Historians Behaving Badly

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By Jeremy I. Adelman

The really bad behavior in academe gets all of the attention: plagiarism, discrimination, harassment, lousy mentoring, and propagation of bogus theories or narratives. Far less noticed — yet far more common — are all the small, selfish, everyday examples of incivility that undermine collegiality in our departments.

I’m referring to the banal misdemeanors of which we are all guilty: checking email in plain view during lectures and conference panels, surfing the web during job talks, or agreeing to participate in a group event and showing up only for your own presentation. Those behaviors happen so often we accept them as business as usual, but they take a toll and drag down each of us and the profession.

Historians are too diverse, shifting, and pluralistic to really qualify as a "community," but we are a collective of common norms, rules, and habits. And we make a lot of decisions together: hiring, tenure, field distributions (that’s a tough one), curriculum, graduate admissions, and so forth. Good behavior makes decision-making easier. Bad behavior does the opposite.

In my experience, the most fractious departments are ones with weak norms and disputed procedural rules. Their faculties get into a vortex of divisions and infighting, which weakens the norms even more and frequently degenerates into tribal feuding along a whole variety of difficult-to-cross lines: tenure/untenured, with-kids/without, stars/stuck-in-rank, gender, and, invariably, national or regional specialties.

Dysfunctional departments don’t even know how to logroll together to get stuff out of administrators, and if you can’t do that, you really are in trouble. Paradoxically, when I get asked to do external reviews on other campuses, it’s often at the behest of administrators who wish their history department at least had logrolling aptitudes so that some decisions got made without escalations of petitions and counterpetitions.

When the norms are weak and the procedures in doubt, spoilers gain. And what makes their gain especially pernicious is that the spoilers confuse what they do to cause a problem with its effect. In other words, when things are really toxic, bad behavior gets explained away as a survival strategy by the oppressed and the oppressors alike — blamed on an internal culture for which neither side accepts responsibility.

I saw that vortex — or the threat of it — all the time back when I was a chair and also when I’ve served as an external reviewer of other departments. Chairs and reviewers endure countless hours of complaining and testimony about how mistreated or misunderstood a colleague (or faction) was as justification for their bad behavior. Almost invariably, those "mistreated" scholars are projecting as much as they are promoting.

So what are some of those everyday behaviors that start as one person’s bad habit and turn into everyone else’s problem?

First a confession of my own misdemeanor. One of the worst things a colleague — and especially a department chair — can do to other colleagues, higher or lower in the food chain, is to fall asleep in front of them. There’s no quicker way to convey boredom, disdain, indifference. Those droopy eyelids do more to ruin a relationship than all the raises or promotions in the world. (Well, maybe not all of them.) Undisguised languor is a killer, and I do it all the time; I can’t fake being awake if my pineal gland is at work. It’s worst in late afternoons, when history departments love to have their public seminars and job talks. Almost no matter how exciting the speaker is, I nod off. By now, I suspect I have a reputation as my university’s version of Sleepy. The only upside is that I am such a serial slumberer than most colleagues know not to take it personally.

For better or worse, academics rely on relationships, and sleeping is a relationship-buster. The problem is mine, but my trait makes it everyone else’s. And that is what I want to talk about: personal behaviors that impose a toll on our collective efforts.

  • Using laptops and cellphones during department discussions. Now, I admit, this is a tough one. Many people write faster and more clearly on keyboards, and so their silent flurry of fingers and/or thumbs can be an index of engagement. But too often, it’s not. Here’s a case where self-interest is not just a toll on the collective; it taxes the self. Answering emails or checking hockey scores is seldom as gratifying (or as urgent) as we think it is. Let it wait. Indeed, sometimes, not reacting is the better reaction. There’s more and more evidence that impulsive communication at a distance creates more misunderstanding and friction, not less. Everyone around the room knows when the tapper is not paying attention. We can see the nonverbal cues — the nods, smiles, and frowns that have nothing to do with what’s going on in the rest of the room. Often, we can see the screen itself. Many of my colleagues ban laptops from their classrooms. Should we consider banning them from departmental gatherings, except for meetings in which we review documents?
  • Cherry-picking departmental life. There are many variations on this one, but it usually involves participating only when it benefits you. Like coming to a talk and leaving the minute you have decided what you think about the speaker or the subject — whether or not the talk is over. Or only attending meetings where you have a personal stake and skipping those where others have a stake. What those cherry-picking habits all share is a propensity to treat departmental affairs as the equivalent to online shopping — the search for self-enhancing outlets in an open-access mall that only seems private. That sort of behavior appears innocuous only because rarely is it meant to offend or dismay others. But pursuing your own self-interest here is as potentially damaging to you as to your department. Your judgment on which meetings to skip might be fallible. Others might know more or better. Hanging in there, even if there’s no immediate personal gain, can yield shared returns that are simultaneously good for the self in the long run and for the collective in all runs.

