Wednesday, November 11, 2009


When I was a young professor, I had a brief but transformative experience that still affects my behavior in Faculty Meetings to this day.

I was in a department in which various faculty were having trouble behaving in a respectful way to each other. I got along reasonably well with everyone, perhaps because I had not been there for very long, but I may have been the only one who did.

Even so, I often felt that my opinion did not count as much as that of my senior colleagues. I was new to being a professor, however, and assumed that this was the fate of assistant professors.

Some of my colleagues eventually got to the point where they couldn't even say hello to each other in the hall, so we had a special faculty meeting to discuss ways to be nicer to each other. We talked about the importance of collegiality. We talked about being respectful of our differences of opinion, and we all agreed to try to be nicer to each other.

The department chair said that he strongly believed that each and every faculty member had something valuable to contribute and that he would like each of us to give our opinion on a certain important issue facing the department. We went around the table and each person gave their opinion.

When it was my turn, the chair and another senior faculty member got up and went to pour themselves some coffee. While doing so, they chatted with each other about something else. I wondered if I should wait for them to come back to the table, but another colleague said "Go on, finish what you're saying."

So I did, although the chair and the other colleague clearly had no idea what my opinion was and clearly did not care. They returned in time for the senior colleague sitting next to me to expound on the issue, and gave him their full attention.


What do I do now that I am a senior professor and have been to many many faculty meetings? Do I give each and every person my full attention? Well, no, I do not, but neither do I try to be overt about my attention-straying. I have worked long and hard at appearing to be listening even when I am not giving someone my full attention.

Perhaps this strays perilously close to behaving like my obnoxious former colleagues, but it is a sanity-saving method that I find necessary to employ from time to time in faculty meetings.

I was thinking about this recently during a meeting in which a colleague sitting next to me sighed loudly, shifted in his chair, and rolled his eyes whenever a certain other colleague spoke. I actually felt the same way he did, but I suppressed my sighs, stayed still in my chair, and restrained my eyes from rolling. I did not pay close attention to what the crazy-boring colleague was saying, but I was respectful.

There are certain faculty who, when they start to speak, can safely be tuned out with no danger of losing the overall thread of the discussion. I think that the department chair should develop a polite way to circumvent or shut down their rants. I wish that we as a faculty could find polite ways to make it clear that self-serving pointless rants are not an acceptable way to spend our collective time. I wish that these ranting people would move to a moon of Saturn.

Perhaps my polite passivity in the face of time-wasting speechifying is part of the problem of why faculty meetings are generally useless and annoying. Perhaps, but I do not want to be like my former colleagues who ignored me in a humiliating way in my professorial youth.


Anonymous said...

What an awful experience!
I was hoping that the ending of the story would be that you complained about not being heard and used their exact behaviour as an illustrative example but I certainly also understand that you were not in a position to do so.

Anonymous said...

People will be people. Everyone becomes like his/her boss one day. Accept it.

Anonymous said...

As an older "junior" faculty member, I am paticularly disturbed when I am largely ignored at department meetings. Because my university has a ridiculously over-ambitious stratigic plan with a dearth of faculty to support it, I have found myself overloaded with service duties, including chairing a critical committee in our department. Yet when I delivered my report at last month's meeting, one tenured faculty member had the audacity to fall asleep. Granted they could have fallen asleep during anyone's report. It just isn't appropriate nor professional under any circumstances.

amy said...

I love the coffee story -- it's a perfect example of the kind of dismissiveness that occurs all the time, but that the person on the receiving end really can't do much about. If you say anything, it just looks petty, and many people won't even believe that anything wrong happened. You're just "overly sensitive." That's the genius of passive-aggressive behavior -- it's extremely difficult for the recipient to combat.

