Showing Up for Each Other: Workshopping Thriving

By Susan M. Sterett and Taneisha Means

Photo Credit: Mark Fathi Massoud. The fruits of procrastinating while an academic.

Improving inclusion in political science requires better conflict management, changing department culture, and cultivating strategies for taking care of ourselves, including moving past the inevitable rejection built into the profession. Political Science in the Twenty First Century synthesized the lack of progress in diversifying the political science profession, and the need for intentional effort to improve. This post consolidates some resources from a half-day workshop during the 2019 WPSA annual meeting about how to manage one’s life to thrive in the profession. We include resources for self-care since the academy can be hard, and we cannot control other people’s bad behavior, particularly indifference or anonymous hostile reviews. Legal complaints won’t fix it all, not least because it’s not illegal to be a jerk. Symposia in political science have suggested strategies to make collective claims. The APSA 2018 diversity and inclusion hackathon has great suggestions. Seeing the next steps we ourselves can take to thrive can still be difficult. The recent symposium in PS on stories and the profession offers reflections on thriving in difficult circumstances. Maybe the glare of attention and the recent APSA #MeToo short course will contribute to remedying sexual harassment and assault. Thanks to others’ contributions to blogs, Twitter, and reports like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), we have plenty of information about practical steps we can each take to make it more possible to do our work, and transform institutions so that everyone can thrive. Here we suggest some practices to allow us all to thrive by focusing on what we can do.

On April 17, the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women held a half-day workshop to learn about managing conflict in our personal and professional lives in a way that contributes to everyone’s good health. We welcomed MarDestinee Perez of UCSD’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Later in the afternoon we joined with the Committee on the Status of Latinas/os to learn from each other about managing indifference and rejection.

Culture and Conflict Management

We aim to surface some difficulties in the culture of the profession and what we can do to foster participation. Suggestions are meant to be immediately useful, rather than focusing on long term outcomes.

First, Ms. Perez highlighted how people in the profession often avoid conflict, which doesn’t allow anyone to address difficult behavior and the reasons for it. She started from the point that others’ behavior might not meet our expectations, problems start small, and they can escalate (See her excellent slides on civility and conflict, here).  How can we manage a problem without escalating?  She noted that while we cannot control others’ behavior, we can take steps toward better conflict management by recognizing the interests of others, negotiating or responding on the basis of those interests, recognizing the roots of hostility or indifference, and engaging in self-care.  We can thereby ensure we are not contributing to a hostile culture. Important to her work are the ideas that conflict and discomfort are part of growth, and that through dialogue we can reach deeper levels of understanding about ourselves and others.  Our well-being depends on our ability to manage conflict that exists in our personal and professional lives: the economist Betsy Stevenson recently pointed out economics’ bullying culture. That discipline is not alone.

Young scholars feel particularly vulnerable to abusive behavior from more senior mentors and advisors, including requests to do personal favors, or to be available at all hours, or to put up with abusive language. The profession can foster it: academic workplaces are without clear rule-bounded structure and scholars depend on personal goodwill. News over the last several years has made public how debilitating abuse can be.  Ms. Perez’s negotiation resources are helpful; so is collective work on improving culture by making clear abuse is unacceptable.

Other disciplines and departments have also worked on improving department culture.  For guidelines where a department states a commitment to practices to foster collegiality and inclusion, see University of Colorado, Boulder’s philosophy department.

We agreed that many university managers, including department chairs, could avoid conflict less than they often do.  Avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away.  It allows bad behavior and can legitimate problematic behavior. Resources for handling conflict recommended by Ms. Perez are here; we’ve added a couple on abuse.

