junior faculty jam session #3 – be a kind and decent colleague

Junior faculty jam session #1, #2.

When people give out advice to junior faculty, it often focuses on academic strategy, work-family balance issues, and figuring out what the tenure process is all about. In this installment of junior faculty jam session, I want to focus on something that often gets sidelined – how to be a decent human being.

Academia is full of regular, normal human beings. We bring all our assets and our faults to the job. That is why academia has its fair share of divas, curmudgeons, hot-heads, harassers, sadists, and egotists. I don’t think that’s different than any other line of work. However, academia has two features that magnify our human faults. First, tenure and low job mobility. If you’re a jerk, you’ll torture your colleagues for years, possibly decades. Second, we’re talkers and writers. So if we feel slighted, you’ll hear about it – a lot.

My advice then is simply this: be a solution, don’t be the type of academic who is difficult at work. Because, honestly, getting published and doing well by your students is hard enough. We don’t need our workplace colleagues to make things worse.

I am not suggesting that you should be a cheery, saccharine person, even though that would be preferable than some of the angry people I’ve met in academic life. Rather, this is about civility. Here are my suggestions about being a decent person at work.

  1. Be nice to people, but you can be rough on ideas: Academia can be hyper critical. We need that attitude to judge what is good and bad. But we make a mistake when we treat people badly. So you can say, “look, I don’t buy this argument.” But you shouldn’t then think, or say, that the person is a moron. Similarly, you should be mellow toward students.
  2. Be responsive:  Academia is a team effort. You need to work with your TA to get papers graded. Maybe your run a lab, which employs many people. Even if you don’t manage people yourself, almost every academic receives requests like letters of recommendation, peer reviews, and so forth. Even if you can’t do them, simply write back with a short – “thanks, but I am busy.” If you are the type of fuzzy headed academic who forgets things, like I do, spend time about once or twice a month going through email to make sure you caught it all. Also, practice triage – it’s ok to respond to some things fast but wait a week or so to get to other emails.
  3. Have reasonable expectations for students and colleagues: If you are on the tenure track, it’s probably because you did well in school for many years and then did well in the research game. People like that can be very fussy. But I think it is important to lower your standards a bit. Not everyone can win big grants and publish epic papers. Your typical sophomore is probably barely keeping up with the readings. Same with graduate students – not all will become research intensive faculty. Come up with standards that an *average* student may have. The same applies to your colleagues. Not all will be super star academics. Many are thrilled to have tenure and the move into teaching intensive phases of their career. That is very valuable and we should treat them well.
  4. Treat everyone as a neighbor: Every person in your department is a human being who merits basic civility at work. So not only should you be kind to your faculty colleagues, but also be mellow toward the office staff, undergrad and graduate students, college administration, and the physical staff.
  5. The world is not a battle: It is easy to see the world as a place of battle where you, the person with the Truth, is right and other people should be fought and vanquished. That’s usually not the case. So learn to see most people as just regular people with regular problems.
  6. Let it go: Nine times out of ten, it is better to just let things go. There are very few times in your career where “standing your ground” will make the world a better place.

When I speak about civility and being a good human being, sometimes people will ask if I am just glossing over real problems. What if someone is really toxic? Or there are serious racial issues or issues around sexual harassment in the department? I think the response is straight forward – being decent and civil is a default, not an iron clad rule. I can imagine *some* situations where being combative and difficult is a smart thing, but that’s probably not the average situation. Typically, many problems disappear and being mellow and responsive will help resolve many more. If nothing else, you can save your energy for truly big problems.

So that it my advice to your: Be excellent to each other!


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Written by fabiorojas

May 6, 2019 at 4:01 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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