I don't think there's anything wrong with only pretending to pay close attention to obnoxious people in meetings. One of the main jobs of the department chair is to organize the meeting, keep it on track, and rein in the bloviaters. If s/he isn't willing to do that, there's not much else that can be done. Eye-rolling and sighing are just more passive-aggressive behavior, and they don't make any difference anyway. Pompous windbags and ranters enjoy the fact that they're imposing their views on others, taking up lots of time, etc. It's an exercise of power for someone who feels like they have little power in life -- they can at least force others to sit and be quiet, no matter how much the others don't want to be there. The more you indicate that you don't want to be there, but you have no choice, the more power they feel. The only exception, in my opinion, is if a ranter starts spewing something racist, sexist, or otherwise harmful to others; then I think we have to speak up and tell them to knock it off. Senior profs, especially, should try to protect junior profs at meetings -- don't allow nastiness to go unchallenged.

studyzone said...

After 6 years as a grad student and now 2 years as a postdoc, with male PIs who interrupt me in the middle of sentences, talk over me, or just ignore what I say, I'm convinced that I have nothing important, intelligent or noteworthy to say.

Anonymous said...

Our dept. is generally nice, but yeah, that's why I never speak in faculty meetings, who care what a female junior faculty member has to say? A funny thing happened to me during one of my annual evaluations, in which you are paired with two senior faculty who listen to your report and give advice for improvement. As I was speaking to my "evaluators" about my accomplishments and troubles to date, one fell asleep. So much about evaluating and mentoring junior faculty. LOL I am cinical, so it was almost expected.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think that the department chair should develop a polite way to circumvent or shut down their rants. I wish that we as a faculty could find polite ways to make it clear that self-serving pointless rants are not an acceptable way to spend our collective time. I wish that these ranting people would move to a moon of Saturn.

Yeah, and I want a sparkle pony with unicorns and rainbows streaming out of its sparkly ass.

Arlenna said...

So far, I don't know if I am just extremely lucky with my set of colleagues, or if I am still such a novelty as a young woman in the dept (the only one out of 26 total faculty members for about 15-20 years--the other two wonderful female faculty are relatively senior by this point) that everyone is trying REALLY hard to make sure they are responsive to what I have to say. Definitely having a great dept. chair helps. Hopefully the shine doesn't rub off after a few years...

Anonymous said...

Maybe you can suggest all ranting faculties to start their own blog? This way they will have some other means to take out their frustration.

mixlamalice said...

"I did not pay close attention to what the crazy-boring colleague was saying, but I was respectful."

Do we have to conclude that respect and hypocrisy are closely related?

When someone is talking non-sense, is it better to tell him so (and to risk open conflict) or to just pretend that this is interesting (and to risk a more subtle - and perhaps more dangerous- type of conflict when the person realize you actually don't care at all and think she/he is a morron even though you pretended to be nice)?

Well I don't know the answer but to me it seems that these two ways of dealing with problems reveal some kind of Old World/New World cultural difference.

Jasmine said...

I was just referred to your blog by a friend and am loving it. I'm a PhD student in art history, have been teaching for my entire post-graduate career, and love reading about your experiences.

Today I'm planning on giving my students a small lecture on appropriate behaviors between students and graduate students who are teachers. There's been some appalling behavior lately, mostly dealing with divergent levels of respect to those instructors of theirs who happen to be graduate students.

Anyhow, I'm now addicted to your blog. Should become a great outlet for procrastination, especially between now and the start of my preliminary exams in 9 days.

Kevin said...

I'm senior in my department now, but my behavior has not changed much since I was a brand-new assistant professor. I've never had much patience with the "bloviators" and have often said "can we get back to the agenda?" Luckily, I've mostly had competent department chairs who minimized the number of faculty meetings and kept them on track. Only the most recent chair has been into longer, slower, more frequent meetings.

I've also been fortunate that (at least for the past couple of decades) there have been no bitter personal conflicts among the faculty of the departments I've been in. There have been disagreements, of course, and at one point I got to the point of not being able to work with someone I'd co-authored a paper with (over his reluctance to provide a grad student access to a dataset), but it was still possible to go to faculty meetings and have on-topic, useful conversations about curriculum and other essential departmental matters.

