Sunday, May 22, 2016

Personality transplant

Changing jobs has made me think harder about a phenomenon I've long been curious about: the way departments (or academic divisions or entire institutions) develop distinct personalities.

That they have such personalities I take as a given, though both the recognition of a particular place's personality and any description of it are bound to be subjective and imperfect. For one thing, we all tend to read the networks to which we belong as normative.

It wasn't until a few years into my first job--after I'd made friends at other places and met their colleagues--that I began to see that, relative to those other departments, my own was more X or less Y, and that my colleagues, on the whole, tended to hold these values and not those. The exact descriptors aren't important, but I'm sure you can supply your own, both for places you've worked or places you know well. Some departments give off a general sense of being cynical, friendly, downtrodden, agreeable, competitive, scatterbrained, efficient, political, argumentative, optimistic, and so on.

But even once I'd started noticing that one department, say, seemed full of awkward introverts while another was cheery and gregarious, I understood this personality to be primarily about hiring (and secondarily about a process of acculturation that reinforced whatever the department's dominant traits might be): a friendly department might subtly preference candidates with certain signs of warmth and energy, and a place where everyone thought of herself as an up-and-comer might hire people who performed ambition in similar ways. And if enough people in a department embodied certain traits or shared certain values, those would get communicated more widely even to those who might not, in other contexts, really be that thing.

I still believe that's an important part of the story. But it's not the whole of it.

The thing is, a department's personality is dynamic and relational, formed by the way individual temperaments and communication styles collide and collaborate--and how they, together, respond to external circumstances. So, yes: you can get a sense of a place by meeting its individual members and noticing that they tend to be warm, or flaky, or self-important, or whatever. But its personality really emerges in its decision-making processes. How do things get done, and for what reasons, and by whom? Who has a voice, and what kind of assumptions and attitudes are on display?

The distinctiveness of those things is a lot harder to gain perspective on when you're living inside a place. I've written before about toxic departments and the way they remold a person's sense of self, but it's not just toxic workplaces that create their own reality. I suspect most departments do, just as most families do. And in the same way that it's easier to see the collective personality of your in-laws than it is to see what's unusual about your own family, it's easier to get a read on a department once you have a) a sense of what it means to be a member of a department, but b) some separation from the department in question.

So yeah: moving at midcareer makes some things extremely obvious. On the one hand, the personality of your new department is likely to be clearer than your old department's was--but at the same time, experiencing a new place inevitably brings the personality of the former into sharper focus.

But being plunked down into a place where the things you took to be normative suddenly aren't also suggests another explanation for how departments acquire personalities. It's not just about hiring, or even about how specific personalities interact with one another. It's about things that happened before you got there and that involved people you'll never meet. It might have to do with a department chair who retired a decade ago, or with a particular institutional crisis or success. Or it's about dynamics beyond the department: the stability of the upper administration; the political climate in your state.

And this raises the question of how long a particular personality persists. Let's say that a given set of attitudes and behaviors are the result of external circumstances, whether good or bad: an inspiring chair and lots of resources; an upper administration with a siege mentality. When those circumstances change, how quickly do the learned responses of a department change? As in a family, there's not a lot of turnover, and early habits can become ingrained. If the senior and mid-career faculty came up under a particular regime, they might still communicate their attitudes to those hired much later.

So who shapes a place's personality? All of us. None of us. But that doesn't mean we're off the hook.


Servetus said...

This is so true. I worked in a department like this and would hear things like "we can't do a spousal hire because of that one spousal hire that messed up that area group" and it turned out the hire had happened in the late 1980s and none of the current faculty had witnessed, but all had heard the story. And that wasn't the only example. It's like tale of making a ham and cutting off the end and then finding it you do it because your great grandmother had too-small roasting dish.

Historiann said...

HA-hahaha! So true, and so stupid, isn't it?

Most academic departments are constitutionally and operationally very conservative, as Servetus notes. It's something that never fails to frustrate me, actually. I've taken to calling my department the Department of No. While this Bartleby-like refusal to do much of anything has sometimes served us well, for the most part I think it just stifles creativity and energy. Bleh.

AndrewSshi said...

One fascinating thing about Georgia (where I teach) is that lots of schools were elevated to university status within the last couple of decades and that in the last few years there've been a bunch of consolidations. The result's been that cultures that normally change at a slow pace have been forced to change somewhat quickly by exogenous shocks. So you see some schools or departments that are "lumpy" in their personality and self conception because there are all sorts of different elements that haven't quite mixed together, if that makes sense.

Flavia said...

Servetus, Historiann:

Well, this isn't always a bad thing (though the examples you give certainly are!). A personality can be good, and learned positive behavior, in the good times, might well persist even in the face of very changed circumstances--in the same way that having a good childhood or positive friendships/relationships might lead one to be more optimistic and calm in the face of f*cked up sh*t. At least for a time.

