July 28, 2007

Mundane faculty sadism

I'm going to borrow a term from pop marital therapy author David Schnarch, compare it to sibling experiences and literary analysis, and then see if the principle applies to professional relationships in higher ed. To Schnarch, couples' relationships are a pressure-cooker within which the individuals (should) develop. To Schnarch, this pressure-cooker environment is an inevitable by-product of rubbing shoulders with someone over the years.

Schnarch's perspective is neither surprising nor that new to those who grew up with siblings. Despite the common Freudian psychodynamic view of sibling relationships, my own memory of sibling issues had less to do with rivalries for love and far more a matter of simple daily friction. Knuckle-cracking and whistling get on siblings' nerves not because one siblings fears that Mother or Father lives her or him less but because, well, after about three months of hearing knuckle-cracking a dozen times a day, you go bonkers the next time you hear the same sound. (The same irritation commonly develops among college or apartment roommates, and I've never heard a Freudian theory of Roommate Rivalry.)

Schnarch's perspective is also not surprising to anyone who has read almost any analysis of character as the response to pressures.

Yet Schnarch contributes a fascinating term that I think applies to professional as well as personal relationships: ordinary (marital) sadism, or the ways in which people who rub up against each other over years learn (how) to push each other's buttons. The mundane cruelty of small digging remarks, tones of voice, and looks is an everyday feature of many siblings' lives. I disagree with Schnarch on what he calls the inevitability of such communicative sadism. Maybe that's a consequence of my irritation with monolithic psychodynamic explanations of life (as if we're all X), and maybe it's a consequence of my own experiences: My wife and I do our best to avoid pushing each other's buttons, and I'd like to think we succeed.

But the term strikes me as an effective description of one type of dysfunctional faculty behavior, the ordinary cruelties that we sometimes engage in towards colleagues, staff, and students, or that some of us engage in regularly. We all have bad days, but the ambiguous role of social networking in academe magnifies the consequences of thoughtless remarks and deeds in ways that are relatively unique. In many work environments, you can identify real *******s or *****(e)s by observing how people treat those reporting to them. At most colleges and universities, though, the power relationships are not as clear-cut, in part because of social networking and in part because of the ethic of academic freedom and free speech. I think those reasons are why I have witnessed assistant and associate professors unleashing unproductive, cutting remarks at senior administrators. Even if mundane faculty sadism is more commonly aimed at students, staff, and colleagues, sometimes the barbs head upwards.

In some ways, some might claim that such mundane faculty sadism is the inevitable byproduct of healthy debate, and to some extent I agree. Prickliness is no excuse for ignoring academic freedom. In addition, ethical administrators will do their best to address legitimate complaints separate from the rhetorical cruelties. Yet mundane faculty sadism can erode the environment in which academic freedom should flourish, by ruining class experiences for students when prevalent in a course, by destroying the morale of the staff who perform daily miracles for faculty, or by making peers reluctant to engage in healthy debate in fear of the verbal barb, rolling eyes, and passive-aggressive colleagues. When multiple factions of a department or college feel free to engage in such sadism, you get undeclared war.

The solution to mundane faculty sadism is not the vague "collegiality" criterion some institutions have tried as a filter for *******s or *****(e)s at tenure time. Such efforts strike me as passive-aggressive responses to the problem of mundane faculty sadism: "We'll ignore your daily cruelties for 5-6 years and then fire you." Those cruelties require a faster response from colleagues. Ultimately, faculty need to develop skills at confronting peers in a respectful but firm manner. I will gladly admit that I don't have the skills I would like to have. And I don't think many of my colleagues have them, either.

I didn't learn those skills in graduate school (along with a whole host of other skills I didn't learn). Instead, I became inured to a discourse that emphasized hard-hitting comments and ignored personal relationships inside that discourse. I suspect that a part of the dynamic is the argumentative nature of academic discussions, debating and peacocking that receives more attention than the subtle guidance of others. I used to think that older faculty were more likely to engage in mundane collegial sadism, but I've seen enough counter-examples to rethink those views.

So, dear readers, do you think this concept holds any water, and do you have any suggestions for addressing it?

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Posted in Higher education on July 28, 2007 10:48 PM |