I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions over the past week or so, in part because of the horrible situation at UVA, in part because of this report about a mass email from a professor at Georgia Southern University, in part in response to this post over at Dean Dad’s, and, belatedly, in response to what was a really tense final department meeting of my semester, after which a fair few people were whispering in hallways about “incivility” and whatnot, as well as some other nasty situations that I encountered throughout this academic year. So I figured before I traveled off to the apocalypse, er, my high school reunion, I’d offer some musings. So settle in with a cup of coffee, a glass of whiskey, or whatever will get you through my ramblings (because, comrades, I do feel as if I’ve got a fair bit to say).
But where to begin? On the one hand, it’s very simple. To be collegial means to be a good colleague. The problem comes in with people’s varying opinions about what that means. I’ll tell you what it means to me, and then I’ll tell you what I don’t think that it means. Being a good colleague means nothing less than fulfilling your contractual obligation to perform adequately in the classroom (you teach your classes, and if you’re going to be absent you notify students and the university appropriately, you assign students appropriate work and you return graded work in a timely – say, two-week turn-around time – fashion, you revise your courses and develop new curriculum as is appropriate to respond to developments in the field and to student needs, you are available to students when they need to meet with you, whether about coursework or for advising), you maintain a research agenda appropriate to your institution, even beyond tenure (so, if you’re at a teaching-intensive institution your research might center on pedagogy, or it might be less than what your colleagues at a research-intensive institution do, or it might reflect what is necessary to keep your courses current, and if you’re at a research-intensive institution you should have a consistent output of books/articles, as is appropriate), and you pull your weight by serving on committees (department/university), on editorial boards or professional societies, or in a community outreach capacity (again, depending on institution-type, the weight you give to various activities will vary). To me, those things define a “good” colleague. I would not call a colleague “uncollegial” just because I don’t particularly like the person, or because the person is unfriendly, or because I disagree with the person. Frankly, who cares? I’ve got friends. I don’t need to be friends with the people with whom I work. I need to work well with the people with whom I work. Sure, it helps if you don’t despise them, but really: I don’t despise anybody who does their fare share of the work. And so here’s the thing: collegiality, to me, is no more than those activities that I listed above, either. At the end of the day, I don’t need for my colleagues to be kindred spirits with me. But I do need for them to do their jobs. That’s what collegiality means to me.
Now, do I recognize that everybody is not going to be perfect in each of these activities? YES. Hell, I can point to many instances where I’ve failed in doing one or the other of the laundry list that I’ve just provided. But the point is, I do know that being a good colleague involves all of the above, and I strive to do all of the above. Sure, I fail sometimes, or I come up short. But as much as I understand that being a good colleague involves no less than the above, I also understand that it involves no more than the above. Being collegial doesn’t mean that everybody is going to love you all the time, just as being a good teacher doesn’t mean all your students are going to love you all the time. It just means that you’re doing your job.
Now, civility and collegiality aren’t identical, I don’t think, but they are related. It’s very difficult to work with people productively if you can’t be civil with them, if you can’t at the very least say good morning and good night, if you can’t at the very least have a brief conversation about how they are doing or about the task set in front of you on a committee. That said, civility isn’t being best friends either. Think about it: when we talk about people who are divorced being “civil,” we’re not talking about anything more (or anything less) than them treating one another with basic respect – it doesn’t mean that they are going on joint vacations or hanging out just for the fun of it. When we talk about “civil rights” we’re not talking about everybody getting around the campfire and singing kumbaya – prejudice still exists – it’s just that we’ve agreed that prejudice can’t determine the rights that people have or how people are treated. So what civility means to me is that I can work with you even if I really think that you suck. And you might really think I suck, too. And we both might know that the other feels that way. But we get it together to do our jobs (see my points about collegiality above). So incivility isn’t the opposite of collegiality so much as it is a corollary of uncollegiality, if that makes sense. It’s very difficult to be civil with colleagues who aren’t pulling their weight. It’s very difficult to pull one’s weight as a colleague when people don’t treat you with civility. But the collegiality and civility aren’t identical. It’s more complicated than that.
As I see it, if we want to motivate faculty to “collegial” behavior, which is related to civility but not identical to it, then what we want is transparency, clear and open communication about rewards for doing one’s job well and consequences for not doing it. What I see at my institution right now is that there are few rewards in place for doing all of the things that are part of a tenured professor’s job, and very few consequences for not doing those things. At least not any that are open and public. And let’s note: I’m at a public university, so I’m not talking about money here – if there were money to give to people as a reward, everybody would know about it, and everybody would know that money wasn’t going to people who weren’t pulling their weight. But the reality is that money isn’t really an option as a signifier of a job well done, not in this moment in time. So this is where there need to be other rewards in place, other consequences. I don’t actually believe that teaching assignments should be used as a punishment – I think that sets up thinking about “teaching” as a punishment rather than as a part of the job. But I do think that there are ways to reward people with teaching. All things being equal, if a really good teacher who typically has fully enrolled courses has a class that is for some reason underenrolled, perhaps that person should be given the benefit of the doubt to have the cancellation of her class delayed. All other things being equal, if a person who does a ton of service asks for a schedule to accommodate that service, maybe that person should get preference over a person who isn’t doing a ton of service but who wants a particular schedule for personal reasons. And all of those sorts of decisions should be public. The rationales for them should be open. If you want to motivate people, you have to let them know how decisions are made. Then they can strive to get something that they value. When there isn’t money, you’ve got to get creative about how you motivate people. Another example is this: if I am performing really well in research and teaching, maybe give me the service assignment that I request, as opposed to the one that nobody wants. And let everybody know about that decision and why it was made. Although I don’t know that this would work (as I’ve never seen such transparency), I suspect everybody would be motivated by it. Yes, that makes more work for administrators. But it might make their lives more pleasant during the academic year, which might reduce stress and work on the back end. At the end of the day, faculty are motivated to do their jobs when they see that their work is being valued. If they feel like their work doesn’t matter, they check out, or they start being a whole lot more pissy, regardless of what’s being asked.
