global politics, relationally

Civility in Academia


In the wake of the Salaita “non-hiring” decision at the University of Illinois, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether “civility” should be used to judge academics in hiring decisions. The Chronicle has a pretty good rundown of some of that conversation, much of which has been framed in terms of rules, power, and the AAUP. I’ll add my 2 cents as both a faculty member and an administrator, because I think a lot of the public discussion misses some important points.

First, I find it interesting that the driving force behind the conversation is really the perceived power struggle between administration and faculty. There is a persistent faculty perception that administrators are out to oppress and suppress faculty in any way they can, and therefore any tools that give them the opportunity to do so must be curtailed or taken away. While I am sure that there is indeed some of this at some universities (I’ve even seen some of it first-hand), I think these concerns can get easily overblown. Moreover, the perception of conflict itself tends to create conflict – although that’s a topic for another day.

Second, I find it interesting that some faculty are calling for any notion of “civility” to be excluded from hiring decisions. In every hiring process I’ve ever been involved with, civility and its attendant concepts “fit” and “collegiality” have played a prominent role – usually from the faculty themselves. If I’m hiring a new faculty member into my department, I don’t want to hire a jerk. Years ago I watched a major research university decide not to offer a job to an imminent scholar who had just published a ground-breaking book in his field. Why? He wasn’t a very good colleague, and his spouse (a scholar in a similar field) was even worse.

So the argument isn’t really about whether civility should count in hiring decisions or not. If you want to test this theory, try swearing and hurling insults the next time you’re on a job interview, and see how well you do.

It’s also not about whether civility should be a part of how we judge other scholars in general – because we do. Yes, really good work should stand on its own merits and if often does. I know some really excellent research published by people I wouldn’t spend 30 seconds with if I could avoid it. Most of us are grown-ups, and we can separate the value of the work from the character of the person. Publishers certainly seem to be able to make this distinction, hence the importance of blind peer review.

Third, I also find it interesting that some of the discussion has gotten onto the track of how it’s important pedagogically to get our students out of their comfort zones, to make them uncomfortable and even confused, because students learn better this way. This is undoubtedly true, but I don’t think this is directly related to incivility. While it is true that incivility makes people uncomfortable, there are a lot of other more productive ways to do so with students.

Whether incivility can be used as a teaching tool depends very much on your definition. For me, you enter the realm of incivility when you stop discussing ideas or claims to truth about the world and you start attacking another person. If you look at Salaita’s tweets, he had clearly crossed over into that territory.

Now, I don’t know a lot of faculty who think that directing ad hominem attacks at students, or at people whom students may identify with, is a good pedagogical technique. If you were to propose such a thing to an Institutional Review Board for a research project, you would likely get laughed at.  So I think the “we need to discomfit our students” argument is a red herring here.

Finally, I am concerned about what the champions of academic freedom (a value which I, too, support) are defending here. I have written in many places (including recently here and here) about the corrosive and toxic effects of our “public conversations” about difficult topics. In my view, we spend FAR too much time attacking each other, circling the wagons, and reducing the other side to inhuman monsters and not nearly enough time actually engaging with each other and the ideas and things that matter.

Academic freedom is a great and wonderful thing, but if it comes at the expense of tribal warfare (rhetorical or otherwise) perhaps we should rethink why freedom is so important and what we ought to be doing with it. Because in the end, our lives are lived not as a set of abstract rules but as a collection of real relationships with other human beings. We are better off when we try to improve those relationships rather than trying to destroy them, even if our purposes for doing so are noble in our own minds.