The wrong moves for faculty

At the start of the academic year, it has now become almost de rigeur to write blog entries/listicles to students about how to communicate with faculty. This comes out of painful experience by those who have had critical emails from students diverted to spam because students used spammish subject lines such as “Hey!” or “Critical question” or because they emailed faculty from personal accounts such as Sometimes, faculty also join in on the “probably not the best rhetorical move” game, and so here is a short list of ineffective communication moves, and more effective alternatives.

  1.  My tenure denial was a miscarriage of justice along the lines of Ethel Rosenberg’s execution. I’m starting with the hardest one for many faculty for a reason. There are wrongful tenure denials every year, and I hope the phrasing above explains why the worst miscarriage of justice posture is not going to work for most faculty denied tenure.1 And your time is likely better devoted to other efforts. If you have an appeal process, you have the right to use it, of course. Even if you have a grievable/appealable case, your energy is likely to be much more effectively spent on getting a new job. In my union work, I’ve come around to this position because I have seen faculty being denied tenure or given notice of nonreappointment go out, hustle, and get job offers within weeks; and unfortunately, I have also seen good colleagues fritter away the terminal appointment year trying to fight a lost cause. The best demonstration to your administration that your tenure denial was stupid is to be offered a great job by someone else. Alternative moves: What information about my case can help you prevent this from happening to others? and, of course, for yourself, Would you be willing to serve as a reference for me / look over some draft cover letters? 
  2. My friend’s tenure denial three years ago was a miscarriage of justice you must reverse. Alternative versions have the same rhetorical structure: We had five retirements in my department in the last three years, and none were replaced. Or Fifteen years ago this university had its ass sued in federal court for [X], and you better not be continuing that pattern. I’m an historian; I find the past valuable. But I don’t think woes going back to the Flood is a useful metanarrative at a college or university. Especially with new administrators or with budget cuts, the lamentation narrative is going to be almost universal. Assume that everyone around you has an equally valid lamentation story. So why should your listener respond more to your lamentation than to others? Alternative moves focus on payoffs for action: Here’s how our college/university can move forward: or This program/department benefits the entire college/university by… or Here’s the value to students of hiring several more faculty in our program.
  3. Academic freedom is nonexistent because all of my department/college colleagues are members of the [party/clan/caucus label here]. The problem with this stance is not that groupthink is nonexistent. Of course it exists in many places and in many forms. The problem is that this claim confuses a dysfunctional norm/culture with an academic freedom issue (political or institutional pressures to restrict what faculty can research, teach, or say in public). When every member of a philosophy department is from the analytical tradition and all courses are taught entirely in that vein, the basic issue is the narrowness of disciplinary perspectives. Calling it a violation of academic freedom may be true for a specific event (say, denying tenure to someone not in the analytical tradition), but the fundamental problem is much broader than whatever you could identify as an academic-freedom violation. Pretend for a moment that history were different, and the particular incident you think is a violation of academic freedom didn’t occur. Would there still be a problem? Then address the core issue, not the symptom. Alternative moves: Are we denying our students an important perspective in the curriculum? Are we missing an opportunity by not considering [X]?
  4. Students need to be shown the dirty laundry because they are adults and need to know that education is political. In my experience undergrad and graduate students generally see dirty laundry for themselves clearly enough, and they don’t think highly of faculty who try to involve them in departmental politics. If they witness internecine warfare, they are likely to see it as a basic violation of an educational social compact: put the needs of students above your own ego or your ego’s extensions. And if by any chance students protest what they independently see as a problem, your involvement will undercut their voice. A young adult friend of mine at another institution had a particularly ugly conflict show itself in front of sophomores. And in the end, the institution’s provost had to meet with students, apologize for the sophomoric behavior of a few faculty, and try to figure out how not to lose students who should have been majors in the subject. Bottom line: dragging students into internecine struggle is usually malpractice. Alternative move: Wait for students to raise the subject. If students ask, first give them information that does not violate confidentiality, explain institutional procedures, and let them protest or voice their concerns on their own. If you are a department chair and can anticipate their concerns, you have an obligation and the authority to give them factual information about evolving circumstances and then be available for an open meeting/office hours to answer questions. If they ask your opinion after you give them factual information, then you can explain your concerns, you can write on your own blog (where interested students might come across it), etc. But for goodness sake, don’t lead with your ego, and the general rule is, the closer the conflict is to the classroom (and away from the level of the institution), the more you should hesitate to be the one to open the conversation.
  5. Let’s be silent and hope no one notices. It’s also wrong to keep quiet about what you see that’s wrong. No, that is not a contradiction with what I just wrote: the judgment call is in where, how, and when you raise your voice. If you are a mandated reporter for any issue (harassment, misconduct, etc.), then you’re (relatively) lucky: there should be a prescribed process and contact point. For all other issues, there are plenty of books and other sources to help you wade through difficult conversations, and the key in conversations with those who share your views is to talk through multiple alternatives for how to raise issues. Avoid going with the first suggestion (“let’s write our accreditor and complain!”); walk through multiple options, pass drafts of anything written back and forth, and slowly expand the circle of people who know you might speak up. In most cases, academic problems and even crises evolve over the medium and long term. There is time to decide on tactics, and sometimes even strategies.
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  1. One exception in terms of moving on is being denied tenure or fire when harassment is involved; see a more recent column by Matt Reed for one example. []