Perhaps it helped that I've been in engineering departments, and those faculty who were unhappy went off to industry, rather than staying around to make everyone else miserable.

We never have refreshments at our faculty meetings---who wants to encourage them to be even longer?

Anonymous said...

Kevin, your penis makes it more acceptable to say things like that when you are a new faculty member.

Kevin said...

"Kevin, your penis makes it more acceptable to say things like that when you are a new faculty member."

Perhaps---there is no control on the experiment———I can't go back and try it again. On the other hand, one of the most outspoken members of my previous department was female and her career did not suffer from her speaking her mind. She earns substantially more than me now, despite being hired several years later. (Actually, 9-month salaries are close---the big difference is that she has grant money that can pay her summer salary.)

Another, more softly spoken woman in the same department makes about the same 9-month salary, so I don't think that there is evidence in that department to support that either the outspoken or the softly-spoken approach had any better outcomes.

aceon said...

I think there is a distinction between politeness (what I would call it when you make it less obvious that you are not listening to someone) and respect, which entails some actual regard for the persons character, abilities, etc... Pretending respect may be hypocritical but being polite is not.

Unknown said...

I disliked the faculty meetings at my previous department when I was a junior faculty member. There were just insignifcant discussions and complete a waste of time in my opinion. Thus I rarelly say anything to at least not add any more useless garbage. I remember think: people just like to hearing themselves talking. But I was seriously critized as being not caring about the departmental issues etc. by the senior faculty and chair. I did not like the criticisms at all and eventually left for another institution. Now my department is great: down-to-earth and practical. People are busy and focused.

DrDoyenne said...

Good example of how females (or other subordinates) are marginalized in a way that is difficult to challenge.

However, challenging such behavior is the only way to change it and 1) let the offenders know that you recognize what they are up to and 2) you won't put up with it.

There are better ways to deal with both passive-aggressive and openly aggressive colleagues:


It's tempting to fall into disrespectful behavior toward boorish colleagues when you achieve some status. I know I struggle to keep a straight face when incompetent colleagues are spouting off.

Sighing and eye-rolling don't really affect the group's view of another person. However, such behavior does call attention to your lack of patience and respect for others.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, congrats for thinking of two whole examples of women so you can dismiss the experiences of other women. Cross off that space on the Gender Bias Bingo Card. Check the chronicle's listing of salaries for men and women scientists doing the same jobs at all universities. Hint: You won't find a pattern of women making more than men for doing the same job.
Selective listening isn't listening.

mixlamalice said...

To anonymous at 5.46 pm

Kevin wrote: "so I don't think that there is evidence in that department to support that either the outspoken or the softly-spoken approach had any better outcomes."

If I read carefully, he only talks about "that" particular department.
The one that generalizes excessively is perhaps not him...

a physicist said...

Why is Kevin being bashed? His first comment simply told his experience. An anonymous commenter then characterized his experience as being due to his being a man. Kevin refuted it calmly by pointing out that "in that department" there were examples that showed that one woman had a similar experience apparently without negative repercussions. Another anonymous comment (perhaps the same person?) then implied that Kevin was generalizing to all women in all departments.

Come on: I know there are awful sexist males who post outrageous comments on this blog, people who demonstrate total cluelessness when it comes to gender bias issues. Nothing in Kevin's post reads that way. You're refuting points that he didn't make.

Full disclosure: I too am male. But I don't know Kevin.

More related to the original post: I've heard a more senior person I respect point out that it's important to let everybody feel like they had a chance to say what they want to say at faculty meetings. Allowing people to say what they want to say doesn't mean that you have to listen to what they say.

Kevin said...

