Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Wrecking Careers

I thought this is an interesting essay about what young (and maybe not so young) academics do to throw their careers in the dumpster:

From Inside Higher Education
Nov. 7

How to Sabatoge Your Career
By Rob Weir
The autumn semester is winding down and the October conference season has been
swept away by the blustery November winds. But there's one crop that's not
yet been put to rest: young scholars hell-bent on sabotaging their careers
before they even have one. I recently witnessed four fall follies that reminded
me that graduate advisors and faculty mentors ought to spend time discussing
etiquette with their charges.

The first episode was just stupid: a junior faculty member screaming at a member
of the maintenance staff about the lack of heat in her office. One could easily
digress into discussions of social class, privilege, and civility but let's
talk pragmatism. You might think you're important, but the reality of any
institution of higher education is that support staff, tech people, and
custodial crews are the ones who actually get things done and make the school
function. They do this by the book or off the record, depending on how well you treat them. Be an officious prig and your request to
have a room assignment changed, a log-in issue resolved, or a crumbling ceiling
panel replaced will assigned a "work order", a term that translates "the
day after hell freezes over." On the other hand, the personal touch, a bit of
friendly chat, and a box of donuts every now and again means that casual favors
are done and items that don't officially exist end up in your office.

But compared to my second example, this is cosmetic stuff. If you really want to
sabotage your career, stiff a senior colleague and it will fell you like
knock-out drops surreptitiously slipped into your wine. You'll never know what
hit you or why. I'm not just talking about tenure decisions or relations
within one's own department; it's incredible to me how many erstwhile
scholars routinely violate one of the sacred precepts of academia: collegiality.
They behave as if they are a sun about which all others rotate like space
debris. They prattle on about their own research as if they were uncrowned princes holding court, seldom shutting up long enough to ask others about their work, or
bothering to disguise their disinterest when the topic strays from any subject
other than themselves. I actually heard a paper recently in which a graduate
student dismissed another scholar ”one thought to be distinguished by many” as a "dinosaur." This particular Stegosaurus happened to be sitting in the audience!

Senior faculty members guilty of the same sort of transgression; boorish
behavior is no slave to age or experience. The reality, though, is that most of
them have either earned bragging rights or are secure enough that they don't
need to cultivate good will if they don't wish to. Never make the mistake of
thinking only your own colleagues matter. Guess who will be reading your
conference papers, journal submissions, and book proposals? You know ”the
stuff you need to do to get tenure. Save your flaming for private conversations; it behooves you to treat senior faculty with a certain degree of deference as
you never know whose help or support you may need somewhere down the line. And
for heaven's sake learn how to express intellectual disagreement in ways that
don't come off as personal attacks.

But even oafish behavior is easier to excuse than my third example, rank
irresponsibility. Alas, I've seen too much of this firsthand. I am the
executive secretary of one organization, have sat on the executive boards of
others, and have coordinated two edited volumes. I've also sat on search
committees, conference planning sessions, Fulbright selection panels, and
professional nominating boards.

Talk to organizers and program chairs and they'll repeat similar tales of woe.
Every conference, including a recently completed meeting of which I was a key
planner, is plagued by no-shows. Many of these are individuals slated to
present, who have paid their fees and are listed on the program, yet never show
their faces. Of course, last minute things come up ”family crises, accidents, health problems” but, as my mother would ask, "Would it kill you to call?" Most no-shows never offer a single word of explanation no note, phone call, or email; they are
simply AWOL. In lieu of any other explanation, conference organizers assume the
worst about no-shows if, for no other reason, the no-show phenomenon is too
frequent to be explained away by transportation foul-ups or dying relatives.
Especially prone to ire are program chairs and commentators who are left to
juggle schedules, design impromptu remarks, or instantly convert lectures into
panel discussions.

Sadly, I must report that many of the no-shows are graduate students. Of those
who do contact conference planners, lack of funding is cited as the main reason
for reneging. Most academics can empathize with grad school poverty the
"Mac and Cheese Days," as a friend remembers them but the fact remains that
commitments have been broken. Many of us also recall going to conference we couldn't afford because it was the only way to get our work
aired and our names known. (I can assure readers that none of the journeys
I've made to Detroit in October were for the foliage.) A word of advice: If
your presence at any conference is dependent upon funding, arrange that before
you accept. There is no shame in contacting a conference organizer before you
accept to inquire about scholarships, nor in asking if can give tentative
acceptance, provided you give a final answer in a reasonable time frame. But if
you are an unexplained conference no-show, many of those you wanted to know
your name will remember you for a very different reason.

My final example of irresponsibility is one for which Dante should have
postulated a special layer of hell: weasels who agree to contribute to a volume,
miss deadlines, plead for extensions, then renege just as the project is close
to completion. Again, graduate students are often major violators. Some find
that they are over-extended and opt out. This group needs to learn that there's no academic worth his or her salt who isn't stretched and over-committed. The tough love message here might be: Get used to it or get out. But, if you really are so overwhelmed with other deadlines that you can't take on a new commitment, just say "no" to new projects, no matter how tempting. Still, most of us have at some juncture bitten off more than we can chew. We editors of edited collections are willing to forgive and adjust if we're given lead time. But what does one do with those who miss deadlines and decide to cope by becoming incommunicado: ignoring all
e-mails, phone messages,personal letters? This is beyond rude. It's a surefire spin on the blades of the gossip mill, of which more in a moment.

Junior faculty members also routinely opt out of writing assignments. Some
decide their own projects are far more important than honoring voluntary
commitments made to others. They are generally worse at the silent treatment
than grad students, and they don't even feign humility when finally tracked down. Like the uncrowned princes mentioned above, they drone on about the many vital tasks
which only they can complete, recount conversations they've had with important
publishers, drop names of those who (supposedly) have begged them to do X, Y, or
Z, yadda, yadda, yadda. "Maybe next spring I might be able to get to
that," they say of your project. ("Adios," is my retort.)

Lest this be misconstrued as a misanthropic screed, let me assert that academia
is filled with wonderful, bright, caring, and responsible individuals. Few
conferences or edited collections would ever fly were it not for hardworking
graduate students presenting work in progress or taking on additional work to
build their vitas. Most junior faculty members are dedicated and humble, and
lord knows that the egoists have scads of senior faculty role models upon which
to draw. But here's the other reality: there are too many good people and too
few jobs. Put bluntly, there's no reason to waste time on boors, scofflaws, and duds.

Online discussion groups buzz with spirited debate of how associations should
deal with no-shows. Should a letter or e-mail be sent expressing disapproval and
copied to the graduate dean and department chair? Should a list of offenders be
compiled? Should fraternal associations be put on alert? None of the
associations with which I'm involved have opted for such draconian action,
perhaps because of institutional memories of McCarthyism and blacklisting. (We
do, however, post on our Web sites who actually gave papers.)

But make no mistake: There is an informal and unpublished blacklist, one that
emerges from conversations and in professional networking. I have sat with
conference planners poring over proposals and heard them say, "She sent a
proposal two years ago and never showed up." I have watched senior colleagues
glance at vitas, paper proposals, article submissions, applications, and grant
requests, arch their eyebrows, and utter a single fatal word: "No." I recall a Fulbright project rejected with the words, "not if God Himself commanded it." If you find yourself running into dead-ends where there should be open doors, you should take stock and contemplate who you've dissed and what piles of garbage you've left for others to clean up.

Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior
faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional
organizations, and freelance journalism. He now teaches at Smith College and in
the honors college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at

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