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Civility: The New Arbitrary Academic Standard

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This should depress any academic:

A new survey of chief academic officers is out from Inside Higher Education. Among the findings: Provosts really care about civility and think it should be part of the framework for hiring and tenure.

I see this as potentially troubling. When the Steven Salaita controversy broke, I wrote a piece for the Chronicle called “Don’t Speak Out,” in which I read the Salaita affair through the lens of my interest in public engagement for academics. I said that the lesson for academics was that if you ever wanted a job, or might want to move from one job to another, don’t have strong opinions about things.

We need more public writing, not less. We need to open pathways for more academics to speak out in public, not punish Salaita for doing so in ways that have provoked such strong feelings. But we can’t ask scholars to embrace the risks of engagement in a system in which partisan bloggers and local papers can push timid administrators to fire, or in this case unhire, academics who leap into public debates.

In theory, Provosts agree with this and support public scholarship. At the same time, from IHE:

Generally, provosts expressed concern (with little difference by sector) about civility. Asked if they were worried about “declining civility among higher education faculty,” 27 percent said that they were very concerned and 44 percent were somewhat concerned. Only 5 percent were not concerned at all.

But in more detailed questions, provosts had varying perspectives on where faculty civility is lacking.

Generally, they feel more confident of faculty civility with regard to students than to fellow professors or (in particular) administrators. And provosts typically believe that their institutions display more civility than higher education as a whole. (A pattern in Inside Higher Ed surveys of administrators is that they think their institutions are doing better in many respects than the rest of higher education.)

In short, provosts act like the CEOs they imagine themselves. Any faculty that speaks against the mission or says anything that could be considered “uncivil,” which in provost speak means “anything that could make me look bad,” does not deserve any protections and in fact should be subject to firing. Increasingly, for provosts all this matters more than scholarship, teaching, or service. “Does the faculty member reflect well on my leadership?” That’s the question. And that should put a chill in any academic who either questions the administration or has a public persona.

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  • Warren Terra

    As you point out, there are obvious concerns about excessive avoidance of controversy – but is this really new? And in particular, might it not just be a version of the longstanding relevance to hiring and tenure decisions of “collegiality”, rephrased for more relevance to our offense-obsessed times?

    • Brett

      I think it’s more intense than anything since the McCarthy Period. Part of it may be the increasing reliance of schools (public and private) on tuition from richer students and donations – selling and maintaining the school’s image becomes paramount.

  • Murc

    As someone who is a big believer in actual civility in discourse, rather than faux-civility, what angers me most is the watering-down of the term.

    That said, my bar for “civility” is very low. I would characterize Scott’s ongoing crusade against the ACA troofers as deeply civil, for example, despite the fact that his contempt for them and their position is obvious and on full display. He demonstrates his civility by engaging directly with their arguments and not being mendacious, misleading, or dishonest with his destruction of them.

    Apparently these days, you have to use the Queen’s English and pretend that everyone around you is a good-faith intellectual peer in order to not be considered uncivil. And, well, fuck that noise. Fuck it in the ear.

    • sibusisodan

      Thank you. That needed to be said.

      ‘Civility’ shouldn’t mean that we all stand around agreeing how wonderful the Emperor’s New Clothes are.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Unfortunately that’s what it has always meant to people with a lot of power, but, well, no clothes.

      • Yes indeed.

        Civility is not a synonym for servility. And few things are more uncivil than to demand servility. One of those things is to demand servility in the guise of promoting civility.

    • Bruce B.

      And heck, you can be as demeaning and monstrous as you like toward colleagues with the wrong views – very few academicians hostile to Salaita are getting in trouble for being uncivil, for instance, even as they explain how he deserves to have no job and suffer miserably.

  • drwormphd

    Well according to my student evals from last semester, one student thought I was fun at first but lost all respect for me when I told her to shut her cell phone off after it went off in class. I imagine my incivility is going to cost me tenure.

    • sparks

      I’d have told her she could answer it, but only if she put it on speaker so everyone could hear her conversation.

      I wouldn’t stand a chance as an academic.

    • Murc

      You had a student who needed to actually be told that?