But as @moriainexcelsis suggested on Twitter, departments develop fictions about themselves, and even the good ones can sometimes be contrary to fact. Maybe that's helpful, in the same way that believing you're married to the Best! Person! EVAH! can get a relationship through tough times. But sometimes it can lead to real cognitive dissonance.

And this is where Andrew's point comes in (and I deleted two whole paragraphs from the original post dealing with just this issue): what if the senior/midcareer faculty have one set of beliefs and assumption (whether "good" or "bad"), and the junior people (or adjuncts, or grad students) don't--because they entered under a different regime, or simply aren't helped by those fictions? This need not lead to outright conflict, and might be worked out through a series of growing pains. But it's always worth bearing in mind that "our" department isn't precisely the same department that all the other members believe in or see.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I agree with your overall observation, as well as the point immediately above. I haven't had a chance to observe too many departments (I've really only be involved with one as a long-term employee, plus another for which I was an adjunct pretty steadily for five years; my present home department is, thank goodness, pretty functional and decent; the other department was known for being in pretty bad shape, as, for that matter, was my grad department for much of the time I was pursuing the Ph.D.), but I'm very aware that church congregations also have personalities. Oddly, there, too, I've only belonged to one (I returned to the congregation in which I grew up as an adult, and never transferred my membership while I was away at school), but I've realized from participating in searches and talking to members of other churches, outside consultants, etc., that we have our own personality, and that it has remained surprisingly consistent (and, thank goodness, also functional) over many decades. That may be partially because we had the same pastor for 35 years, but, almost a decade after he retired, we still seem to be working in much the same way (mostly for the better, though perhaps occasionally not).

I'm also watching the retirements (or, in a few cases, deaths) of the "old guard" of my department, who came on when the place was a quite new teaching-oriented university with a 4/4 load, and have shepherded the department through its transformation into a much larger research-oriented oriented university, with tenure-track faculty mostly teaching 2/2 (some of the old guard remained, by choice, on 3/3 loads, but most identified as research-oriented and were happy to make the transition to higher research expectations).

The department in many ways retains the values of its early history. The move toward a stronger research orientation was never seen as something that would or should come at the expense of teaching; in addition, it's always been clear that departmental administrative positions are much more closely identified with sometimes-thankless service than with power, so we tend to end up with community-minded chairs, with the more self-focused types concentrating on publishing, either for its own sake or as part of a write-your-way-out/up strategy. That means that there's also real respect for, and a desire to do decently by, contingent faculty (though there's also sometimes a perhaps-somewhat-willful blindness to just how bad some aspects of even "good" -- i.e. full-time with benefits -- contingent jobs can be). So far, I'd say that that personality is continuing through to a new generation of leadership (which is basically my own generation; the last two chairs have been my age, give or take a year or two), but we shall see.

What Now? said...

I was thinking about questions along these lines just last week. I have a friend in a different department, the one in which I actually started working at FGS before shifting over to my current department. And those two departments have dramatically different tones, expectations, ways of working with one another, etc. I think in both cases those differences are largely due to the long-term chairs who have been retired for ages now but whose influence lives on. The other department is HUGE on collaborating, with the result that they mostly can't stand each other and that every meeting is fraught with disagreement and frustration since the explicit goal is that they all must agree to do X or Y, whereas the faculty in my department mostly do our own thing with the blessing of our chair, which means that it's pretty easy for us all to get along because someone else's way of doing something doesn't interfere with my way of doing things. But to have two such wildly different expectations in the two big humanities departments at the school is very odd.

Flavia said...


Yes, yesterday I was thinking about how this can apply to churches, too--obviously, there's much more mobility in the congregation, but you still potentially have multi-generational congregants, and long-serving ministers and staff. I don't totally love the personality of the parish we've been going to, though I have a strong affections for many individuals whom I've met; only recently have I started to understand the complex history that underlies the stuff I've been feeling on an intuitive level (short version is that our parish is the result of a merger of three parishes, one of which was shut down; it's pretty clear that many congregants still feel most loyal to "their" parish, and that there were in fact some real differences in values and emphasis among the three).


I love that you mentioned that the collaborative department is actually less functional, because that's the kind of surprising thing that is often true in practice. I had a friend in a great, warm, friendly department who mentioned, in an off-hand way, that he was sometimes frustrated by the way that their emphasis on consensus meant avoiding making the hard decisions. He wasn't unhappy in the department at all, but it does show that sometimes even *good* departments with *good* personalities can result in less-ideal outcomes.

Susan said...

I'd add to this that institutions have personalities, and part of a department's personality is how it defines itself in relation to the institution -- the bad boy, the star, the unappreciated younger sister, etc. One aspect of my group's personality (though not the whole) is a kind of "wannabee" envy vis-a-vis the scientists. There are other things, but this sense of being underappreciated does shape other aspects of how we work together.

Flavia said...


Absolutely. As with our own personalities, a surprising amount can be relational (you may have--or be slotted into--one personality with your family of origin, another with your college friends, another with a partner, and so on).