Advancement Through Narrative: Reflecting, Listening, Changing

By Jennifer Diascro and Susan Sterett

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“I need to build a house for my house.”  So began a reflection at a workshop that brought together faculty and administrators from political science to discuss what graduate students and faculty members need in the academy to thrive. What allows people to have a house for their house?

More often than not, when we think about how to thrive we try to take advice about how to succeed in our particular work settings. And this individualized information can be very valuable. Yet, our tendency is to provide suggestions that work within existing institutions. To be sure, we may share what hasn’t been effective, but most advice comes from a position of successfully navigating current structures by those who have benefitted from them. Among the notable lessons from the recent explosion of news about sexual assault in the public and private sectors is what happens when people in a profession treat persistent practices as universal and out of our control. We have legitimate complaints that we may vocalize from time to time, but mostly we work around the problems we encounter and go about our business because the norms of behavior and structures for advancement seem to provide us few choices. This is particularly true for the more disadvantaged among us, including in the academy, who are encouraged to choose strategically about family, and to negotiate individually and collectively. While well-meaning, the concern is that this contributes to an already lopsided playing field, where the burden rests on those with more to lose.

An alternative approach to learning about how to thrive is to emphasize narratives about professional experiences. While personal and anecdotal, storytelling encourages more reflection, more engagement with others, and more attention to both positive and negative experiences, than advice does. It provides an opportunity to think critically about how institutions can change to benefit everyone.

To provide this kind of opportunity, a diverse group of political science faculty and administrators gathered at the University of California, Washington Center last month to share stories of experiences at work, courtesy of the support of a workshop grant from the National Science Foundation. As part of the work of the Western Political Science Association Standing Committee on the Status of Women, we hope to use this blog as a space to share narratives about work experiences and to think collectively about how to improve those experiences through institutional change.

We invite others to participate in this conversation by offering as talking points some of the themes and specific reflections that emerged from the October workshop. We also welcome additional ideas for transforming our work environments and promoting our professional advancement.

Among the broad themes discussed were:

  • Transparency: in communication and availability of information and procedures
  • Labor: the incentives, rewards, and definitions of work
  • Status: within the tenure track, but also between tenure and non-tenure track
  • Diversity and inclusion: among faculty members, students, and curriculum
  • Time: the abuse and devaluation of our most fundamental resource

Among the reflections shared, all recognized the complexity of institutional structures and many suggested ideas for institutional change. Here we discuss just a few.

Be kind. It should go without saying.  But the academy doesn’t always cultivate professional behavior, let alone kindness. Surely, faculty can learn how to manage difficult people and treat each other respectfully, recognizing the many contributions we all make to our classrooms, departments, universities, and disciplines. We’ve seen some terrific examples of overcoming division countering exclusion and promoting work of women and people of color. Additionally, we can mitigate alienation among different types of faculty by doing simple things like eliminating segregation among faculty in online department listings by part-time and non-tenure track status.

Mentorship is easier said than done. We know how important mentors are for advancement, and we often talk about seeking advice and connecting with others as if it’s straightforward. Yet we also know that finding supportive, effective, mentors can be a challenge, and that gender and race complicate an already difficult process. Moreover, being a mentor is an enormous responsibility and can be a burden, especially for women and faculty of color whose time and other resources are spread thin by the many demands on them. As we continue to work on these individual relationships, it’s encouraging to see webinars such as those produced by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity that providing alternatives to traditional forms of mentorship. If your university is a member of the Center, it may be worth seeking more information about the available resources. If it’s not a member, it may be worth encouraging it to join.

Semi-mandatory social hours outside of work hours can be problematic.  One of the ways that we connect with each other is through after-hours social events. Yet these gatherings can be problematic for many in the profession. In its work on inclusion, the American Philosophy Association has a best practices guide that includes a note about the potential problems associated with alcohol and accessibility at social events of which departments should be aware.  In the context of recent discussions of sexual harassment and assault in the professions, Helen Rosner asks men to think carefully about why they might find themselves in all male gatherings; there may be reasonable explanations, but there may not be. Similarly, faculty and graduate students might  reflect on whether they are in all white, ,child free, able-bodied, or straight gatherings. Of course we need friends at work and group gatherings off campus can be very useful in developing community, fostering mentoring relationships, and promoting advancement. But if they systematically exclude some of our colleagues, then they violate the story the profession tells about how it rewards intellectual and social diversity.

