Faculty animosity: a contextual view.

Author:Armstrong, Jan
Position::Essay
 
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Professional conflicts and deep antagonisms within departments and colleges are common aspects of academic life. There are tales of life long rivalries between academic titans--for example, Kant's dispute with the theological faculty (Carlson 2008)--and I suspect many of us lesser beings have observed or experienced the adverse consequences of professorial disputes. For some of us, interpersonal conflicts have grave consequences and the costs are high. This analysis examines faculty animosity from an interdisciplinary point of view, focusing on the social and organizational structures and processes that may foster the individual actions and reactions associated with interpersonal antagonisms. Animosity means ill will and/or resentment associated with hostility toward a target. As used here, faculty animosity involves bearing an explicit or latent antagonistic attitude toward one or more colleagues that leads to hostility, avoidance, and rejection. It may involve conscious and visible vindictiveness (enmity), or angry brooding over a perceived slight (rancor). The conflicts and animosities that arise within the academy are problematic because they diminish the quality of our professional lives, with adverse effects on students as well as faculty.

This analysis employs ideas from several fields to reframe the problem, offering some interpretive vantage points from which to consider the origins and consequences of faculty animosity. Part one examines the culture of academe as a whole, with its longstanding celebration of argument. Adversarialism has historical roots in the academy, as evident in the use of particular metaphors and instructional practices. Part two describes how the structure of academic institutions creates a "hothouse" climate that may intensify hostilities, leading in the most extreme cases to social elimination (workplace "mobbing"). Shifting focus from the general to the particular, part three examines whether the professional culture of professors of education might itself engender contention. This section speculates that professors of education, by virtue of their unique status within higher education, may work in settings that have the potential to amplify interpersonal antagonisms. The article concludes with an analysis of the consequences of faculty antagonisms, offering some concrete strategies for change.

The Argument Culture

Beverly Gordon, an associate professor in a school of educational policy and leadership, once described her intellectual research site as a "'hood--a very dangerous place."

You can be ambushed and assaulted. You can be robbed or have your possessions stolen. You can be shot in a "drive-by" shooting. You can get caught in the cross fire of different warring gangs. You are recruited and can even be forced to join these gangs for your own safety and protection, and yet you still have no real guarantee of safety. You can become a prisoner within your own dwelling because the streets are dangerous and the gangs are unrelenting, unforgiving, and revengeful. The gangs of the 'hood have histories, reputations, and identifying attributes that demarcate the territories that they uphold and guard. Being a good citizen and trying to play it safe is not enough. (1999, p. 407) The residents of Gordon's 'hood were middle class men and women employed in higher education--"The 'hood I work in is the Academy" (ibid.). She noted that those who work in Academe are as vulnerable to attack as those who live in dangerous neighborhoods, observing

... your smile of recognition speaks volumes about the parallels of life within the Academy and life in the mean streets of urban American society. The metaphor works because you, rather we--those of us that live in this "academic 'hood"--are as vulnerable as our urban counterparts, but in the university, instead of blood, there is an vacated/empty office, which more often than not is reoccupied before the corpse has time to cool. (p. 408) Gordon's image of university life is striking. Why is it that faculty who subscribe to noble ideals and high-minded principles, who have read Dewey, Friere, Noddings, Ladson-Billings, and Foucault, develop animosities toward one another and at times treat each so other badly? One possibility is that the university's foundation in reasoned argument--its valorization of argument as an ideal--creates a community of unequal and argumentative residents. Universities are located within a societal zeitgeist characterized by contentious, polarized public discourse. The "argument culture" valorizes debate over conversation, privileging those who take extreme positions and adopt aggressive stances toward those who express other points of view (Tannen, 1999). This fosters a hostile atmosphere wherein opponents seek and highlight each other's weaknesses, ignoring strengths and oversimplifying complex issues. Deborah Tannen (1999) commented

