matters worse.

    This larger context beyond the department is important to know if you are going to fight the good fight to change departmental culture. I had a union to protect me from administrators, but deans and others higher up the ladder protect you from awful colleagues.

    After my letter, I could spend the year enjoying my students, defending threatened colleagues, and pointing out how the department was destroying itself through the persecution of individuals–all at the instigation of the bullying couple. And the bullies couldn’t do anything to me because I no longer played into their power game.

    It’s been several years since I’ve left. I’ve been able to scrape by as I shift professional gears–bad timing to resign right before the Great Recession began. And folks don’t want to hire someone who left a tenured job. Yet I’ve never regretted leaving (though my bank account does). I was not surprised to learn from former colleagues that the department’s recent external review was troubled by departmental culture, the decreasing size of the department, and the lack of faculty scholarship and grant writing. The committee recommended shuttering the doctoral program or reducing it to one field. My line was shifted to another historical field, one that did not at all help the department’s strengths. Another form of retaliation when personal politics trump professionalism.

    H’ann, I would have loved to have been in the room when you fired those salvos.


  22. I don’t have tenure, so I won’t say very much about my own experience(s), except for this: it’s become very clear to me what the down-side of tenure is. When a tenured person is bullying a junior colleague or otherwise behaving in a threatening or even unprofessional manner, there is no downside for that person. This is especially true at private institutions, I think. Yes, those people can be marginalized in certain ways, but they are never going to be institutionally or professionally responsible for changing their behavior(s). The only thing I’ve figured out to do is to smile and ask for another bowl, and remember that my real life happens elsewhere. But it’s not great for creating departmental, divisional, or institutional culture; for creating an environment in which un-tenured faculty feel good about coming to work; or for creating an ethos in which un-tenured faculty can feel positive about the prospect of staying at an institution for decades. I’m not opposed to tenure, and, indeed, I hope one day to have it. But I am very tired of the lack of professionalism that I see every day, and the fact that it seems like nothing can be done to make things better for the most precarious members of the institution.


  23. History Maven: you make a really interesting case for a long-term resignation calendar. I’m sure you were freed from a lot of the problems with that job by giving notice.

    Your comment, and The Alchemist’s comment, bring up the phenomenon yet again of why it is that otherwise decent people permit the bullies to run departments. In my own experience, I felt that in many ways the people who *said* they were on my side but did nothing (or in fact as I learned, only egged on the bullies) were worse than the instigators.)

    The Alchemist (great blog name, BTW): I so relate to what you’re saying. I hope that you will see that tenure can be a force for good, but it’s really difficult to see from where you are now. I especially relate to your comments about unprofessionalism and the sense of hopelessness you feel.

    Nothing I can write here can really help you, but here’s something I’ve noticed in recent years and have started to think about more lately: a great deal of academic bullying has little if anything to do with the victim and everything to do with the insecurities and anxieties of the bully. Something I’ve seen and observed from both sides of the tenure divide is that the economics of the job market almost guarantee that we’re hiring Assistant Professors who in previous years would already have qualified for promotion to Associate in terms of their professional engagement and publications. And younger people who are fresh and optimistic and successful can be (foolishly, in my view) seen as “threats” by mid-career and older scholars who have made their beds professionally, so to speak. This means that 1) frustrated older scholars have only 5-6 years in which they officially outrank the Impressive Junior Scholar, and 2) bullying is usually a projection of older scholars’ insecurities, doubts, and anxieties about their own professional accomplishments and personal influence in their departments. This is why bullying tends to happen across the tenure divide.

    The good thing is that it usually ends when the junior scholar wins tenure. The bad thing is that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever the victim can do about it, because the victim can’t control or change the bullies’ behavior. IOW, it’s all about the bully.


