From the issue dated January 31, 2003
Department Politics as a Foreign Language
By KATHRYN HUME
Between longtime members of a department and the newest assistant professors
lies a gulf of incomprehension. Assistant professors cannot understand why
their helpfully meant suggestions in department meetings seem not to be
heard and are never voted into action. Senior members cannot understand how
bright candidates for tenure could be so stupid. Both sides have a point.
The problem lies in the language that divides these two tribes, a version of
English used to express departmental matters in public. Call it
Many young and some not-so-young "departmentals" never learn it properly,
condemning themselves to talking slowly and loudly in their original tongue,
wondering why no one seems to understand. The newly minted assistant
professor might, then, profitably study this primer in departmentese before
speaking up at the next department meeting.
Every language possesses cognitive blank spots. Latin has no one-word way of
saying Yes or No, while Anglo-Saxon does not distinguish among pale gray,
green, and yellow, calling them all fallow. Similarly, certain concepts
cannot be expressed in departmentese. The chief of these is self-interest.
In his mother tongue, a young faculty member can say, "If you do away with
the Medieval requirement, my graduate seminar won't make minimum enrollment,
I'll have no students, and because I really don't know anything about
literature written after 1485, I'll be forced to teach freshman
composition." Departmentese cannot express that sentiment.
In that stately language, he must instead say, "No one can be considered
educated who does not know Chaucer, and we would disgrace the department if
we lowered our standards this way." Changing the nature of the curriculum,
the distribution requirements, and the comprehensive exams must all be
negotiated without reference to the self-interest of people whose courses
may fail for lack of registration.
Many a department meeting consists entirely of dancing around the edge of
this hole in the language. When trying to see why a department is divided
over what seems like an obvious improvement, the assistant professor should
ask herself who gains and who loses. The proposer sincerely thinks that
Proposition X would improve the comprehensive exams but rarely expects to
give up something significant through the change. Those who oppose the
proposal expect to be hurt by it, whatever high moral claims or student
interests they invoke to justify their opposition.
Another linguistic blank concerns the shortcomings of colleagues. They may
publish nothing, hold few office hours, put no effort into grading papers,
and feud unremittingly, but most department cultures do not permit anyone to
point this out in meetings. When a department decides its hiring priorities,
watch the graceful footwork as skilled departmentals ease around this
If the Americanists push to hire someone with expertise in the first half of
the 20th century, they cannot say, "We have three people in that field
already, but they've published nothing for 15 years, their teaching is
terrible, and two of them won't speak to each other." Instead, the suave
departmental proclaims, "We need someone who will bring us national
recognition in this field because this is already a strong area, and a
dynamic hire will transform us into a magnet program."
Yes, the neophyte may feel that devoting a senior hire to a field with three
turkeys is throwing good money after bad and may wonder whether a really
stellar scholar would wish to join this unsavory flock unless fleeing a
sexual-harassment charge at home. Departmentese, however, has no words with
which to express these misgivings.
When a topic falls afoul of both self-interest and collegial shortcomings,
the two cognitive holes merge into a black hole, swallowing all discussion
that approaches either topic. That happens, for instance, when the dean
demands that the department raise its standards for tenure or when a main
campus makes that demand on a branch campus. Many who now have tenure would
not qualify by the new standards but cannot admit that to themselves, let
alone to others. Even those who have been prolific usually hesitate to say
aloud in a meeting that tenured colleagues A, B, and C should be
disqualified from voting on tenure because they would not meet the new
standards. The black hole swallows discussion, and assistant professors may
be given conflicting information because parts of the department are
pretending that nothing has changed.
The young professor who aspires to be listened to must learn institutionally
effective ways of approaching problems. Let us return to the original
problem: The neophyte says something in a department meeting, and after a
hiccup of silence, the discussion resumes as if nothing had been said. Most
universities operate in a manner reminiscent of both the Pentagon and the
Catholic Church. Few members of those establishments expect the draftees to
decide whom to fight, or the pope to take direction from the parishioners,
and neither draftees nor parishioners would find that demands for such
powers would win immediate welcome.
The academic equivalent is the assistant professor who proposes, for
example, a concentration in media and cultural studies to be built out of
thin air in a traditional literature department or who wants the department
to give far more weight to teaching in its tenure procedure.
Very often, the assistant professor argues for something that is too clearly
self-interested, thereby damaging the self-interest of others. More seminars
in cultural studies mean fewer for historical areas. Reduce the publication
requirement to accommodate more dedicated teaching (with computerized bells
and whistles), and the department and college would both lose in the
benchmarking studies of publication that determine everybody's raise and the
unit's standing in the university. The neophyte has no idea what the broader
effects of such a change might be or indeed that such effects exist.
Or consider the techno-literate assistant professor who sincerely believes
that all historical courses would be more effective if augmented by Web
sites (created by faculty members) loaded with art, readings, and music of
the period. The older professors are unlikely to know how to produce such a
thing and probably feel no need for it, having never experienced it. Those
who do not greet the idea with cries of joy are thinking about the time it
would take to learn to create what they consider a dubious benefit at best.
But why the silence? The assistant professor is sincere, idealistic, and
devoted to student interests, but proposing something that only she knows
how to do is self-interested. She loses no time in learning the skill and
might gain prestige from leading the department in new directions. Others
would lose months of working time that could be spent writing a couple of
major articles, for which they anticipate real rewards.
The department's inability to "hear" such suggestions relates to the lack of
language for self-interest and the issue of collegial incompetence. That
assistant professor can indeed advance her vision for the department but
must work incrementally. She should create her Web site and demonstrate it
to all who express interest. She should encourage and help friends to create
similar sites. Finally, in return for a course reduction, she could offer to
teach those now convinced of the worth of Web sites how to build one, and
she would gain that desired prestige in the long run. That approach could
work and would do her no political damage; trying to make Web sites into
policy at a department meeting makes her seem variously impractical,
unreasonable, or an irritating nuisance.
Most departmental issues affect individual self-interests, and assistant
professors must learn to recognize the self-interested kernel in their own
suggestions as well as the self-interest they can see all too easily in
others. They must work with the interests of others as much as possible and
be prepared to compromise. Those at the intellectual and political extremes
of the department tend to make demands that violate departmentese's
boundaries of self-interest and collegial criticism. Those whose positions
lie to one side of the middle but do not come across as extreme have some
chance of leading the department a few steps in their preferred direction. A
year or two later, the department may be ready to take another step in that
A major shift in department policy may well take a decade, and it will come
step by compromised step, so that self-interests can adjust. Assistant
professors who understand the cognitive blanks in departmentese quickly
become audible in department meetings. Those who do not doom themselves to
Kathryn Hume is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at
University Park and the author of American Dream, American Nightmare:
Fiction Since 1960 (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 49, Issue 21, Page B5