Let me be clear here: I’m not blaming administrators for uncollegial behavior amongst faculty. If administrators get blame in my experience it’s for not motivating collegiality, inspiring it, facilitating it, and for not supporting those colleagues who desire to be collegial, in the sense of performing all of the parts of their jobs well. But let’s note: some people who would get rewarded under such a system might still be pains in the ass, might not be the ones that anybody likes the best. The thing is, being a pain in the ass doesn’t mean that you’re a bad colleague; being well liked doesn’t mean you’re a good one.
When it comes to the “civility” question, I think it’s much more difficult. It’s possible to be guilty of incivility even if one is collegial (see above about pains in the ass). But so what is the cause of incivility? I’d say it’s that one is angry. Resentful. Feels that one can only get heard if one is loudest and ugliest. Feeling that being civil doesn’t get one anywhere. Incivility is about morale, and while that does have a connection to collegiality, it’s not necessarily the case that a good colleague will be “civil” at all times. In my world, the incivility that rears its ugly head comes from two camps. First, there’s my camp (because I am guilty of this). My camp is guilty of incivility because I have no patience for people who don’t do the work and who don’t know what the fuck they are talking about because they don’t do the work, and yet I am forced to listen to them anyway, in spite of the fact that they are assholes. The other camp are those who accuse me of incivility and yet treat me with contempt when I correct their erroneous statements and when I dismiss their “suggestions” that are entirely impractical or just plain wrong. Basically, they treat me like shit for knowing what I’m talking about, and then I treat them like shit for being checked out and yet still believing that their opinion counts. And everybody’s morale sucks. It’s really awesome, as you might imagine.
But here’s the thing. This is why Robert’s Rules of Order exist. (Yes, I want to kill myself for invoking RRO, but it’s true that following them helps a lot with the above.) It’s also why it helps to have a person who runs a meeting well. It’s also why it helps to have a culture that fosters collegiality, because I’d be a hell of a lot less bitchy if that’s what we had, and those who think I’m not civil would be a hell of a lot less bitchy if they weren’t totally checked out and they knew what I was talking about. It’s hard to work well together when everybody’s not on the same page. It’s even harder when we pretend every voice counts as much as every other voice, even when a lot of those voices don’t have the background to contribute meaningfully, when we “descend[…] into warfare that masquerades behind a fragile veneer of civility.”
Seriously: sometimes sitting in a department meeting, or a university committee meeting, is a lot like sitting in a class where the instructor lets a student who clearly hasn’t done the reading or come to class regularly go on for 10 minutes about their “thoughts” when they haven’t done the work that would allow them to contribute meaningfully. We’re so worried about “offending” one another or hurting somebody’s feelings that we don’t insist on keeping on task and getting concrete objectives accomplished. (For what it’s worth, I have no patience for this crap as a professor either, and it’s reflected in my student evaluations, both positively and negatively. Dissent is great – contributions that I haven’t imagined are great – but back up your fucking opinions with work. Show your work in the statements that you make. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.)
But with all of that being said, I am very concerned with how discussions about “collegiality” and “civility” are potentially influenced by things like gender, class, and race. It’s been my experience that when dissent is voiced by a white, male faculty member with middle-class or higher origins that he is not labeled as lacking in collegiality or civility. It’s been my experience that those voices carry an intrinsic authority that is not granted to their colleagues who happen to be women, or people of color, or people with working-class origins. And part of this has to do with communication styles, and part of this has to do with stereotypes.
Also, I’m not certain that “collegiality” or “civility” are really our most pressing issues when we’re thinking about the problems that are facing the 21st-century university. I think that perhaps a focus on those issues takes us away from things that are most crucial, like the corporatization of higher education, which results in students coming out of college with exorbitant debt for less educational value, like the disenfranchisement of faculty in determining curriculum and university governance, like the increasing and seemingly unstoppable reliance on contingent faculty, like the reduction in government support for institutions of higher learning, even as they institute ever greater mandates for performance. If we wonder why there is a crisis in collegiality or civility, we might turn to these bigger issues as root causes, rather than blaming either individual faculty or administrators for those things happening.
If we’re going to talk about things like collegiality and civility in academe, and if we’re going to talk about those things like they mean something, I think it’s important that we are very clear about what it is we’re talking about and why it matters. And I think it’s important that we do more than bemoan how “rude” faculty members are, and do more than blame administrators for faculty’s bad behavior. If collegiality and civility are so important, we should be clear about why they are, and we should be clear about concrete strategies for improving those things, which will by necessity involve dealing with the disease at the root of those symptoms.