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Is the Loss of Collegiality about Manners or Workloads?

I became a college professor because I love to talk. As an undergraduate some 50 years ago, I found that my mind wandered during lectures and even during smaller conventional classroom courses. I only became engaged in seminars where everyone was encouraged to talk. I recall vividly the first such course I took. It was a poetry survey from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson. The instructor was an older woman, a Holocaust survivor, for whom this literature was a source of wonder and sustenance. She had strong opinions about feminist issues before this became ascendant in the academy and had strayed from the Anglocentric, patriarchal emphasis of the standard English poetry survey to include Dickinson, whom she felt vied with Milton in importance. There were 12 of us sitting around a table in that course, and the conversation, under the guidance of this gifted teacher, was exhilarating. I knew then that I wanted to talk like this for the rest of my life.


Increasingly over the past decade or so, my students seem desperate to talk about ideas but inhibited in doing so by the nature of their schedules, the atmospheres in which they find themselves, and a lack of practice in the art of conversation. When they have a free block of time, I rarely see them congregate together to talk. Yet their frequenting of coffee shops seems a symptom of their desire to connect. They sit side by side in these spaces, computers open, drinking their coffee and staring at their screens. By planting themselves in public spaces, they obviously want to talk to one another but don’t know how. They need the tools and the inspiration to bridge the barrier that separates them. Supplying these things is, in part, what the seminar classroom is for.

If students are less equipped to converse with one another than they once were, faculty members also seem to have become deficient in this area. The past few years have seen an increasing dearth of collegial talk.

Conversation used to be a great draw for those contemplating an academic career. One could engage with a wide variety of people who loved ideas and had devoted their lives to them in an environment conducive to intellectual exchange. There was time for long lunches and summers off to do research and share new knowledge with interested peers.


In 1999 the AAUP put out a statement about the use of “collegiality” in tenure decisions, and it was revised in 2016: “The very real potential for a distinct criterion of ‘collegiality’ to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.”

Their viewpoint makes sense — the traditional focus on collegiality was sometimes a code for homogeneity, mediocrity, and support for the “old boy” network. But the combination of groupthink and careerism that has overtaken academe in recent years is another kind of blight. It’s important to have a community of scholars who gather together and talk. If faculty do not practice conversation of the best sort among themselves, it is unlikely that they can bring these skills to bear in the classroom.

The decline in conversation can be attributed to many things: a need to work harder in one’s field in order to succeed in a strained job market; the charged political nature of things where it can be difficult to speak honestly or in a nuanced way about many issues; and a culture dominated by social media where our phones are more our companions than our peers. With the reduction of tenure-track positions and heavier teaching loads, faculty simply don’t have the time to indulge in the free play of mind that used to characterize academic life. If one has to teach at multiple campuses and grade hundreds of papers, the quality of one’s conversation is bound to suffer.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education