The Happy Academic agrees; New faculty should be careful in seeking "sinister motives"

There’s an excellent “first person” article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Ed “Career Network” section, an essay by Jack “not his real name” Thomas called “Searching for Sinister Motives.” The essay, which is surprisingly and effectively written in “second person” (as in “you do this,” and “you do that”), tells the story of “you,” a new hire into a tenure-track position, and the relationship “you” and “Fellow New Hire” (FNH) strike up with “Slightly Senior Junior Colleague” (SSJC). “You” and FNH come to rely on SSJC for all sorts of insights and information about the brutal politics and sinister plots that are everywhere, and it is “you,” FNH, and SSJC against them:

“You learn that everyone in the department hands out easy grades, that only one or two (including SSJC, of course) are brave enough to deliver the low grades the students deserve. You learn that your senior colleagues want to block the hiring of any young scholars with strong publishing potential, since they will make the current faculty members look less productive.

“You find all of this surprising, but you begin to interpret things you hear in department meetings from SSJC’s perspective, and much of what you see and hear seems to support his perspective.”

Well, to get to the point: after a while of following things in the department from this point of view, “you” dare to disagree with SSJC, you are “banished” from SSJC’s inner circle, and “You look at everyone around you, in the department and the college, with a fresh pair of eyes — your own. You have climbed out of the tunnel of SSJC’s perspective, and find that the landscape has changed entirely.”

Besides the moral of the story (which boils down to two lessons: always gather information from multiple source and recognize that legitimate differences of opinions are not the same as sinister conspiracies against “you”), Thomas offers this about SSJC:

“Ultimately, you begin to feel sorry for SSJC. He may remain miserable and isolated for the rest of his career. His views of the department border on clinical paranoia. He needs professional counseling. You and he may never talk again.”

This article ought to be required reading for every new hire in every English department in the country. I have been “you” at two different schools, and while I like to think I did not fall under the “spell” of SSJC quite as hard as “you” does here, I most certainly know a couple of SSJCs.

It’s also an article that reminds me to be careful to not become SSJC now that I am tenured and “slightly senior” in the department. It’s important for me to remember the advice that Thomas is offering, that it is a good idea “to take everyone at face value, to assume that people have good reasons for the positions they hold, and to understand that multiple and competing visions of a department or a program ultimately create better departments and programs than visions created by a single person or an exercise in groupthink.”

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