Blogs > Cliopatria > Collegiality 102

Jan 4, 2006 9:15 pm

Collegiality 102

A few weeks ago, I responded to part one in a series of essays advocating an increased use of “collegiality” in training graduate students. In part two, out today in IHE, author Donald Hall, a professor of English at West Virginia and a specialist in specialist in British studies, queer theory, and cultural studies, takes his thesis to even more alarming degrees.

Collegiality was once bad, Hall recognizes: it “was long abused by retrograde forces in the academy — it was deployed to deny tenure to women, people of color, individuals working in identity political fields, and those who resisted harassment or attempted to change a culture of abuse. Sometimes it was referenced with less explicitly nefarious intent but with the same consequences, when departments simply did not understand the shifts that were occurring in the broader academy and reacted with incomprehension to still untenured agents of change within their own institutions.”

Now, apparently, that those “agents of change” rather than the “retrograde forces” are in charge of departments, threats from abusing collegiality no longer exists. As I discovered in my own tenure case, this proposition is absurd. Collegiality as a mechanism for evaluation cannot be divorced from subjectivity, and it therefore is always subject to abuse by dominant pedagogical forces. In the 1950s, as Hall notes, those forces were those intent on keeping women, people of color, or avowed leftists out of the academy. Now, of course, the dominant ideological forces within the academy are of a very different ideological complexion.

In my mind, the risk of abuse from using collegiality in any evaluative manner—either in personnel questions, “mentoring” sessions, or training graduate students—far exceeds any rewards that could be achieved from the process. There are, however, three other reasons to call into question Hall’s thesis. First, who exactly will be teaching graduate students collegiality, or mentoring untenured faculty about the principle? As Hall notes, he has encountered among tenured colleagues “brilliant thinkers and writers, who may even be competent teachers, but who also act abusively toward staff members and colleagues (to the point of ridiculing, barking or yelling, and sometimes even making thinly disguised threats). I have always been stunned when people have defended such ego-maniacal or ‘diva’-like behavior, inside or outside the academy. No amount of talent or even genius gives one the right to treat one’s fellow citizens as objects of scorn or as pin cushions for abuse . . . I do not care how famous someone is or how fabulous his or her writing may be, an ego-maniac should not be a member of a department community if she or he refuses to treat colleagues with respect.” So will some tenured faculty be “collegiality” teachers and mentors and others refused the privilege? Who will decide? What if a majority of tenured members of a department has engaged in behavior documented to be uncollegial? Won’t they then “mentor” or “train” the untenured or graduate students to be as uncollegial as they?

Second, Hall’s essay itself demonstrates the slippery slope down which the academy travels once it elevates collegiality to a prominent role in evaluating scholarship and teaching. Hall approvingly quotes Frank H.T. Rhodes, who complained that that Ph.D. training does little “to meet the fundamental needs and address the larger issues of contemporary society ... to foster research only coincidentally promotes citizenship that addresses the needs of society.” Of course, such an approach brings into the fore—as we’ve also seen in the “dispositions” debate—of how to define the “fundamental needs and . . . the larger issues of contemporary society,” or “citizenship that addresses the needs of society.” These are fundamentally political, not academic, concerns. Critics of affirmative action, pro-life activists, or supporters of Israel all believe that their policies address “the needs of society.” But somehow I doubt that Hall, Rhodes, or likeminded figures would agree. Graduate students or untenured faculty don’t need senior colleagues instructing or “mentoring” them on what the “needs of society” are. They’re intelligent enough to come to their own judgments on such matters.

Finally, Hall’s collegiality-plus approach envisions an academy very different than the ideal presented to me in graduate school. Stressing collegiality, Hall continues, “helps mitigate the destructive force of what [David] Damrosch terms the ‘myth’ and too often ‘reality’ ‘of the scholar as isolated individual.’” We need more group-work and collaborative writing, Hall maintains. As my Brooklyn colleague, Economics professor Mitchell Langbert, notes in the IHE comments section, “Isn’t there enough groupthink in higher education?” “Encouraging harmony in universities,” Langbert tellingly notes, “is like giving water to fish, or delusional ego boosts to Jeff Skillng’s executive team.” I couldn’t agree more.

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Robert KC Johnson - 1/5/2006

Thanks for the helpful comments.

chris l pettit - 1/5/2006

Collegiality? It is like focusing on the FCAT in elementary schools and foregoing any science curriculum while teaching ID (my sister is dealing with this at the moment). It simply is silly.

That being said...Hall is smart to point out the difference between the old boys networks of yesteryear and the ridiculous ideological arguments that you make. Your problem is that your blatantly flawed ideology cannot be critically defended and is indefensible...therefore eliminating it from serious academy you want to force it on the academy anyway. You make a decent point about affirmative action...but for the wrong reasons (knowing your past arguments). I am critical of affirmative action...but because it is ineffective...if one wants to make a critically defensible argument, one would point out that to truly address the lack of equality of opportunity, the primary and secondary education systems would be where it needs to take place (a long term and relatively slow commitment). Teachers need to be educated and paid what they are worth, ID and other propaganda (such as blatant nationalism and the sanitation of history) should not be taught, teachers should be given flexibility in their curriculum, standardized testing should be severely curtailed, etc. Your pro-life and Israel positions are simply absurd...they have no foundation outside of blind faith and ideology. You are not allowed to impose (or teach) your ideology in the academy as a credible subject if it cannot be critically defended. There are limits to freedom of expression...and adopting a position such as yours violates the fundamental right to education, right to choose one positions instead of having ideology foisted upon them, and right to have their education free from propaganda and ideological influence. You, Dr. Luker, and Dr. Beito continue to miss or ignore this fatal flaw in your reasoning.

So as much as I agree with your assertion that collegiality is not something that should necessarily be taught, and that it cannot be spearated from use of the argument to somehow peddle your indefensible ideological positions and force them into the academy is abhorrent and is a major reason why, as an academic, you should be ashamed of yourself.


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