Academic collegiality is a contradictory, self-serving myth

Senior academics who flatter juniors and promulgate a high-minded vision of higher education are all in recruitment mode, says Harvey Graff

February 10, 2022
Sedan chair being carried
Source: Getty (edited)

A colleague and friend, who is on the verge of tenure after 10 years as an assistant professor at several universities, scorns the word “mentoring”. She says it is too often “systemic abuse couched under a different name, designed to add privilege to the so-called mentor”. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that “there is no such thing as mentoring – there is only human resource management”.

I am used to such remarks. I retired as a professor a few years ago, but continue to assist (let’s not say mentor) a group of thirty-something women academics, and some men, in a variety of ways, from giving them career advice to editing their manuscripts to accompanying them in pursuit of reality therapy. The frank conversations permitted by such informal, off-campus arrangements reinforce my own conclusion – only occasionally and softly spoken – about academia, after almost 50 years as an assistant, associate and full professor at three different universities: that collegiality is a myth embedded in contradictions that works to the benefit of senior faculty and administrators.

The contradictions begin with the intertwined processes of professional self-selection and professorial recruitment. We are driven by intellectual interests and idealism to pursue “terminal” degrees. Few of us are unaffected by the myths of collegiality, wrapped in banners of objectivity and impersonal standards. But the direct and indirect advisers and mentors who dazzle us with this vision also have their agendas.

Would-be PhD students are still at impressionable ages. Our early to mid-twenties are an early time of life to commit to multiple years of career “preparation”, especially with job security being uncertain for the past few decades. The German term for PhD supervisor, Doktorvater (doctor father), is not completely anachronistic – but surrogate parent/child relationships can easily become pathological. (My late father-in-law could not comprehend why “after all those years in school” my new PhD qualified me only to “assist” a “full professor”.)

Let me be clear. In no way do I diminish the importance of academics’ often sincere commitment to the “life of the mind”, the pursuit of knowledge, the education of the next generation or the fight to create a better world: these ideals were my guiding lights, too. However, they play out in very real social, cultural, political, economic and personal contexts that we ignore at our individual and collective peril.

The compliments and confirmations of our “mentors” are, consciously or otherwise, part of their search for new “troops” to lead across the intellectual battlefield, reinforcing and expanding their influence and, hopefully, helping them leave a permanent mark on their field. They don’t tell their would-be recruits that the drive and perfectionism they admire in them will deny their human fragility and potentially push them to the edge. They don’t tell them about the isolation that will grip them (especially in non-scientific fields). They don’t tell them about the cycles of highs and lows, the great strides taken on unstable psychological ground. They don’t tell them about the very real but ever-camouflaged power relationships that their ambition will constantly run up against.

All these realities militate against the development of a sustaining sense of solidarity, shared experience and mutual support that is important at all hierarchical levels but especially among graduate students and untenured professors – and, above all, among women and minority scholars.

Such unhealthy dynamics are exacerbated by the combination of unstated and ignored rules and procedures for degree advancement, teaching observations, tenure and post-tenure reviews, annual appraisals and assessments (which often encompass “predictions” of possible promotion). Inequality and uncertainty colour structural and personal interactions at every level, from graduate study through to final reviews.

I was denied early tenure in my first academic position because of antisemitism among some faculty at a new, expanding Texas public university in the mid-1970s. There was certainly academic jealousy mixed in with the bigotry, too. Many of the tenured faculty had been recruited under a self-promotional banner of unique “interdisciplinarity”, but most had been denied tenure or promotion at their previous institutions. The “promise” (note the word) of we junior faculty exceeded theirs; as one of the younger social scientists memorably quipped, “Aren’t we all someone famous’s best student?” The resulting personnel decisions to dismiss certain junior faculty after one or two years constituted a human tragedy.

There is another contradiction we should admit. Mixed in with our early embrace of academia’s high ideals is often a sense that, actually, people like us have few other good career options. Rightly or wrongly, we – again, especially in the humanities and social sciences – think that we are ill-suited to succeed in alternative careers. Moreover, many of us are not convinced that we are even good scholars and teachers. Frequent exposures of actual impostors (as opposed to mere posturers) exacerbate the insecurities – both genuine and learned – that feed this impostor syndrome.

And even though poor role models may be acknowledged as such, that doesn’t mean a “junior” professor might not unconsciously adopt some bad habits. That fact that my adviser/supervisor and tenured colleagues treated me and my peers in ways that were – readers may choose their own terms here – harsh, ambiguous or overly rigorous can compel them to do the same to their own juniors.

As all academics know, the too-often-unacknowledged consequence of all these complexes is aggression. In particular, they result in micro-aggressions by senior faculty and doctoral advisers towards younger colleagues and students who speak out and/or succeed too spectacularly, too quickly.

The use and abuse of terms such as “colleague”, “collegiality”, “review” and “mentor” call for individual and collective re-examination. A generation ago, we would have called it deconstruction. Today, we can just call it long overdue.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history and an Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio State University. His latest book, Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. He thanks a number of young and not-so-young colleagues, whom he will not identify here.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

As the season of goodwill comes around again, warm words about collegiality and fellowship have been dutifully corralled into all-staff missives from university leaders. But in an era of management, metrics and industrial unrest, does the image of the academy as a commonwealth of scholars still bear scrutiny? Seven academics have their say 

23 December