Note: in my above comments I was not attempting to answer the question whether women were discriminated against in academia, in my university, or even in my former department. I have seen some figures (10 years old now) that showed women were getting hired at about the same salaries as men (after correcting for differing pay scales in different fields), but were not being promoted as quickly. I was not able to find more recent figures, though I know that there have been attempts by the personnel committee to address this problem in promotions.

The former department now has 4 female faculty and 14 male (counting only tenure-track---all the non-tenure track lecturers and soft-money adjuncts are male). Of the females, 3 are full professors, one is a new assistant professor. Their salaries all seem to be consistent with the salaries of men hired at the same time (indeed, in one case a couple were hired at the same time, and the female has been a full professor for a while, but the male is still an associate, because of a weaker research and teaching record).

1) different outcomes for women and men are well documented in academia generally, and were well-documented 10 years ago in my university.

2) my most direct experience does not show such discrimination for advancement within the departments I've been a part of, but the male/female ratio in the departments is far from 50/50, due mostly to initial hiring patterns.

(The hiring actually may be favoring women slightly, as the pools we recruit from are even more imbalanced than the departments, but the sample is way too small to be able to determine that.)

What I was commenting on is that being outspoken as a junior faculty member does not seem to have been a significant factor in delaying or accelerating progress in the two departments I've been in.
Disclaimer: I was one of the earliest hires in both departments, so there was not a large entrenched faculty to be offended by outspoken new faculty.

John Vidale said...

Another variegated and interesting exchange. Some random thoughts.

The remark at 12:47 highlights how some people are still incapable of collegial discussion.

The main burden is on the Chair to extricate discussions stuck in the mud, a challenging task.

I think most faculty feel inadequately listened-to much of the time, as we tend to be know-it-alls.

Anonymous said...

In case it is helpful to have a penis-less data point, let me offer my own. As a junior faculty member my favorite response to the chair's question of "Are there further comments" was "Yes, can we vote now?". I got tenure anyway.

Once, upon me trying to second a motion, my chair said "I think we should get a second from someone more important on this one." I am not convinced this crappy comment had anything to do with my penis-less-ness, but it was hard to tell.

Ooooh, I can I have one of those sparkle ponies with unicorns and rainbows streaming out of its sparkle ass too?!

Anonymous said...

Women are often given less consideration when they talk compared with men especially when they are in the minority at the meeting. I've had it happen to me so often I can now recognize quickly when a new situation is going to degenerate into such a scenario. It can turn into a vicious cycle - being treated this way chronically can eventually (may take months or years) erode one's interest in future participation and create apathy ("if no one ever listens to me why bother saying anything anymore, why not just save my breath?") This in turn reinforces the ignorer's attitudes that women have nothing important to say.

I'm senior faculty, female, and I've had male assistant professors treat me this way during faculty meetings, which is irritating to say the least.

Anonymous said...

@mix la malice:

"tolerance is another word for indifference"

mixlamalice said...

But is "politeness" another word for "respect"?

Anonymous said...

Hey JohnV, I'm absolutely able to carry on a conversation at a level of intelligence fitting to such a blog. However, you, also having a penis, have no idea what it's like to be a female academic.

As the sole female faculty member in a department of 25 men, most of whom are 25-30 years my senior (I'm also the youngest in my department by 8 years) my experience is highly colored by the fact that I am treated differently because I do not have a penis.

As you are also of the penis-bearing variety, I wouldn't expect you to understand how difficult and isolating it is to know that your words and ideas are not taken as seriously as your male counterparts. So yeah, I said 'penis.'

EliRabett said...

So we went around the table, and the last two were your's truly and another. Eli said, nothing to add, and the other said me too.

We both got a lot of capital.

Anonymous said...

As a 1st year female assistant professor (in the sciences), I laughed out loud when I read this. I came from a grad program where animosity between "colleagues" was so bad that they took to attacking one another's grad students for sport. I love what I do and chose a small school because of the faculty hostility I saw and endured in school. Thank God for my small department and short departmental meetings.