Collegiality helped me endure a rough ride from a columnist

Reaching out to a trusted community reminded Karen Spierling why she values academia enough to defend it in the public arena

May 28, 2023
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In a time of rising challenges in global higher education, academic collegiality has made a comeback as a topic of conversation and concern. Recent discussions emphasise why it is worthwhile for institutions and department leaders to foster collegiality, as well as how individuals may benefit from practising it, both in terms of professional success and personal mental health.

But an equally important yet overlooked advantage of collegiality is that a network of respect and support within the academy can help us to engage in interactions far beyond it that are crucial to defending the value of higher education in general and liberal arts in particular, but which can often be fraught.

I received a stark reminder of this recently when I published an essay in Inside Higher Ed about the importance of recognising that institutions of higher education exist in the very complicated “real world”, not apart from it. The essay drew the attention of Ryan Craig, a business writer at Forbes, and while I was thrilled that I had reached an audience beyond higher ed, I was outraged by the dismissive tone of the critique.

My immediate impulse was to rise to the bait and defend myself against the list of provocative statements intended to hold the interest of readers at my expense. But, fortunately, long-developed habits of collegiality came to my rescue. Instead of dashing off a hasty response, I shared the column with a small group of professional contacts – friends from graduate school, connections in the broader history profession, and colleagues on my campus – whose perspectives I trust and respect, and whose responses I knew would not be, “Oh, that critic is so right!”

I was not asking any of those colleagues to engage in a public argument with Ryan or to otherwise come to my defence. I was simply reaching out to a trusted community to remind myself of why I value academia enough to step into the public arena to talk about it.

Of course, professional relationships based on respect, trust and mutual support (oiled, in the best cases, by humour) is not the only way that collegiality has been defined or enacted. At American and Canadian institutions in particular, collegiality can be a highly fraught category in the tenure and promotion process. Even informal or unspoken expectations around it, often not clearly defined, can be employed in ways that leave academics scarred, angry or even professionally destroyed.

Problematic notions of collegiality, such as taking on heavy service loads, doing favours for senior colleagues, or tolerating inconsiderate bad behaviour can be particularly stressful for the increasing proportion of faculty whose personal lives and obligations differ from those of the stereotypical 20th-century white male academic whose wife raised the children and ran the household. But this dark side of collegiality in some situations does not negate its potential as a positive force in others. In fact, many of us have been able to persist through treacherous or hostile work experiences only with the guidance and support of colleagues.

The common bond of my own collegial circle is a dedication to the art of teaching, the value exchanging ideas and the practice of asking questions and modelling social and intellectual curiosity. And these priorities are precisely what can feel threatened when we engage in exchanges with people whose starting assumptions about the purpose of higher education may seem strikingly different from our own.

As teachers, we are experienced at fostering discussion in the moment and at encouraging the development of critical thinking over the long term. If your explanations don’t connect with a student or a student doesn’t grasp the material in the first week of classes, you have until the end of the semester to work through it with them, until they arrive at their own new way of thinking about the world.

Public exchanges in national publications don’t work this way. Once we make our contributions, we cannot do anything else in the moment to encourage readers to think through our ideas carefully or ask trenchant questions. We cannot respond to their quizzical facial expressions to draw them into conversation.

Even when you write for an academic journal, it is only in exceptional cases that a single essay will persuade anyone to rethink their world views. And there is the near certainty that some readers will misread, misconstrue or dismiss what you have to say. But at least the slow-moving process of academic publication provides lots of opportunities to present ideas to different audiences, receive feedback and engage in debate along the way.

In contrast, in the rush to publish in the public arena, there is seldom time for the kinds of curious questions that open productive conversations and allow us to climb into other people’s points of view and really look around.

And yet, taking the risk of engaging in the public arena is crucial if we don’t want people and forces outside of academia to define our purpose and decide our fate. Supportive circles of collegiality can help us weather unfair criticism and resist the impulse to throw up our hands in defeat.

They can also help us remember that we are playing the long game, too, when we step into the public arena to defend higher education and the liberal arts as a social necessity and a public good.

Karen Spierling is professor of history and a past director of the global commerce programme at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

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