September
22nd 2008
Exasperated Eduardo endeavors to escape the bully-boys

Posted under: jobs

Run away! Run away!

Again, from the mailbag, cries of help from someone else stuck in a bullying department:

I’m writing because I’ve been enjoying your blog (as does my wife, another Ph.D.) and your airing of concerns over academic bullying has struck a cord.  While I’m not directly the victim of such things, I see it at my current department in the most awful ways – seniors “pushing around” juniors to take sides in various departmental debates knowing full well the juniors’ fears of tenure, profs battling with each other in and out of department meetings, the spreading of rumors and gossip about one or another prof, and other stuff I can’t even write about.  (I’m actually quite surprised it didn’t end up in court.)  One of the perpetrators in our department is someone who has admitted to me that he was bullied as a child, and now he’s transitioned into the worse kind of academic bully, and he doesn’t see what he has become.  All this kills department morale, makes it hard to recruit and keep faculty, and turns what should be the best profession in the world into a weekly ordeal.  Every Monday morning I ask myself, “I wonder what disaster will happen this week?”
 
Anyhow, I’m taking your advice (advice I’ve heard from others, too) and am trying to run away.  It’s hard, since I am beginning my fifth year and tenure review is coming up next fall.  Other places are sure to ask questions about a fifth year jumping ship, and I don’t want to air dirty laundry.  We’ll see how it works out.

In solidarity,

Exasperated Eduardo

Thanks for writing, Eduardo.  (It’s Monday again–what disaster rains down on you today?  We’ll pray for a reprieve for you until tomorrow, at least.)  Your letter is interesting to me because it confirms something I’ve observed about bullying, namely, that it poisons the whole environment for everyone, and not just for the victims of the bullying.  (It also provides an example of something else I’ve long suspected, which is that bullies very often have a history of having been the victims of bullying, either professionally or perhaps deep in the recesses of childhood memories.)  It sounds like you should try to run away, and fast.  Five years is long enough to have sacrificed to the cause.

I don’t think it’s at all strange for someone like you to apply for other jobs.  (See Tenured Radical’s sensible post on applying for jobs when you already have one.)  The gist of the advice is, keep your application positive and upbeat, and explain why the job/s you’re applying to would be the next logical step in your career.  You absolutely should not air any dirty laundry, either in your letter of application, or in any of your interviews.  Even if you’re entirely correct and justified in your analysis, you will sound like a kook or a malcontent.  (By the way, a letter from a trusted friend and colleague in your current department will go a long way towards insulating you from those suspicions.  It doesn’t have to be from the department chair, although ideally it will be from someone who’s above you in rank.) 

You’re at a decent mid-tier regional university, but there are lots of other places that would be a step up for you.  We regularly get applications from assistant professors at regional universities and branch campuses elsewhere, and although Baa Ram U. isn’t exactly Rutgers or UCLA (and by “isn’t exactly,” I mean “not even close!”) we just think, “well with that publication record, of course she doesn’t want to stay there the rest of her life!,” or “Of course he wants to get the hell out of that rathole!”  If your wife is on the job market too, that’s a really good reason for you to hit the market–one or the other of you may even be able to finagle a job for the other one.  You may also prefer to live and work in another region of the country–and almost all institutions like to hear from applicants that they’re located in incredibly attractive and appealing places.  There are all kinds of excellent reasons to apply for other jobs even if you have one–write your letter as a confident expression of your professional achievements and experience, not as an apologia.  Readers, you were so generous in helping out Tenured Tammy–do you have any other advice for Eduardo?  (And Eduardo, please be sure to let us know what happens, okay?)

Finally–confidential to any administrators out there:  Eduardo sounds like a guy who ordinarily would have been happy to buckle down, get tenure, and become a respected and hardworking faculty member at his institution.  It sounds like the only reason he’s going on the job market again is the climate in his department–and possibly in other places in the institution–that tolerates bullying.  This is the price you pay when you permit bullies to run wild!  Good people with other options wise up and exercise those other options.

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Exasperated Eduardo endeavors to escape the bully-boys”

  1. GayProf on 22 Sep 2008 at 9:38 am #

    Like Eduardo, I am often amazed that things I hear about academic departments actually don’t end up in court. Eduardo should never look back once he has secured a new job.

  2. Indyanna on 22 Sep 2008 at 9:44 am #

    Again, I guess, just, why should anybody ask questions about someone “jumping ship?” Not why *would* they do so, but why *should* they? Jobs are not ships, for one thing, they’re just other sorts of utility modules that help to sustain modern life. I’ve continued to support tenure, (and still do) even as Historiann has raised some good and very trenchant questions about its consequences. But in effect, it’s an element that does clog the arterials of academic circulation, and as such it’s at least one of the impediments to the sorts of lateral (and diagonal) mobility that are accepted as normative in most other occupational spheres. Maybe it’s time to embrace or at least explore the implicit links between tenure and this murky category of havoc being called bullying here? But if we did–as with other surgeries–it might be necessary to cut deeper still to get the “whole thing,” as they say. Maybe it’s time to get search committees and departmental polities out of the hiring business altoghether, and turn it over to academicized versions of the HR discipline? Staffed, perhaps, by career ABDs who know the terms of various disciplinary discoursees, but who would also be expected to have read things like Chandler’s _Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution_ side-by-side with _The Return of Martin Guerre_. The tribalization of the academic sphere that makes us parse draft application letters like split-open Roman birds may be linked fairly directly to the culture of department-building rituals by “World of Warcraft” methodologies.

  3. Historiann on 22 Sep 2008 at 10:12 am #

    I wonder you’d agree with me, GayProf and Indyanna, that one common element in bullying departments may be that they circulate the meme that “it’s not any better anywhere else,” and/or, “you’ll never find another job now,” and/or ideas to that effect. Because bitter bullies regret that they didn’t grab the main chance when they could, their retention strategy is to try to suppress feelings of confidence and optimism in the junior faculty?

