Failure to Accumulate: Bullying and Academia’s Symbolic Economy

This piece in part a response to a Facebook idea between myself, Jeff Langstraat, and Bill Caraher; in part in response to Bill’s initial post about the topic, here; and in part an attempt to sort through a few disparate conversations I’m having or have had with colleagues throughout North America.

To start, I’d like to focus on the passage where Bill identifies the tensions arising from the intersection of what he refers to as academia’s fiscal and social economies:

Academics are also susceptible to bullying as the expectations within the social economy (publishing, presenting, researching, collaborating, peer-reviewing) often trump opportunities provided within the fiscal economy, yet lack the direct and immediate financial rewards. Service throughout the academy and within our disciplines often develops vital social capital, but when reciprocity breaks down (typically under pressures from the fiscal economy), service become exploitative.

Nowhere is more fought than the hiring, tenure, and promotion process where genuine fiscal rewards (however modest) are directly tied to the successful deployment of social capital, reciprocal relationships (whether through personal familiarity or shared academic pursuits), and good will. It is hardly surprising then that moments where the social and fiscal economies directly interact become times where expectations a disappointed and anger at the unclear boundaries is the most pronounced.

Here I understand the kind of bullying Bill refers to as being an internalized mechanism that would be at home in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. As social creatures, academics are driven to accumulate largely symbolic capital within the broader academy against, frankly, their own economic interests. That is, economically time spent publishing that next article could be better spent selling fruit at a roadside stand or developing apps. Instinctual desires are repressed and channeled, essentially, into deeper investments into a system to which the individual becomes increasingly beholden to protecting and reproducing. The problem, obviously, is that such investments are potentially infinite. The article could  be better, I could write another book, I could have written a more prestigious grant. Investments in the academy, even successful ones, produce only frustration in the end, and academics as individuals become the kind of self-regulating mechanisms that most domineering governments can only dream of. On a level, through participation in the system and internalizing its values, we bully ourselves.

As Bill also points out, for better or worse the time to vent such frustration (if not rage) at some institutions becomes associated with matters of tenure, retention, and promotion. Certainly, there is a quite honest confusion of why, for example, person x should get a raise of $200 for publishing three articles this year when person y received only $50 for publishing a single article the year before. Even “merit” fiscal systems designed to reward successful social investments (predominantly publishing) are not immune from absolute breakdowns based on what can be productively described as a cartoonish version of Nietzchean ressentimentTo wit, in instances such as the following passage, forwarded to me by a friend and used here with his permission:

The Dean is bending over backwards to retain a junior colleague when I feel certain that I would be told “There’s nothing I can do for you” and sent on my way. That hurts, and it makes me angry. None of us is irreplaceable, none of us is more worthy of retention than the rest. As a middle-aged, mid-career academic who has devoted his/her entire professional life to The University of X, I resent the implied notion that someone is more worthy of “accommodations” than I because he/she is younger, his/her specialization is more “current”, his/her research is more “sexy”, or because the Dean simply takes for granted that I am too settled here to move on. My contributions may be different than those of younger colleagues, but they are just as valid, and I would like to know how that would be recognized were I to enter into negotiations after receiving a job offer elsewhere.*

The rage here is such that the author actually employs the word “resent” to describe his/her feelings toward the junior colleague in question. To borrow Bill’s terminology above, we witness the complete and utter breakdown of a system dependent in large part on social capital, reciprocal relationships, and good will. Notice that the resentment here is based upon the perceived slight that arises with the Dean’s apparent desire to retain said junior colleague. This resentment however does not take the form of a criticism of the system itself, nor of the junior faculty member’s qualifications. The resentment resides entirely in the fact that the junior colleague apparently possesses enough social capital to enter into said negotiations whereas the author, apparently, feels he/she has unjustly failed to accumulate a comparable amount of capital over his/her career. The question, of course, then becomes, “Why give him/her anything when I’ve long been denied mine?,” or “OK, but what do I get?”

