Blogs > Cliopatria > Collegiality 101

Dec 16, 2005 9:55 pm

Collegiality 101

A distressing article in this morning's IHE. Donald Hall, chairman of West Virginia's Department of English and a specialist in British studies, queer theory, and cultural studies, has called for setting new priorities in graduate school education. Specifically, Hall wants"more training in service and other forms of collegial interaction," since in grad-school programs,"little is written or said about collegiality as a concept and activity that is vital to our institutional health and one connected intellectually and intimately to the other work that we do."

This strikes me as a bad idea, for three reasons. First, I question its practicality. At the CUNY Graduate Center (as, I know, is the case elsewhere as well), we're doing everything we can to encourage our PhD students to finish more quickly. Imposing service requirements upon them--one of the paths Hall recommends to train in" collegiality"--would represent a move in the opposite direction. There's a good reason why most schools try to shield untenured faculty from service requirements to the extent possible.

Second, it seems to me that we should do everything we can to encourage graduate students to view scholarship and teaching as the primary responsibilities of the professoriate, since surely they will encounter administrators and even some colleagues who think otherwise. Schools that rigidly follow the AAC&U line demonstrate the dangers of abandoning academic pursuits to create instead campus"learning communities" that deem service and" collegiality" equally or more important than scholarship and teaching.

Finally, and most important from my own experience, prioritizing collegiality risks imposing ideological or pedagogical litmus tests, as Thane Doss, in a comment to Hall's piece, unintentionally reveals:

Recent doings at NYU have got me thinking that a necessary part of “collegialization” may be participation in union activities. Even at private schools, the majority of graduate students are being prepared for work at institutions where unions and the fight for reasonable working conditions in the face of administrative desire to cut all labor costs below the level of administration in order to justify administrators’ raises are a part of the essenceof academic life. Union participation is as much part of preparation for an academic worklife as apprenticed teaching.

How do graduate students who don't accept the wisdom of the union's philosophy fit into this definition of" collegiality"? Would, for instance TA's at NYU who put their students first and refused to follow the union's demand to walk off the job in the middle of the semester be deemed insufficiently" collegial"?

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Timothy James Burke - 12/18/2005

Here I really, really think you're letting your own experience blind you in some troubling ways.

I would agree with you that collegiality or service is more likely to be used as a dangerous "fudge factor" in unjust tenure deliberations, though teaching has a tendency to be used in such a manner as well. The reason in both cases is that we don't really have any rigorous metrics that can be used to evaluate either of them. Nor should we, really, since the metric we tend to use for publication--numbers of publication, imagined prestige of the press or journal doing the publishing--don't tell us much about the actual quality of publication. But at least if you've done your publication, nobody can take that away from you in a deliberative process.

That being said, the kind of abuse you're worried about--politically motivated, ideological axe-grinding--is just as likely to surface in evaluations of teaching and even scholarship, both tenure evaluations and non-tenure ones. There is an entire web of ways that gatekeeping manifests in the academy: peer review, for example. There is nothing about service per se that distinguishes it.

Second, the implications of your consistently expressed views of service requirements is that service shouldn't be evaluated at all at tenure. I'm sorry, but that strikes me as frankly an insane proposal for any employer to accept, that a university should be scrupulously uninterested in whether someone is a good employee or not. An academic could be a very productive scholar, an adequate teacher, and a horror show as a colleague and employee. That ought to be a circumstance under which tenure denial is an option. Despite all your fears of the abuse of service as a criterion, I think it's far more likely to be abused in the other direction, e.g., someone whose service record is abysmal and likely to become more so is given a free pass because they're a recognized scholar. You're right that people are held accountable for service capriciously and politically, but I'd rather see the criterion taken seriously than placed off-limits. When someone is given tenure who performs badly at service work, they make life much harder for everyone else who does their job responsibly. The burdens on faculty who do committees, peer review, all the interstitial labor that make universities and the whole of academia function well, grow greater exponentially for every faculty member who shuns that work. Frankly, they grow greater even when you get someone who does that work but does it irresponsibly or unjudiciously.

Finally, you essentially reject that people can be taught to do this kind of work well as graduate students. I think that's not true. There are certain kinds of things under the heading of "service" that I'm quite certain graduate students could be given far greater guidance in. One of them is peer review. But I even think there could be meaningful discussion of the way service functions for junior academics. I do a workshop every year for incoming junior faculty here about how to navigate the endless the number of requests for assistance and involvement they will receive from their institution and their disciplines, how to see what the long-term results of any given "yes" or "no" might be. I could easily do that for graduate students as well. This is the part of academic work that graduate students don't really see, and they don't grasp fully how labor-intensive it can often be for the people who do it responsibly. Right now service of one kind or another consumes a major proportion of my working life.