      It’s been a few years since I was in class, but on the rare occasions where someone had a cell phone go audibly off, they were visibly mortified they’d forgotten to do it and immediately scrambled around to shut it down. Once or twice there were people who had an important incoming call possible, which they told the professor about and sat near the door so they could dash out.

      But seriously, what college student in 2014 didn’t have a grasp of cell phone etiquette they needed to be told to turn the phone off rather than doing it themselves when it rang?

      • rea

        In particular, what recent high school graduate? If your phone goes off in class in high school, usually your parents have to go get it back for you from the principal.

      • DrDick

        I still occasionally have one go off in class. I just glare at them and say, “This is a cell-free zone.” Of course, they are already highly embarrassed by forgetting to do so in the first place.

  • Paul Campos

    Is it uncivil to point out that the salaries of top university administrators are increasingly funded by ripping off naive and vulnerable people?

    Asking for a friend.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      “Generally, they feel more confident of faculty civility with regard to students than to fellow professors or (in particular) administrators.”

      Civility?

      Okay, we’ll make it a CIVIL war with overpaid pinheaded admin meatbags.

  • dl

    ” Asked if they were worried about “declining civility among higher education faculty,” 27 percent said that they were very concerned and 44 percent were somewhat concerned.”

    That’s a leading question.

    • And there’s our friend 27% again.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    #1 was incivility. But what was #2? Knavishness? Wanton frippery?

    • What sad times are these when passing ruffians can say “Ni” at will to old ladies.

    • #2 Cheekiness
      #3 Sassiness
      #4 Saucyness
      #5 Insolence
      #6 Knavishness
      #7 Dilettantism
      #8 Uppityness
      #9 Frippery
      #10 Puckishness
      #11 Hijinks
      #12 Wanton Frippery
      #13 Disrespect
      #14 Youthful exuberance
      #15 Any other kind of exuberance

      • sibusisodan

        But jackanapery was apparently fine? Academics are weird.

        • Lee Rudolph

          What, no love for skullduggery???

          • Only if the digging is performed with a spork.

        • Linnaeus

          It looks like shenanigans are okay, too.

          • NonyNony

            Wouldn’t shenanigans fall under “Any other kind of exuberance”?

            • Linnaeus

              Not if your state hasn’t set up its own exchange.

      • wjts

        “Have a care, Professor Jennkins – if you continue in this behavior, I shall call you before the Faculty Senate on two counts of jiggery-pokery and one count of Whiggish historiography.”

        • Linnaeus

          one count of Whiggish historiography

          Okay, now things are getting serious.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Hey, thanks for providing the bucket-list! Making good progress…

      • Failure to tug the forelock in a sufficiently respectful manner!

  • JL

    A little OT, but it’s about academia and one of Erik’s academia hobby-horses (MOOCs): One of the previously-publicly-anonymous complainants in the Walter Lewin sexual harassment case comes forward, details emerge, people talk about the lack of legal precedent around sexual harassment in MOOCs. Content note: descriptions of sexual harassment and targeting of vulnerable people, mental illness symptoms, self-harm.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Wow. What a skunk.

      I do wish to indulge in one tiny bit of snark: even in context (and especially, as here, out of context), the first sentence quoted in the last paragraph is hard for me not to snicker at (although it’s certainly true).

      “We have never in the academic profession — never, never — in a collective way looked at the threat posed by professors[.]”

      I give due credit to Inside Higher Education for not making it a pull-quote.

  • Linnaeus

    This reminds me of the argument, made by the university and our department, that ASE unionization would harm “collegiality” among ASEs and between ASEs and faculty. Of course, nothing of the sort has happened.

  • Crusty

    Sometimes, less civility is appropriate. It drives me nuts when I see professors saying things like that’s an interesting position, or, that’s curious, or, that’s a strange conclusion, when they really just mean that’s wrong or that’s dumb.

    • NonyNony

      Eh, that’s not civility. That’s an attempt to not squish a student. Getting students to open up with their own understandings and misunderstandings is crucial to figuring out whether they’re learning the material or not. If you as a prof constantly smack down students who try to answer your questions with a brusque “Nope”, you end up with students who get scared to say anything at all for fear of looking stupid in front of the other students. Leaving you with a class where nobody interacts with you at all.

