Wednesday, October 27, 2010
It happened again last week. It became clear to me once again that academic bullying is alive and well at UVM. "Well, faculty have an authority that may be perceived as bullying when used with passion and a certain kind of intent" you might say. "That's the way certain faculty are. They believe themselves to be unquestioned authorities in their field. Their role is to deliver their expert knowledge to their students and their students' role is to take it in and learn it!"
I understand this. Believe me. I wasn't a department chair for five years for nothing. But there's a line that can be transgressed that separates normal, non-punitive authoritarian behavior from punitive, accusatory, and demeaning authoritarian behavior. We all know faculty who are puffed up on themselves, full of self referential commentary, who might also be quite good as teachers. They might even have a tad bit of self-awareness, occasionally poking fun at their puffoonary. I'm not talking about these people, the normal academic authoritarians.
I'm talking about the faculty members who inspire fear, masters and mistresses of the put down, purveyors of the "how dare you question my methods" view of the student/teacher relationship. Faculty members who go beyond normal levels of faculty authoritarianism to another place - the place of academic bully. Faculty members whose classes are filled with students who've learned the survival game of never question anything, agree totally with whatever's being put forth, sit silent and nod in feigned agreement, or come to class overprepared for a random call to answer. (I know, that latter point is maybe what some teacher's want, but taken in the context of all the rest of the academic bully's behavior, it is way out of line as a teaching strategy.)
A major problem with the academic bully is the victims often have no reasonable recourse. Department Chairs are usually powerless to do much more than offer a rebuke. Save sexual misconduct, faculty seem to have, unfortunately, unlimited license in terms of appropriate professorial behavior in their classrooms and offices, even in the internet email to students. Students are generally in a powerless position. If a department has a policy for perceived professorial misconduct, usually the first step is for the student to go back to the abuser and try to have a discussion about the incident - usually alone. Not many students elect to take that option. Some choose to go to a Dean, but Deans often pass the matter back to Department Chairs.
Academic bullying is a dirty secret of universities. Universities would prefer their multiple publics to believe that every class is peopled by faculty and students who care about each other and their curriculum and who are excited about the daily pursuit of knowledge. But students know differently. Secrets such as these fester and boil and rot the reputations of institutions from the inside out. They turn students away from participating in the great good that can be had in provocative academic environments. The dirty secret needs to come into the light of day.
Cases of academic abuse need to be defined, and dealt with from a position of authority and power. Students need a place of recourse other than the office of the perpetrator. Definitions of abuse need to be clear. Conditions of assistance and conditions of sanction need to be clearly stated and understood by all members of the academic community.
For a start, I'd offer the following definition of academic bullying, adapted from the harassment policy of a local school district.
Academic Bullying and Harassment means an incident or incidents of verbal, written, visual, or physical conduct...that have the purpose or effect of demeaning a student and objectively and substantially undermining and detracting from or interfering with a student’s educational performance or access to school resources or creating an objectively intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
Short of rational process, I might also suggest a series of articles on the subject by the local campus newspaper. If not able to be addressed head on, perhaps a series of vignettes would serve the purpose of putting the university community on notice that such behavior diminishes our ability to live out Our Common Ground statement and will not be tolerated at the University of Vermont.