Of course, it is the responsibility of intellectuals to explore potential weaknesses in others' arguments, and of journalists to represent serious opposition when it exists. But when opposition becomes the overwhelming avenue of inquiry--a formula that requires another side to be found or a criticism to be voiced; when the lust for opposition privileges extreme views and obscures complexity; when our eagerness to find weaknesses blinds us to strengths; when the atmosphere of animosity precludes respect and poisons our relations with one another; then the argument culture is doing more damage than good. (p. 25) While Tannen disclaimed any intention to do away with debate, she called for more emphasis on dialogue and "experimenting with metaphors other than sports and war, and with formats other than debates for framing the exchange of ideas" (p. 26).

Military Metaphurs and Classruum Life

The language we use to describe academic activities conveys images of hierarchy, aggression, and control. We speak of "targets" and use other masculine metaphors (battles, arrows, tournaments, games, triggers, lines of attack). For example, a top university official asserted "Our leadership team does not go on retreats. We only advance!" The argument metaphor implies opposition and contestation between actors holding discrete, incompatible stances (or between theories that embody irreconcilable principles). Arguments are won or lost, and this is held to be natural and inevitable. "Two debaters or paradigms vie for dominance by marshalling evidence until the force of one position crushes its rival. The winner gains temporary ascendancy until a new challenge arises" (Scholnik, 2000). Academic authors employ the argument metaphor to characterize everything from scientific progress (Kuhn) to moral development (Kohlberg) to cognitive change (Gergen, Piaget). Hytten (2010) pointed out that in the field of education, social foundations scholars also employ metaphors of warfare, describing attacks, battles, threats, assaults, crises, and sometimes feeling "under siege" (p. 152). Referring to the intellectual context in which contemporary social foundations scholars work, Eric Bredo (2005) observed "... it should be clear that there is an ideological battle going on between modernists and postmodernists, with each tending to define themselves in opposition to the other.... both of these views are, in my opinion, noncollaborative at heart" (pp. 121-122). Of course, the use of military metaphors to describe academic life is not new. Here is how James Earl Russell described one interpersonal "struggle" that took place at Teachers College in the early 20th century:

The kindergarten was another center of discontent.No department had so many supporting friends and nowhere else was sentiment so influential in perpetuating slavish adherence to a system, even though its routine strained the eyes and hampered the natural growth of muscular energy. Moral suasion had no effect upon advocates of a system handed down ex cathedra and dominated by the personality of Susan E. Blow. It is to the lasting credit of Patty Hill that she dared meet the champion on her own grounds and in fair combat won the victory. The fact that for us it had been a struggle which lasted for ten long years testifies to the tenacity of inherited beliefs. (Russell, 1937, pp. 61-62)

Of special concern for higher education, is the negative impact that unexamined language practices might have on students.

One plausible concern is that the pervasiveness of the argument culture has a chilling effect on students' participation in the kinds of conversations necessary for democratic life. The absence of congenial models of public discourse may account for some students' resistance to engaging in productive classroom discussions. Cioffi (2005) described the difficulty of getting students to engage in the kind of productive arguments prized by foundational faculty members. He suggested that students resist the argumentative thesis because they associate argument with aggressive media figures (e.g., Al Franken, Stephen Colbert, Bill O'Reilly, Dr. Laura) engaging in "food-fight journalism" at the expense of civility. Clearly, students need to be taught how to think critically, to develop a sense of "courageous outrage" to use Pamela Smith's (2010, p. 149) apt phrase. However, they also must be taught how to disagree. Students cannot develop effective argumentative writing skills if their image of disagreement is inextricably linked to disrespect and interpersonal antagonism. Unfortunately, however, the impulse to attack is woven deep in the institutional history of the academy.

The association of the art of verbal warfare with intellectual prowess has ancient roots in the history of educational thought. The first universities were masculine institutions that subjected young, sequestered men to harsh discipline by their teachers. In the late medieval university,

Knowledge was gleaned through public oral disputation and tested by combative oral...

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