      It’s a tough rope to walk, since sometimes you have a student who so obviously has completely misunderstood something that you have no choice but to kind of say “well, no, not really” and deal with it. But usually even the student who is mostly wrong still gets something right, and you can build off that and then work to correct the misunderstandings.

      • Crusty

        I’m not talking about discussions with students. I’m talking about discussions with peers, whether at conferences, through articles, blogs, or wherever. Yes, be nice to the kids. Sure, but every wrong or stupid position from your colleagues isn’t “interesting.”

        • xq

          Turning academic disagreements into personal battles doesn’t help anyone. People should make their disagreements clear, yes, but I don’t see the benefit in calling your colleagues’ position “stupid.” And, you know, sometimes they may actually be right, and if you’ve raised the stakes by attacking them harshly, it’s harder to back down.

        • NonyNony

          Oh I didn’t realize that you were talking about professors towards their peers because I have never attended a conference where there wasn’t at least one incident of someone standing up during the questioning phase of a presentation and saying some variation on “I think your entire thesis is bullshit and your results are basically statistical lies” or “This was already explored 30 years ago by X and shown to be an utter crap approach – can you explain why your work isn’t utter crap like X showed?”

          Perhaps it’s the field, but I’ve never seen PhDs be all that cordial towards each other’s work if they truly think it’s crap (unless of course they are good friends with the person with the crap work, in which case they follow the “if you can’t say anything nice, shut up so you can keep your friendship” motto as much as anyone else does…)

          • I’ve moved toward trying to be gentler even with colleagues at conferences and I think that’s a general trend around me. You have to be clear, of course, but I’ve changed my view that being overly blunt is either necessary or mostly constructive.

            I don’t, unlike some people, feel its necessary to start with some bullshit like “Oh very interesting paper, etc.” But I find I can press the “thesis is bullshit + statistical lies” effectively without phrasing it that way. At least initially. If people remain obtuse, then I can get sharper.

  • DonN

    This is such a wrong direction. I’ve published lots of papers and chaired a few conferences. All had a mix of academic and industry in computer architecture and software. The academics (with some exceptions, etc) were always better at just speaking their minds and making the conversation productive. My experience is limited in that most of the academic folks were tenured. I really hope we don’t end up with Corporate Light in the university.
    DN

  • apogean

    It’s funny that all these various provosts and deans are DEEPLY DEEPLY CONCERNED by incivility between people of relatively equal status who have no professional power over each other but w.r.t their treatment of students are like “nah that’s probably fine.” When that’s far more relevant to, say, students’ learning outcomes.

  • postmodulator

    Taking the side of university administrators causes me actual physical pain, but are we a hundred percent certain they don’t maybe have the tiniest shred of a point? I’ve been sitting here mentally cataloging the interactions I’ve had with professors in which they acted like rude, entitled jerks. (Not really as a student, I’ve encountered that only rarely, as IT staff at a university.) I got up to a couple of dozen just off the top of my head.

    • apogean

      I am far less worried about professors treating their colleagues equally and more their subordinates (students) and ostensible-equals-but-actually-subordinates (non-administrative staff).

      Speaking as a student, professors can be huge assholes with some consistency and never face any kind of social pressure or sanctions, formal or informal.

      • This is true, but I think growing less true.

        I’m pretty sure some things my professors said to me as a student would get them in a big boatload of trouble today. Less so if they were superstars.

    • NonyNony

      I’ve worked on both the IT support side at a university and as a teaching faculty (different universities).

      I think there’s plenty of rude, entitled jerks on BOTH sides of that conversation. There are plenty of university IT folks I’ve dealt with who think they’re God’s Gift to Technology and the University should be happy to employ them. Or others that think the network belongs to them and things would be fine if all of these pesky students and faculty weren’t messing it up by using it.

      I had to work with plenty of those clowns back in the day and I still end up dealing with them now. The entitlement from professors is there, but they aren’t the only ones.

      • postmodulator

        There are plenty of university IT folks I’ve dealt with who think they’re God’s Gift to Technology and the University should be happy to employ them.

        This is a fair point, and I would only temper it by saying that I don’t think it’s even specific to university IT staff. Far too many IT staff think they’re unique geniuses, precious and perfect, not bound by the rules of mortal men.

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