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From the issue dated January 31, 2003

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  • Paksoy, Hb
    From the issue dated January 31, 2003 OBSERVER Department Politics as a Foreign Language By KATHRYN HUME Between longtime members of a department and the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2003
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      From the issue dated January 31, 2003


      Department Politics as a Foreign Language

      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
      linguistic gap.

      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
      same direction.

      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
      sickening frustration.

      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
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