This would be my final point: that the attitude you're voicing here is what leads service to be invisible, because you're essentially denying it any honor or recognition. You're saying that the measure of an academic is scholarship first, teaching second, and what they do for their institution and profession not just last, but not at all--that the last doesn't matter and shouldn't be considered as part of what makes someone worth giving a guaranteed lifetime job. That is precisely the position that leads most of us who work our asses off giving to our institutions and our profession why we do it, precisely the argument that leads academics to concentrate narrowly on producing specialized scholarship and ignoring their students and institutions--because that's where the rewards come, where the incentives are. It's precisely the reason that higher education sometimes doesn't deliver half the value that it promises.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/17/2005

True--but as Hall fails to make clear, "service" and 'collegiality' aren't the same thing. Service is also part of the CUNY contract, and I suppose, in theory, someone could be denied tenure if he or she consistently refused to serve on committees. That said, at most CUNY schools (and I suspect this is the case elsewhere, as well), departments do everything they can to shield untenured profs from excessive service requirements, so they can focus on developing courses and completing scholarship. That strategy alone provides an unintended commentary on the importance of service vis-a-vis teaching and scholarship.

Agree with your point completely on the question of evaluating "prestige" of publication outlets. At one extreme, I've run across people who claim that all that's needed for tenure should be "the book," regardless of the work's quality or press. This doesn't strike me as a valid approach, although it does introduce some subjectivity into the evaluation process.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/17/2005

Actually, every institution I've been at has included "service" as a category in which one is evaluated as a professional, supposedly (but not really) co-equal with teaching and research, and encompassing service within the institution, within the profession and to the community. If it is deemed "inadequate" by the personnel committee, it is grounds for termination (though it would be unlikely in the event of really strong research or teaching): that's part of our contract.

I'm having a harder time (as have others) with our committee's attempts to evaluate the "prestige" of publication outlets as, presumably, a proxy for research quality.

Michael Burger - 12/17/2005

I agree with KC Johnson's concerns about abuse and the remarkes about the skill that really would be useful vis-a-vis service. But I will say, re J. Dresner's remarks, that service is a distant third after research and teaching at most schools, that I suspect that may not be so at most small teaching colleges. At my school (4/4/ load), teaching comes first, _then_ service and, in practice, research/publication is a distant third. The same is the case at a similar college at which my wife teaches. We may wish we would re-order the priorities, but there they are. And at small teaching colleges with 4/4 loads make up the bulk of the job market.

That said, I'd look askance at a job candidate with lots of service work, or one who made a big deal about it. "Does this person actually _like_ committees?" I'd wonder.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/17/2005

Agree completely with you on these points. All criteria are subject to abuse, but collegiality more so than the others, because it's totally subjective and because there is almost never a contractual or Bylaw obligation to use it, unlike scholarship and teaching evaluations. I think you're right that Hall himself doesn't intend the new collegiality-training emphasis to impose any sort of litmus test, although, as the comments to the piece suggest, it's pretty easy to see how this could occur. I do think, however, that he sees it as part of a different approach to the academy as a whole.

If we're going to have collegiality "training," I think you're right--the people should be dept. chairs and administrators, people who actually are required to lead groups of faculty. Hall's argument that we should focus on grad students seems to me a misplaced emphasis.

He says in the piece that this article is going to be the first of three.; perhaps in the forthcoming two he'll clarify more exactly how this approach will "transform" the academy, which appears to be one of the subjects of his new book. As I said, I'm dubious, quite apart from the possibility-of-abuse angle.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/17/2005

Clearly the word "collegiality" has become tainted for you. I had to read Hall three times before I got a hint of what you were talking about, because it's his commenters, not Hall himself, who's made the connection.

Sure, I can see making an argument that "service" is a highly subjective category, but in most places it's a distant third category in hiring/retention/promotion decisions. Yes, it's been abused at times, but so have teaching "standards" (don't get me started) and publication rates, and those have been just as frequently (if not more so) used as weapons in the filtering out of "undesireable" colleagues.

Frankly, real collegiality training should focus on keeping committee meetings short and focused, on having actual discussions about things that matter on a regular basis instead of having them blow up because we're not used to dealing with actual colleagues, and on the importance of processual integrity. And administrators and department chairs would be required to take refresher courses every summer, most of which involved rereading the rules regarding the powers they don't have...