Again, this paragraph is unequivocaly not an indictment of the system that produces such resentment but an outburst that reproduces and upholds that system’s usefulness for the powers that be. That is, we’ll never coherently argue for more/better resources in the academy because we’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves for the resources we already have. In this case in particular, we have a wounded ego taking advantage of this opportunity to brutalize another party over countless unnamed, real or imagined failures to successfully navigate the intersections of the fiscal and social economies, failures that having nothing to do with the junior colleague in question nor even the matter at hand. This, as far as I’m concerned, is at the core of academic bullying understood as one person acting outwardly towards another. It’s about power, it’s about money, but above all it’s simply ressentiment.

And let’s be frank: among the numerous examples I have heard about from friends around the country, I cherry-picked this particular example because a) it’s in writing and b) it fantastically represents the intersection Bill describes. The vast majority of academic bullying is more difficult to pin down, more subtle, more elusive, but nonetheless remains inextricably bound up with social and fiscal economies, not to mention raw power. After all, how does one police the rumor mill without infringing upon free speech? And what, explicitly, constitutes harassment? At what point do simple, honest disagreements over, say, curriculum, create a hostile work environment? The problem, of course, is that context is all, and no single action or even group of actions signify the same underlying motivations. The colleague who ignored you in the hall earlier and later barked at your question about filing reimbursements under the new online system? He was having a bad day. The colleague who went three years without so much as acknowledging your presence on the other hand…yeah, he’s one of the people who will openly threaten your job security. And the Dean who feigned confusion about how to hire a VAP while you went on a Fulbright to Germany, who at one point even said that if you accepted the Fulbright the university might not reappoint you? The chair who, claiming not to know the faculty handbook, innocently said your maternity leave would be on a course-for-course exchange basis with other faculty, with your teaching 6 classes full time upon your return? Your French colleagues in the Languages Department who marginalize everyone who isn’t French and insist that every new hire from the Latin Americanist you’re hiring this year to the Russian Linguist you’ll hire next year must be passport-carrying members of the French nationality? The senior colleague who repeatedly requests you meet him/her out for drinks at night, alone, and sends you strange emails lamenting your absence when you don’t show? Safe bet those people are big, BIG trouble, people who represent broken cogs in the system. No accumulation of social capital with them will result in anything fiscal or otherwise. As in the case of most bullies, the system with these people is so broken the further accumulation of social capital will just make things worse. They portray all the rage of the author above only grasp better channels through which they can make it manifest. Further, one would have a difficult time, at best, demonstrating that any of these constitutes bullying or harassment of any sort in the legal sense. It’s why we’re told all too frequently to shut up, make nice, and take people who openly wish us ill out to endless coffees.**

By comparison, that colleague who stood outside your classroom door and held up a sign with a middle finger saying, “F- You” out of sight from the students while you were teaching class? She’s an absolute mensch, has a great sense of humor, and laughing with her is one of the reasons you love coming to work in the morning. And yet, of all the actions thus described, in a vacuum someone may think that is bullying when it’s clearly, DEMONSTRABLY a gesture that inspires laughter, joy, and collegiality in the workplace. You LOVE going to coffee with her!***

I don’t have any solutions to offer, and will openly admit I only addressed two paragraphs from Bill’s excellent piece on the subject of academic bullying. In closing, it’s strange to consider how utterly self-destructive the internal policing mechanisms of academia can be for individuals and collectivities. Internal feelings of failure mean some people can’t celebrate the accomplishments of others, which perpetuates the cycle and, let’s face it, further weakens the academy in these tough economic times. The strangest part for me, as always, is that we’re the most educated and supposedly among the smartest people on the planet. In short, we simply should know better.

* Obviously edited a bit to obscure gender and university of origin.

** Obviously purely fictionalized. I mean, where in earth would that happen? That said, in the words of the immortal Nikolai Gogol, “Don’t blame the mirror if it’s your face that is crooked.”

*** True story and seriously, my friend ADORES that colleague.

3 comments on “Failure to Accumulate: Bullying and Academia’s Symbolic Economy
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