Sunday, November 19, 2006

Negativity in Academe

I've been mulling over this post for the last few days and the overriding thought is about all the negativity that seems to be floating around among academics. I originally thought (and sometimes still do) that this negativity stems from competitiveness; however, I have been noticing among my new colleagues that the negativity goes beyond the competitive perfectionistic nature inherent to most academics. I have colleagues who immediately note the negative to any situation--it can be as simple as choosing food for a department luncheon. They are incapable of focusing on what is cost or time effective; rather they will focus on any possible thing they can turn into a negative (i.e. for the food topic: guest perceptions, ordering difficulties, pick-up or delivery, vegetarian options are always the same). I mean totally ridiculous stuff that just. doesn't. matter. (i.e. the guests aren't coming for the food, we have staff to pick-up, we don't even know if we have any vegetarians--if so, won't they just appreciate a vegetarian option?)
But really for me this isn't about the food conversations--that is just an example of how strange it gets around here. It is about any time something good comes along for someone-the majority of the others suddenly feel the need to focus the conversation away from the good news and get the conversation steered toward some negative aspect (which might be remotely related to the good news). Maybe it is just that academics are such solitary self-centered beings that we can't manage to accept anything happening to anyone else but rather focus immediately on what is not happening to us?
I use 'us' loosely here--including myself as an academic--but really hoping I can keep my head above the negativity cess pool brewing in the halls.


psychgrad said...

I don't really notice the same negativity in my department...But I do find that being around negative people makes negativity contagious. Maybe it's become the norm in your dept.

Where do you think it comes from? If it's happening beyond situations where people are "compensating" for others' successes (e.g., cafeteria), it must be more than being self-centered.

Anonymous said...

I think that you were in part correct about your idea that negativity comes from competitiveness. In any competition, there are winners and losers. Statistically speaking, a good number of people are going to end up as losers. These are the people who cannot get their papers accepted. After a while, they become the people who no longer write papers. When they see those around them doing well, this no longer fills them with joy, instead, it fills them with existential angst. This in turn becomes manifest as negativity.

As these people have probably spent large amounts of their life with the goal of becoming a tenured faculty member, to reach their goal and yet find it empty can be a galling sensation. These folks then have to try and come up with strategies that prevent them getting caught out by their administrators. They move into the realm of what I have called elsewhere 'busy work'. Some will start blogs to try and work out their problems. Now, I do not fall into this category, but I know quite a few people who do. In time, some of these people will even develop a rich blog fantasy life, where they talk about research, scholarship and other professional activities. Unfortunately, none of these things actually happen in the real world, as all their energies are now directed to their fantasy.

Should anyone discover their double life, these people become even more negative. In their blogs, they edit and manipulate their comments (academic blogs with controlled comments is often a good way to detect this kind of person on blogs).

Those who do not blog just become more and more withdrawn. They may talk about big plans for big projects, but as the months go by, there is seldom any progress. This again undermines their sense of self-worth and increases the negativity.

These phonomena, I believe, explain a good deal of the negativity in academia. It is a shame. Sometimes I wonder whether some kind of post-tenure review system might actually help get rid of these unfortunates and open up more opportunities for young and active researchers. However, the inherent conservatism of academia, the healthy distrust of administrators, plus the lobbying efforts of those in these negative situations combine to ensure that this rarely happens.

My strategy is to keep my head up. Although we may not have the best teaching loads, salaries, or library, I still find ways to keep moving ahead. After a hard morning teaching unwilling undergraduates, to get back to the office to find an acceptance notice from a good journal, or an invitation to give a talk at a cool place (expenses paid), is enough to keep me happy in a circumstance which breeds massive amounts of negativity from others.

The CP