  24. Interesting and I think accurate paragraph, Historiann, on mid-career insecurity and outward aggression. Not wholly appropos to the spirit of the post as a whole (I wrote a longer reflection yesterday on the F.U. letter I *didn’t* write, but it evaporated before I could hit “submit”): A senior colleague, who is now the dean of our emeriti corps and a very lighthouse for students who think professors read and think as well as teach, arrived in the department a looong generation ago with degree well in hand but not granted, and was appointed at the rank of (I think, I wasn’t there) Instructor. A few months later the degree was formally conferred and, not knowing what he was supposed to do then, he sent a copy of the letter to the U. president. A week later– in his second semester of teaching–he got a letter back promoting him to Associate Professor! Then we unionized and it became like more work than actually working just to deal with the process part–to say nothing of the substance part–of the ritual, and a years-long trek to advanced rank. That’s one way of not being bully-able, although I suppose it might raise a few hackles among the veteran staff who somehow neglected to haze!


  25. Wait, all of you are only just now realizing that the vast majority of academics are petty, small-minded, self-absorbed pricks? Down here in the trenches, we’ve been aware of this for a long time now.


  26. I wouldn’t say a majority, just a jerky minority are as you describe them. Please see the archives of this blog, Paul. It’s a perennial subject here.

    What are your “trenches,” anyway?


  27. I’d reverse it and say that the decent academics are a small minority. The majority veer either toward quiet indifference to outright prickishness. But even the decent ones are rarely going to get bloody to protect against miscarriages of justice, bullying, and the like. They may be willing to take a hit or two, maybe even get a bruise, but never bloody.

    My “trench” as it were is the adjunct trench, albeit periodically enlivened by an occasional VAP appointment. In either status, though, the one thing I’ve learned is that the tenured and tenure track folks are best avoided at all costs. Nothing good can come from making nice-nice with them. If one is an adjunct type who has their Ph.D., has published here and there, and generally comes across as knowledgeable and “up” on their field, (this would describe me) that person will not be welcomed by the tenured folk. Instead, they will be perceived as a threat – or perhaps a stark reminder that the hiring process is far from a meritocracy.

    And in a way it all gets worse when, as an adjunct, one teaches at the higher rungs of the curriculum – again, this is my circumstance. Generally, the FT folks are none too pleased to see an adjunct teaching a 200- or a 300-level class. I suspect the reason is that it explicitly defies the location into which the institutional imaginary places “adjuncts.”

    As contingent faculty, the one and only FT faculty member who is important to know and remain on their good side is the chair. And there are two essentially interconnected ways to do that: 1. get good evaluations; 2. never allow your name to come up in any capacity. I say essentially interconnected because one could get good evals but also become “popular” amongst the student population for teaching interesting classes. And that, as I learned the hard way, is the inevitable kiss of death. The chair may not be bothered, and in fact may continue to give you sections etc., but someone within the FT ranks is eventually going to take umbrage at your popularity and the fact that a “mere” adjunct/VAP is teaching “complex theoretical theme” effectively. And the chair will be powerless to halt that onslaught. In fact, in the end, if rank and file FT’ers make enough noise, the chair may be the one to throw you under the bus to protect their own position and clout amongst the rest of the faculty.

    I regard invisibility as a key political as well as career strategy.


  28. This is so timely. I just spent weeks on a battle in my department against The Cabal. This is a group of senior colleagues who vote en bloc with one another as a form of professional courtesy. I won, thank Frig, but it took about 100 hours of my life that I’ll never get back.

    Now, however, I am faced with a difficult decision. At one point, I considered filing an ethics grievance against one of The Cabal. I still believe that this person acted in truly shocking ways, with a complete lack of integrity and honesty. On the other had ultimately I won the battle, and blocked this person from attaining hir goal. So, the question is whether pursuing the ethics issue is still relevant.

    But I must say, this was a truly eye-opening experience. Some people will truly stop at nothing.