    I heard things to that effect in my former department, especially the “you don’t seriously think that it will be better anywhere else, do you?” junk.

    I too found the whole discussion about “disloyalty” over at Tenured Radical a bit exotic, although there are people who really believe that it’s disloyalty and treachery, rather than ambition or interest in serving other family members’ ambitions and needs, that leads regular faculty to apply for other jobs.

  4. Indyanna on 22 Sep 2008 at 12:39 pm #

    I’ll think on that one. I have to confess I’ve never been subjected to or even significantly witnessed what I’d construe as bullying in a department; although this whole ball of threads on the subject has been one gigantic consciousness-raising exercise for me. There’s no question that all manner of strange internalist presumptions about things breed and float in the guild-system environment of the modern academic workplace. Disloyalty? Where do we fit American history–to add a minor phenomenon–into this formulation, with one household out of five moving every ten years since 1492, I guess, and maybe even more fluid if you go back to the Bering Land Bridge? How or what do we propose to teach the kids who come to school from cross-state in September, but go back “home” to another state in May because their folks have moved, and they can’t even get in-state tuition anymore? Bizarre.

  5. The_Myth on 22 Sep 2008 at 12:49 pm #

    ‘they circulate the meme that “it’s not any better anywhere else,” and/or, “you’ll never find another job now,” and/or ideas to that effect.’

    I worked for a semester on a research project with my advisor. She was co-PI and supposedly in charge. She hired a Ph.D. with managerial experience who, within about 4 months, instigated 3 of the 6 workers on the project to quit [I was #3]. When I would take my concerns about the “manager” to my advisor [the PI], she would repeatedly give the excuses Historiann cited above.

    I can still hear her saying “It’s like this everywhere and you just have to get used to it.” The manager repeatedly accused me of not doing my job properly, yet my advisor had the exact opposite opinion. But my advisor refused to support me by even just telling the manager to back off. After awhile, she started just stating “Well, we’re not going to fire her…” when prefacing the statements about it being like this everywhere else.. Yet, every time the manager screwed something up [which of course *I* had to fix for her], my advisor would knowingly roll her eyes.

    Yet, I lost my job and the manager didn’t. I never trusted my advisor after that happened, and these events contributed to me not finishing my Ph.D. The whole school was full of bullies and people enabling them with their silence.

  6. Historiann on 22 Sep 2008 at 1:40 pm #

    The_Myth: ugh. I feel your frustration! What is it about jobs that are nominally administrative? No one ever wants to admit a mistake about hiring someone into a job like that, so they just let a work environment go to h-e-double hockey-sticks.

    I’m sorry that your experience led you to drop out of your Ph.D. program. But, perhaps that means that you’re happier now?

  7. Indyanna on 22 Sep 2008 at 1:48 pm #

    On this loyalty/disloyalty thing, academics know they can’t live outside the flow of history forever. It’s reminiscent of where the law was until maybe the 1980s. Everyone knew that you made partner and then soldiered on until either mandatory retirement age or at least the gold watch. Then a few lawyers began firm-jumping and within a decade the system fell apart. I used to wonder when some smart and hot dissertator would hire an agent to do the agonizing over how to phrase the cover letter and thus try to change both the game and the frame. But I really wonder when a block of department members with some degree of field-relation to each other will put themselves on the so-called “market” en bloc? The industry would resist like crazy, crying that this just isn’t done. Then some ambitious rogue prez/provost/dean team would say this is a way to quickly jump whole reputational status categories and the solidarity system would soon collapse. Chronicle headline: “Six Economic and Social Historians With 142 Years of Collective Experience Move to William, Mary, Cederstrom, Bexley, and Titlebaum; Dean Resigns.”

    In a way, the whole framework of academic employment might be more (or at least as…) fruitfully looked at through an antitrust lens than through those of the various discrimination or other forms of emloyer misconduct that are more customarily employed to understand the subject.

  8. Eduardo on 22 Sep 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    I’ll be sure to share the journey with everyone. Although a little out of practice, I’m gearing up and the letter and cv files are growing. I find myself looking at ads and daydreaming of living in other places, and fantasizing it is June and my wife and I are packing things for a move. I fall in love too easily.

    I have heard the phrase “it’s like this everywhere” from more than one person the past five years. And I’ve even had colleagues tell me its worse elsewhere. To which I reply, “the only thing I haven’t seen is a fistfight between profs … day ain’t over yet.”

    Eduardo

  9. Historiann on 22 Sep 2008 at 3:50 pm #

    Ha! Eduardo–your gallows humor is pretty impressive.

    It IS better somewhere–maybe not everywhere–but the important thing to decide is whether other places will be better for YOU and your wife. I found an extremely collegial department after my bad first job–I know GayProf did, and many others who comment or lurk here have done it too.

  10. Sister-in-law in Maine on 25 Sep 2008 at 8:01 am #

    Have any of you read the novel, “Straight Man” by Richard Russo? It addresses all manner of insanity and back-stabbing within an English Dept. at a mezzo-mezzo (at best)university. It’s not long, and it’ HILARIOUS, so might help ease some of the angst for Eduardo and others.

    Great Blog, Ann!!

  11. Historiann on 25 Sep 2008 at 8:37 am #

    Oh, yes–Straight Man has come up more than once over here (most notably on this post.)

    I actually prefer Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim in terms of academic novels. I’ve never gotten into David Lodge’s books, but I really liked Jane Smiley’s Moo (especially now that I teach at Baa Ram U.!)

    Thanks for commenting, SIL in Maine!

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