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Rookie in the Room

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19 Feb 2013
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Tags: power and privilege   |   self care   |   faculty well-being

Who has the power in this faculty meeting, and what does that mean for me? As a new hire in our graduate school of theology, I didn’t formulate these questions explicitly as I went to my first faculty meeting, but I certainly carried these questions within me.          

As a kid, my family and I moved a lot and I found myself in places ranging from the cosmopolitan environment of an international school in Singapore to the insular environment of a small town in North Dakota where most of my high school classmates had been together since kindergarten. I developed keen antennae for picking up the cultural norms of a new setting. And these antennae were fully extended as I sat in my first faculty meeting in my first fulltime academic appointment. What did it mean to be considered a good colleague here? What was a new hire expected to say or not say? Where were the alliances, and how might I engage or stay out of them? How was power distributed?

The ways I participated in that first faculty meeting were directly connected to my cultural background. I am a hybrid. My father is from Malaysia and is of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. My mother grew up on a farm in North Dakota and is of German and Scottish descent. While we lived in both Malaysia and North Dakota (among other places) as I was growing up, it was my Malaysian cultural background that most shaped my initial participation as a new member of the faculty.

I came in with the assumption—an assumption I was only vaguely conscious of at the time—that I should remain quiet because I was the newest member of the faculty by several years and I was the second-youngest member of the faculty. I came in with a sense that I should defer to others and should frame any comments I did make as humble suggestions, explicitly qualified with reference to my limited insight because I was new.

I am now in my sixth year on this faculty, and as I reflect back on that first fall term, if I were to do it again I would adjust this and some related assumptions.

I didn’t know then that the faculty I am on is actually quite open to the ideas of new colleagues. I have seen this as other new colleagues have come on board. These more recent hires don’t necessarily share my cultural assumptions about how a new hire should behave (mainly keep quiet), and they were not called to task verbally or nonverbally for speaking up. In fact, their participation has been welcomed and valued. I could have been more relaxed and participatory from the start!

On a related note, I have come to see that the strength of one’s influence or power is not as directly tied to age and longevity on the faculty as I had thought. I have come to see that just because a person has been here a long time or has a lot to say does not necessarily mean that this person has great sway with the faculty as a whole. In some cases this has proved true while in others it has not. Longevity of employment is a factor, but I’ve found that much greater weight is given to a well-reasoned perspective, regardless of who makes it. In terms of how power is used, I have not felt senior faculty trying to throw their weight around (and for colleagues on my faculty who might be reading this, I mean that figuratively—I’m not commenting on anyone’s physique!). I’ve heard stories from friends at different institutions who have had negative experiences in this regard, so I note this about my setting with gratitude.

Early on I wasn’t tuned in to the fact that I would live for years with the ramifications of program decisions, and therefore I should be active in related conversations and meetings. Recently I’ve had a colleague closer to retirement say to me, “You’re the one who’s going to have to live with this decision.” This came as an invitation to push on an issue and as a gracious acknowledgment that the mantle would be passed to a younger generation of scholars. These decisions will affect me and so I should proactively join in shaping them.

Power is always in play in any social setting. Sometimes it is picked up and used gently and wisely, while other times it may be wielded like a sledge hammer. I’ve shared some of the ways I viewed and experienced power and ways my perspectives on the distribution of power have shifted since my first months on the faculty. How have you experienced and navigated power within your faculty? How do your cultural background and the culture of your institution relate to your perceptions and use of power within your faculty? I know these might be difficult questions to answer honestly in a public forum, but let’s see where it goes!
 

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Hi Rob,
    Thank you for your blog post. That’s exactly how I felt when I fist arrived at my institution: lost in a sea of colleagues, in a part of the country I had never been before. Being from a different country myself, I too was anxious about “picking up the cultural norms of a new setting” as you put it. My first faculty meeting (and probably a couple more) were vastly an exercise in silence, listening, and trying to discern the web of relationships as they were unfolding in front of me.
    Having confided my trepidations regarding proper manners and behavior in one of our Wabash seminar leaders, she told me: “You may be perceived as respectful, but I am not sure they will respect you for it” (God bless you Dianne!). This comment certainly propelled me to reevaluate my strategy and be a lot more involved my second year.
    As for the comment of your colleague, it’s so true. I remember one of my junior colleagues sharing it with me –in exasperation- over a disagreement the two of us had with a senior member of the faculty. It’s obvious -in hindsight- but I think during the first year we all spend most of our energy trying to figure out where it is we landed. I think the: “but I’m the one who’s going to have to live with this decision” is the signal that we have taken root. And yes, there was a temporal gap for me between point A and B.
    Best,
    Tony.

  2. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your thoughts. You rightly emphasize that new and/or young faculty members have much to contribute. For a contribution to be powerful it need not be forceful. Someone once told me that real leadership takes place when colleagues come to you for advice or look to your lead during meetings, not through the acquisition of titles or administrative positions. In my experience of many and various meetings this rings true. Even the young, quite, reflective person who only contributes occasionally but significantly to conversations can come to wield great power and influence. And it doesn’t take long for others to respect and look to such a person for guidance during meetings. Now that I am in the “Chair’s” position at such meetings, I am grateful to those who speak up and help guide the conversation and especially take ownership of the direction the institution is going.

    Richard

  3. Hi, Richard,

    I appreciated your words that “for a contribution to be powerful it need not be forceful” — a great reminder. I find my default view to be that those with the quickest most assertive answers must have the most influence; your words are a good encouragement for me to continue my own work of re-framing how influence is distributed.

    Rob

  4. Hi, Tony,

    It’s nice to know that others have shared something of my experience! Maybe some of us will always be a little quieter, trying to discern the web of relationships you referred to. Maybe the goal isn’t for all of us to boisterously jump into the fray — that seems to privilege one cultural approach to group participation. Just musing. I can relate to the temporal gap you mentioned between starting on the faculty and taking ownership — it did require a couple years or more for me to feel like I took root. I enjoy feeling that rootedness now and hope I contribute constructively from this place.

    Peace,
    Rob

  5. Thanks Rob,for the great post! In addition to what you’ve said, I found it greatly beneficial, in my first years, to be very involved in committee work across the university. Service gets a bad rap sometimes, and faculty rightly protect themselves from over-involvement in it. That said, early and widespread service work, if one can handle it, provides an excellent education in the ins and outs of the institutions, the political opportunities and faultines, etc., etc., which allows new faculty members to participate more and more confidently in the kinds of conversations you describe.

  6. Hi, Chad,

    I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’ve said. I think I myself felt too overwhelmed up front to take on university-wide committee work (my context is a grad school connected to a univ.), though that certainly would have helped me make more connections throughout the institution. I’m doing some of that now (6 yrs in) and find it interesting to cross paths with people from other disciplines. Some of it may be a personality thing — I think I tend to make sense of the whole picture by holding back and trying to take it all in, while others make sense of it by diving in and feeling their way through.

    Peace,
    Rob