  29. My only version of this came courtesy of my last employer. My F.U. wasn’t any long diatribe (though that was certainly called for), but rather a one line rejection of a contract styled after the president’s one line rejection letter to tenure candidates. My version went something like “I write to inform you that I reject your contract offer for the upcoming academic year.” It felt good, but I don’t think they got the homage.


  30. I suffered through 15 years of bullying by my dept head and her full professor husband. I am still teaching (as is my husband in same dept). The current dept head is wonderful. Had I spoken out, I would not have received tenure.

    I spoke about the bullying in a number of conference presentations, but knew I would have to suck it up till the bullies retired.


  31. Thanks, Historiann (and others). I’ve certainly heard from others that a lot of the unprofessional or abusive behavior is often rooted in the more senior person’s insecurity. As I tend to operate on a model of repression/sublimation, I’ve found that a less-than-ideal situation at the office can be invigorating for one’s own writing and research–which can pay dividends in all kinds of ways.


  32. I’m sorry that I lost track of this thread this week–it’s been a pretty crazy week for me.

    Paul, I’m sorry that your VAP and adjuncting has been such a miserable experience. I can’t say that adjuncting is a great gig anywhere else, but I don’t *think* every environment is as petty and as retributive as the one you describe. You have to ask yourself if working in that kind of an environment is really worth it. And too, I wonder the toll your invisibility strategy (as necessary as it might be for you) will take on your longer-term employment prospects. My sense is that “invisibility” will probably not serve you well on the t-t job market.

    The Alchemist has the most optimistic and productive response to problematic work environments–but it’s one that not everyone can emulate. I don’t think I found my bad department “invigorating,” but I believe it surely motivated me to get the hell out. That was only the ultimate outcome, though–it also made me in the meantime depressed, insomniac, and a teeth-grinder. NOT good.

    frugalscholar’s response also seems productive, if also riskier in speaking about bullying in her department at conferences. It’s certainly a way to make allies and connections with people.

    And Squadrato: I want to hear MORE!


  33. I’m afraid it’s a fait accompli for me. And I gave up looking for tenure track years ago. I did try at point to get out of academe, but two things got in my way: due to the fact that I’d been in grad. school all those years, my only non-academic “professional” experience was all those bar tending jobs I held; the other was that I had hung around as a VAP/adjunct for too long, and the HR folks at the various places I submitted resumes didn’t really believe my claims that I wanted to make a “career change.” Basically, to the extent I got any job offers, they were for entry level office clerk type things at $30k. I’m too old to go back to having roommates and making $30k. And ironically enough, as an experienced adjunct, I can make over $50k a year – and I still rarely ever work more than 30 hours a week. (the point about experience has to do with knowing how to compose and conduct courses efficiently, stagger assignments, in writing courses do lots of in-class peer editing, which minimizes grading time, being creative enough to avoid too much prep by fitting the same set of, say, 15 to 20 texts/readings into different course contexts, etc.)

    As to the question of whether working in this environment is worth it, well, it’s worth $50k a year, which is pretty much how I look at it. That, and I do still get to teach. I have complete freedom, my typical load is 3 writing courses and 4 upper level classes, which makes things intellectually interesting, and all things being equal, the gig beats data entry. I also work weekends and some weeknights as a musician, which supplements the income streams.

    Over the years, I’ve managed to weave a musicological thread into my traditional academic discipline. The result is that I’ve managed to create my own little niche area of specialization. And while there’s really no clear place for my little specialty within an academic department, my course proposals always get approved and the classes are popular enough with students. Plus, I stay under the muckily mucks’ radar.

    Career academic types may be horrified (or offended) by this, but when all is said and done, I kind of treat academe simply as the day job – though as day jobs go, it’s pretty chill. It’s surely way better than being a cubicle jockey for 8 hours a day, and not even remotely as demanding.


  34. I hear you, Paul. I think you *are* a career academic, although you don’t enjoy the protections of tenure. And I think many people would be better off if they put boundaries around their work like you do.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.