These past couple of posts by Flavia have me thinking about my own department and institution (because, as a blogger, it’s All. About. Me.) First of all, let me say that I understand her sadness at losing a colleague to a new job. When BFF left for greener pastures, that was not my favorite thing that happened to me in my professional life. I still miss BFF as a colleague. Because she’s an awesome colleague. That said, after I got over my initial angst about her leaving, I was truly, truly happy for her, and, if I do say so myself, we are better friends for it. (I have a trip planned to visit BFF in a couple of weeks and I am STOKED about it!!! And also since she’s left we’ve done conferences together – this has not meant anything negative for our friendship, and probably it’s meant lots of positive things.) It’s worth noting that I’d been applying for jobs in the years before she left, and had I ended up moving on, which obviously I didn’t, I would not have felt any regret about doing so. And once I got over the initial feeling of “I’m sad because my favorite colleague is leaving!!!,” I didn’t feel any regret about her leaving. It was a good move for her. Not to say I haven’t missed her – I have – but it’s all good. As I’m sure it will be for Flavia, too, in the long term.
And I found myself nodding vigorously when I read this part of Flavia’s first post: “Indeed, I’ve argued before that it’s actually a sign of health for a department occasionally to lose a talented person. It means we’re hiring well, that we provide our faculty with opportunities for growth, and that we’re remaining competitive. Obviously no department wants to be a revolving door, but a limited amount of turnover is to be expected.” YES. This sort of movement is a sign of a healthy department, a healthy institution. It means that people are supported enough to do the work that they need to do to be mobile, and that you’re hiring people who want to advance in their careers.
But something that is particular to my department, and, more broadly, to my institution, is that the culture doesn’t really encourage this sort of thing. It’s not uncommon to hear in a search committee meeting, “we shouldn’t interview this person because he/she would never stay,” or, “sure, this person doesn’t seem like the strongest candidate on paper, but they have a connection to the area, and they would stay here if hired.” It’s worth noting that we are not, actually, geographically challenged. But we do havereally low self-esteem.
This frustrates me, because I don’t have low self-esteem. I would rather go for the best, and I’d rather try to encourage the best to stay. And if they didn’t, I wouldn’t feel like that was a failure. A failure is somebody not earning tenure. A failure is hiring somebody who isn’t as strong as somebody else. But I don’t rule the world.
The thing that strikes me about this “aiming for the low middle” attitude is that it then filters down into the way that we educate our students. Just as we make excuses for weak candidates, we make excuses for students who don’t do exemplary work – or some people do. And I feel like that is actually preventing our students from learning some important things. It doesn’t help a student to just hand a student an A. It doesn’t teach a student much if that is the dominant culture.
It sucks when a colleague leaves, but that sucks less than the fear that drives the alternative. And it’s better for students to have professors who are doing well enough to leave than to have professors who checked out 20 years ago because they knew they would never go anywhere else.