Beyond policing our own everyday rudeness, both for our own good and the good of the collective, there are things that department chairs can do to promote comity. Chairs can reward the small, selfless acts of faculty members, and curb the many temptations to be free riders.

The first is publicly to acknowledge the civic-minded. In an age of scarce recognitional economies, thanking the selfless in front of others goes a long way. It’s easy, inexpensive, and has spillover effects. The second is to acknowledge them privately — especially in annual reports and salary recommendations to harried deans and provosts who are (mostly) all too aware of the premium on selflessness. Finally, check in with them for signs of burnout and for clues on intangible and tangible ways to support them.

And the free riders? By definition, they are hard to thwart. Punishment can lead to worse behavior and escalate banal incivility into less banal forms. Or they withdraw altogether, which some colleagues may cheer. But it’s much easier — as Albert O. Hirschman noted in his famous treatise, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty — to get exit solutions than to build loyalty, and it’s the loyalty to the public good that you want. My own strategy with free riders was to appeal to their enlightened self-interest: to put them in charge of a task (not just on a committee) surrounded with the right colleagues and to treat them to the same rewards as the civic-minded. In some cases, it helped; in some, it didn’t. But it never hurt. The one strategy that does not motivate anyone, in my experience, is to be adversarial.

Chairs can also be bad in trying to be good. There is such a thing as paying too much attention, and that can undermine the collective as well.

My own mistakes as department chair fell into that realm: I wanted too much cooperation. I’d inherited a department dominated by "barons," as one colleague called them — charismatic, outsized figures. In the end, it was not violence that brought them down, but retirements. As they left, the department faced a pileup of choices and challenges. Among other things, it was a department with severe gender and field imbalances. So, instead of baronial rule, I sought to govern by committee, as it were.

Where did I go wrong? Well, first of all, creating new norms is much harder to accomplish than to talk about. Making difficult decisions led to fractious meetings. The pileup created a sense of emergency, and some felt, quite understandably, that they were being forced to make lots of decisions with too little time and deliberation. In retrospect, I should have slowed things down. Instead of trying to solve everything (or so much) at once, we should have paused and done some strategic thinking about our priorities.

My approach had two effects. The first was burnout and withdrawal. With so many meetings to filter the multiple challenges, colleagues didn’t so much bolt for the doors as stop showing up. Or they cherry-picked their commitments. That had the effect of leaving the loyalists doing the work while the free riders coasted along — when it was those inclined to free ride who most needed to wrap themselves around the new norms.

The second effect was to put more burden on those for whom the transformation was supposed to support — especially young, female colleagues and those in non-European fields who were being saddled with the challenge of broadening and diversifying the core.

Oscar Wilde, when asked why he was not a socialist, replied: "It takes up too many evenings!" I took up too many of the equivalent of my colleagues’ evenings in my zeal to find cooperative efforts to solve shared problems.

Was I behaving badly? Not really. But the drive to foster cooperation had the perverse effect of creating a bit of the opposite. In demanding too much of faculty members, I was nurturing the very antisocial habits I’d been hoping to diminish.

There is, in short, a delicate balance to be struck in any crusade to foment goodness in departmental culture and individual behavior.

I started with the sleepy thing, so I will finish with it. In my defense, some of that tendency is inherited and some is self-inflicted. Frankly, I should just sleep more at night. And that is my main message here: Very often, bad behaviors that look like pursuits of self-interest at the expense of the collective are, in fact, also noxious for the self.

The simplest behavior to fix is the kind that violates our own self-interest and that of our colleagues.

Jeremy I. Adelman is a professor of history at Princeton University. He delivered a version of this essay as a talk at the 2018 meeting of the American Historical Association.

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