I read two seemingly unrelated professionalization pieces last week: The Chonicle‘s “Operation Keep My Job” and IHE‘s “Advice from an Outlaw Writer.” The two couldn’t be more different from one another. Bethany Albertson discusses a number of the insights anyone seeking professionalization will hear time and again (e.g., “just say no,” “ask for help,” “keep trying”) and Jane Ward encourages us to work against common refrains -“don’t chip! binge!”
However, they shared an important wisdom – although articulated differently – urging caution in how we connect with those around us.
As Ward says, “it’s a sad state of affairs that the academy is home to so many tortured and competitive people,” and encourages readers to “ignore your colleagues’ professional anxieties.” In her own reflection, Albertson realizes that she was one of those tortured souls:
We all have stories about the times we were screwed over, and we’re lucky if it’s just one. I had a few really good stories. I would tell them, my colleagues would nod with understanding, some would get mad right along with me, and for a moment my short CV would seem less short.
With commiserating doing little to enhance her productivity, Alberston started telling stories that fit: being open about her anxiety, but optimistic in her ability to be successful.
The thing is, these stories – and the musings of tortured souls – are all around us. They’re the way we connect over lunch and fodder for happy hour. Unfortunately, they’re also too often the way we welcome newcomers to our ranks: “Let me give you the low down…”
When I first started as an assistant professor, I was inundated with these messages: “This university is a terrible place for women,” “If they didn’t get tenure, who knows who will,””You know we’ve never had a woman chair?” “Be careful about your research, some people here don’t like that kind of work.” I came home everyday beaten down and exhausted. It wasn’t enough to be worrying about teaching or research productivity, now I had all this extra baggage. It seemed like everyone I met had tortured stories, whether their own or others’, to share.
One night over dinner, I was telling Omar what I’d heard that someone else had heard about something terrible that someone had supposedly experienced and he told me, quite plainly, that I needed to focus on me and my experiences if I wanted to get tenure. He asked me, had I ever experienced this thing? Had I witnessed such a thing happening? Even if the event occurred as I told it, could there have been other factors, omitted from the recounting? He encouraged me to cultivate other conversation topics with people, or other friendships, to preserve my sanity and to avoid risking a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Around the same time, my advisor encouraged me to set aside what I thought that I knew about others and to treat everyone with respect and a clean slate (she also told me to be kindest to the office and custodial staff – which was invaluable advice).
It turned out that I didn’t have to abandon new friends or run in different social circles. I simply changed the conversation, the stories that I told and the way that I connected with others. It’s not that I don’t have my own tortured stories – as I’ve shared some of them here – but I try not to let them dominate the conversation and I don’t use them to connect with others. I focus on telling people how great the university has been for me, how things have changed for the better – in so many ways – in the ten years I’ve been there. I tell people how much I love my job. I talk about my collegial department and the powerful ways people across the university (and outside of it) played a part in my success. I am always happy to share things that worked well for me or what I love about South Bend or Chicago.
In all this, I found that focusing on the positive side of things – staying on the sunny side of the street – was good for my health, well-being, and productivity. I also discovered that I was not alone. The more I shared with others on campus about how supportive I thought the university was and how my experience as a woman had been nothing like I’d expected from reputation and rumors or how much I appreciated the flexibility of academia, the more I met people who agreed with me. Those people have not only become some of my closest friends, but also allies in the fight to ensure that our experience is one shared by others across departments and institutions.
I know this got long, but I have one final word about connecting with others. I was lucky in graduate school. Like many programs, Arizona’s encouraged us to foster relationships with our cohort. My cohort, all of us newcomers, bonded by learning about each other and our new home and trying to navigate this strange system together. We sometimes went to happy hour with other grad students, but also had a lot of time with just us. As a result, I was sheltered from many of the negative stories until after I’d established my own view of the world. My advice to be careful in how we connect with others is not meant for faculty alone. I have seen grad students suffer under the weight of negativity, tortured stories, and competitiveness.
I’ll close with Ward’s insight on how to react when you “come face-to-face with a colleague’s academic anxiety disease, tenure-track stress disorder or some other anxiety disorder distinct to academics”:
My advice: breathe deeply, wish them love and light, back away quickly, and forget everything they’ve said.