Family life isn’t only about leave. Most of our family life happens while we are working. Academic life can be isolating, at all stages. Offhand comments about who is likely to work well because they are around or not, or have children, or have responsibilities for family care, sends messages about who belongs and who does not.  If the profession is to include, it needs to respect that work happens even when people work remotely.

Careers are lifelong.  The profession collectively does not acknowledge what people do in mid-career and beyond as well as it might.  Some universities support promotion from associate to full or leadership development, but many don’t. Fortunately, advice and workshops grounded in the blank space of mid-career are increasing.  However, it would be in the best interest of many universities to do more. Disaggregated decision-making in universities means that what a departmental needs—including leadership—can be undermined by decisions others in a university make about promotion and priorities.

Rejection is ordinary and persistence is key. Review processes of all kinds need to recognize how ordinary rejection it is, and how much time it takes to produce work.  If university leadership wants faculty and graduate students to take risks, then they must recognize rejection as a fundamental part of submitting to journals, developing new courses, starting centers, and submitting grant proposals. If rejection is not considered part and parcel of the intellectual enterprise of universities, then faculty and graduate students will be less likely to take the risks necessary for individual and institutional advancement. Given this reality, persistence is key. Persistence comes from rejection and failure, and the struggle to overcome the natural insecurities then arise from the criticism that is a fundamental part of the academic endeavor, though not everyone is well-mentored enough to know that. People have shared ‘failure CVs’ that help everyone take heart, possibly for good reason. NSF proposals and fellowship applications get rejected.  Students write hostile evaluations. Reviewers find flaws and editors send desk rejections. No one likes it, and as one participant noted citing the management writer Nancy Day, some people are especially sensitive to rejection. Not having a taste for rejection and the time it takes to successfully complete projects may be a reason some people don’t continue in the profession. While the proliferation of ‘failure CVs’ may help normalize this experience, sharing with each other the bad teaching comments and the harsh reviews may take the sting out of both. After all, if celebrities can share mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to alleviate some of their anxiety, so can faculty make the evaluative process less personal and isolating

Tenure and promotion processes aren’t always as advertised. Those who make it through these processes don’t usually question them or whisper about how to succeed.  Similarly, those who leave the profession or whose cases fail are not usually keen to discuss their experience; and some are subject to restrictions from a legal settlement. We know, though, from some who have shared their stories that departments and universities deviate from their own written processes. Moreover, appeals procedures are not always clear. In the absence of an open discussion about how these evaluative procedures work — and don’t work— we seek advancement in an opaque system of rules and structures that may not operate as it should.

Universities do not always make priorities clear and consistent. This is notably true in the context of tuition-driven decision making and the emphasis on enrolling increasing numbers of undergraduates. In this environment, faculty are increasingly called upon to develop learning objectives, assessments, active learning strategies for the classroom, classes, and opportunities for undergraduate research. And while many faculty might engage enthusiastically in these efforts, they know well that the university continues to reward publishing and working with graduate students more than — and even to the exclusion of — working to advance undergraduate curriculum. This poses serious dilemmas for faculty as they allocate their time and other resources in pursuit of their professional advancement.

These are just a selection of the many themes and reflections about advancement in the academy. As you think about them and add your own ideas and experiences, we hope that you will share your narratives by submitting them to this blog. Please add your voice to this important conversation about how best to change academic institutions for the benefit of all.

Susan Sterett is Director of the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

Jennifer Diascro is the Associate Academic Director for University of California, Washington D.C.

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One thought on “Advancement Through Narrative: Reflecting, Listening, Changing

  1. Pingback: Advancement Through Narrative: Understanding and Navigating Success and Failure in the Academy

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