Managing Slights, Rejection, and Journal Decisions (and not adding to toxicity)

Next, the group met with the workshop sponsored by the WPSA’s Committee on the Status of Latinas/os in the Profession to have roundtable discussions of thriving in the context of a profession built on rejection. Indifference also characterizes work environments—whether the national profession or immediate workplaces. At the same time, recognition depends in part  on personal connections, and both remain key to success in the academy. Indifference and the harm it brings is all the more painful when the public story is one of rationality as the organizing principle for inclusion. Advisors and advisees can experience each other as too demanding; a relationship depending on personal goodwill can lead to seemingly unlimited demands for time, tasks or attention. At the workshop, we brainstormed how to manage indifference, anxiety, rejection and hostility, building on the good work to which Ms. Perez pointed us. Below we summarize discussion points and list resources.

First, if your university is not a member of NCFDD, ask managers to join it.  If it is a member, use the webinars. The webinars, like gym equipment, don’t improve your life when they sit idle. Some available webinars include: (1) Embracing Rejection: De-Stigmatizing Submissions and Purifying Your Writing Process; (2) Imposter Syndrome: How to Recognize It, Overcome It, and Realize Your Academic Goals; and (3) Academic Life: What’s Mindfulness and Compassion Got To Do With It?

Recognize that rejections come in both letters and emails — formal and informal. Formal rejections are decisions concerning jobs, fellowships, grants, and manuscripts. Informal rejections can come from anywhere– students, colleagues at conferences, family members, and department/program/center colleagues and chairs. We often focus on formal rejection, but we need to talk about coping with bothforms of slights or rejection.

Managing informal rejection, indifference or slights —

  • For writers who are managing applications and manuscript decisions.
  • Helpful resources for academic writing, journal submissions, and rejection here.
  • You are a reviewer and gatekeeper too. Consider these points.

Each section promotes how to be a better colleague while taking care of ourselves: we can be somebody’s (not everybody’s) people.  When we write reviews, we can drop the mean comments. We can also be open to a variety of types of scholarship or teaching.  We can point someone to the person who can review, when we can’t.  We can answer our email; blocking out some time to do so allows it not to eat up our lives (easier said than done).  People in more senior positions can model professional generosity of spirit, and can consider contributing to guidelines for good departmental culture. Finally, we must go beyond a “survival” mindset to academia, and instead encourage each other to thrive as a complete person.


Self-care is as important to managing indifference and rejection as it is to managing department conflict. Resources for self-care are myriad. The NCFDD webinars on conflict include multiple suggestions. Workshop participants found helpful:

  • Acknowledging and expressing gratitude regularly, not just in the moment.
  • There are LOTS of apps for that.
  • You-are-not-alone self-care resources here.

For administrators and those who write external letters for review for T&P, consider:

  • Institutional barriers to publishing (which scholars from which schools or which subfields get published, for example)
    • Sometimes reproducing inequality;
    • Accept subfield journals if scholarship is not currently considered “mainstream” political science;
  • Annual reviews and tenure dossiers should ask for grant applications and other submissions as a sign of productivity

With thanks to all the participants in the workshop.  Thanks for help organizing and facilitating to Linda Alvarez, Bernard L. Fraga, Yalidy Matos and all the members of the Committees on the Status of Latinas/os in the Profession and on the status of Women in the Profession. Thanks to Laura Mateczun (UMBC) for assistance in organizing. Additional thanks to National Science Foundation grant (#1916630) for support.

Susan M. Sterett is Professor and Director in the School of Public Policy at UMBC.  She served as co-editor of Law and Society Review.  Most recently, she has published in American Behavioral Scientist and Politics and Gender.  She is the co-editor with Lee D. Walker of the forthcoming Research Handbook on Law and Courts. She is working on manuscripts on climate change and compensation in the courts. She has a daughter in college, family out west, and she knits and hikes when she can. 
Taneisha N. Means is an assistant professor of political science at Vassar College.  She has published in Politics, Groups and Identities, Politics and Gender, and PS: Political Science and Politics. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript that chronicles the lives, identities, and behaviors of black state court judges. She is the mother of 2 young children, and she enjoys reading fiction, traveling, and screening films.

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