Collegiality needs a reboot

Inclusive language, clear expectations and a genuine spirit of collaboration will make academia a more humane sector to work in, says Harvey Graff

March 7, 2022
Children in wellington boots, arm in arm, representing collegiality in higher education
Source: iStock

The debasement and abuse of the ideal of collegiality is regularly attested to in university hallways, “academic Twitter” and the higher education press alike – not least in my own recent article in Times Higher Education.

But posters and commenters seldom discuss the dynamics of both interpersonal and institutional power differentials. And they rarely offer concrete solutions.

I declare myself guilty on the second count. But allow me to attempt to rectify that failing. Drawing on my 50 years of experience, as well as intense conversations with younger (and older) scholars, I wish to propose a more equal set of academic interrelationships across ranks, ages and levels of experience that are embedded in both institutional and interpersonal relationships.

Three steps are required. The first recognises – as many of us do in our scholarship – the power of language to affect thought and action. Minimally, this requires efforts to remove from personal and institutional usage such derogatory terms as “novice”, “beginner”, “junior” and “probationary” – let alone “sessional” and “adjunct” and the even more challenging “assistant”, “associate” and “full” professor. Those deemed assistants and associates are not incomplete parts of a whole.

Second, we need to live up to our reflexive but uncritical assertions that we welcome and respect all appointees as genuine colleagues. We must perfect a tricky but not impossible balancing act between genuinely regarding them as equals while acknowledging real differences of rank, experience, age and power. We must support them to succeed without demanding deference. Sharing and exchange at all levels is the fulcrum of collegial relationships.

In this vein, we must also acknowledge and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. It sounds obvious, but, whatever administrators may claim, very few faculty will attest that this is the current norm.

Present guidelines and expectations must clearly be better enforced. But they must also be continually revised and re-explained. Professional advancement is a moving target; its human and institutional contexts demand constant reinterpretation.

Third, performance expectations must be revised and clarified. Transparency should replace manipulative and self-serving confidentiality. Specifically, we need explicit written requirements for all three aspects of the standard academic role (research, teaching and service) – including the means by which quality will be determined. This will remove the frequent perceptions of unfairness in appointment and tenure decisions that can corrode faculty fellow feeling with accusations of double standards.

For research, everyone must know the number and quality of papers, books or disciplinary equivalents they are expected to produce within a certain timescale. For teaching, we need careful, supportive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the standard modes of evaluation and regulation of subjective and personality factors. Class visits, for example, should always be constructive and supportive; quantitative measures must be employed with care.

We should also eliminate pointless, time-consuming busy work, such as the preparation of outsized review dossiers that literally no one reads. But we should institute constructive annual conferences between individuals and a carefully chosen group of advisors, consisting of department chair and tenured colleagues in relevant fields.

Finally, pre-tenure faculty should be afforded release time and material research support. Too often, such resources are lavished on established “research stars” rather than on younger colleagues at make-or-break periods of their careers. There should also be release time for personal needs, including paid maternity and paternity leave.

The three dynamics I describe all come down to the diminution of unnecessary professional uncertainties. Expectations of success would combine with the mutuality of shared teaching and learning across all levels.

But rule changes will not be sufficient. They will not guarantee mutual respect, fairness or humanity. Nor will new regulations on hiring, reviews, tenure, promotion and all the rest necessarily be followed. An overarching culture change is also required – and that must be constantly modelled by senior staff, not just department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents but also tenured colleagues.

Indeed, today’s overflowing ranks of administrators, especially in deans’ and provosts’ offices, could be put to better use regularly training those most actively engaged in reviewing colleagues and supervising graduate students to ensure they implement the rules in both the letter and the spirit intended.

Are my demands too challenging? Too radical? Too idealistic? Some will respond that successful academics will never become team players. And it is true that inculcating a mutual respect that stands upright beside the realities of graduate studies, job searches, assistant professorships, tenure and “promotion through the ranks” is a delicate balancing act or dance that will demand fundamental re-education for many.

On the other hand, the ideal of collegiality is one of the advertised aspects of the “life of the mind” that drew many of us into the academy in the first place. And can we not accept the basic truth that we all have a great deal to learn from and teach each other? These mutual relationships are explicitly understood and admitted by anyone who has responsibly supervised graduate students, worked professionally and respectfully with younger untenured faculty, or participated in student and faculty reviews at any level.

With our own movement up the ladders of professional accomplishment and security must come learning and integrity, an encompassing mode of responsibility. It should be one mark of professional graduate education and supervision – no longer deemed “training”, as if for a pet or infant. 

For academia to finally meet its stated historical and contemporary goal of advancing humanity, we must begin at home. We must break the vicious, self-perpetuating cycles at all levels that make so many junior colleagues roll their eyes when their seniors invoke collegiality.

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.

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